The legend of Tate's Hell swamp: Flashlight & A Biscuit, No. 34
If you're going to get something named for you, go big or stay home
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Many years ago, I decided to take a drive around the entire coastline of Florida with my dog. This is a thing you do when you have one dog, zero kids, very little money and a whole lot of free time. I was living in Memphis, so that meant my route would take me straight down through Mississippi until I hit the Gulf of Mexico and turned left.
We tented it on the dirty sand of a campground in Biloxi (remember: dog + very little money) and then drove along the Gulf Coast. We stopped at a state park somewhere near Mobile, Alabama and went walking for a stretch.
This was August, so the heat was like pressing a warm cast-iron skillet to your skin. The humidity felt like you’d rolled in pine straw and then swaddled in a wet blanket. And somehow the wind off the Gulf was even hotter than the standing air.
We walked through the Alabama pines, along the scrubby sand paths, over creeks and swampy waterways. My dog, a beagle named Jake, had no idea what to make of this new array of sights and scents, and the leash was taut damn near the whole walk.
After a good 45 sweaty minutes or so, we found our way back to the car, parked on a bed of cracked seashells. A park ranger spotted us, took a good look at Jake, and said, “You took him back there, huh?”
I nodded. “He enjoyed it. Whole new world.”
“Lucky dog,” the ranger said, and it took me a moment to realize what he meant.
He nodded at a sign I hadn’t noticed before, warning against bringing small animals on the trail because of the extraordinarily high risk that little Fluffy — or Jake — would become a free-range alligator snack. I gulped, put Jake in the car and double-seat-belted him in, just in case a gator tried to dog-jack me on the way out of the park.
My clueless wandering in a Gulf Coast wetland came to mind many years — and two kids — later, when I was driving down US 98 a few miles over the Florida state line and spotted a sign for a state forest by the name of TATE’S HELL. Now that’s a name that gets your attention, and you combine it with the whole area’s description — the “Forgotten Coast” — and you’ve got yourself an evocative slice of genuine Floridiana.
Here’s the story behind it: in the years after the Civil War, a farmer by the name of Cebe Tate (or maybe “Caleb,” accounts vary) lived in the area. The son of a Civil War veteran father and a Cherokee mother, Cebe spent a fair portion of his adulthood getting mighty pissed at a panther that kept killing his livestock. So Cebe did what any self-respecting Florida Man would do: he loaded his shotgun, rounded up his dogs and charged off in search of some retribution.
As you can guess from the name of the swamp … it didn’t go well.
Ol’ Cebe was lost for anywhere from four days to a week in the swamp, but let’s be honest: the amount of time you want to spend “lost in a Florida swamp” should be measured in seconds, not days. Somewhere along the way, a snake bit his ass — not literally his ass, though then again there’s no exact record — and Tate decided that drinking swamp water was a good idea. Combined, those brought on a raving case of the screaming crazies.
(Another version of Cebe’s tale holds that he wasn’t in the swamp chasing a panther, but rather hunting for beef to satisfy his angry German Jewish immigrant mail-order bride. There’s a whole lot of problematic implication bound up in that version that’s probably best left alone.)
At some point, Cebe staggered out into a clearing near the little town of Carabelle — future home of the World’s Smallest Police Station, a story for another day — and our boy Tate looked like Death chewed him up and puked him right back out.
Now, these were different days in 1875, but even back then you didn’t usually have swamps burping up half-mad poisoned farmers. To the stunned onlookers who gathered around him, Tate croaked, “My name is Cebe Tate and I just came from Hell.” And then he died. As last words go, it’s a pretty strong outro.
The swamp now named for Tate is bracketed by waterways with magnificently Florida names like the Apalachicola River, Whiskey George Creek, the Ochlockonee River and Cash Creek. Deep within Tate’s Hell is a strange geologic formation called the Dwarf Cypress Dome, where 300-year-old trees only stand six to 15 feet tall because of the clay underneath. Three hundred years! I feel certain that Cebe Tate was not nearly as fascinated by that fact as we are.
There’s a lot of ways to live on in history, and as memorials go, getting a badass swamp named after you isn’t the worst legacy to leave. (Thomas Crapper, inventor of elements that became the flush toilet, surely would have some thoughts along these lines.) Cebe Tate never lived to see the Tate’s Hell Starbucks built, but chances are we probably will.
As for my dog Jake? He’s been gone for almost two decades now; the gators never did get him. But I still love visiting the Forgotten Coast — the story of nearby Apalachicola’s oysters is another good one I’ll tell down the line — and I love hiking through the remote swamps and forests down there.
I’ll be back in that area as soon as I’m able, and should I get lost in the swamp this time, y’all better give it a cool name. “Busbee’s Inferno” or “Perdition, By Jay” or “Jay Busbee Presents: The Swamp Of Eternal Doom,” something like that. Hook me up with some of that Tate’s Hell immortality.
Be good, stay safe and we’ll see you back here very soon.
This has been issue #34 of Flashlight & A Biscuit. Check out all the past issues right here. And if you dug this, share it with your friends. Invite others to the party, everybody’s welcome.