by Wilbur Harold Roberts
Wilbur Jennings Roberts was born September 7,1912 and died March 22, 1979. Wilbur's mother, Carrye Lillian Roberts, was living in Manavista, Florida with her husband LaDu Prescott Roberts. When her time came due to deliver her first child, Wilbur, she traveled back to her home town, Kelly's Ford, Virginia, to be with her mother. Thus, Wilbur was actually born at Kelly's Ford, Virginia (see note below), even though he spent his entire life in Florida. Within two months Carrye was back in Manavista, Florida on the Atwood Grapefruit Grove. This is where Wilbur spent his first 13 years until his parents moved across the Manatee River to the little town of Manatee. This name has now been abandoned and the town is now called East Bradenton. Wilbur's brother, Leslie, was born two years later, also in Kelly's Ford.
I remember my father telling me that he and Leslie had very few white children to play with during these years. Mostly their playmates were black children of the Negro workers at the grove. Transportation was difficult to find. They didn't have public transportation or school buses at that time. As a result, Wilbur was delayed two years in starting school so that Leslie could catch up and they could go to school together. They both graduated from high school in the same year. When they did start school, one of the Negro workers would hitch up the horse and wagon and drive them into Ellenton. Later in the afternoon, he would return to bring them home.
One letter has been preserved that Wilbur wrote when he was about 4 1/2 years old. This is given on the next page.
I don't know too much else about those early years. Leslie did write a little bit about them when he was about 20 years old and I have included it after Wilbur's letter.
Note: Wilbur's birth certificate actually reads "County of Culpeper, District of Stevensburg, Town of Near Kelley's Ford". Note also that the spelling of "Kelley's" is different than used throughout this story.
As noted earlier, Wilbur grew up on the water. He was an avid sailor. As a young man, he was a member of several different boat clubs and often participated in sailboat races, many of which he won.
One particular sailboat outing nearly ended in disaster as a hurricane caught them by surprise. The following story comes from the Bradenton Herald newspaper. September 5, 1935.
Local Youths Escape Death As Hurricane Sweeps Island Camp.
A camping party, consisting of eight Manatee young men and two guests from other cities, rode out the storm on one of the small sand islands in Longboat pass, one of the most dangerous spots in a storm in the entire West Coast section. Their experience was one of the most harrowing reported by the local people in this section.
The party, composed of Harold Link, John Coverston, Wilbur Roberts, Hank Woolcot, John Curry, Harold Hand, John Wiggins and Fayette Parvin, Manatee, and Russell Gutteridge, Ft. Lauderdale and Leonard Rabold, Bowling Green, Kentucky, left Manatee in three sailboats Sunday afternoon for a four day fishing trip in the vicinity of Longboat pass.
The boys spent Sunday night camping at the mouth of the Manatee river and Monday establishing a camp on the small island in the pass between Longboat and Anna Maria Key. The island, not over five feet above ordinary high tide, lay about 60 yards north of Longboat, and was about 60 feet in diameter.
A fisherman rowed out to the pass about 2 o'clock Tuesday morning and gave the boys their first warning of the coming storm, telling them the barometer was falling rapidly. The wind at that time was too high to risk three boats, so they decided to stick it out, and they had a rough time of it. Their improvised tent lasted until midnight Tuesday, the boys keeping fairly dry until that time, despite the fact that waves or spray covered most of the little island. The largest boat, an 18 foot sailor belonging to Wilbur Roberts blew out in the gulf, later winds completely wrecking it on the beach. A portion of the island was also washed away.
After the tent was torn to ribbons, the only shelter the boys had, and that was slight, was to lie in the lee of the other two small boats drawn on the highest point of the island, where they wrapped up in their wet blankets. Link had his bugle along and every time a fishing boat appeared in sight, blew distress calls, but was unable to attract attention to their plight. In the meantime, the masts of the two boats were broken.
The boys were about ready to launch their mastless boats and make for the island shore Wednesday noon, when R. C. Parvin, who had secured a fishing boat, came to their rescue and brought them and their boats in.
Despite their vary disagreeable and hazardous experience on the island, the members of the party are today none the worse, apparently for their experience.
Harold Hand was a brother to Wilbur's future wife, Leone, although Wilbur did not know her at that time. Harold Hand often credited Wilbur for saving their lives because all of them except Wilbur wanted to try to swim to the mainland, which would have surely resulted in their drowning. Leone recalls that the name of Wilbur's lost sail boat was the "Rex", just like the boat that Leslie talked about in his story.
Shortly after this time, Wilbur was introduced to and began courting his future wife, Leone Alice Hand. Most of their courting was done abroad his sailboat, the Oysterett. Wilbur made a cedar chest for Leone as an engagement present. He cut down the tree, took the logs to a saw mill and had them made into lumber, and then crafted a beautiful chest. I still have that chest today. They married on April 17, 1938.
They were married in the side yard of Leone's mother's house and lived there for about two months. During this time, Leone was learning to cook. Her first biscuits were so hard that Wilbur nailed them up to the wall. This really upset Leone's mother. They moved to Wilbur's parents' place and Wilbur worked with his father as a carpenter. I (Wilbur Harold Roberts) came along during this time. This lasted for about two years and then on August 3, 1941 Wilbur took employment in Wauculla, Florida repairing a large ship. They only stayed there for a few months because Leone was having a very hard time carrying Darlene, my oldest sister. They moved back to Manatee in December of 1941. Times were very hard and work was scarce. On April 20, 1943, Wilbur took employment with Selby, Battersby & Company in Savannah, Georgia, installing Plastic Armor on military ships. He was in charge of the armoring effort at three shipyards, two in Savannah and one in Jacksonville, Florida. He worked with them until June of 1944 at which time 2,700 ships had been armored and the work was complete. We lived in the Savannah Hotel during these years. I recall seeing some of the material that was used in the armoring process. It was a black plastic material with small gravel mixed in, much like some of our asphalt road material today only harder.
Wilbur moved his family back to Manatee and on June 30, 1944 bought a house at 1805 6th. Ave. West Bradenton, Florida, about 5 miles west of Manatee. The family moved in on August 14, 1944. He was drafted into the Army shortly after that. These were difficult years for him. He cut his leg on a bayonet, he caught malaria and almost died, and was always terribly seasick on the troop transport ships. He was one of the first troops to go into Tokyo after the surrender. Wilbur's honorable discharge from the Army was filed on May 24, 1946 and he returned to Manatee, Florida.
Miscellaneous information that I either know or have found out about my father. Chronological order is not preserved.
Wilbur became a licensed ship's captain by the United States Department of Commerce, Bureau Of Marine Inspection and Navigation on July 3, 1941. His license number was 41757. This allowed him to operate or navigate motor vessels up to 90 feet in length carrying passengers for hire.
He loved to go fishing. He made his own 8 ft. cast nets and could throw them very well. He never had any trouble bringing home a nice catch every time he went out. For many years, as I was a small boy, he would go gigging. He would hang a gasoline lantern over the front of the boat with a light shield in back of it. He would then stand on the front of the boat to gig fish as I or my mother would steer the boat around small Mangrove islands after dark. This was a very successful method to catch fish. One time he gigged a 25 pound redfish and jokingly said that we might have to get overboard to get this one in. The power of suggestion was just too much for a friend that was in the boat that night and he just jumped over, watch, wallet, and all.
My father could play the harmonica and the jaw harp very well. I can remember that at one time he had three or four harmonicas. One even had a key on it to change the pitch. I don't know why he did not play very often. It was only occasionally that I ever heard him.
My father was a house-painter with, Hampton Brothers House Painters, as I was growing up. He never made a lot of money but he and mother knew how to manage what they had very well, especially Mother. When dad died, I found out that his house was paid for, his boat and cars were paid for, he left no outstanding debts, and Mother was well provided for. I tremendously admired him for this.
Dad was a very gentle person. He really did not like to punish us kids. I remember one time when I got permission to take his boat out. He said it was not a good idea to go up river because the tide was so low. Well, I really wanted to go up river, and after all, he did not say that I couldn't go up river, just that it was a bad idea. When he found out, he never said anything, but I could see the hurt in his eyes. That made more of an impression on me than any punishment ever could have.
One time, when I was in junior high school, Dad asked me what I thought I would like to do later in life. Of course, I did not know. His response to me was, "Well Harold, if you can just learn to do things, you will get by in this life. Think the problem through, whether it be carpentry, electrical, or plumbing, and then try to solve it." I believe that this is the one piece of advice that he would like to pass down to all of his future generations. It has served me well in my whole life. I am now not afraid to try anything. Maybe some things I should have left alone, but every step I took taught me something.
Dad's Social Security Number was 262-24-7017. He was managing the Marine Boat Ways of Palma Sola, Florida at the time of issuance. Local address was 1629 3rd. Avenue Manatee, Florida. This was the garagette apartment earlier built by his father LaDu Roberts.
Clip form Bradenton Herald June 1959. "Wilbur Roberts, Smoky Smith and Fred Snyder were the winners of three races staged on the Manatee River by the Manatee River Boat Club."
Clip from Bradenton Herald, date unknown. "Yesterday's boat races on the windy Manatee river were run off with more precision than any before. Dr. Larrabee and Charley Gordon, dependable Manatee River Boat club members, kept things popping from the time Wilbur Roberts led the Manatee delegation of sail boats through the traffic blocked draw bridge soon after lunch until the racers got their signals crossed and ran an extra lap in the final race. The first two races, for fish and snipe class sailboats, were run at the same time with three boats in each class. Manatee's Wilbur Roberts came in first for the snipes and Albert Pillsbury second and John Wiggins third and last."
Dad had a stroke and died on March 22, 1979 after about six weeks of being completely paralyzed. He is buried in Skyway Memorial Gardens in the family area.