OKEECHOBEE — Yancey Elzie Smith celebrated his 100th birthday on March 12, surrounded by friends and family. Mr. Smith is a Florida boy from way back, having been born in Tallahassee in 1920. The family moved to Fort Pierce in 1923 because his father, J.M. Smith, got a job as the first chief of police for the town. The family was there until around 1928 when he started school. They left Fort Pierce and moved to Palmetto, and his father was chief of police there, too. “That’s what he did. He set up police stations,” said Mr. Smith.
One of his favorite memories was of local Indians coming around to sell blackberries. “If you wanted a dollar’s worth or if you gave them a couple dollars, they gave you that many blackberries, but if they didn’t have enough blackberries, they would never give you change. The next time they came to town, they would bring back your other berries. They were in town every week, going all over selling berries,” he said.
When they moved to Fort Pierce, they lived on North Second Street, and the Intracoastal water came up to the back door. Since then, they have filled it in and made a couple of more blocks, he said. “The old house is probably still standing,” Now the water is a distance away.
“Back then, Merrit was the sheriff of White City,” he said, “and there wasn’t but about two or three people in White City.” That was back in the time of the Ashley Gang. They were bank robbers who dressed up as women.
He only remembers one thing from the big hurricane when he was a boy. They were traveling through Holopaw, and he remembers seeing all the trees along the road laying down on the ground. His wife’s family survived the 1928 hurricane, but her uncle’s entire family was killed. They lived out on an island in Moore Haven. The family tried to get them to come in, but he wanted to ride it out on the island, and the whole family was killed.
The Smith family traveled all over the state of Florida for his father’s job. They lived in Wildwood, Bushnell and Eustis.
They always had the best car. “Had to for police business,” he said. They also had a large family. The Smiths had seven children, although one died as a very young child. Then, they raised three relatives along with their own children, so they needed a big car, he explained.
He does not ever remember a time when he did not have electricity in his home but said he could be wrong about that. His family also had indoor plumbing, but at his grandmother’s house, they had an outhouse.
When he was in high school, he and his friends enjoyed going on archeological daigs around North Florida, and he has a very good collection of Indian relics. “The rocks in this state did not make very good arrowheads,” he said, “so they swapped with other Indians.” Other states have hard flint, and that is what they really looked for. “I’ve got some made out of quartz. They make beautiful necklaces.”
Mr. Smith played football for four years for Leon High School in Tallahassee and was offered a scholarship, but when the war broke out, he went into the military instead. After he got out the service, he moved to South Florida. (For more details on his military service, see his story in the Lake Okeechobee News weekly feature, “Every Veteran’s Story,” on March 25.)
He moved to Okeechobee in 2014 to be near his daughter, because he was having trouble with his heart. They had to put a pacemaker in, he said. Prior to that, he was living by himself after his wife had to go into a nursing home. He was unable to take care of her at home anymore, but he went up there three times every day for over eight years until she passed away.
When asked what is the biggest change he has seen in 100 years, he replied, “The biggest change I’ve seen is in the telephone. I never did believe you could pick up a telephone and see who I am talking to. I’d never believe that! And, I seen that at the World’s Fair. We went to the World’s Fair one year in New York, and they had that thing. I said, ‘That’ll never happen.’”
Their family was first on the block to get a color television, and he even put one in one of his bars, he said. “Man, they liked that television.”
When asked if there are any changes he does not like, he replied, “It really don’t matter whether I like it or not. There’s a whole lot of things I don’t like, but changes are coming. There’ll always be a change.”
He said he did not have any advice for anyone who wanted to live to be 100. “We just take it one day at a time. When you get to be 100, you think back on how many days that is, and it’s quite a few. The days just slip up on you. You never figure on getting that old to start with, but time just wraps up on you. I don’t feel any different. I feel good.”
Mr. Smith has two daughters, four grandchildren, eight great-grandchildren and one great-great grandchild with another on the way.