Before taking the plunge into southern Florida, we spent some time around Jacksonville, which is part of the South in a way the area south of Orlando isn’t. We focussed in on the Timucuan Ecological and Historic Preserve, which is administered by the National Park Service, similar to our own Ebey’s Landing National Historic Reserve on Whidbey Island. There are several parts to the Reserve, extending from Amelia Island through a few other islands and across the St. Johns River (which is the entry to the harbor at Jacksonville), and it is “one of the last unspoiled coastal wetlands on the Atlantic Coast”. We stayed in an amazing campground in a city park, on a spit where the river meets the ocean. Camping right on the beach
The channel to the harbor was full of large ship traffic, and across the mouth of the river is the Naval Station Mayport, the third largest naval facility in the country. Here is a nice scale comparison between our trailer and the ships a mile beyond in the port:
As we are finding across the southeast, the number of different cultures which have laid claim to this area in the past 500 years is very confusing to someone who comes from a place where the English displaced the natives, end of story. The Reserve is named for the Timucuan people, the tribe who inhabited the area before colonization. The visitors center has artifacts from their culture (some of disputed origin), but there is not a lot beyond that. The Huguenots landed here in the 16th century, quickly gave up, came back a few years later, and then were all killed by the Spanish. Under Spanish rule a widespread plantation system developed, part of which can be seen today at the Kingsley Plantation, settled in the early 19th century, and owned over time by a few different families. The house is quite intact
The most interesting part of the history was learning how the legal status of different groups varied under the Spanish or American systems. Kingsley bought a slave from Senegal, and married her. When she turned 18, he freed her, and she could then own property herself – including her own plantations and slaves. The Kingsleys prospered, eventually owning four major plantations of over 32,000 acres. When Florida became a US territory, her rights, both as a freed slave and a woman, would have been greatly reduced, so the Kingsleys moved to Haiti to avoid this, but were involved in legal disputes over this fortune for decades after.
This history was remarkable, as are the remains of the slave quarters. Whereas most slave houses in the south were wooden and so haven’t survived, the walls of the houses here were made of tabby – a kind of concrete made with oyster shells, where a catalytic reaction from the shells takes the place of Portland cement. The roofs are gone, and the walls are slowly deteriorating, but seeing the 27 houses in an arc at the edge of the fields was amazing.
We had a few unusual experiences here – such as spending New Year’s Eve in the campground on the beach – but the most bizarre was while driving on a dirt road in the Reserve, and Greta spotted a dead armadillo by the side of the road. We got out to look at it, just as the owner of an adjacent house came over too. It turns out that he lives in his obviously expensive and well-tended house out in the woods, but the armadillos come out and night and plow up his lawn, looking for bugs to eat. So he sits up at night with his .22 and shoots the armadillos, and he had just come out to move the body of this one. We couldn’t get the image of this out of our heads – an old guy with a rifle who decided to build his house in the middle of the woods on an island, and then spends his retirement fighting a losing war with the armadillos.
Passing back through the area at the end of the year, we spent some more time in Jacksonville, which has some of the weirdest office buildings I’ve ever seen, including this one from the heroic era of late modernism
and which was the site of a pep rally for Penn State and Georgia, the day before they were going to play in some bowl game. We watched a full line-up of high school bands and cheerleaders, all performing in a cold downpour.
The fantastic Georgia marching band performed, which was fun until it suddenly became rather jarring. Apparently, at some point in the past, the University of Georgia took the tune of the Battle Hymn of the Republic and turned it into their football fight song. I looked around at the crowd to see if anyone else’s reaction was “huh?”, but they were all signing along. No one but us seemed to think that turning an abolitionist hymn into a football song at a university in the former confederacy was weird. Reflecting on this and the armadillos, this was when we started to feel we were in a very different part of the country.