Knowing is better…

Hays House

“That knowing is better than wondering, that waking is better than sleeping, and even the biggest failure, even the worst, beats the hell out of never trying.”


John and Elizabeth Hays built this structure in 1883 and operated it as the Hays Boarding Home. It was sold to Lyman Lee sometime around 1900, and it became known as the Lee-Carter Boarding Home. It sits very near what was once known as the Cracker Trail – a main travel route for Cracker cowmen moving cattle to market – and the Orange Belt Railway. The kitchen had a reputation among the Cracker cowmen for having “some of the best biscuits you ever put in your mouth”, and they often stopped by to add some to their saddle bags.

Hays Boarding Home c1900

(Members of the Lee and Carter Families at the Boarding Home in the early 1900’s. Standing, left to right: Lyman Lee, Josephine Carter Lee, Louanna Lee and Emmitt Carter. Photo courtesy of FloridaPast, via the What Was There Project)

[Sumter County, FL 1883]




“Teach them the quiet words of kindness, to live beyond themselves. Urge them toward excellence, drive them toward gentleness, pull them deep into yourself, pull them upward toward manhood, but softly like an angel arranging clouds. Let your spirit move through them softly.” ~ Pat Conroy, The Prince of Tides

Endless Numbered Days

Pine Hill Plantation

For years I’ve admired this home as I’ve driven past it. This, perhaps, was the first to catch my interest and spark my imagination. Over the years, I’ve dug here and there, asked a few questions, and imagined what life in this home was like. It’s built in what is known as the “saddlebag” layout, a distinctly vernacular style perfected by generations of Florida Crackers. Identifying the style was easy, but could I find out who built it? Finding that out was also fairly simple. You see, all these generations later, the family is still in the area. If only it was always this simple…

Isaac Hardee was born in Horry County, SC in 1817. He was descended from a Revolutionary War soldier and his family was well established in the Carolinas. As a young man, he traveled to the wild Florida frontier to fight in the Second Seminole Indian War (1835-1842). He returned to Florida after the war, collecting land grants for his service. In 1844, he married Esther Ann Bryant and they began their family. He was a registered voter in the first election following Florida’s admission to statehood in 1845. Sometime between 1847 and 1850, Isaac and Esther moved their family to Levy County, where they built their home, constructed of hand-hewn logs and chinked with clay, in an area known as Clay Landing. They eventually owned a relatively large plantation. He and Esther had 6 children.

Esther died in 1860, as did her brother Sylvester, and Isaac eventually married Susanna Tyner Bryant, his widowed sister-in-law. That same year, he purchased additional land, and began construction of the house soon after. Susanna designed their new home, based on the traditional Florida style.“Pine Hill” was the first home in this area to be made of boards, brought down river from Ellaville, rather than the typical hand-hewn logs. The two-story, eight-room home was completed in 1861. Nearby were the stables and barns. The kitchen was in a separate building to the northeast of the main house. It features a high pitched roof, central fireplace and extensive porches. Equal space divides the house down the middle. It once rested on heart pine blocks. With its glass windows and double porches, sitting among much smaller, less elegant houses, it must have seemed the stately plantation mansion.

Isaac and Susanna had 4 more children, bringing their combined brood to eleven. They remained in this house until Isaac’s death in 1879, and the home passed down for several generations. Eventually, it was abandoned. Several years later, it was purchased by the local Marine Corps League, who attempted to restore it for use as a post. Unfortunately, they were not able to bring their efforts to fruition, and she once again sits in sad disuse.

The home has been relocated a short piece away from the original home site, but still sits among land that once made up the plantation. the family cemetery is very near. The original board-and-batten siding is still in place, as is most of the interior wood work, including the stunning tongue-in-groove ceiling planks.  These all attest to the craftsmanship of the Hardee slaves who built it. The small field where it sits is kept mowed and a fence keep trespassers at bay. Neighbors lovingly keep an eye on her, ensuring that she ages as gracefully as time will allow. And after more than 150 years, despite her most recent neglect, this beautiful lady still stands watch over “Hardeetown”.

[Levy County, c. 1861]

So…where to begin?


That is, indeed, the question. For nearly three years now, I’ve thought about where to start this project. I’ve spent countless hours deciding what I want this to be, what it should look like, what it should mean. Two years ago, I saved my domain name. I also started looking – actively looking –  for these homes, these places, and photographing them. Then, in the last year, I’ve worked on learning: improving my skills, researching histories, and locating resources. But what led to this project? Where did it all really start?

For me, it all truly started as a small girl on my grandparents’ farm, visiting during summers and at Christmas. I vividly remember long, hot summer days spent roaming freely, playing in attics, looking through old photographs, working in the fields and listening to stories of days gone by. I can still smell the rain coming across the fields, feel the cracked, black earth beneath my bare feet, and hear the crickets and frogs singing long into the night. I can hear the sound of a distant car passing miles away on the highway, feel the sharp, cold wind of winter at the washstand on the back porch, and smell kolaches – sweet and fragrant – baking in the oven. There was no air conditioning and the small house couldn’t hold all of us at one time when all the cousins were there, but it was filled with love and strong values and appreciation for simple pleasures. The home was built by my grandfather just before he married my grandmother. For over 60 years, it gave shelter to them, their children, their grandchildren and even great-grandchildren. The house is still standing, although it’s now the home of another family. I’m grateful it remains “alive” and loved, sheltering his family as they grow. These early memories instilled in me a deep love and respect for simple folk.

Years later, I moved to a rural community of my own. I enjoy the fields and pastures, the swamps and woodlands, the people and heritage here. They keep me rooted in my own. They are people and things that will make up the memories of my children, and mold them into who they will be and teach them what they value. Every day I see the past and the present, together. Sometimes they clash, but most often, they are partnered in an unending dance. Roots run deep here, tradition and families running back generations. Things have changed over the years, and while many things have remained true and strong, others begin to fade into the past. I clearly remember a day, 25 years ago, when I first saw the old homestead of the Hardee family, standing alone and seemingly forgotten in a field. That house, too, had sheltered a family. It had witnessed Christmases and long, hot summer days and probably even a barefoot child or two. What stories did it whisper?

As time has passed, I’ve found other homes, as well, and each seems to sigh its own story. Some I now know well, much as I knew my MawMaw’s house. Some, I only know the small things that the building itself can tell me. I have met a wonderful friend and colleague who is also interested in these old places and their stories. We each work, through our own means, to piece together what we can. Even with dates and names and some documented history behind them, though, these homes and churches and schools still have hidden tales, just waiting to be told. I want to know those secret memories that they hold, as well as the facts. So finally, all this time later, I am stopping to listen to old stories again.