So after spending February 2014 mostly chasing my snowblower up and down our driveway, I decided it might be prudent to get the heck out of northern Illinois during February 2015.
February has always been a problematical month here on the prairies west of Lake Michigan. It’s not for nothing that the Native Peoples who lived here when the settlers arrived called February’s full moon the “Full Snow Moon.”
Of course back then, while there was a lot of snow, the good news was that the wetlands that dotted the prairie were frozen solid, and there weren’t any flies or mosquitoes to deal with. And that meant no ague—which we call malaria these days. The roads during the settlement era were mere tracks and traces (thus the title of the monograph on area roads and stagecoach travel I wrote: By Trace and Trail) that morphed into bottomless muddy quagmires whenever a brief winter thaw happened. So February, with all its snow, was usually a month for good sleighing.
Farmers generally took their wagon boxes and hayracks off their running gears and put them on bobsled gears when the snow built up so they could haul feed to their own livestock and take the occasional load of grain to the grain elevator in town to sell or have ground into coarse flour to feed the hogs and chickens.
Actually, opting out of the Fox Valley for the winter really isn’t anything new. On May 20, 1875, the Kendall County Record’s Oswego correspondent reported that “Mr. and Mrs. Kinney have returned in the best of health and spirits from about a seven months’ sojourn in southern California.”
California was really the thing for quite a while if you wanted to avoid the worst of a northern Illinois winter. But slowly, Florida began to be mentioned as a destination. Early on, folks avoided Florida like the plague. Because, it just wasn’t a very healthy place to live, even though some local folks decided to take their chances anyway.
For instance, in October 1878, Oswego was all agog with the plans of the George Avery family, who had decided to sell out and move to Florida. They sold all the household goods that they couldn’t carry, and sold their house to Anton Miller. Then young George headed south to Utica, where he built a boat.
As the Record reported on Oct. 17: “Mrs. Lucy Avery with the children depart this morning to join her husband, and old George Avery at Utica, where they have been building a boat in which the party will embark for Florida or at least go in the same as far as New Orleans.”
By late November, the family, consisting of George and Lucy and their three daughters, George’s father, nicknamed “The General,” and their cats and dogs had reached the Mississippi above St. Louis. They eventually made their way all the way to Florida, and sent back such glowing reports that George’s brother, Ed, decided to sell out in Oswego and head down there, too.
On Oct. 2, 1879, Lorenzo Rank, the Record’s Oswego correspondent, reported he’d had a letter from the venturesome Avery family:
“Who does not like to be remembered and thought well of by the children? Was especially pleased to receive a letter from Allie Avery the other day with an alligator cuticle inclosed for a watch charm. The family went away from here over a year ago, spent the winter in Missouri, early in the spring went to Florida and chose Pensacola for their new home. Miss Allie also sent me a full record of the temperature of that locality for August, the hottest month they had, which shows the thermometer to have stood between 70 and 93 in the daytime, the latter point reached on the ninth; the average of the month at 7 a.m. was about 78, at noon 87, and 6 p.m. 80, and there were 12 days scattered through the month on which they had rain. Ed Avery, who sold out his house-hold goods and other effects Saturday, will also start for that region in a short time.”
Ed and family left Oswego Oct. 8, and headed south to join his father, brother, and family.
On Feb. 12, 1880, Rank reported he’d received another letter from young Lucy Avery:
“Received word the other day from the Oswegoans now residing in Florida by letter from Mrs. Lucy Avery in which she gave me a record of the temperature at Pensacola during January, the coldest month of the year, of which the following is the average of the thermometer: At 6 a.m., about 59; noon, 67; and 6 p.m., 63. The old General, too, sends me his respects with the advice that this is the country for old chaps.”
All wasn’t sweetness and light, of course. In September 1880, Rank said he’d received news of a near-tragedy involving the family: “It is said that Ed. Avery with a part of his family while out boating in Pensacola bay was overtaken by the big storm down there and compelled to put into a cove where they had to remain all night; that another boatload in their company were drowned by capsizing.”
“The Old General” was the first of the Florida Averys to die, although it seems to have been more old age that claimed him than any disease. Reported Rank in early November 1881: “The information was received yesterday by his wife and brother that George W. Avery, ‘the Old General,’ who several years ago in company with his son went to Pensacola, Florida died there very suddenly. The bell was tolled for him this morning.”
And maybe Ed should have seen the boating mishap as a portent, because he was the next to go, but this time it was no accident and it wasn’t old age. It was yellow fever.
At the time, one of the main reasons folks tended to avoid Florida was the tendency of yellow fever epidemics to break out. Yellow fever is one of hemorrhagic fevers—as is Ebola—but it’s far less contagious and is only spread by mosquitoes that have bitten infected people. However, no one knew that at the time and the occasional outbreaks of the deadly disease were terrifying.
Pensacola had been yellow fever free since 1874, and residents had let their guard down. Malaria was common, but not the deadly Yellow Jack. But then the Spanish bark Saletra arrived at the port of Pensacola with three sick crewmen aboard. The first night the ship was in port, one of the mates suddenly died of yellow fever. Panicky officials ordered the ship into quarantine, but it was apparently too late. Next stricken was Captain Bartolo, of the Italian bark Vincenzo Accamé, who died the same day he fell ill, and from there the disease spread quickly until it claimed one of the Oswego Averys.
In the Oct. 19, 1882 Kendall County Record, Rank reported the distressing news: “The sad intelligence was received last week that Ed Avery had died at Pensacola, Florida from yellow fever.”
The epidemic finally burned itself out without taking any more Avery lives.
So that was on my mind as we headed south to spend February in Cape Coral, a relatively new town carved out of the mangrove swamps along the Caloosahatchee River starting in 1957. Today, the place is huge and features more than 400 miles of canals, most of which link to the river, whose mouth is on the Gulf of Mexico.
The good news was we got all the way through February without hearing about a single case of Yellow Jack. The traffic might kill you down there, but we didn’t see a single mosquito, much less the homicidal little Aedes aegypti that would sooner give you yellow fever than look at you.
In fact, we liked it so much we are probably going back down next year, especially since we kept up with the weather news (it wasn’t pretty) from the Fox Valley while we were there—along with no mosquitoes, we didn’t see any snow either, which was a big plus for me. And the food was pretty good, too.