In 1911, Orange Park’s only physician, Dr. Carridine was summoned late one evening to the Strickland’s home and boarding house on River Boulevard to deliver their first grandchild. As with most first babies, the delivery dragged on into the wee hours of the morning and the doctor’s wooden leg began to pain him.
So, as was Doc’s custom, he simply unhitched the leg and tossed it onto the bed beside the anxious mother. Within moments young Nixon Smiley was greeting the world. The leg trick worked every time.
Two of Mrs. Strickland’s regular winter boarders were noted naturalist, John Burroughs and Nixon Waterman, eminent newspaper writer, poet and Chautauqua lecturer. The young mother proposed to name the baby after both of them but like most men of the times, they were anxious to wager on anything so they tossed a coin and Nixon Waterman won. From his very early days playing on the family lawn beside the St. Johns River, young Nixon Smiley dreamed of being a newspaperman or a botanist.
Times were changing along the St. Johns River as winter visitors flocked further south to revel in bustling south Florida. Nixon spent the first decade of his life growing up in a sleepy village of farmers, timber and cattleman.
Like most lads, he wandered barefoot on warm sandy streets, fished and crabbed in the river and chased cows grazing on hyacinths along the shore. Unlike his buddies, Nixon spent as much time as he could wrangle with one or both of his grandmother’s boarders.
All that changed in 1918 when his parents died and he was sent to live with his paternal grandparents in the backwoods of Georgia near the Florida line. Despite the lack of adequate schooling beyond the sixth grade, he held to his dream of walking in his namesake’s footsteps and in 1928 at age 17 was invited to visit to the Waterman’s in Canton, Mass. Years later, Smiley recalled the visit north as the first time he met a “Republican or a Roman Catholic.”
In 1933 after a stint in the Navy, he married and broke into the newspaper business as a copyboy at the Florida Times-Union in Jacksonville and then became a tele-typist for The Associated Press. The AP dispatched him to Miami where he initiated a vigorous campaign to make himself indispensable to the Miami Herald Editor John Pennekamp. When his regular shift ended, he hung out at the copy desk writing headlines and proofing copy until he was hired in 1940.
Smiley made his bones in the newspaper business as garden editor for the Herald from 1947 to 1963.
A self-taught expert in horticulture, Smiley became consultant research coordinator of Fairchild Tropical Garden in 1956 and later served for seven years as managing director.
In 1959, Smiley began traveling the state of Florida writing a column for the Herald called A Cracker Viewpoint. With humor and insight he captured old Florida people, places and times to produce a remarkable glimpse into the past.
Nixon Smiley was the author of 13 published books on history, human nature and horticulture and referred to himself as a “two-state cracker” who “got his start in life surveying fields over the rear end of a mule”.
Eventually, Smiley returned home. He and his wife, Evelyn, are buried in Orange Park’s Magnolia Cemetery.