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December 2014

In November of 2012 the News-Press printed a timeline for the Koreshans. Since it has been about 120 years since they first arrived in southwest Florida, here is a link to that timeline.

In the past we’ve looked at the “other” side of the Koreshans and the factions that sprung up after the death of Dr. Teed. This month we want to take a look, not so much at the factions, but at life inside the Unity. That is, life as it was “really” lived. No doubt most of the Koreshans got along and lived, as best they could, within the framework of a community. We know for a fact that even some of the most stalwart members had “issues” with the rules and the beliefs. Some of that stemmed from the fact that a community required community rules which didn’t always meet the desires of individuals.

One such example is the Acuff family. They were living in Texas when the head of the family, William, reportedly read a Chicago newspaper and saw an ad for the Koreshans ((1)). The Acuff family pulled up stakes and headed for Florida. In her paper for the Historical Society, Coleene Huddlestun writes:

…..”William Sylvanus Acuff and his wife Mary Magdalene Talley Acuff had a homestead on the Texas plains near a place called Albin. They had two daughters and four sons then. Their closest neighbors were miles away. It was a lonely life, but they were together.

In a paper from Chicago, William Acuff, my grandfather, read about a utopian community being established in Florida. He wrote for more literature. He was convinced it would be good for him and his family–a better way of life. I do not know how much he believed in the teachings of Koresh–Cyrus Teed. They sold their homestead and stock, outfitted a covered wagon, and left Texas with as many belongings as they could put in the wagon with the six children, ranging in age from about twelve or thirteen years old to about two or three years old. Their wagon was pulled by a team of oxen, and they had two milk cows attached to the rear of the wagon. My father told me these things. He was their oldest son.

When they reached New Orleans, they sold the wagon, oxen, and cows and boarded a boat that sailed them as far as Tampa, Florida.

The Koreshan Unity had sent a boat to Tampa to get them and other families who were joining the community. They reached Estero in the fall of 1898 or 1899*. They had had a long, rough trip. When they reached the Koreshan community, any money and possessions that they had was turned over to the community. The family was divided–the men to the men’s house and the women to the women’s house. The children were separated from their parents, and the boys were separated from the girls. The houses were rather primitive, and they needed more buildings. The houses had no screens or ceilings, and the insects were very bad. The roofs were thatched with palm and palmetto fronds.

My Grandmother Acuff’s last child was born about six or seven months after they reached Estero. We believe that was in the summer of 1899 or 1900. (The Social Security Death Index says Arthur was born in July 1901) ((2))

She’s goes on to recount how the rules of the community separated husbands and wives and children. Apparently this did not sit well with Mrs. Acuff who begged her husband to leave. Apparently, she did leave, and worked as a cook in a Fort Myers restaurant, taking her youngest son with her. While she worked, he was there, in a box. When he was old enough to walk, she had to take him back to the Unity. She continued to ask her husband to leave until she finally divorced him. She met and married a deputy sheriff and eventually moved back to Texas. You can read her granddaughter’s paper by going here.

On the Koreshan side of the matter, we find this quote in the McCready-Vesta Newcomb book Folks We Knew in the K.U.

“The Acuffs came from Texas shortly before the birth of Arthur, who was born in the thatched cottage on the river bank. Mollie, who had apparently been something of a beauty in her younger days, abandoned the family, including Arthur, and left before long. Maude was one of those who died during the typhoid epidemic.”

So, which is it? Did she abandon her family? The point I want to make is that there are always two sides to a story and the existence of papers showing some “behind the scenes” things that put the Unity, and some of its followers, in a less that favorable light, is important to recognize in any historical assessment of the Koreshans.

One other incident with regard to the Acuff family involves Elbert, son of William Acuff who apparently attempted to run away from the Unity. This is from the Fort Myers Press in 1908:

“This week K. B. Harvey, who runs a line of steamers between this city and Sanibel, had a peculiar experience according to his account which is as follows: “Last Saturday as I was coming up the river, a launch containing Dr. Teed and Messrs. Hunt and Gray, of the Koreshan Unity, came alongside my boat and said I had a boy on board that belonged to their colony and for whom they had a warrant for running away. They wanted the boy and I asked that they would wait until I got to the dock and unloaded my boat when we would see what was the matters. We went to the dock and I started to unload, when I had some business down at the express office to which place I went. When I returned to my boat the men had the boy and were gone. I saw them out in the river and called to the boy who said he was under arrest. They went off with him. The boy had run away but I was an innocent party in the matter, and think they should have shown some consideration. We do not know what Mr. Harvey intends to do in the matter, but give the story as told by him.” ((3))

  1. Coleen Acuff Huddlestun, The Effect of the Koreshan Unity on One Family, Preseneted to the Historical Society; February 10, 1984, Hall of Fifty States. []
  2. (the Acuff family probably arrived in Estero in the fall of 1900.)–Joyce Nelle Ratliff, Feb 2000 []
  3. FORT MYERS PRESS; Fort Myers, Lee County, Florida; Thursday, March 19, 1908: “TOOK THE BOY” []

Categories: Monthly Feature.