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Introduction || 2: HUNTING >>

"Mullet in the river"—The speaker, or speakers, were Mayport fishermen and as they stood on the bank of the St. Johns River at Mayport pointing to several schools of mullet, all that I could see was a slight ripple on the water. Evidently it took good eyesight and a thorough knowledge of what you were looking for to spot a school of mullet.

    It is very difficult to catch a school of fish in deep water and the fishermen knew this, but there was always hope that the fish would go into a cove or beach where there was shallow water and then would come an opportunity to gather fish. If too many mullet were caught the price would go down and finally, you could hardly give them away. Your alternative would be to smoke them, and besides this being hard work, just how many smoked fish can you eat or sell.

    The little fishing village of Mayport lies along the south banks of the St. Johns River, some two or three miles before the river puts out to sea. Along here the river is broad, deep, and has dangerous currents that a novice has no business fooling around with. It was here, or near here, where Jean Ribault and his French Huguenots landed in 1562, and there has been a continuous settlement here since that time.

    The St. Johns River rises in Blue Cypress Lake, near the center of Florida on the western edge of the Indian River Country, and flows north for some two hundred and fifty miles before it empties into the Atlantic Ocean. In its passage north the river flows through some of the most beautiful and historical country to be found anywhere, through Lake George and Palatka, the bass fishing capitol of the world, and between orange groves that come down almost to waters edge, past Mandarin, deep in history and tradition with its gnarled orange trees and the former home of Harriett Beecher Stowe, who was a[t] least instrumental in getting the Civil War to its starting point with the writing of Uncle Tom's Cabin. I've never figured how that cannon ball ever became lodged in an oak tree in the front yard of the Stowe home. From Mandarin, the river begins a wide sweep to the east and passes through Jacksonville where it has been dredged to accommodate some very large ships.

    There are places in the St. Johns River near Mandarin where it is several miles wide, and when all of this is covered with hyacinths in full bloom, it is a beautiful sight. That is, if you are not planning on going anywhere by boat. It is very difficult to get a boat through a thick bed of hyacinths.

    The river between Jacksonville and the Jetties has been shortened by some miles in dredging a new channel, and by Fulton and Blount Islands. The old channel was so crooked that big ships were always in danger trying to make some of the turns. One of the crew on the old Orleans Dredge has told me of having a big freighter run into them, almost turning them over and causing quite some damage to the dredge. I can remember seeing a Ford Motor ship aground at the base of St. Johns Bluff. The ship was loaded with Model "A" Fords and somehow they refloated it.

    The IntraCoastal Waterway crosses the St. Johns River just west of Mayport and I'm told that you can go from Miami to Maine; that is, if you have a good boat and a stout heart.

    The little fishing village of Mayport was as ideally located as any town could hope to be when most transportation was by water. Creeks fanned from every direction and if you had a boat and a strong back you could really travel. My trouble was that I always wore out the seat of my pants scrubbing around trying to pull on the oars. My corns never showed up in the palm of my hands.

    Mayport Mills was a fair sized town at the beginning of the Civil War and about all of its contact with the outside world was by water. After the town had been burned down by the northern troops, (who had nothing better to do while they were waiting for a northeaster to blow over so that they dared to cross the bar into the ocean) the town was rebuilt and began to grow. Two railroads have served this little town since that time and at one time there were several hotels, a bar on every corner, three good grocery stores, five churches, a menhaden processing factory, and a dock for loading coal onto F.E.C. [ Florida East Coast Railroad] cars after it had been brought up river as far as the heavy-laden schooners dared to go.

    The Jetties were initially begun shortly after the Civil War, and this stabilized the channel so that it was easier to come up river without running aground. The old lighthouse still stands as it has stood for over a hundred years; but from the years 1860-1865 the light was put out. For some years after that, a light ship was anchored off shore, but this was eventually replaced by a modern lighthouse located just north of Seminole Beach on the ocean front.

    At one time, this town boasted a very good baseball team and their diamond was out on the flats where the big "Flat Tops" anchor now. The main trouble with this field was that you could play ball at low tide. It was always considered proper equipment for an umpire to have a bat within handy reach, for these boys went out to win and very seldom did a game end up in a prayer meeting! It really was a strange playing field with great high sand dunes in back of you where the Easter Sunrise Services were held, and off to one side Ribault Bay sparkled in the sunlight, while to the east of you was the beautiful Atlantic Ocean.

    Since communications and travel were somewhat limited in this town, (although at one time Mayport had its own telephone system) the inhabitants were forced to create much of their own entertainment. This they did in a big way!

    There was a small picture show where you could be entertained by the antics of some pseudo-bad man of the west, and when that palled on you, there was an opportunity to catch the little steamer Hessie at five o'clock in the morning, go to Jacksonville and watch a real hanging on Liberty Street. We have some descriptions of these hangings but few people would care to read them today. Sometimes there were so many people present for a hanging that the place had to be fenced in.

    Community sings were quite popular even in those days. After Viola Singleton borrowed eight dollars from her uncle to buy a used piano from the Leadworths who were moving away, there was plenty of singing in Mayport. The only obstacle to overcome was $25.00 to repair the piano and twenty-five cents per lesson to learn to play it. The piano was moved from one house to another on an old cart, but there was no lack of brawn and willingness for the job. This group singing became one of the main attractions in Mayport.

    There is today, the remains of an old Spanish Cemetery, most of which is inside the Mayport Naval Base. Many local people were buried there, as well as foreign sailors who died at quarantine station, which was located here. The newer Mayport Cemetery is located near Oak Harbor and the oldest marker we could find there was 1890, Veteran of the Indian War. Before the new roads were cut, it was quite a chore to get to the cemetery by land. It was customary to have funeral processions by boat; up Graveyard Creek as close as possible, then the pall bearers took over. Quite often these boats were rowed by hand. On a hot muggy day, with the sun shining down on you and the mosquitoes jabbing you while the gnats were swarming all over your face, it was awful. Your only protections were to have a charcoal bucket in the bow of the boat and to make a continual smudge of cedar needles. The reason for cedar being that cedar smoke does not make your eyes burn.

    Dancing was quite popular and the school houses were often used for these dances. There was a school house at Mayport and then one at Punkin Center, which is inside the Navy Base now. C. J. Singleton tells of watching a band perform one night when they refused to let the kids in. From somewhere, the kids got lemons and came to the windows so that the horn blowers could see them as they sucked the lemons. The music came to a screeching halt and the kids were allowed to come in, without their lemons. From all that I can gather, Punkin Center must have been a swell place to start on tomorrow's headache.

    One of the past-times was chicken fighting, and while I don't suppose the ladies were allowed at the fights, since this was before Women's lib, the male population must have enjoyed them. The ladies helped to raise the fighting roosters and even that was a big job for as soon as a game chicken is hatched he is a potential scrapper, and if they are not separated will kill each other. We have a copy of an advertisement that was inserted in the newspaper before fighting was illegal—"Fighting Cocks, $25.00 each, guaranteed not to run or your money back."

    Down near the south Jetty, Mr. Wallace built a home and his thought was to build it so that nothing could destroy it. Corbett trained here in his preparation for the fight with Mitchell, the Englishman, but there are no signs of the house there now so somebody's calculations must have gone wrong.

    Christmas was a great time in old Mayport. All the stores were loading up on toys, firecrackers, Roman candles, candies, nuts, fruits and all kind of goodies, while the mothers were busy baking cakes, cookies and all types of good food. A great many nationalities were represented so that there were large varieties of exquisite food and usually an abundance. The church services and parties helped to create a real Christmas spirit. It was not easy to get away from home, so most people stayed there and enjoyed each other. For some reason, a great many Southerners have always used fireworks to help celebrate Christmas instead of July 4th. I've always thought that the reason we did this in the hills of Georgia was because we only had enough money in the fall to buy fireworks after we had picked and sold our cotton.

    The story is told of a young man from Mayport who got a job with the East Coast painting crew. This crew had their own rail car for living quarters. The car was parked on the siding of a station where the painting was to be done, so that they would always be close to their work. After a week or two of this, the Mayport man became sick and could not or would not eat. He was taken to the doctor and was finally put onto the train for the East Coast Hospital at St. Augustine. When the train stopped at St. Augustine this man could not be found, but the next morning he was found walking the streets of Mayport with his hands in his pockets, a smile on his face and a look of utter contentment. He was back home happy and well again.

    Until Mr. Clarence Saunders started the self-service grocery store idea (Piggly Wiggly) it was customary to have a boy go around to each customer every morning and get their grocery order for the day. Since there was no electric refrigeration and very little ice in the smaller towns, they lived more or less from day to day. After getting the order, it was the job of the delivery boy to help get everything together and take it to the customer; quite often on a two wheeled cart pulled by a mule. The grocery stores usually got their supplies by steamer or East Coast freight, and sometimes small boat loads of oranges or produce was brought in from Mandarin. Many of the men were paid by check and it was customary for the wives to sign their husband's names. Heard one man say that if he ever signed his check, they would get him for forgery!

    There have been, and still are, many good restaurants in Mayport. Probably the first one was French Louie's, which was just a shed addition to the frame house where the family lived. The shed was on pilings, and over the river. Since there were holes in the floor this made for easy disposal of the remains of crabs—just throw them on the floor and poke them through the cracks with your toes.

    Since the shrimp and crabs were kept in a live trap alongside the building and a pot of boiling water was kept handy already seasoned, all that was necessary was to toss a bunch of seafood into the water, leave it there for a very short time and then you were ready to eat.

    The dining table was a long rough affair but it was solid. You were given a chair round so that you could crack the crab claws and get the sweet meat from them. With all of this, you were given great loaves of French bread and plenty of black coffee. None of this would meet with the approval of our modern ecologist, but if one of them ever sat down to a meal such as this he would go primitive again.

    Mrs. James Hoy ran a sea food restaurant in the old Mayport Depot after it had been moved to the river's edge. Her specialty was fried shrimp, and anyone fortunate enough to have eaten there will never forget the wonderful flavor of those shrimp.

    Mr. and Mrs. Hoy had worked in a carnival for years and she told me that when she passed Mayport on the Cherokee (of the Clyde Line Steamship Company) she made up her mind then there was the place she wanted to live.

    Tony Miers and Sam Floyd came into our lumber yard one morning and told me that they wanted to build a 10 x 14 restaurant with the 2 x 4 studs showing outside while it was sealed inside with weatherboard. I had never seen it done, but we did it. Because of the good cooking of Mrs. Miers, that restaurant prospered and grew. When the Miers became unable to cope with the business their daughter, Mrs. Parnell, bought them out, rebuilt, and for years had one of the very finest of sea food places, it is now known as Parsons and is still doing a splendid job.

    About 1940, the Stricklands began converting their general store into a sea food restaurant, and their first regular customers were the eight Marines who helped to take over the area that is now the Mayport Base. That restaurant has always done a good job and with the opening of the ferry route from Fernandina on A1A, it has continued to grow and prosper.

    Fred Haworth tells me that when he was a small boy much of the land around Mayport was being farmed. The large trees in Oak Harbor and that section have grown up since that time. Maybe so, but there has been a heap of growing in the last seventy or eighty years.

    There was a warehouse at Mayport, Conants, where they bought many kinds of herbs to be used in medicine. Some people made a living gathering Bay Rum, Palmetto berries, Jerusalem oak, yellow jasmine root, Maypop root, deer tongue, prickly ash bark and berries, wild cherry bark and then, at one time, they gathered sharks livers for vitamins. After one whiff of that, I gave up vitamins.

    Plums did well in that area and still do although very few people seem to plant them now, and huckleberries were real plentiful. Every summer you could see dozens of people along side the road selling berries, but I don't see them anymore: probably an easier way to make a living.

    Life was not a bed of roses in Mayport in the early years. The Indian War was not over until 1842 and that made life dangerous for everyone. On top of that, pirates very often came in and took over for a while. Tony Miers tells of one pirate who brought his side wife into the village and his mother cared for her. Up until then, I did not know that pirates had wives.

    Judge Gavagan, who was the law and order of Mayport for many years, told me this story of pirates: A four-masted schooner anchored off Seminole Beach, and a boat was lowered with two men in it. The men rowed the boat to an inlet about where the new lighthouse stands now, and disappeared up the creek. Late that afternoon, the boat was spotted going back to the ship with only one man in it. The natural supposition was that they had buried treasure and one man had killed the other so that he could never tell. Years later, Johnny Bothwell came up with a map and succeeded in getting some backing to hunt the treasure, but so far as I know the treasure is still there, if indeed it ever was.

    "Miss Minnie, I can't learn that poetry." . . . "Ralph, you are going to learn that poetry." This was a meeting or butting of the minds with ten year old Ralph Floyd telling his teacher, really, that he was not going to learn poetry. It was a beautiful early spring day with great flights of wild ducks flying over the school house. Looking out over the marshes, you could see the Florida East Coast train as it backed its way into the station, with great puffs of steam coming from the steam whistle long before you could hear the sound.

    Skip Jacks with their single cylinder motors were going up and down the river bringing in shrimp to be headed at the fish houses, and this always brought in enough candy money to last several days. With ail of this on his mind, Ralph lost all track of time until Miss Minnie rang the bell for school dismissal, and then he was told to stay after school.

    Ralph told me. "The teacher reached up on the blackboard, got a paddle with a nice round handle and she wore my behind out." Thirty minutes later, with the poetry firmly committed to memory, he was allowed to go home. Some forty-five years later Ralph could and would recite that little poem. I wish that I could at least remember the name of the poem but then, I did not "get my behind worn out."

    Several years ago, one of our drivers came in and said that he wanted to be off for an hour so that he could go to Mayport and collect some money that was owed him. He was going to show us how to collect, and was going to get his money . . . "or else." About an hour later, he was back with knots all over his head and blood running down his collar.

    Someone asked him if he got his money. "No sir; I got 'else!"

    Many people have never seen an old "Pot Belly" stove, but in years gone by, they were a fixture in every country store. First, a framework of 2 x 4's was made large enough so that the stove could be put in the middle of the frame and never come within two feet of the frame at any place. Then, this framework was filled with sand and the stove was put in the middle. It was usually considered better to have as much pipe as possible showing in the store, so that you could get the maximum heat from your fuel. A large number of people chewed tobacco and they were accustomed to spitting in the sand box. Very seldom were there enough chairs for everybody, so people sat on kegs, boxes, or anything available. Usually, the old men of the town, having nothing better to do, would get there first and get all of the available chairs. It might have been mean, I'm not sure, but when the young fellows got tired of the old men hogging the chairs they did something about it.

    Oil of mustard is a thick liquid that is activated by heat,  and from all accounts it can really get hot! Some of the boys would put a drop or two of mustard on the seats of chairs and wait for the older men to sit on it long enough to warm it up. Then you would see some squirming. Finally, they would get up and leave.

    Gavagan's old store at Mayport had such a stove. On rainy days, when a northeaster was blowing, you could always find a crowd there, gathered around the stove, reminiscing about the old days, and some new arrivals from the old country pining about the folks back home. Many wonderful stories were swapped and in this way, they came to know each other. I really believe that the old "Pot Belly" stove and the country store have had as much to do with making our country great as any other one thing. This and the churches were about the only lines of communication in the old days.

    In the year 1899 two inches of snow fell on Mayport, and the temperature dropped to 10° above zero. Snow was something that many of the natives had never seen and then the houses were not built for such cold weather, so the people really suffered. One little boy really suffered when he slid out of his bed, with the tail gate of his long handles open, and sat in the snow thinking it was sand. The chickens lost their combs from being frozen and even the eggs inside of the house were frozen. All of the citrus and most of the foliage was killed. If there had been any automobiles around, I'm sure there would have been an epidemic of frozen radiators.

    The bridge over Sherman's Creek, just before you get into Mayport, has long been a good place to fish and crab. Any fair day, and some foul, you can find people lined up fishing over the rail. Some time ago, a lady was crabbing from this bridge when she lost her net overboard and started to walk along the edge of the creek to retrieve it. What she did not know was that the shore was marshy, and as she began to sink, she needed help in a hurry. One old gentleman lay flat on the bridge and pitched the lines of his crab net to her, telling her to hold on and he would try to bring her in.

    The man succeeded in bringing her in, but the marsh suction had taken its toll of her clothes. She was brought out of the mud in the same shape that Eve was in before she bit into the apple. Since that time we have called that bridge the "Mermaid Bridge", but I still don't know who named a creek in Mayport "SHERMAN" . . .

    Early in 1935, I found a note on my desk telling me that a blond woman had been into the store and that she wanted to build a house in Mayport. Prospects who wanted to build a house anywhere were scarce in those days, so I immediately went to see the lady, and found her close by the shore of Ribault Bay. The lady had an old Cadillac automobile, with a tent stretched from one side; two children, (a boy and a girl about teen-age), and not much else, including money. As I had been told, she was a blond and she told me that she was one-quarter Cherokee Indian and had been on the vaudeville stage. Not much of a recommendation for what she proposed to do.

    Somehow Mrs. Doss secured a lot on the Bay, and since driftwood was plentiful, the family gathered enough to begin building a small house. She learned to open oysters, which were plentiful, catch crabs and pick out the meat, cast a net and catch fish which were in good supply—even if they were only ten cents a pound, and sometimes even less. The oysters we sold for her at thirty cents a quart, and she bought lumber with the money. Eventually, she and her daughter built a rather creditable house, and pretty well furnished at that. Evidently, the Government was just as profligate then as now, for Mrs. Doss painted her house with paint which had been thrown away by the Government and it lasted quite well.

    And then, they came marching home singing "How Ya Gonna Keep Them Down On The Farm After They Had Seen Paree?" Someone has said that after a man's mind has been stretched by great thoughts, it can never shrink back to its former size. I don't know how great the thoughts were that were found in Gay Paree, but anyway, things were never the same in Mayport after the boys came marching home and found the 18th Amendment on the books. They had seen how the other half lived and many of them really liked what they had seen.

    Standing by the Mayport Ferry Landing looking west, reviewing four hundred years of partial progress, are big shrimp trawlers tied up to rickety docks and fish houses looking like they might fall down any minute. The old location of the ice house is now used as a parking lot for party fishing boats. The Little Jetties protrude out in the river, keeping sand from filling up the canal. There is Mount Pleasant Creek and its legacy of wonderful oysters, and Spanish Point with its old Spanish Fort hidden in the brush now. St. Johns Bluff, where at one time, there was a town of some seventeen hundred souls, and Fulton, former site of the first colony of Huguenots in 1562.  Finally, the Brown property where Mr. Willie Brown gave his three hundred and sixty-one acres of land to the people, with the provision that it should forever be left in its natural state.

    Mr. Brown lived on this land all of his life (his father having bought it in 1884), occupying a small frame house with no running water, no electricity and no conveniences for some eighty years. At the time of his death, the land was valued at one million dollars.

    This town of Mayport has endured down through the ages in spite of Indian wars, Yankee occupation and burning of the town, yellow fever epidemics, pirate invasions, and often no way of selling sea food at any price. The past history of Mayport is fairly secure but its future is clouded with government agencies, who have no knowledge or love for the past; pulling the strings on what does or does not happen to this little historical town.

Introduction || 2: HUNTING >>