Cedar Point Ruins

From the airport, miles north of downtown, miles of Airport Center Drive connect to miles of New Berlin Road that connect to miles of Cedar Point Road, which cross the salt marsh onto Black Hammock Island, eventually dead-ending in thick and lonely ancient woods. The day hangs in the air, dark and dreary and cold. A thick fog folds up the dark tops of oaks and cedars and palms and pines. The woods feel ominous and knowing. Somewhere in the woods at the south end of the island are the ruins, and somewhere beyond them lie the older and sparser ruins.

In 1973, a descendent of former area landholders writes, “The Cedar Point property is today privately owned by a New York Company [sic] and not open to the public. The old tabby ruins are isolated, overgrown by large cedars, vines and underbrush, and guarded by snakes and insects. Oyster shells are scattered in abundance everywhere indicating the site of an Indian midden.”

In the 1990s, Cedar Point was incorporated into the 46,000-acre Timucuan Ecological and Historic Preserve. The National Park Service cut trails through Cedar Point in the next 15 years, but they didn’t advertise it. Compared to other areas in the preserve, like the hiking trails in the Theodore Roosevelt Area, Cedar Point is stunningly isolated and unvisited. The rangers are tight-lipped about where to find the ruins, though the largest and most visible ruins are open to a trail a mile past the end of the pavement of Cedar Point Road.

The pavement ends at a roadblock that gives anything but a sense of welcome. Though no signs attend it, the roadblock says, in effect, “Do Not Enter. The land beyond belongs to someone who or something that is Not You.” On the other side of the roadblock, the paths bear left beneath the dark tree canopy. It’s easy to imagine no other human beings inhabit the earth. These woods are an alien place. It’s easy to imagine Florida when it was what it really is and hadn’t been labeled “Florida.”

“The 1783 Spanish census of East Florida shows: ‘Joseph Mills: Native of (Place omitted) avails of Spanish protection, by writing, to retire, he has a wife, is a farmer, he has two hundred acres of land, which he inhabits, with documents of title, in a place called Cedar Point, he has three negroes and four horses, his father Samuel lives with him and has one negro.”

Walking the trail, woodpeckers heard in the enormous ancient oaks, wind haunting the treetops, already pulled three ticks from arms, sounds like voices in the hard knocking of the wind through palmetto fronds.

“This 1790 date was probable [sic] the near date of death of Samuel Mills, who is assumed to be buried at Cedar Point.”

Behind the wind-bending pines and palms is a background of blue, the sky over the presence of the marsh behind the woods.

Shortly after Joseph Mills was named a rebel against the Spanish government in the mid-1790s, he relocated to Georgia, and his “property at Cedar Point consisting of 440 acres was seemingly confiscated by William Fitzpatrick, who already owned the adjoining property in 1795.”

Fitzpatrick built a plantation, married the daughter of a nearby plantation owner, raised Sea Island Cotton, died in the early 1800s, the property was sold to a friend of the widow who sold it back to her for $159.62, and her eight children sold pieces of it in 1850, after her death, mostly to a Col. Broward, whose son Pulaski inherited it in 1884 and lived in the old two-story tabby-constructed plantation house until 1900.

Spanish records list the Cedar Point population of Fitzpatrick, his wife, their eight children and their 15 slaves.

The Fitzpatrick slaves listed at Cedar Point:                   Bounty,           Safat,              Solomon,         Derry,             Pompy,           Charles,            Invenif,            Tim,                Harriett,          Fibby,             Amy,               Birim,           Marr,               Bicil,                Sophia.

Palms and pines and vines and camphors had grown so long and thick up against the old walls, and those few people who knew the walls were out there, standing alone in the alien woods, had assumed they were the walls of the original Fitzpatrick plantation house. But archaeologists scrutinized the kinds of nails and ceramics and door-lock they found and the chimney built for use with cast-iron stove, and they determined this house was built between 1830 and 1860. These few walls and foundations weren’t from that original 1790s house at all. So where had the first house been? And what living-space had Mills built for himself and his family and his slaves prior to that? And where were the graves of Mills’s father and of any slaves who might have died at Cedar Point before Florida was even part of the United States?

Somewhere in these woods, 75 feet out from the present ruins are the jungle-covered ruins of an older foundation, wood on tabby, a late archaeological find, presumably the foundation of the Fitzpatrick house.

Walking this deep into the thick, feeling this alone and remote, it’s stunning to think that Cedar Point lies well within Duval County, and due to the late-1960s consolidation of city and county governments, well within the city limits of Jacksonville.

Then against the dark branches and the bleak sky, the ruins appear around the curve of the trail. Made of tabby, the limestone shell mixture quarried and cemented from these marshes, the tall wall is somehow both soft and brittle. It seems miraculous that it still stands. Where the rest of the large house went is another question. Perhaps a hurricane or a tornado took it down sometime in the 111 years since its last inhabitant left, and once down in the mucky subtropical ground, the earth quickly reclaimed it.

Two-story wall, green with fungi, pitted with holes and marked with decades of graffiti, its oyster shells and cement dust chipped and falling from ruptures and gashes, and its great arched window aperture up in its second story.  Rusted Natural Light beer cans and oyster shells and shotgun shells litter the ground. Saplings spring up from portions of wall collapsed. Wall foundations extend toward the marsh. Dozens of faded graffiti, including chiseled names cut in half by portions of wall that have since fallen.

CALVIN IDA 4-28-57.

Graffiti, at more than half a century old, starts to fade into the mystery of the lost past and age of the ruins themselves. Did Calvin and Ida last? Are either of them still alive? On Cedar Point, their whole lives are both obliterated by and preserved by this one forgotten inscription.

The other wall stands on the opposite side of the clearing in the middle, one story, some kind of outbuilding, pitted and partially collapsed forward into its foundation and backward into a palmetto thicket.

Spanish documents from the 18th century mention Mocama villages in the vicinity, including Black Hammock Island and Cedar Point. The Mocama, a disappeared subgroup of the disappeared Timucua Indians, with their own dialect of Timucuan. Archaeologists now say the Timucua comprised about 35 chiefdoms in over 19,000 square miles of North Florida and South Georgia. In the last two decades, archaeologists have argued that one of a dozen or more significant subgroups, living on the coasts, subsisting on shellfish, should be classified as the Mocama, as the colonial Spanish called them, a rough approximation that meant something like “people of the sea.” Here, on Cedar Point, beneath the slavery and the plantation life, and the latter ruins, archaeologists interrogated Timucuan, Mocaman!, shell middens and pottery fragments. Human existence in these woods that seem so alien to human existence goes back deep and rich, a couple thousand years, layered and ghosted, beneath the intermittent 21st century beer cans and plastic cups and snack packaging.

Nothing truly beautiful without its element of strangeness, nothing whole without its own incongruity, these ruins stand up from the earth in sacred conjunction. These ruins conjoin the earth and the manmade, moving from one to the other and back again. The Browards built their house out of shell and limestone, and limestone forms naturally from the shells and skeletons of miniscule sea creatures over great periods of time. The Browards shaped the earth upright toward the sky. They shaped it with doorframes and windows and chimneys. They shaped the earth up around them as a shelter. But shaped earth was always the earth. Now the walls fall back down and join once again the ground, taken over by roots of ferns and weeds and small trees. The house was always the ground, only contained in an upward suspension. The house was always the earth, but brought up into an architecture, and now the house that was always the earth crumbles back into the earth and nourishes new green things—dog fennel and morning glories and palmettoes and cabbage palms and cedars. A true symbol of the sacredness of the earth is earth’s reclaiming of human ingenuity. The crumbling of the house is wholeness.

Covered in ticks in February. How did its inhabitants live in this house in the summertime? The mosquitoes and yellow flies will be unbearable in two months. No bluff protects the woodland from the marsh. The two share the same plane.

Returning through the woods to the asphalt dead end of Cedar Point Road, a hard insistent beating comes close. Some beast comes near, some wild thing thumps in the underbrush. Return to the asphalt and turn around. See nothing. Heart beats hard. Then a majestic ascent. How near had it been? This noble-faced, powerful bird. White and gray and rusty feathered, a wingspan of 50 inches, this red-tailed hawk beats its wings against the air it climbs, and it perches above the end of the road.

1 July 1959, “Private graveside services for Pulaski Broward, Sr., 81, member of a pioneer Jacksonville family, tentatively are scheduled for 4 p.m. tomorrow at Oaklawn Cemetery […] died Saturday night at a local hospital following a brief illness.

“Born at Cedar Point plantation, once the oldest homestead in Duval County, Mr. Broward was educated in local schools and was a member of the first graduating class of Massey Business College here.

“At 21, he went to sea as a member of the merchant marine and earned his engineer’s license.

“In Jacksonville’s early days as a port, Mr. Broward became engineer of The Three Friends, a local tugboat, widely-known as a blockade runner during the Spanish-American War. He participated and won many tugboat races for the schooner-towing trade off the St. Johns River jetties.

“For more than two decades, Mr. Broward was chief engineer of the ferryboat Duncan U. Fletcher, which plied between downtown and the Southside before construction of the Main Street and Acosta Bridges.

“In 1939, when the ferryboat was decommissioned, Mr. Broward held the distinction of having crossed the river more than any other man.

[…]

“One of his proudest achievements was his invention of a contraption which was recognized as the first pinball machine.”