Old Newspaper Tells Of Alabama Gopher Farm
ASHS Column for 5/18/06
Jerry Simmons

   In the Thursday, January 7, 1909
issue of the Pine Belt News, an
article prominently featured on
the front page tells the tale of
"Escambia’s Gopher Farm."
   Mind you, I’d not heard tell of
a gopher farm before, nor had I
even imagined one before I
read this article. The writer of the
article pretty much said the same
thing, and his qualifications were
more extensive than mine.
   When many folks hear the term,
"gopher," they immediately think
of the rodent. In these parts, a
gopher tortoise is brought to mind.
This story is about the gopher
tortoise. Gopher tortoises occur in
upland habitats throughout the
coastal plain of the southeastern
United States, with most being found in north-central Florida and southern Georgia. Their numbers have declined range-wide, but have been severely reduced at the western and northern part of their range. Gopher tortoise populations along Florida's southeast coast and the Florida Panhandle also are greatly reduced from their historic numbers.
   It seems that some four miles north of the Florida and Alabama line and about three miles northwest of Flomaton lived an old timer named Robert Emmons. If this gentleman was related to any of you, don’t worry that I am going to mention anything derogatory. I am just going to report what the article in 1909 declared.
   The writer said Emmons was approaching 80 years but "is well preserved." I hope people can say that about me when I am in my late 70s.
   When asked how long he’d run the gopher farm, Emmons told him about 60 years. When he first moved there he found seven gopher eggs and took them home. They all hatched, but one had recently "run" away, so he only had six of the original ones left. His largest gopher was given to him five or ten years before the Civil War and the gopher was probably ten years old then.
Emmons went on, "My oldest gophers are older than all my children, except two, and I have eighty grandchildren and twenty great-grandchildren, and the gophers are not grown." He said the reason he knows the gophers aren’t grown is that he’s found larger ones in the woods under less favorable conditions.
   When asked how long the animals live, Emmons replied, "You’ll have to ask an older man than I am." His opinion was they live more than a hundred and fifty years. He explained, "It takes any animal like the horse, cow, hog, or even a man, about one-third of its natural life to get fully grown and matured. Now if the gopher requires eighty years to get grown, in my judgment he will live at least two hundred years or more."
   Emmons told about the gophers’ eating habits. "He comes just as near eating anything as any animal you ever heard of," he said. "Grass of any kind, cotton, watermelons, potatoes, peaches, plums, corn and all garden vegetables. He has a particular fondness for the Indian potato." Emmons said, "He might take a chew of tobacco if you’d pass it around!"
   Emmons had a special well for drawing water for the gophers. He simply put the water in what he called a hog wallow and the gophers came and drank like horses or any other stock.
"Gophers have some funny ways," he continued. "When you see one throwing dirt out of his cave you know it will rain within twenty-four hours." Emmons claimed the gopher piled dirt at the mouth of the cave to keep water out. "I have never seen it fail in fifty years," he said.
Emmons was hardly a scientist, but it was apparent he made some pretty good observations. He related how gophers hibernated in winter like snakes and frogs. They tend to stay in their cave until all the cold weather was behind. "I have never seen any frost after the appearance of my gophers," Emmons said.
   For the young, he stated, "All the mother does for her young is lay eggs at the mouth of the cave about six inches deep in the sand. When they hatch they go to the bottom of the cave and from that time on they shift for themselves."
   Emmons said he had about three hundred gophers in his "farm." He said he doesn’t keep them around to look at. The reason he raised them was to eat them.
They were like hogs, he said, because he could call them out like he could his hogs. The writer said it was interesting to see the old gentleman go to the mouth of a cave, pat the ground and call the gophers out. They seemed to know his voice and would come to him, but run from strangers.
Emmons said in closing, "When I am gone I want my posterity to take these original gophers and keep them as long as they live. I want them to fully determine the actual life of the animal."
So the question now is, do any of the descendants of Mr. Emmons have that information and will they share it with us? What happened to the gophers?
   If you’d like to know more about the gopher tortoise and how it’s endangered, see this site: http://www.gophertortoisecouncil.org/tortoise.htm
   I got quite a surprise last week when I found the statistics of our website, www.algersullivan.org had an unbelievable jump in the number of visits ("hits"). A good day is around 30-50 hits and May 8 and 9 there were well over a thousand. I figured something went wrong with the counter on the front page. Well, come to find out, the Five Flags Treasure Hunt clue number seven led people to the site.

"At Alger-Sullivan's
home on the net
a century or more
of history you’ll get.

"Find Pilgrim Lodge
to narrow your search.
The key's in an earlier
name for the church."

   We made the big time!
   Most days, the three museums are open from about 9 am to 3 pm. If you’re interested in visiting, you can call 850-256-2447 and talk to either Altha Scott or Dorothy Newton. Otherwise, call one of these numbers to make tour arrangements: 850-256-2029, 850-256-3980, or 850-256-2661. We’d love to have you drop in and visit!
   Y’all come.

This page last modified on Sunday, June 04, 2006

We needed help identifying this picture - Margaret Stuckey ("Sweet," as she is also known) said it's her class. She's promised to get us a list of the names.