Rev. John C. Ley
Rev. John C. Ley

By Spessard Stone

John C. Ley, a pioneer Methodist circuit rider of Florida, was born December 20, 1822 in Burke County, Georgia. John was converted to the Methodist Episcopal Church on August 25, 1837 and licensed to exhort on December 22, 1842. He received his license to preach on December 16, 1843. Placed in the Carnesville Circuit in January 1844, Rev. Ley was admitted into the Georgia Conference at Eatonville in January 1845 and was admitted on trial to the Florida Conference in February 1845.

He married (1) on May 1, 1848 Anna Eliza Wade, who died March 5, 1849. He married (2) Martha S. Pottle (1828-1914) on July 4, 1852.

John C. Ley and family were enumerated on page 32 of the 1860 Census of Alachua County, P. O. Micanopy. John C., age 38, was identified as a M E. Minister, with $1,500 real estate and $2,000 personal estate. Included in his household were his wife, Martha, age 25; children, John B., age 5, and Edward, age 3. Also living with the family was Sarah Ley, age 63. (John and Edward were both Methodist ministers. John B. Ley served for three years as pastor of the First Methodist Church of Tampa and in 1912 was pastor of the First Methodist Church of Ocala. Edward F. Ley, according to the Florida Times-Union of August 20, 1908, was then presiding elder of the East Coast district of the Methodist Church.)

In January 1895, Rev. Ley was the only member of the first session still active in the Florida Conference and preached the sermon for the fifty-first session in Jacksonville.

In 1899, his autobiography, Fifty-Two Years in Florida was published.

Rev. John C. Ley died in 1907, with burial in the Micanopy Cemetery, Alachua County, Florida.

The following article, originally published in the Florida Times-Union And Citizen of Jacksonville, Florida of November 10, 1901, is illustrative of the hardships the Rev. Ley willingly endured to preach the Gospel:

"The hundreds of thousands of people who will travel through Florida during the twentieth century and complain about heat and dust and trains that do not run over forty miles an hour rarely think and could have little conception of what a trip across the state means even less than fifty years ago when horses or ox-carts were the only means of travel, and an hour’s ride of today meant a whole day’s journey.

"Probably no state east of the Mississippi has developed as rapidly as Florida during the last half century. Those who have visited the State Fair of 1901 and the Subtropical Expositions of less than a score years ago have been strongly impressed with the great advance in agriculture. There is shown the same wonderful growth. And when we think of those days of the 40s as pioneer days, the man who journeyed about the states in those first years after the Indian War is as interesting and important a person as the minstrels of Scottish lore.

"It was to such a man, a minister of the gospel, that we are listening at the close of a long, sultry summer day. On his strong, yet kindly face the sunset glow had fallen, but the light from his vanished youth touched it strongly still, and he seemed, as he talked, to be the young man of fifty years ago. I wish I could give you the story in his own words, for he was a speaker of whom we never tired. Well educated, his command of pure English was wide, and his wit, never touched with sarcasm, had not lessened with his three score years and ten. My limited powers cannot do justice to his ability, but I will give the story, as nearly as possible, in his own words.

"The conversation had drifted to the subject of storms and the many deaths caused by lightning when our friend remarked: 'Well, I don’t know anything that will make a man feel more lonesome than to be fifteen miles away from anybody and caught in a violent thunderstorm in our pine woods. I had that experience during my first year in Florida fifty-odd years ago. The Seminole War had just closed the year before, and I was sent out as a home missionary. At the particular time I refer to I was on my way Tampa, then called Fort Brooke. I had just crossed Fort Alabama and was fifteen miles from the nearest house ahead of me and about so far from any other when the storm came up. I was young then, fearless and strong, and riding a powerful horse, but an animal more afraid of thunder and lightning I never saw. I think he must have been shot during the Indian War and, like most animals, associated a gunshot and a storm.

"Never again in my life have I seen, in the same length of time, so many flashes of lightning, or heard so many peals of thunder, sharp, distinct resonant cracks. Luckily the storm was of short duration. At first I tried to hold my umbrella, but had to abandon that, for my horse became unmanageable. At every flash of lightning he crouched in terror, flattening himself almost to the ground, and when the thunder followed, he sprang straight into the air. As soon as his feet struck the earth again, he darted into the woods, running in all directions. Time after time he ran way with me and between flashes I attempted to bring him back to the road. When the storm finally abated, he was racing through the woods I knew not how far away from the highway.

"Wet would not express my condition. I was thoroughly drenched. The rain went through everything. Leather did not turn it. My new saddlebags and their contents were as thoroughly saturated as my clothing. Well, I got my horse back into the road at last (the old Government road) and proceeded on my way. The sun came out, fierce and hot, and dried my clothing, but I finished my fifteen-mile trip feeling decidedly uncomfortable.

"I was hospitably welcomed at a settler’s cabin and given a change of clothing, while his wife washed, dried and ironed mine, so that on the following morning I started on my journey with fresh, dry clothes. The twelve-mile journey into Tampa was a quiet, uneventful one, but my sensations were far from pleasant. The effects of yesterday’s drenching still clung to me, and I was glad to reach Tampa and put up the comfortable quarters of the Palmer House. Rallying in the afternoon, I went about town, but, as toward night I decided to send for a physician I had met. He promptly pronounced it something to which I had before that been a stranger-malarial fever.

"For ten days I lay sick at the Palmer House. But as soon as I was able to start, I mounted my horse, paid my farewell call on the doctor and left Tampa, not without his protest and prediction of worse to come because of my starting out in such a weak condition. But I felt that my appointments must be met as soon as possible, and there was no other way but to ride.

"Though they were at long distances apart, I succeeded in filling two appointments, and at the second justified the doctor’s prediction by a three-week relapse. Those were days of hardship in Florida, following greater hardships and dangers.

"My work during my first year here extended from Columbia County, not only Columbia County of today, but also several adjoining counties, reaching to Georgia, down to what was then Benton County, long since changed its name and boundaries to meet the growing population of the Gulf coast. Not a railroad crossed my territory. My journeys were performed on horseback. The few roads through the state, connecting one town with another, were the Government roads cut during the Seminole war. If I wished to reach a settlement in the woods, I must get my direction and follow it through many miles of stately pine forest, where no ax had ever felled a tree, or along some old Indian trail.

"Well do I remember some of my early instructions as I journeyed from settlement to settlement. This is a sample. Riding up to a house one day, I inquired the way to the house of a man to whom I had sent word that I was coming and would preach on a certain day. 'Well,' said the man, 'You go about nine miles in that direction,' extending his index finger southward into a seemingly limitless extent of pine forest. 'There you strike an Indian trail. Follow the left end for about six miles and you come to a cart trail, and that will lead you to the man’s house.' Such was the usual direction.

"On one of my trips the sky grew gray and cloudy, and I found myself without a guide. Knowing the tendency of a bewildered traveler to ride in circles, I decided to guard against it in time. Sighting down the course which I still knew to be my right one, I picked out three large trees in line ahead of me. As I reached the first tree, I selected another one, farther ahead, and so, by continually keeping three prominent trees in line, I succeeded in keeping the true course and reached my destination. The next time I reached a town I invested in a pocket compass and made it my traveling companion.

"The people of the farms or scattered settlements of Florida lived a very simple, hard-working and often very lonely life in those days. Water in many parts of the state was very scarce. During my first summer here I lay low of bilious fever in a settlement where the whole water supply was obtained from one limestone sink. For miles around there was no water, and the domestic animals, as well as bear, deer, panthers, wildcats and smaller animals, had worn well-beaten paths in their daily visits to the spring.

"Game, large and small, was very abundant and formed a large part of the living of the settlers. Every man was a hunter, and this was emphasized in his dress: homespun pants, tucked into high boots, a shirt of soft home-dressed leather, or the same material as the pants, and a broad of close-fitting cap (the skin of some small animal), and all colored the dull brown of the pine tree bark; such was the prevailing fashion among Florida’s pioneers. The color of the suit made a man at a little distance so closely resemble a pine stump not yet barked, that the deception was almost perfect, and was of great assistance, especially in deer hunting, with a favorable wind.

"The homes of most of the settlers, removed from the few towns which Florida then boasted, were as simple as their owners’ apparel. While on the large plantations found in the northern part of the state were rambling, comfortable, commodious houses, yet the larger proportion of the people lived in much humbler homes. Many and many a times have I received a warm welcome in a simple log house containing only one room. In those pioneer days, one large room, sometimes with a board floor, often with only mother earth under foot, served for kitchen, dining room, sitting room and bedroom. Yet, primitive as were these surroundings, I have ever found these people very hospitable, though very sensitive.

"This latter characteristic I was made to feel quite early in my mission work. It is another link in the chain of my first year’s experience in Florida. As I have said before, my appointments were many miles apart, and kept me much in the saddle making my rounds. On this particular trip I had several new appointments. One morning after a long ride, I reached the place where I was to preach, tired and worn. We had no church there, but services were to be held in a log schoolhouse which had been built some time before and then abandoned. Quite a crowd had gathered around the house, and I rode up, dismounted, and tied my horse, expecting someone to come up and speak to me. But although they all observed my arrival no one came to me, and after waiting a few minutes I walked into the house. The crowd followed me in and we held the services. As I dismissed the congregation, I thought surely someone will come forward and speak to me and invite me home to dinner. I was young and healthy and fully aware it was dinner time. But though the people stood around in groups talking, no one noticed me, and I finally mustered courage to walk up to a group of men and ask directions to my next appointment, eight miles away. They gave me directions, and I mounted my horse and rode off. It was my only experience of that kind, and the explanation came at my next visit. 'You see, Parson,' said one of the men, 'you had on a nice black suit and fine manners, and we did not know how you would take our hard fare.' I told him I thought if they could stand it all the year round I ought to be able to once in a while.

"As a usual thing in my work, I found it much better to go to my appointments the afternoon before so as to stay all night and get acquainted with the people before services. Then after dinner, I could start out for my station.

"And so we missionaries carried on work of preaching in the morning and riding most of the afternoon, often to preach again at night or the next morning. Yes, Florida of the forties was quite different from the Florida of today. "

References: John C. Ley, Fifty-Two Years in Florida; Florida Times-Union And Citizen (Jacksonville), November 10, 1901.

See also:

Rev. John C. Ley - Pioneer Methodist Circuit Rider

Rev. John C. Ley - Circuit Riding In 1840's Florida

Rev. John B. Ley Recalls Early Tampa

This profile is adapted from my article published in The Herald-Advocate (Wauchula, Florida) of September 6, 2001.

August 19, September 6, 200, March 17, 2004 & midi = "Amazing Grace," arranged by Taylor's Traditional Tunes.