8: FORT GEORGE ISLAND
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Fort George Island is a large, heavily wooded island across
the St. Johns River from Mayport, and to go into its centuries
old history would take more time than I care to do here. I
would like to give you some of the highlights as I have read
and seen them. This island is very well endowed by nature
with natural resources, and its closeness to the ocean must
have been some inducement for the various people who settled here.
My first view of Fort George Island was from a small rowboat as we fished in the St. Johns River near Mayport. This
was in 1927 and I remember watching as a band of wild horses
swept down the river bank with a red stallion leading them.
They were running like something possessed, but I can still remember watching as the wind tossed the white mane and tail
of the stallion. It did not take the band long to get completely
out of view, but they have never gotten out of my mind. Here
was something that I had read about in all of Zane Grey's
novels, and I liked it.
All of the horses had gone from the Island by 1930 and I
wondered what had happened to them. Found one doubling
as a plow horse and cow horse. He was tough, quick and very
intelligent. The red stallion had been captured and brought up
to a sand dune on the ocean front, where the Sea Horse Motel is now located, to be broken. It was anybody's guess as to
who was broken, but I don't think it was the stallion. I spoke
to the fifth grade at Atlantic Beach Elementary School (September 20, 1973) and told them the story of his horse. After
I had finished speaking, one little girl wanted to know if the
horse was still alive. I find that Indians and wild horses interest kids more than fast automobiles.
There was one horse captured and dragged across the river
from Fort George who became almost a household pest. When
the horses were towed behind a bateau, it was necessary to
hold their heads up to keep them from drowning themselves.
This horse was named Prince and he would go up steps like a
dog and would follow his master wherever he went. Prince
learned to cross his front legs and smoke a cigar; and he also
learned to beg for goodies. There was no carpet on the floors
of the stores and Prince did not wear shoes so he was allowed
to come and go as he chose. Often he would come into a store,
try to get someone to give him a soft drink or piece of candy,
and, failing this, would stamp his feet and walk out! He would
do anything but work, and this he flatly refused to do. When
he was hooked to a plow he tore up the plow and that was it.
Martin Cooper, Sr. tells me of going for an outing on the Island one Sunday afternoon, and as he walked around enjoying
life he was whistling a little tune. When he looked up three stallions were bearing down on him apparently ready to take him
apart. He shut up quick and was not hurt. Apparently, the
whistling annoyed the horses. May be he was like the man who
said, "Whistle while you work and drive everybody nuts."
Fort George Island still has many magnolia trees located
there, and if you are wondering why so many of them are badly chopped up and out of shape, the reason could be Mr.
Woods. He and his sons cut magnolia leaves from all over the
place and sold them in Jacksonville where they were used in
decoration and in medicine. Martin Cooper, Sr. tells of the
time Mr. Woods fell out of a tree and broke his back. The only
way to get him out of the woods was on a wagon and they had
a long way to go to get to the hospital. Guess you can stand
whatever you have to, but it almost makes my back hurt to
think of a man living through twenty miles of jarring travel
while in that shape. They did not have springs on two-horse
Hoke Eberhardt tells of having found a young colt unattended and his decision to bring the baby home. Just in time, he
saw mama coming with blood in her eye. Having heard of
people walking on water, he thought that at least he could
walk on saw grass. No luck, for he was up to his armpits in
muck in a few steps, but he was safe from mama and he hoped
his friends would think enough of him to pull him out.
Wild hogs on the Island afforded many people fresh meat
during the depression where otherwise they might have had to
do on an all fish diet. An old boar hog can really be a mean
thing, and you had better have a good gun, some fast dogs, or
some good climbing trees near by. A hog can't climb a tree but
he can sure teach you to climb one in a hurry.
One of the boys told me of gathering coal over on the Island
for his winter's fuel and I thought he had slipped a cog until he
told me why the coal was there. This coal was spilled from the
East Coast docks and when the river was dredged the spoil,
including the coal, was dumped on the Island. Made sense
when he explained to me, but it sure had me wondering for a
Along the shore of the river in Pilot's Town, or Fort George
there is an old home that I have watched for years. It has a
widow's walk on it, and the house must be old for it was there
long before I came here. Just in case someone does not know
what a widow's walk is; it is a platform on top of a house with
a rail around it so that a sailor's wife might take a telescope
and spot her husband's ship coming home. The reason they are
called "widow's walk" is that so often a sailor failed to come
home through no fault of his own. The old days were rough
and communications were limited as to how far you could hear
a person's voice in a shout. When ship-to-shore radio first came
in, it was felt almost imperative for every home to have a radio capable of listening to the shrimp boats. It was not always
good listening for some of the announcers were a little uncouth, if that is the
right word. Some were big liars, telling the
other boats that he had not caught a thing when his nets were
bulging. With shrimp now $2.89 a pound, one would expect
more evasive action than ever before.
When prohibition became law, business picked up on and
around Fort George Island with rum-runners coming up the inlet and sometimes running aground with the revenuers hot on
their tail. Any time a boat load of whiskey was aground, it
was a day of celebration for the local people. One of my
friends was an agent back in those days and he tells some tall
tales of their problems.
For some reason entirely beyond my understanding, August
Heckscher started his toll road, Heckscher Drive, from Jacksonville to Fort George Island. The toll was fairly high and there
never seemed to be much traffic on the road. Maybe he had an
insight into 1920 when he started the road; that we would have
a boom and you could sell anything for a while. The boom did
not last long enough for him to make any money out of the
venture unless the State paid him a fair price for the road. It
now connects with the road to Fernandina and is served by a
ferry from Mayport. I have heard lots of reasons, none of them
plausible, as to why the road to Fernandina is still a toll road.
After the Revolutionary War, pirates thrived up and down
the St. Johns River and all of its tributaries, as well as out to
sea. McGirt was probably the most notorious of the river pirates and no one
was able to catch him because he always vanished up some tributary and it was impossible to find his hiding
place. One would suppose that McGirt's Creek was named
after this man. Jean Lafitte's brother operated off the coast as
did Black Beard, Edward Teach. Those bandits would go anywhere for a dollar.
There are many tales of hidden treasure around but it would be rare indeed to see someone sporting
doubloons as bobs.
The names of McQueen, Mclntosh and Kingsley along with
Rollins have all played a big part in the history of this island.
According to the records, McQueen would buy any land available because he did not intend to pay for it anyway.
John Mclntosh was a scrapper and was constantly involved
in intrigue and fighting. He played a part in history that has
been largely overlooked. He and Governor Button Gwinnett
of Georgia got together for an expedition into Florida and,
because of its failure, the two of them became involved in a
duel. Gwinnett was shot just above the knee by a large caliber
pistol ball which broke his leg. Since there was no medical aid
nearby, the wound proved fatal. This caused Button Gwinnett
to be the first signer of the Declaration of Independence to die.
This was in the year 1777, shortly after the signing of the
Button Gwinnett was married in England and somehow he
acquired the habit of rarely ever signing his name. His signature on
the marriage certificate in England and on the Declaration of Independence are two of the very rare instances of
his having ever signed anything. Some enterprising and wealthy
soul tried to buy his autograph from the church of England
for $30,000.00; and might have succeeded if the government
of England had not intervened. Get your copy of the Declaration and look at the signature; both the name and the writing
are unique. The three signatures on the left side of the document are from
Georgia; Lyman Hall, George Walton, and Button Gwinnett. Never did fifty-five men risk more than the
signers of this instrument did.
In 1817, Zephaniah Kingsley bought Fort George Island
from Mclntosh after Kingsley had been burned out of his
Orange Park home by Indians. Kingsley was evidently able to
raise good crops and support both his family and slaves well.
Kingsley was a slave trader and was not unduly popular with
some of his neighbors. Kingsley moved his entire family and
slaves to Haiti and was booked for passage there out of New
York when he died at the age of seventy-seven in 1843. Maybe
he was fortunate, for had he lived he could easily have been
the first man to be hanged for piracy on the importation of
slaves. The first man hanged by this new law, as put on the
books after the emancipation act, was Nathaniel Gordon of
Portland, Maine. He did not take kindly to the deed.
We have a copy of Kinglsey's will dated July 20, 1843 and
one would wonder if he had a premonition of something bad
going to happen. The will is composed of three pages and certainly shows a clarity of mind and an intent to have things
worked out in every little detail as he wanted them.
Here is the eighth paragraph of the will: "I do hereby order
and direct, that whenever I may happen to die, that my body
may be buried in the nearest most convenient place without
any religious ceremony whatever, and that it may be excused
from the usual indiscreet formalities and parody of washing,
dressing, etc., or exposure in any way but removed just as it
died to the common burying ground."
Immediately after the Civil War, northerners began to flock
into northern Florida. Fort George Island became a winter resort with two big luxury hotels and the privacy of being on an
island. Heretofore, it had been difficult to get large steamers
across the bar, but work was begun on the jetties and this gradually deepened the channel until large ships were able to come
into the river safely. That jetty work has continued through
the years until today large carriers are brought in regularly.
The Fort George Hotel did not last very long, having been
built in 1886 and having burned to the ground in 1888, but it
did a beautiful job while it lasted. They advertised an open
fireplace in every room, and with all of the fresh produce on
the island available as well as plenty of fresh game, they must
have set a good table. Another epidemic of yellow fever struck
in 1888 and this did nothing to increase the patronage of the
island. For many years Fort George and many of the small
communities on the river were served by the little packet
steamers, Emmalene and Hesse.
"Republic of East Florida" could have been the smallest republic ever
until the U.N. found how easy it was to create new
ones. John Mclntosh created his small republic on Fort George
Island but the republic had a very short life span. Our Rotary
Club did have a piece of their currency, and I wonder who
filed it away to keep from losing it. Miss Dean Snodgrass gave
it to the club while I was president. Mr. Mclntosh was a very
industrious man and was always moving around like his coat
tail was on fire.
The Army and Navy Club was founded on this island in
1923, and bought the old home of the Rollins family for
$12,000.00 as its club house. A new and much more pretentious club house was built close by the old home, but this
house burned in 1936 only to be rebuilt immediately. This
club was very active until 1948 when it was disbanded and its
property sold to the Florida Board of Parks and Historic
Memorials for the sum of $45,000.00.
Hilton Floyd tells of having worked as a cowboy on a ranch
near Kissimmee one summer, and while they were sitting around
a camp fire one night the foreman told this story. "When I was
about eighteen I helped to round up a drove of wild horses
and we herded them all to Mayport where they were put on a
barge and carried to Fort George Island." The foreman at that
time was about seventy years old and that would have set the
time about 1870, when the horses were moved. We have no
way of verifying this story, but that could have explained the
presence of the horses on the island. The horses were small
and rough looking with curved hooves where there had been
rocky soil to wear off the excessive hoof growth, but they
were tough and they were exciting.
Much of the early growth of Florida centered around Fort
George Island, Orange Park and Mandarin, and many famous
people came here for their winters. It seems a bit of irony that
Harriett Beecher Stowe should have bought the old plantation
Laurel Grove in Orange Park where the old slave trader Zephanial Kingsley had succeeded so well with his slaves. Mrs.
Stowe came here immediately after the Civil War and had
visions of farming with recently freed slaves. She could write
better than she could farm, and it did not take her long to lose
ten thousand dollars. She then moved across the river to Mandarin where she apparently fared somewhat better without the
impediment of a farm.
Much of the early tourist trade in this section was due to
the writing and enthusiasm of Mrs. Stowe. She never failed to
be an ardent supporter of this beautiful country. Anyone who
has ever visited the old part of Mandarin with its beautiful oak
trees and orange groves could hardly be any less enthusiastic
than was Mrs. Stowe. She and her husband both left their mark
on that community. I was surprised to learn that her husband's
brother built a church out in Kansas. They were real crusaders.
The Parkview Hotel in Orange Park was the gathering
place of many of the famous people from the north. Among
them was General Grant, General Sherman and no doubt Mrs.
Stowe spent some time there. I don't find any record of General Robert E. Lee having spent any time there, but he did
visit Jacksonville on two occasions after the war.
It puzzles you as to how so many people could farm and
raise good crops on Fort George Island and now you can
hardly find a trace of their fields, for practically everywhere
you find big trees. It is wonderful how quickly nature can take
over when given an opportunity.
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