From the files of "You Just Can't Make this Stuff Up" comes the story of Charlie Smith and the Fritter Tree.
Last night after an art advocacy organization meeting, some friends and I went to Poncho's for dinner. One of the arts we are working to establish is the Literary Arts in Columbia and one of the projects is to record the stories of some of the county's more colorful people.
Sonja, who came to Columbia via Polk County, FL, shared a story about when she was a child getting a wild mustang on her granddaddy's farm and how difficult it was to break him. The horse was biting anyone who would come near him.
Now her granddaddy was a giant of a man and no stranger to breaking wild horses, but he had as his helper an old, tiny black man named Charlie. Sonja wasn't too worried about her grandfather and she soon learned she didn't have to worry about Charlie either. He may have been tiny and 128 years old, but he was made of pure grit and muscle.
What was that?? 128??
Well, it depends on who you believe and if the forensic tests results are accurate.
Charlie was full of flirt and wild stories, starting from his time as a young boy living in Liberia. Born in 1842, he tells the tale of being lured on to a slave ship with fried pies. His captors promised that in America fritters grow on trees. He and his friends willingly boarded the ship, only to make a long and hard voyage to New Orleans where they were sold on an auction block.
Many say Charlie is only retelling tales that were told to him by his parents and grandparents. And others say his tales get more colorful and embellished with each account. Regardless, this was a man Sonja cherished and whom I wish I had the honor of meeting.
A PBS documentary about Charlie, produced in 1978, claimed he was told about the "fritter trees" to trick him into slavery. The story states that Charlie escaped, joined the Union Army and ended up out west riding with Jesse James. The Polk County Museum shows Charlie dressed in a blue uniform that looks like Union soldier's garb but doesn't identify it as such.
Charlie was invited to Cape Canaveral for a rocket launch to the moon in 1972. He was famously quoted as commenting, "I see they goin' somewhere, but that don't mean nothin." Just like getting on a ship don't mean there are fritter trees waiting at the end of the journey.
Charlie Smith passed away October 5, 1979.