Vernon, Florida. The Movie.
by Mike Miller
(Mount Dora, Florida)
Turkey Hunter from Vernon, Florida
Vernon is a small town in the Florida panhandle not too far south of the Alabama border. Larger towns in that part of Florida are DeFuniak Springs and Marianna. Panama City is about 25 miles south.
The documentary movie maker Errol Morris decided to make a film about the town back in the early 1980's that would be titled "Nub City". This name came about because he discovered that most amputation insurance frauds in the country came from Vernon.
Townsfolk would take out an accidental death and dismemberment insurance policy, then fake an accident and blow off their foot or their hand and collect the insurance money. They say a favorite technique was to remove your left foot because you'd still be able to drive your new Cadillac with your right foot.
When some town citizens reportedly threatened to kill Morris if he made "Nub City, he decided to make another documentary instead. This film featured several townspeople talking about whatever they wanted.
The result is the 1982 movie "Vernon, Florida". There is no other documentary quite like it.
The movie has no plot. It starts off with an old mosquito fogging pickup truck making its rounds in the early morning. Various people begin to talk to the camera. No questions are asked by the unknown camera man. It is not like a documentary with interviews.
One of the people who talks is an avid turkey hunter named Henry Shipes. His passion for hunting the elusive bird is riveting. Another is an old man who keeps "pets" in a cage in his yard, including a possum and a tortoise. Northerners loved to ridicule the old man for calling a tortoise a gopher, but that is the Florida cracker term for that animal. Another old farmer is an expert at growing "wigglers", earthworms used as fish bait.
Yankees laughed at these poor country folk when the movie came out 35 years ago. Intellectuals and academics were particularly entertained, and the people of Vernon began to resent the movie. It looked to them like Errol Morris was making fun of them.
It's definitely a culturally significant movie. I experienced similar culture shock when I first moved to Pensacola in 1960 from the Upper Midwest. I have known northern hunters who were passionate about their sport, but none approaching the level of Vernon's Henry Shipes.
Was Errol Morris making fun of these poor southerners? You will have to decide for yourself, but I for one am not sure that was his mission. Southern self sufficiency stands out all throughout this little gem of a movie.
These are people who have found something to be passionate about in life.