Old Neb, a gentle brown horse, was a part of the lighthouse staff and a resident of Little St. George Island for almost 50 years.
In the days when a lighthouse keeper was resident on Little St. George Island, he and his family were aided and entertained by a number of companion animals. In his book “Lighthouses and Living Along the Florida Gulf Coast,” Pete Roberts, a former keeper at the Cape St. George Light mentions a dog named Trixie, a pig named Alice and a Shetland pony named Prince given to the family by Neel Hinckley. Prince was transported to the island by fishing boat. When the pony refused to pull a fire engine red cart purchased from the Montgomery Ward catalogue, a wild goat, Billy, was cut from a herd on Sand Island by Trixie, lassoed and pressed into service, adding another animal to the Roberts’ entourage.
Joe Barber’s family once owned the island and he lived there briefly as a child and visited it frequently to hunt and fish for decades. He said Herbert Marshall once carried rabbits to the island and released them, but they didn’t survive long. Probably a very good thing, in retrospect, since introduced rabbits have decimated the landscape on a number of other islands including Australia.
Marshall also acquired a flock of chickens. At the time, Nick Fortunas had an airplane, and the chickens were herded onto the plane and released onto St. George Island from the air. Barber said they fluttered to earth and the flock reproduced and survived for some years.
Perhaps the most memorable of the animals inhabiting Little St. George was Old Neb.
Barber said Neb was born on the island and lived there his entire long life. He must have been born around the turn-of-the-century and he was still a resident of the lighthouse compound during World War II. He is said to have reached the age of 48.
Neb was one of a small herd of horses kept by Marshall. The animals foraged at will on the rugged barrier island and one was felled by a lightning bolt during a summer storm.
Barber said his grandmother; Joseph Porter, sold Neb and his wagon to the U.S. Lighthouse Service, but when the transaction took place is unclear.
Better than a Ford truck
Neb was already working for the lighthouse when Barber was a child during the 1920s. Walter Roberts, Jr. and Sr. were both keepers of the St. George Light. A photo from Roberts’ family collection shows Old Neb and his cart circa 1925 with Keeper Walter Roberts Jr. He requested to purchase the horse and his wagon in a letter posted in 1931. Perhaps the letter to formalize possession of Neb was motivated by an investigation of financial irregularities in the Lighthouse Service that was ongoing between 1931 and 1935 when a report was made to Congress on the matter.
In response to Robert’s 1931 request, the Deputy Commissioner of Lighthouses in Washington D.C. wrote Superintendent of Lighthouses E.S. Lanphier in New Orleans and suggested Roberts buy “a used Ford truck to be equipped with auxiliary transmission such as Muncie which is illustrated on the inclosed page from Sears, Roebuck and Company catalogue,” instead of the horse.
Lanphier replied that his office had considered the option of a truck equipped with steel tractor rear wheels and dismissed it. “No automobile, whether it had a Muncie drive or not would be able to get through the deep sand on Cape St. George Island,” he wrote.
Although no price is quoted, Lanphier wrote that the purchase cost was cheap and pointed out that the horse was acclimated to the island. Old Neb officially joined the lighthouse staff. No further mention is made of Neb until 1937 when Roberts asked for, and was granted, a purchase order for a saddle and bridle for Neb.
“In rainy weather when roads are submerged I would be able to ride the horse instead of using wagon,” he wrote.
Barber said he was unclear about the reference to submerged roads. While he agreed no truck could manage the deep sand between the lighthouse and the end of the path that crossed from the beach to the dock on bayside, he said there were no roads to flood on the island in 1937.
In any case, the purchase of the saddle and bridle was approved.
Scared of rattlesnakes
Barber recalled Neb as an extremely gentle animal but easily spooked.
“He was real scary,” he said. “When we were kids and we were driving him, we’d jump off the wagon and run ahead to hide in the bushes, and then jump out to scare him. It’s a wonder he didn’t kill us. He’d stop in his tracks. He’d stand still any time he heard something like a rattlesnake. He wouldn’t move ‘till you got down from the wagon and showed him there wasn’t a snake in the bushes.”
Barber said Neb’s fear of rattlesnakes seems strange because although there were moccasins, as a child he never encountered a rattlesnake on what is now Little St. George. He said they were on St. Vincent Island and St. George Island, which was still connected to Little St. George in the 1930s, but not on the part of the island where the house built by his grandfather, Edward Porter, and the lighthouse keeper’s house were located. Barber said he first encountered a rattlesnake on Little St. George in the 1950s when he and Bubba Gander were visiting the island on a houseboat for a hunting expedition.
For several years, when he was a boy, Barber’s family spent the summer in Hammock House. Porter, who built the house for his retirement, never resided there because he died shortly after its completion.
Barber said it was a splendid time. The Roberts and the Barbers each had two boys and two girls of similar age and the children were fast friends. The wandered the beaches and the woods fishing, swimming and looking for turtle nests. When they found a nesting turtle by moon or lantern light, they would wait for her return to the ocean and ride her to the surf. Sometimes they raided the nests too and the eggs were used for cooking. Barber said only the yolk, which was very rich, was used and made excellent cakes.
On Sundays, his mother would cook up a big meal and the family would carry it to the keeper’s house on the beach. The two families would eat dinner and supper together and the children played until late at night. When the Barbers returned home at 11 p.m., they borrowed the wagon and Old Neb to transport their sleeping youngsters. Keeper Roberts would walk over and bridle the horse to lead him home when he was needed again.
Neb’s original home was at the Hammock House on the bay side built by Porter. Near the house was an open-sided stable with just a roof that Neb occupied at night. He foraged freely during the day and never wore a bridle except when he was working.
After Neb was purchased, the Lighthouse Service built him a fine barn, complete with a curtain over the door to keep out flies. Neb did not wander far, but never forgot his childhood home and sometimes would return to the pole barn by the Porter’s house. When the keeper needed his services, he would walk across the island and there Neb would be standing calmly under the shelter or foraging in the rich foliage.
Neb was finally replaced by a jeep during World War II. Barber said he was told the horse was pensioned off and remained on the island until he died of old age.
“I was told he was the only horse on a government pension,” Barber said. “The last time I saw Old Neb he looked good. He was a little swaybacked. I guess that was from old age.”
Many thanks to the St. George Island Lighthouse Association and Joseph “Snookie” Barber for their help in writing this article.