Jackson: Crockett’s legend safe with Land O’ Lakes descendant
LAND O’ LAKES - When he started second grade in the fall of 1954, Laddie David Crockett was just another scrawny youngster hoping to make it to lunch and recess without stumbling over some obscure spelling rule. Before the year was out — in fact, when he came back from Christmas vacation — he’d become the kid every other kid at Sulphur Springs Elementary School — heck, every other kid, everywhere — wanted to be. Sparked by the uproarious success of Walt Disney Studios’ television miniseries that debuted Dec. 15, 1954, America caught Davy Crockett fever. Dead more than 100 years, Crockett re-emerged as “The King of the Wild Frontier,” and a country surfacing from a costly World War followed by a bitter stalemate on the Korean peninsula swooned for the Disney version of an unblemished hero from more innocent times. Tailor-made for the role, standing 6-foot-6 with a natural into-the-sunset squint and smooth Texas drawl, series star Fess Parker soared from bit-part actor scrambling for roles to the toast of the nation. Four versions of “The Ballad of Davy Crockett” cracked Billboard’s top 10 weekly chart, selling more than 10 million records. The Ford Motor Co. added “buckskin brown” to its color options.And, of course, Crockett’s coonskin cap was the iPhone of its age, surging past craze status to the
iconosphere, an emblem of the decade. “Kids wore those caps everywhere,” says 1955’s most-envied second-grader, “even to school.”
But no one wore one with the authority of Laddie David Crockett, who, as you surely have surmised by now, traces his lineage to the 19th century frontiersman, scout, congressman, raconteur and American prototype of the self-made legend.
We raise this topic now for assorted reasons, not least among them this: My family has roots in the tiny West Tennessee (pronounced by natives as “TENN-uh-see,” weighting the first syllable) town of Rutherford, Crockett’s home during his rise to national prominence and his last before he left for Texas. His restored cabin-turned-museum full of early 1800s memorabilia was a favorite haunt during summertime visits to Granny’s farm, forming my spiritual kinship with the Crockett legend.
Today also marks the late-stages anniversary of the Battle of the Alamo (Feb. 23 to March 6, 1836), where Crockett and his band of Tennessee volunteers were among about 190 Republic of Texas revolutionaries overwhelmed by the Army of Mexico, numbering about 2,000, under the no-quarter command of President General Antonio Lopez de Santa Anna.
At 66, Crockett’s great-three-times grandson is no more certain about how his acclaimed ancestor met death than are historians who’ve spent generations poring over conflicting eyewitness reports. He may have survived the battle, only to be executed by officers carrying out Santa Anna’s no-prisoners edict. He may have succumbed in one of the low barracks buildings near the chapel surrounded by the bodies of 16 Mexican regulars.
Laddie Crockett is satisfied to know he died fighting tyranny, and his sacrifice helped inspire Texas’ independence. “It’s funny how, when you’re in school, you can’t stand history,” Laddie says. “Now it’s my favorite thing. I love all the stories.”
We are settled on steel stools welded to a shabby steel table salvaged from a Land O’ Lakes Jail makeover parked by a lake at the hub of what rightly should be called Crockett Enterprises. He’s telling a story about the loss of the last family heirloom, a long gun passed down the generations that survived his parents’ move when he was an infant from Rogersville, Tenn., to Tampa, where they settled near the eventual site of the venerable Krispy Kreme doughnut shop on Florida Avenue.
Deciding, Davy-like, to avoid civilization surging out of central Tampa in the late 1950s but needing cash to relocate their house, Laddie’s mother sold the rifle. “She got $800,” he says, wincing. “Imagine what that would be worth now.”
Tall and lean, with a sweeping jaw and turquoise eyes, there is much of the old pioneer in Laddie; also like him, Laddie has spent his life as an entrepreneur, unwilling to call anyone his boss.
Once a mechanic’s garage on one acre hard by Land O’ Lakes Boulevard, his business has grown in 30-odd years to encompass towing, a paint and body shop, some repairs — “We’ll do about anything,” Laddie says, “but we don’t rebuild transmissions” — and wrapping vehicles in decorative vinyl. If you’ve seen a Pasco sheriff’s office patrol car, you’ve seen Crockett’s work.
Much of the operations have been turned over to Scotty Crockett, 33, the youngest of four children, plus a stepson, reared in Jan and Laddie’s household. All of the children have been part of family pilgrimages to the East Tennessee gravesite of Mary “Polly” Finley Crockett, the first of Davy Crockett’s two wives and the mother of John Wesley Crockett, from whom they are descended.
“You have to take them back sometimes, remind them what they came from,” Laddie says, adding, a little wistfully, “Years ago it really meant something to say you were related to Davy Crockett. Now you say ‘Crockett,’ coffee’s still a buck. Anymore, heck, people don’t even know who he was.”
Some people, maybe. Not those who treasure history and the heritage handed down by those whose stories were larger than life. Forget Davy Crockett? Only at our peril.