By Steve Winston
The Laura Riding house stands by itself, in a little clearing.
It’s a white, wooden, turn-of-the-century “Florida Cracker House,” with green shutters and a tin roof. It’s empty now. But, for half a century, it was home to the woman some call the “Greatest Poet of the 20th Century.”
Born in New York City in 1901, Laura Riding Jackson became a widely-published poet, short-story writer, novelist, essayist, and critic. Educated at Cornell University, she became the only female member of the southern literary group, “The Fugitives,” which included Robert Penn Warren, Allen Tate and John Crowe Ransom.
The modest kitchen of Laura Riding Jackson has been preserved from the time of her death in 1997. - Peter W. Cross for VISIT FLORIDA
In the late-1920’s, she moved to Spain, and lived there until the Spanish Civil War in 1936. When she moved back to America, she fell in love with a writer named Schuyler Jackson. They were married in 1941.
The original Florida Cracker home of Laura Riding Jackson has a small kitchen with wood floors, stove, icebox and furnishings left by the famous poet. - Peter W. Cross for VISIT FLORIDA
Together, they searched for a place where, in Laura’s words, they could be “left alone to be, left alone to do.”
The quaint living room of poet Laura Riding Jackson. - Peter W. Cross for VISIT FLORIDA
They found it in Wabasso, a tiny settlement in Indian River County not far from Vero Beach. Laura and Schuyler bought the old “cracker house,” a style named for the cracks of the local cattle herders’ whips. Upon moving in, Laura wrote, they had to “do away with the dirt, rot, cockroaches, and shambles.”
The sparsely decorated living room has a functioning fireplace as the center piece. - Peter W. Cross for VISIT FLORIDA
The Vero Beach cracker house had some orange and grapefruit groves, which they turned into a thriving citrus business.
The house had no electricity – which was just fine with them. They used kerosene lamps, and got water from an artesian well that Laura called “rather stinky.” And she also noted that they had to deal with “brushfires, snakes, sand flies, and prickly burrs.”
The white, wooden, turn-of-the-century Florida cracker house has green window trim and a red tin roof. - Peter W. Cross for VISIT FLORIDA
“This is where they found peace,” says Johanna Jones, a former Board Member of the Laura Riding Jackson Foundation, which maintains the Florida Cracker house. “This is where they were able to write, to be productive, to enjoy the solitude.”
You enter the Laura Riding house through a wooden screened porch with creaky rockers. There are no doors between the dark-wood rooms, only curtains. The living room was actually more of a “working room,” with Laura’s desk on one side and Schuyler’s on the other. In Laura’s bedroom there’s a red-metal-framed bed, and a simple nightstand of untreated wood. And one of her dresses draped on the bed.
They used kerosene lamps and got water from an artesian well that Laura called ‘rather stinky.’ - Peter W. Cross for VISIT FLORIDA
Her spices are still on the shelf in the kitchen, along with lemon-oil jars, a tiny iron, a scale and some books. Upstairs there’s a loft, with the original cane tables, bed, and a huge photo of local pioneers in a horse-drawn wagon.
Laura and Schuyler worked on a major project here, a comprehensive dictionary they started in the 1960’s, which they later decided should be, instead, a treatise on the deeper meaning of words and language. Schuyler died in 1968, with the book only half-finished. But Laura soldiered on without him, finally finishing the book, “Rational Meaning: A New Foundation for the Definition of Words,” six years later.
“This house speaks,” said Marie Terry, a visitor from New York City. “You can feel her presence here. She filled this house with so much life, and so much creativity, that you can still feel it.”
There are no doors between the rooms, only curtains. - Peter W. Cross for VISIT FLORIDA
The house finally got electricity in 1991, when Laura’s caretakers – she was then 90 – threatened to leave because they were unable to run her medical equipment.
Laura Riding Jackson died on Sept. 2, 1991, not long after Who’s Who of Literature called her “the most consistently good woman poet of all time.”
If you go…
The Laura Riding Jackson home preserves her home and sponsors public programs that focus on literature, history and the relationship of man and environment.
Laura Riding Jackson Foundation