A Visit to Gretna, Florida
One of the unintended consequences of the approach of Hurricane Gustav was the deferral of the Labor Day Holiday to Columbus Day a month later. It was this unexpected three-day holiday weekend that allowed me to travel to Florida and visit our family's property that my great-grandfather homesteaded at the turn of the 20th Century. Camping in the woods and cruising Florida highways and byways was to be my long weekend outing. Little did I know that a side trip to Gretna, Florida would prove to be my highlight of my trip.
It has always been a hobby of mine to find as many Gretna's in other states so that one day I may visit and find out how and why the communities were named with that Gretna Green, Scotland connection. Yes, there is a Gretna, Virginia, a Mt. Gretna Pennsylvania and just a week before, I was in contact with the Mayor of Gretna, Nebraska, a friendship that arose after their Hurricane Katrina relief to our community was made in 2005. Now, however, as I was to make my first visit to another Gretna, I wondered as to what to expect.
Gretna Elementary School Gretna Volunteer Fire Department
Gretna, Florida appears to be a sleepy little community on old Highway 90, approximately 8 miles south of the Georgia line and 35 miles short of Tallahassee. The sturdy brick entrance sign beckons to all a hearty "Welcome to Gretna" as one passes tall pine and oak trees that make a canopy over the main highway. It seems that everything has "Gretna" on it. The Gretna Food Store, Gretna Elementary School, the Gretna Kingdom Hall, the Gretna V.F.D. (volunteer fire department) and even the garbage cans prominently display the pride of the community with the brand "The City of Gretna" gracing its side. It is no doubt that you have arrived in Gretna.
Gretna Presbyterian Church Gretna Baptist Church
The Gretna Baptist Church competes with the Gretna Presbyterian Church in style and presence that states that this is a God-fearing community. White painted weatherboards command ones attention on each of the historic structures. The Gadsen Shrine Club, seemingly becomes more prominent as it assumes the county moniker as a place for all, not just the small town's people to assemble. Slightly down the street and across from the Presbyterian Church is an older home with a distinct style of its own.
Gadsen Shrine Club The Gretna Sandlot Baseball Field
As I aimed my camera and clicked, an elderly gentleman came out of his front screen door with a look of interest as to my presence. "I meant to take a picture of your house, not necessarily of you as you came out" I apologized. I went on to introduce myself to him, which puzzled him as I stated that I was the Mayor of Gretna, and after a slight hesitation, "Louisiana". He smiled and said that he had heard of such a place but never was able to visit.
Mr. & Mrs. Archibald Walter Watson, Jr. of Gretna, Florida
Archibald Walter Watson, Jr. introduced himself as the grandson of the city's founder, Mr. Umphrey, who, in 1890, came from Scotland County, North Carolina to work with others who developed a turpentine mill at a crossroads of piney woods and a railroad track. With the Scottish heritage among the group of the earliest settlers, "Gretna" was selected as the name of this new community. It was to be in honor of the thousands of soldiers, English and Scottish alike, who lost their lives on the fields of Gretna Green over the scores of years of bitter fighting.
Mr. Watson invited me inside the home that was handed down from his grandfather. A mixture of antiques and photographs of family events gave the home of tall beaded board ceilings warmth and personality. His wife of almost 59 years greeted me with a southern charm and soon was cooking a Sunday meal of barbeque baby back ribs, "the best you will ever taste" Mr. Watson advised. Any uneasiness of a stranger in a strange home was dispelled when the offer to sit and eat Sunday Dinner was made. Mr. Watson taught me at that moment "If a person is gracious enough to offer, be gracious enough to accept." He was also right about the ribs.
We spoke over a couple of hours on the history of Gretna, Florida, the effects of Hurricane Katrina in Louisiana, familiar family names of the area that my grandfather was raised and a host of other subjects. Mr. Watson was a former mayor of the City and understood government at the local level. His love and respect for his community was evident as his measured tones and accent of his North Florida / South Georgia voice related stories of farm life and his best friends over the years.
As I bid my thanks and farewell to my newfound friends, I realized that the entire experience reminded me of my Sunday dinners with my grandparents of years ago. It seemed to be a simpler time talking about subjects of rural living and deep family ties. This visit to this Gretna also gave me a perspective that our communities are quite distant and apart but not in a conflicting manner. Our discussions were a colorful and pleasant contrast in history, language, heritage and lifestyles.
We live in a wonderful country where there is beauty in its landscape and a strong heritage of our communities. A visit to this Gretna displayed both, different by our standards and beginnings, but with a common name that ties us together. It truly was a most pleasant discovery on a Sunday drive in North Florida.