Editor’s Note: Holt has a strong connection to a species of tortoise known as a gopher. Holt Historian Max Cooper explains.
The land tortoise known as a gopher was a staple in the diet of early Holt pioneers. Used for food, the gopher was primarily used in a stew known as “gopher gumbo.” Families depended on gophers to sustain them and viewed them as a free food source.
In 1902, the Holt-Seigler Mercantile Co. moved into a new building. The old Seigler house was located near the northeast corner of what is now Main Street and Johns Road. The new building, larger than the old one, had a “gopher box” outside.
The gopher market was good. People pulled gophers from their burrows using a long vine with a metal hook attached to the end of it. They brought gophers to the station and either sold or exchanged for goods. They would be put in the “gopher box” until enough of them were accumulated to send to market.
An early resident, Mr. A.D. Armstead, told a humorous story about how “one could bring a big gopher in, exchange it for a pair of overalls, a sack of flour and get two small gophers in change.”
Another local pioneer, John S. Kelly, would take his team of oxen and wagon looking for gopher holes where he would “pull a gopher” and throw it into the wagon. When the oxen heard the gopher hit the wagon bed, they would move on and follow Kelly. If he didn’t get a gopher, he would have to throw a chunk of wood in the wagon so the oxen would move on.
The gopher was also known as the Hoover chicken during the Great Depression because people out of work saw the gopher as their only meat source. The gopher later became a delicacy to many of the local population.
Protected under Florida law, it is now illegal to hunt gophers or have gopher meat or shells because some of the gopher colonies have almost been driven to extinction.
All of these things endeared the gopher to the people of Holt and it was selected as the mascot of the local school, other businesses and even a local band’s home base.
In the early 1960s, Holt Elementary/Junior High Principal Doug Griffith told his students the school needed a mascot. In 1962, students submitted names for the mascot. Several suggested “gopher” because of the importance of the reptile to the livelihood of Holt residents through the years. The gopher became the school mascot by an overwhelming vote.
Gopher dishes, as a food delicacy, were popular even up through the latter part of the 1900s. In the 1980s, the local Assembly of God church hosted a church-wide men’s fellowship and dinner on the grounds several times a year called “Gopher on the Grounds.” Some of the favorites were gopher and dumplin’s; gopher and rice; gopher gumbo and gopher, gravy and biscuits.
A local band popular in the mid-1990s named “Black Tooth Grin” named its home base and practice area “The Gopher Hole.”
Other local schools and organizations took the identity of the Holt gopher. Holt Academy, the local child care center, claimed to be “Home of the Gophers” when it opened in 2008.
And recently, the Holt Volunteer Fire District decided to adopt the Holt gopher and placed an image of it in the center of their fire department logo this year.