An interview with Sisco and Gloria Deen
Like the harvest seasons, history is cyclical.
Just ask Sisco Deen, the Flagler County Historical Curator, and his wife Gloria. Both originally hail from Bunnell. The two went to elementary school together before life would take them in different directions, before they’d end up meeting again– back where it all began.
As we look ahead to the first ever Bunnell Festival, this brings us back to Bunnell’s own grand history. And there are no two better sources.
According to Sisco and Gloria, this festival is important because there’s more to Flagler than just the Hammock Dunes which people fly in and fly out for, she says, and adds:
“Bunnell and the west side of Flagler County highlight not only an important cultural, but also an important economic aspect to the community.”
“If you haven’t been to the west side of the county, you really need to,” she adds, “to see how diverse this county really is.” That’s where you’ll find an abundance of farms and ranches, as well as St. John’s Park. At the end of the day, it’s these environs that get their day, May 16.
There’s a photo of Sisco as an infant, standing in his shorts and baby suspenders, in front of the old court house. The same old court house behind which the festival is to take place. Six names are inscribed on a plaque outside. Sisco is related to four of them.
But like any city, Bunnell’s story is as deep as you’re willing to look. And Sisco and Gloria’s families go way, way back into the quiet, green annals.
Almost 100 years before the international communications firm ITT/Levitt bought up all those acres of Flagler County in the 1970s, in an effort to attract residents from the North and West, Sisco’s ancestor George W. Deen was doing the same thing.
Advertising through a Chicago agency, he began pitching to northern city dwellers. “He’d put them in a hotel and sell them land. No different than ITT,” Sisco says. Though of course it was a different pitch to a different audience.
But we’re getting ahead of ourselves. To start from the get-go, that same ancestor, Georgia Senator George W. Deen, first arrived in the area in 1890.
Gloria’s family dates back further. Her great-grandfather homesteaded near the Florida Agriculture Museum, though she’s fuzzy on the year, but it was back when Flagler was still part of St. Johns and Volusia. In fact, her grandmother’s home in Bull Creek, the one she grew up in, is still there. It’s the second oldest house in the county. The other side of her family goes back to the Civil War years.
But back to George W. When he arrived, he immediately bought up a lot of land so he could install his turpentine stills –part of what would become both Bunnell and the Deen’s early agricultural legacy. George W’s brother, James Monroe Deen, came over next. He quickly bore a son, James Emit Deen: Sisco’s grandfather.
Each one of them got their hands stained with the tree resin in the stills.
With his stills established on the county’s west side, George W. next set up St. John’s Development Company. At that time, you had to travel by steam boat if you wanted to get there, Sisco says. One fella who made the trip because he, too, was interested in getting mixed up with Turpentine was Isaac I Moody, Jr., for whom the main street of Bunnell is named. His partner, Frank Lambert, came over, as well.
It was at this stage that these agricultural entrepreneurs started reaching out to a new demographic, with Moody and Lambert’s newsletter titled the Bunnell Home Builder. Some of the ads were run in Polish, Sisco says. The ads spoke to the number of crops that could be grown each year and the pictures showed farmers working in short sleeves in the middle of winter.
That especially appealed to the Chicago Polish community who, if they knew one thing, it was how to harvest crops.
“This looked good to these people in Chicago,” Gloria says. “They knew farming and they knew they couldn’t farm 12 months a year in Chicago.”
It was a successful maneuver. A large number of Poles would migrate to the town of Korona, just south of Bunnell.
Today, however, most residents are of Scott-Irish descent. They could be categorized as “crackers,” Sisco and Gloria agree. They landed here in a large part because of religious persecution, Gloria says.
The term, “crackers” is one that the Deens are kind and open enough to discuss. At least one possible derivation of the word refers to cracking the whip, either over pack animals or even slaves. It’s origin wasn’t intended to be offensive, though it’s still sometimes used derogatorily mostly by Northerners. To them, it’s a word used interchangeably with “redneck.”
“The thing is, you’re talking to Sisco and I,” Gloria says. “We grew up in Bunnell. But if we did not tell you that, you would not know that, would you?”
Both have independently traveled the world. Gloria was actually the county’s first Peace Corps volunteer. “We’ve had really wide experiences,” she says.
“There are planes now,” Sisco says. Everyone has a chance to leave and comeback as they choose. Just like they do. They have children and grandchildren living in New Zealand and they visit them regularly. They’ve been everywhere from Cuba to Zimbabwe. But in the end, they still opt to return to this little farming town.
Why This Matters
When it comes to the festival, Sisco says:
“It’s all about the heritage of the county. It’s where we came from. It’s something you should know–if you live here. You like to know who your family is. This is where you’re from…”
At the end of the day, Bunnell is “a place that grew up in support of the agricultural community,” Gloria says. And that’s what we’ll be celebrating, May 16.
Cities or towns like Bunnell are necessary for surrounding areas to keep their economies spinning. Even in areas better known for their sweeping metropolitan segments, places like New York.
“You see this when you travel,” Gloria says.
For example, recently Sisco found himself visiting New York’s Finger Lakes. He was shocked at what he observed after arriving in Jamestown. “So my idea of New York was New York City, ” he says. “I said, My God, this is just like Bunnell!”
In contrast to a city like Palm Coast, which, at its core, was built as a place for the elderly to retire, in Bunnell: “Everyone was tied to agriculture,” he says.
Gloria added: “Because an agricultural area needs a town for support, where they obtain those supplies, where they have a rail head for shipping their produce. In a way, it’s a crossroads.
“The only reason that town was there was because of the farms around it.”
A Little Bit On the Potato
In speaking with the Deens, there’s no escaping at lease a cursory discussion of the vegetable that enjoys the honor of having its face shown on our seal–the potato. The same one that spawned all those other festivals.
The Irish potato is believed to have been brought here by the long-storied New York native and entrepreneur, Utley White. You can read more on him in this Sisco-authored story.
Undoubtedly, the potato did well here. Why? The soil and climate were good for it, Sisco says. And thanks to Henry Flagler’s railroad, potatoes were easily shippable in barrels.
When Sisco and Gloria were kids, in the 1950s, close to 80 percent of the crop, however, had been cornered by chip companies like Frito-Lays.
The question as to why Bunnell’s potatoes are well suited for chips, isn’t exactly Sisco or Gloria’s area. But it’s only a minor matter.
“They have found that it makes a good chip. So when you’re sitting in Long Island, and you’re eating a bag of chips, you can say: Hey, this is one of those redneck potatoes! …Bunnell!’“
At the same time, however, the potato is not deserving of all the credit over the span of our history. Until recently, you may have noticed the potato on the side of some trucks, Gloria says, referring to Flagler County vehicles that used to carry the seal, featuring the starchy tuber. “Well, that potato should have pine trees and cattle with it, too.” Turpentine, timber, and cattle have all been important industries. Florida is still a huge cattle state, one of the biggest.
You can visit with Sisco Deen at the Flagler County Historical Society, located right behind the Holden House Museum in Bunnell on SR-100, he’s typically there every Wednesday.
- Mari Molina | Flagler Cats & Bunnell Festival
- Mayor Catherine Robinson | Bunnell Mayor