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The 'Happy Hermit of Cabbage Key'

Silas Dent at home
[Photos courtesy of the St. Petersburg History Museum]
An early Tierra Verde “mansion” — Silas style.

By HOLLY ATKINS
© St. Petersburg Times
published May 13, 2002


WONDERS OF FLORIDA
Florida's Famous and Infamous

Silas Dent

The setting sun fills the sky with brilliant splashes of orange, red and pink. Sea gulls and pelicans soar just above the gulf waters, scanning the surface for their evening meal. From the distance comes the soothing sound of . . . cows mooing?

That's right -- in 1900, the Dent family (Silas, brother Noah and father Will) left their home in Douglas, Ga., to become the first (and only) dairy farmers of Cabbage Key (now known as Tierra Verde).

This week we begin the final section in the Wonders of Florida series. We'll meet three of Florida's many colorful pioneers who saw this state as their personal land of opportunity.

Hermit, recluse, or Florida pioneer?

Eventually, poor grazing conditions forced the Dents to move their dairy farm to what is now a part of St. Pete Beach (Belle Vista) and then to acreage on Ulmerton Road in Largo. Silas, who seemed to prefer the company of nature to people, returned to his thatched hut on the island (see photo) -- living in his own peaceful paradise until just before his death in 1952 at age 76.

Wonders of Florida: What's so wonderful about our state? In a 1948 Life magazine article, columnist Hal Boyle dubbed Silas "The Happy Hermit of Cabbage Key." But Silas wasn't your typical hermit. Over the years, Silas befriended folks looking for the healing solitude the island offered.

Claude and Eva McCall, for example, joined Silas as newlyweds and stayed until their young son began school. Eva's work at a defense plant involved in developing the first atomic bomb weighed heavily on her. She and husband Claude gratefully accepted Silas' offer of the simple, nature-oriented life on Cabbage Key.

Then there was Sid Hobart, known to locals as Sid the Shell Man. Following the tragic deaths of his wife and young son in a New York apartment fire, Sid began to wander from one part of the country to the other. Eventually he ended up on Cabbage Key and became Silas' "business partner" -- selling shells on monthly visits to Pass-a-Grille.

Sandy Claws?

Silas Dent as Santa Claus
Beach children enjoy a Florida Christmas.

Silas' two great loves (apart from his island) were kids and Christmas. Writer Boyle described Silas as "Santa Claus gone to seed." Long, scraggly white beard. Big, round belly. Faded overalls.

Once a year, Silas would trade in those overalls for a red Santa suit, invite all the Pass-a-Grille kids over to his island and give out presents purchased with his own limited funds.

Silas knew that many of these kids, whose parents struggled to make a living in this tiny fishing village, probably wouldn't be finding much under their own tree on Christmas morning.

The problems with paradise

As much as Silas loved his home on Cabbage Key, there were, umm, just a few annoyances.

Mosquitoes and "no-see-'ems" (tiny biting insects that swarm in summer) were everywhere. Even the "skeeter swishers" Silas fashioned out of palm fronds and sold to tourists to battle these pests had little effect. After all, a frantically fanning arm can last only so long. When the arm gives out, the enemies return.

A constantly burning smudge pot of "damp leaves, rags and burlap bags" sat at the doorway to Dent's thatched hut. No problem with mosquitoes -- if you don't mind sitting in the stinky smoke!

Have you ever had to do a scorpion check before you crawled into bed? This was a regular (and very necessary) ritual for Silas. Gently grasping them just behind their venomous stingers, he would pluck the unwelcome visitors from his mattress and relocate them to a more suitable location, outside.

Then there were the rats. Not your everyday, garden-variety rodents, these were Florida's citrus rats (also known as roof rats or black rats).

Silas described his battle with the rats to syndicated columnist Boyle. "They got so bad that I got cats. The cats ate a flock of tame cardinals I had and wouldn't catch the rats. I still have rats."

The snakes Silas kept as pets did a much better job managing the rat population.

Making friends with the island's raccoons, however, didn't turn out nearly as well. They stripped his tomato garden bare.

We're talkin' tough toes!

Like all great legends, tales about Silas roll off the tongues of the locals. Rob Stambaugh, long-time St. Pete Beach resident and owner of the restaurant that bears Silas Dent's name (and this writer's brother), shares a few of his favorite Silas stories:

Typical of a man who marched to the beat of a different drummer, when Silas rowed his boat ashore during his visits to Pass-a-Grille, he did so facing forward, instead of backward like most people. Silas explained, "Never much worried 'bout where I been, more 'bout where I'se going."

A true animal lover, Silas never killed any snakes except rattlers. His first year on the island he killed 16. Local kids loved to have Silas roll up his pant leg and show off the black welts on his ankles and calves. Rattlesnake bites!

Not one to wear shoes, Silas' calloused feet were legendary. (Caution: Don't try any of the following tricks at home!!!) He could mash sandspurs with his toes. He caught stone crabs by putting his feet in the water and letting the crabs latch onto his tough toes; voila, dinner is served! Locals swear Silas was known to use his big toe to sharpen knives.

Wonders of Florida

Introduction and previous chapters


NIE
In 1950, a niece of Silas' decided that a grass hut on a remote island wasn't the best place for her 74-year-old uncle. So Silas left Cabbage Key for her home in Dania. Now, old Silas felt once-a-month bathing was a reasonable schedule. Maybe it was -- for a hermit. His niece, however, insisted Silas take a bath his first night in his new residence. Not very happy about it, Silas agreed. Stepping into the tub, he slipped, fell and fractured five ribs.

Back to good ole Cabbage Key for Silas. "Civilization is too dangerous," he declared.

Special thanks to the docents at the Gulf Beaches Historical Museum for their help in locating information for this article.

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