The Story of Lily Lawrence Bow
On a recent kayaking trip, I was paddling under the old bridge that crosses Bow Channel and I got to thinking, and daydreaming (one of the benefits of kayaking!) about why it was named Bow Channel. Maybe it was because I was going through one of the rounded arches that holds up the old Flagler railroad and marveling at the hands that laid those bricks over 100 years ago that made me curious that morning. Whatever the case, once I got home I took some time to look it up on the internet and was pleasantly surprised to find an Island Jane from days long past, reaching out with a story that so clearly showed a common thread shared with the Island Janes of today. It is a story of strength, resiliency, courage and the desire to make the world a better place. Bow Channel Bridge is the one you cross as you are heading up the Keys between Sugarloaf Key and Cudjoe Key.
Our story unfolds in the summer of 1904. At the time, Cudjoe Key was very desolate and remote. The nearest town, “outpost” would be a better description, was Key West which was a 20 mile sailboat ride away. The only residents were a few families who eked out a living by making charcoal. At this point, the railroad had not yet been built.
New to town was a Chicago woman named Lily Bow. She was college educated, adventurous, loved the outdoors, and was married to a man who loved to drink just a little too much. She had learned that it was possible to make a good living growing limes and cotton in the Florida Keys, so she had convinced her husband to move to the Keys with their two sons (14 and 4) and start a new life together.
They purchased a piece of land on the western side of Cudjoe Key. It was 207 acres of hardwood hammock and salt ponds. It had a small cabin and several acres of lime trees. The cabin had only one room and shuttered windows that had no glass – which makes me wonder about the mosquitos! The kitchen consisted of just a grill in a lean-to shed out back. Interestingly, even though the house was crude, Lily kept an upright piano and a full china closet with a tea service inside the house. Yet another Island Jane characteristic – style! Lily planted a vegetable garden and raised chickens. Their fresh water supply came from the roof of the cabin and was collected in barrels.
As you might have guessed, her husband didn’t last out there in the middle of nowhere for very long. After just a few months, he packed up and left Lily and their two sons to fend for themselves. At this point, Lily must have come to the conclusion that she was better off without him (self reliance!) and proceeded to carve out a life for herself and her two boys. They collected honey, hunted deer, fished and set turtle nets (yes times have certainly changed!). To earn money, she and the boys would sail to Key West and sell their limes, eggs and vegetables.
They made friends with the neighbors. When it came time for the kids to go to school, Lily simply held classes not only for her two boys but all the neighbor children as well. They paid her in vegetables, meat, etc. which supplemented their income quite nicely. Resourceful!
In my research I came across a book called The Florida Keys: A History of the Pioneers by John Viele (a Cudjoe Key resident). It tells the story of a teenage girl who came to Lily to learn to read and write so that she could win the affections of a boy, which she did quite effectively (tenacious!)
Lily’s Bahamian neighbors taught her homeopathic remedies made from the plants and trees that grew on the island so that she would be able to tend to her children. The book talks about a “Wizard Oil” that was pretty much a cure all for anything that ails from toothaches to the flu. I wonder where we might find the recipe for that!
News of this amazing woman began to travel. A man named William Krome, who was an engineer for the Overseas Railroad at the time, was curious and was determined to meet her. One day, he took a boat to her homestead and intorduced himself. He was so impressed to find this well educated woman actually making this lifestyle work for her and her boys. He admired her courage and determination and they had the beginnings of what would become a lifelong friendship.
Since William was involved in the building of the railroad, he knew that soon a railroad worker’s camp was going to be built on Sugarloaf Key across the channel from her property. This meant that hundreds of rough men would be moving in. He was concerned for her safety and tried to get her to leave. She of course, after having put in all the hard work over the previous couple of years, did not want to go before getting the chance to enjoy the fruits of her labor! (Stubborn? Sorry girls, yet another common trait….)
He kept after her though and finally, after he gave her oldest son a job with the railroad and made arrangements to move her family to Miami, she conceded. Just in the knick of time too as it turns out because a few days after they left, a hurricane came through in October 1906 and killed over one hundred of those railroad workers.
She worked as a music teacher in Miami for a while, but ultimately, Lily preferred the type of life she had on Cudjoe so she applied for a homestead grant in Homestead, Florida where she built a cabin and planted a citrus grove. Over the years, Lily was very active in her community. She helped to organize the women’s club and started a library, called the Lily Lawrence Bow Library.
One last note, Lily loved poetry. She wrote several books, published a poetry magazine and had a column in the local paper. Here is a poem she wrote about her “little island named Cudjoe”.
“Cudjoe” by Lily Bow
There’s a little island named Cudjoe,
I lived there once…
It was all so long ago…
No dreams of a highway to link
with a North land some called “The States”.
The keys all jade and emerald green,
A chain of precious jewels
Laid on a sea of ultramarine
Blue, a different shade of blue
From any color known to artist’s brush,
It somehow holds the light of dawning day,
The sparkle of the sun, and yet the hush
Of evening when the sun has gone,
And sometimes a frothy white lace
Swirls and foams along the keys
Till blown to spray it vanishes.
Sometimes the setting sun
Turns all the blue to ruby red and gold,
To frame the unchained jewels.
And sometimes all the sea is gray and cold.
Sometimes a stormy fanfaron
beats his way across this jeweled sea
And sweeps away the sand and stone
Leaving only mangrove roots to catch and hold
Bits of flotsam and tiny coral things
So lands may build anew.
I lived there once…
It was all so long ago…
But memory keeps alive the buttonwood
And slender tree fern…
The crimson seeded pomegranate
That grew near by the quern,
That old hand-mill
Where we ground our grits and meal.
he shadowy path leading straight
To the sea where smoky tern
Come in to feed.
The home-made grill,
A place to cook our bread and fish.
And always, night and day
The swish…swish…and swish…
Of water. Porpoise
Romped about like children playing hide
The ebbing, flowing tide.
And I remember
The arm of the sea that seeped
Its way inland to the lake
Where black boys burned the charcoal
And loaded it on boats. At daybreak
They sailed away to ‘Tinka’.
The sisal hemp pole reached high
And marked the place to watch for sails
Billowing against the sky.
The tree snails
With gay colored coats,
The smell of burning pyretheum
Making smudge…the steady, buzzing hum
And at early dawn the sandfly
Pushed sleep away. And with the rising sun
Birds awoke and sounded reveille.
It was all so long ago
But the flavor of sea purslane
Lingers still to recall those days of hunger
Which dragged so slowly by.
Witch-hazel with its yellow bloom.
The healing power of thick, juicy leaves
Of Aloes so bitter to the taste
Yet soothing to a fevered skin. Sheaves
Of cotton and tobacco growing wild.
Bleached bones of black-fish
Traced some early flood. Trails aisled
By deer on forage hunts,
And often in the night
A shrill cry of panther
Woke us from our dreams, not in fright,
For who could find aught to fear
Living close to Nature’s Heart,
As we did here?
I saw strange men come in
And measure off each mile
And write black figures on white stakes,
Then go away awhile…
Then return to build a span
Across the blue…
The things I remember were all so long ago,
but I lived there once…
On a little island named Cudjoe.