Tax Collecting in 1890

An excerpt from “From Pine Woods to Palm Groves”, describing how Fred S. Dewey and Byrd completed the tax books for all of Dade County!

There were, in those days, not many expert accountants in our remote corner of the world, so Julius soon found himself possessed of two public offices—that of Assessor, by election and that of Collector, by appointment. The work was not difficult to one so at home with figures as he has always been; but there was one great hardship attached. It was necessary for him to go all over the county, personally interviewing the head of each household and inspecting every piece of property. In a spacious county, where there is not one single mile of railroad and no steamboats, this is far from being an easy task and the time consumed made it a real hardship. Julius began to find it necessary to be from home two and three days and nights at a stretch. An unattached spinster of mature age used to come from across the Sound to keep me company on these occasions.

When Julius was at home, between trips, he and I worked together on the tax-books. I have ever belonged to that grand army of women who have to count on their fingers to make change; but it does not take a brilliant mathematician to copy rows of names and figures; nor to manipulate one of those ingenious little contrivances called an “adder.” We passed many long days and evenings at this work, sitting until we were benumbed from toes to brain; then dropping pen and pencil to go racing down the bluff and out to the end of the wharf to take what Julius called the “kinks” out of our bones. Then back at it again, as fast as we could work; for there was a limit to the time allowed for making the tax-books, much of which was necessarily consumed in going to interview the tax payers.

It is not possible to give one’s best efforts to even the stupidest and most uncongenial task without taking a vivid interest therein; and, as we neared the end of making the set of tax-books, we were both full of eager thrills to see if they would come out even. There was a corresponding degree of satisfaction and many mutual congratulations, when we found that the balance was exact between the totals. As the multitude of tiny sums began with parts of mills, ranging up through fractions of cents, to dollars in imposing array, I had more than ever a great admiration for the mathematical knowledge and skill which Julius displayed in his work—as one always admires the accomplishments one does not possess.

Our pleasure in the completion of this great undertaking—the making of one great book and its two exact copies—was not unalloyed. We knew that as soon as they were done Julius would be obliged to leave home and complete his work by traveling over the county to collect all that vast array of sums, little and big. This series of trips was not without its many hardships, and even dangers. First, there was the long journey to the county seat to have the books approved. Several of our neighbors had, from time to time, had occasion to make this voyage and we knew it meant a twenty or thirty days’ absence for Julius, with no opportunity for a single exchange of letters during the separation. All sorts of things might happen to either one of us during this tedious interval, without the other knowing anything about it. We both dreaded it inexpressibly; but we had long since learned that the necessary is always the possible; so we busily engaged in the preparations for his departure. A big coasting-boat was chartered and several tourists who had been awaiting the opportunity to make the voyage were notified that there was room for them on board, at once sharing the expense of the trip and adding to the pleasure. The chartering of the boat and her captain were the only large expenses of the trip, as each member of the party carried his own supply of food and bedding and all were willing, even eager, for the romance of taking turns in every kind of work—from cooking, in the boat’s little galley, to steering and handling sails. All seemed to take it for granted that I should be of the party; but I saw no way to leave our Blessed Isle. There were the two kits to make happy, to say nothing of all the faithful hens dreaming on their nests of fluffy little biddies asleep in the eggs under them. There were also birds to feed; plants to be watered; and, more than all the rest, business matters that must be looked after—people coming long distances; or sending their messengers—to question and arrange about paying their all-important taxes. These must be attended to and there was no one who could answer their questions, take their money and give them receipts for it, with Julius gone, unless I stayed to take his place. The feeling that I positively could not be spared from home held me there; and I saw the gay party set sail with a sinking  of heart that no one was allowed to guess. For several days, after all preparations had been complete, favorable conditions for sailing had been awaited. To pass out to sea through the Inlet with any degree of comfort and safety, it was necessary to have the combination of a light Westerly wind and an outgoing tide. For half a week grips, food-boxes, rolls of bedding and the big box of precious tax-books, had been in a state of readiness awaiting the Captain’s signal. This came, like all long-expected things, at an unexpected time.

The wind suddenly fell and changed one afternoon just as the tide turned. The long, musical notes of the Captain’s conch-horn were wafted across the Sound; and, in a twinkling, all was hurry and confusion. We could see the white-winged sharpie gliding along close to the further shore of the Sound, then touching at the wharf long enough to get the other members of the cruising party aboard, before coming, last of all, to take on the piles of “plunder” heaped up on the wharf of The Blessed Isle and complete its passenger list. The spinster who had promised to stay with me during the three or four weeks of Julius’s absence was to come across with the cruising party and be dropped as Julius and his baggage were being taken aboard. At the last minute this lady caught the enthusiasm of the cruisers and, instead of having her “big box, little box and band-box” handed out on the wharf of The Blessed Isle, she commanded that they be left in the boat’s cabin, where she had decided to stay and join the cruising party. Julius was, to use his own words, “floored” by the disconcerting change in the program, as were all his sailing companions. It would be more of a crowd than anyone wished, with one more added to the list of passengers; then I was left, at the last minute, with no provision for company during the month of loneliness. Julius hurriedly named over several who might be willing and at leisure to come for a change, each one for a week or more of the time of his absence and told me to send, at once, a note by a hired man who was then busy in the pineapple field and would, at sundown, go back to his home across the Sound. I reassured his uneasiness; but was very careful not to promise anything, for it was late in the day to make new arrangements and I had already resolved in my own mind, to try the experiment of a night or two alone. There were unmistakable drawbacks to being shut up in a small house with a comparative stranger who must be cared for and entertained. And who possibly would be full of contagious panics and tremors at our isolation. All my various families would be company and occupation enough for me; and then, there was some work I had been neglecting while we were so absorbed in the tax-book-making, which I had been longing for leisure to get done. There would be scant time for anything, if I had a visitor to look after and amuse.

Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *