Home' The River Weekly News : RWN 022616 Contents Historic Downtown Fort Myers, Then And Now:
Frog Smithby Gerri Reaves, PhD
Ernest Archer "Frog" Smith,
pictured here astride his
Harley motorcycle circa
1917, was a folk artist and story-
teller in the classic Florida Cracker
He was born in Georgia in
1896, but spent most of his life
in Florida, arriving in 1911. He
worked for approximately the
first half of his life as a machinist,
oiler, and engineer for railroads and sawmills, which
in the early twentieth century were doing a booming
business logging the region's native pine and cypress
But after the demise of logging, he truly reinvented
himself, becoming the character still remembered by
Among the many curious stories and facts about
him is how he earned his nickname Frog.
During the Great Depression, he worked for a time
at the Clewiston sugar mill, which closed down for a
time. Always flexible and enterprising in finding new
sources of income, he took up night-time frog-hunting
to supply the delicacy to New York markets.
He continued frog hunting even after he returned
to work for the U.S. Sugar Corporation. In 1936, his
friends gave him the nickname Frog, which he disliked
but eventually accepted.
To say he possessed versatility and confidence is an
understatement. Despite having only an eighth-grade
education, he tackled many endeavors and seemed to
succeed in all of them.
Beginning at age 12, he worked with locomotives,
boilers and various other machines. He was also a
railroad engineer and machinist, primarily at sawmills,
including Dowling and Camp, the one in Slater (North
Fort Myers), starting in 1942. He drove and repaired
engines manufactured as far back as the Civil War era.
That was the Jim Crow era, when both whites
and blacks worked at the mills, but specific jobs were
understood to be a white or a black man's job. Of
course, the former had higher status and pay.
In a 1980 interview, he recalled the racial politics
of the mill: "Such jobs as sawyer and millwright were
usually a white man's job. Also lumber inspector and
foreman because a white man wouldn't work under a
black man in those days. Well, I got to give credit to
a black man. He taught me to run one of those big
steam loaders in the woods, and it was a black man
that taught me most of what I know about running an
After the Slater mill closed in 1944, he scraped
together a living from a hodge-podge of jobs. He also
built an eight-room house with lumber from two shan-
ties the mill owner gave him.
In addition, he began writing, drawing on his itin-
erant work life, family history and Florida's Cracker
culture for material. Under the pen name of Frog, he
wrote a column for the Tampa Tribune for a decade;
he also wrote for a variety of periodicals, including
In 1954 News-Press editor William Spear hired him
to write a regular Sunday feature that is fondly remem-
bered by many former readers. That column ran for
almost 40 years.
At an age when many people retire, he was not
only writing, but gaining recognition as a raconteur
and folk artist. His paintings reflect the life he lived
among locomotives, lumber mills and Florida's rural
landscape. He received various awards, such as the
1975 Folk Heritage Award for Outstanding Contribu-
tions to Florida's Folklife. He appeared at the Smithso-
nian Institution for the Bicentennial Folklore Festival in
Washington, D.C., and he was featured on CBS televi-
sion's On the Road series with Charles Kuralt.
In the late 1970s, he took his storytelling and
unique personality to local television on WINK-TV's
series, Florida Yesterday.
He died in 1993 at age 96 in Fort Myers.
See exhibits that illuminate the culture that Frog
Smith loved by visiting the Southwest Florida Museum
of History at 2031 Jackson Street.
For information, call 321-7430 or go to swflmu-
seumofhistory.com. Museum hours are 10 a.m. to 5
p.m., Tuesday through Saturday.
Continue your history research at the Southwest
Florida Historical Society's research center.
The all-volunteer non-profit organization is at
10091 McGregor Boulevard on the campus of the Lee
County Alliance for the Arts.
The center is open Wednesday and Saturday
between 9 a.m. and noon and Wednesday 4 to 7 p.m.
Call 939-4044 or visit swflhistoricalsociety.org for
Sources: The Archives of the Southwest Florida
Historical Society, Railroading on the Gulf Coast: A
Conversation with E. A. "Frog" Smith in Tampa Bay
History, and Findagrave.com.
THE RIVER - FEBRUARY 26, 2016
Many of Frog Smith's paintings, such as The Homesteader,
depict Florida's classic Cracker culture
courtesy Florida State Archives
This circa-1917 photo of Frog Smith on his Harley motorcycle
was taken when he was on his way to work
courtesy Southwest Florida Museum of History
The River Weekly News will correct factual errors or matters of emphasis and interpretation that appear in news stories.
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Gerri Reaves, Ph D
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