Riverside Avondale: Leah Mary Cox at Fishweir Creek

She took more than 4,000 pictures in a time when taking one photograph was a laborious process, but there are almost no pictures of her. She kept no journal. Almost no one alive remembers her. All that’s left is what she saw. Magically, he looks at her photographs and sees what she saw when she looked at the city just after it burnt down in 1901. He sees the city blocks of incinerated buildings and the small refugee town of tents in Hemming Plaza. He sees through her eyes, but he doesn’t know who he is when he sees what she saw.

She left her family in Tallahassee to move to Jacksonville before the Great Yellow Fever Epidemic of 1888. When her father died in Tallahassee, she moved her sisters and brother to Jacksonville. She had the bodies of her father and brother disinterred from their burial places in Tallahassee and removed to Jacksonville’s Evergreen Cemetery. She and her siblings rented a tall house downtown on Church Street. She learned the trade of a milliner and supported her younger siblings. She never married.

Leah Mary Cox was a strong, smart, capable, independent woman. She bought a camera. Cameras were new, but glass negative plates were even newer. She documented her city from its rebirth after the Great Fire of 1901 decimated it until World War I. By the time she died at 86 years old in the early 1950s, the glass negatives had been stored away for decades and forgotten in her Riverside basement. By the time her photographs were published in 2002, almost no one who had known her was still alive to remember her.

By then her nephew could only barely recall her carrying a cumbersome camera and tripod. The camera was heavy and awkward. It had a bulky bellows. She carried it with her to the beach to take pictures of men and women in dark Victorian bathing suits that covered most of their bodies, to picnics on Fort George Island, to Gala Week downtown, an annual Thanksgiving celebration that featured elaborate arches and parades of marching soldiers and carriages covered in flowers.

He thinks it a sad irony. All his life he’s been absorbed and spellbound by the old. He feels lives that have been lived before surround and move through his own life. When a thing is old—a brick, a piece of iron, a bottle, a book, a house, a hallway—he feels everything that’s touched it touch him. He was born an archaeologist, but he was born poor in one of the newest developed states.

Though the Spanish and French and English fought over what would become the state of Florida centuries ago, Florida didn’t really begin to develop until after the Civil War. What had been the least populated state in the Confederacy became the fourth most populated state in the United States just more than a century later.

He was born a worshipper of the ancient in a state where buildings were demolished when the paint started to peel and where unused downtown parking lots were considered better uses of space than the architectural masterpieces they frequently replaced.

Place.

Re-. Place.

Ann Hyman wrote the text for Jacksonville Greets the 20th Century: The Pictorial Legacy of Leah Mary Cox in 2002. It was the first publication of Cox’s photography and it was the last book publication for Hyman, who died in 2008 at age 72.

On several occasions he felt sad that he’d never met Ann Hyman, the city’s literary matriarch of the last several decades. In addition to the Leah Mary Cox book, she wrote a novel and a memoir. For decades, as a newspaper columnist and books editor for The Florida Times-Union, she championed the literature of this city that often seemed to have no history and no literature.

Almost a decade before he took his first literature course from Bill Slaughter at the University of North Florida, he read Ann Hyman’s review of Slaughter’s 1996 poetry collection, The Politics of My Heart. He realized that a review can be, should be, an art form, and he realized poets lived in this city.

When he took a half dozen classes from Bill for his bachelor’s and master’s degrees, he found Bill could quote hundreds of poets. He listened to Bill talk about the places he’d been—Europe and Egypt and China—and he saw a man in his early 60s, constantly lit up by his passion and the intensity of his intelligence.

Ann Hyman had brought him Bill Slaughter and Ann Hyman had brought him Leah Mary Cox.

Jacksonville was a city that constantly forgot it had ever existed before its present moment. It perpetually destroyed what it had done yesterday, and it bore about it an oppressive inferiority complex. It always claimed it was about to be something, but it never liked to think about what it had been.

Bill Slaughter had grown up in the Midwest, had gone to Tulane in New Orleans at the age of 16 and to the University of Washington in Seattle to study with the poet Theodore Roethke who died just before Bill got there. He would visit Seattle regularly for the rest of his life. He came to the University of North Florida as a founding faculty member in 1972. He taught and edited and published poetry at UNF for the next 35 years before retiring as a kind of local poet-saint who traveled often to London and Seattle and the Northeast.

Leah Mary Cox, born in England, had grown up in a prairie pioneer life in the late 1800s before her family brought her to Tallahassee and she brought her family to Jacksonville. All these years later, her family still lives in the house she built in Riverside. She rarely got in front of the camera, that traditionally passive role for women—to be looked at. Her eye and mental acuity behind the camera mastered the art of perception, assuming the active role typically reserved for men—to look. Leah Mary Cox mastered her city by recording it beautifully.

All those decades her art waited unacknowledged in the basement of her Riverside house, but it was an art that would connect her early 20th century to his early 21st. It was art she would continue to inhabit, in which he could step into the depth of a city that liked to forget it had any depth and walk around a hundred years ago.

Most of what lives on the earth will not leave marks for long. Most of what lives leaves nothing behind. The earth works as its own recycling system, compost, which is how it continues to live and to live, as one interconnected organism, when it fills constantly with so much death.

One of art’s purposes is also one of history’s. Immortality. Or at least the continued living after death. Leah Mary Cox’s photography preserves her eye and it preserves the Jacksonville of the early 20th century.

It also preserves the Jacksonville that had just been destroyed. It preserves the city all of whose records had been incinerated into compost. The public buildings were all gone. Nearly every block of the original city had been lost. A spark that caught in a mattress factory in LaVilla—a town adjacent to Jacksonville, which would later be considered part of downtown Jacksonville—danced in the wind across city limits and nearly obliterated an entire town.

Leah set up her cumbersome camera on a roof on the edge of the devastation. What was left of the city of Jacksonville were ashes and blackened attenuated sticks and the memorial to the Confederate Soldier in the middle of Hemming Plaza. Leah’s eye captures all the tents of refugee encampments in the middle of the city.

When he looks into her photography, he walks into the previous century. He walks through the ash in the air and smells it and it singes his grim Edwardian suit and his hair. He holds his tall inflexible hat in his hands.

Then he walks into the next year and the next and houses grew up from the char. He saw citizens take down burnt bricks from the Gardner Building on Bay Street and clean them and pile them up to be used again.

He must admit it. What the decadent Romantic in him loves now in pictures he takes of downtown buildings is the solitude, the emptiness, the idea of life here once fully lived and now the ruins. What he loves in these photographs of Leah Mary Cox’s of the decimated city in 1901 is the desertion of the city. Few souls inhabit it. The blurred gray light caught in the nascent photographic technology somehow still seems crisp. It is what he would have seen had he walked those streets—obviously—because it is what he sees when he walks those streets, just after the fire, more than a century ago, through Leah’s eye.

She crawled up to the tops of surrounding buildings, wearing the bulk and finery of her skirts and sleeves and footwear, and she set up the enormity of her equipment, and she looked through it down to the streets now empty of buildings and empty of people.

He sees now what she saw then.

He wonders who Leah Mary Cox really ever was. Nobody’s words exist to describe her when she was young and when she took her photographs for more than a decade after the turn of the 20th century. He wonders who she was and what she said and what made her laugh when she took pictures of the rides and the electric lights at night and the giant clown-face that topped the entrance to the funhouse at Dixieland Park.

Dixieland Park, where the Southbank of downtown Jacksonville is now, of which nothing remains but the giant and ancient Treaty Oak, which had grown there long before and should grow there for centuries more, ended with the first World War. So did Leah Mary Cox’s photography.

Leah didn’t make a living at her photography. She just made history, and art. She made a living as a milliner, so she made hats for Mabel Paige, a Jacksonville actress making her own scene during the brief time that several movie companies set up shop in Jacksonville and made hundreds, if not thousands, of now mostly vanished movies before movies ever had sound.

The movie industry moved to Los Angeles, and so did Mabel Paige. Leah stayed in Jacksonville. He wonders who she was when she took photographs of Mabel Paige wearing the tall, feathered hats she had made her. He wonders who she was when Mabel left Jacksonville for Hollywood and Leah stayed in Jacksonville.

Whatever anyone said about Leah when she was young, none of those words survive. The only words extant describe her when she was older and they were spoken by younger relatives. She had intimidated them. She was frightening, hard. She was an old witch of a woman with dark secrets in her basement.

By the end of World War I, the house full of siblings she had moved from Tallahassee to Jacksonville was down to two sisters—Leah and Lenah. They bought land on one side of Riverside, alongside Fishweir Creek. Here Leah worked for the rest of her life on dresses and hats and took odd jobs like attending society women during pregnancies.

She had been an artist, but gradually time and domestic responsibilities weighed more heavily, even as the number of family members she was directly responsible for diminished.

In her 2002 photographic history, Ann Hyman writes, “The house she built for her family has been home to a succession of Coxes for the past eighty years. Somewhere inside the architectural patchwork of the sturdy little house on Fishweir Creek, there must remain the bones of the original house that Leah Mary Cox built in 1919. But it is long grown over with additions and rearrangements of the space as new generations of the family have come along and shaped the house to shifting needs and improving fortune.”

Ann Hyman describes Leah’s now very old nieces looking at pictures of their aunt when young and not recognizing her at all. They described her as “imperial” and “stern.”

Hyman speculates that Cox may have fallen in love with a soldier who died in the Spanish-American War, a conflict for which enthusiasm grew to a froth in Jacksonville with Cuban revolutionary Jose Marti visiting Jacksonville’s cigar factories stirring up support. There’s no way to know. No one remembers. Nothing is stranger than time. The present declares itself to be real. The past declares the present was never present.

Photography declares the past was present after all. Photography declares the past to be present, at the same time it shows it to be lost. Photography is the belief in ghosts.

As time slips by and the photographs remain, it’s as though Leah Mary Cox never existed, but the things she saw through her eyes exist still when we see them through our own eyes. Photography is ghost itself.

At the end of Leah’s life, Lenah, the younger sister, is said to have moved enough sand from deposits at the front of the house to low-lying land behind the house at Fishweir Creek to stabilize the property. Lenah was younger, but as Ann Hyman reminds us, “by no means young.” If the younger family members remembered Leah as stern and frightful, they could not have known her, Hyman points out, as the young independent woman who relocated her whole remaining family to Jacksonville following her father’s death, apparently with a young sister literally strapped to her back.

Looking at what she saw through that early heavy photographic equipment, he wonders who he is to see it. He wonders whom she was to see it. He wonders what the connection between them might be.

He wonders who Bill Slaughter might really be—the young Bill Slaughter at the founding of a new university in 1972 as compared to his own self still young but approaching middle age, teaching English at the community college across the street from UNF. He is 10 years older than Bill was then. He wonders what the connection between them might be.

He wishes he had met Ann Hyman before she had so unexpectedly died. The connection between them is Bill Slaughter and Leah Mary Cox. But of course it’s even more than that. It’s two people writing about literature and psychology and place in a place that denies its own psychology and literature.

The connection between this city in 2012 and 1972 and 1902 in a place that entirely disparages history in preference for the cheaply made new?

He thumbs through a 35-page promotional booklet, whose cover says, “Souvenir      Progress         Prosperity      1904   Jacksonville    The Gateway of Florida.”

It tells him that Jacksonville has “good schools” and “an opera house.” It has “20 miles of trolley lines” and “gas and electric light plants.” N.H. Banes and Son at 415 Florida Avenue manufactures “fluted columns” and “ornamental capitols” and are always “liberal and fair-minded.” C.M. Kaufman, barber at 303 West Bay Street, “operates one of the first-rate tonsorial parlors of the city.” A. Frank, at 523 Bay Street, offers “hats, clothing, and shoes” and “has always treated his customers in a liberal manner,” as “Mr. Frank is a gentleman of progressive ideas.” Meanwhile, “Nothing adds to a city’s reputation as does a reliable café or restaurant.” In fact, Fried’s Café at 11 Hogan Street, has so defined its part of the city that, “’Meet me at Fried’s’ is now the word, for there can be procured everything that the market affords, served in elegant style by courteous attendants, and at the same time the prices are within the bounds of reason.’” At the riverside foot of Ocean Street, Vanderpool’s Fish Market offers “the freshest and choicest variety,” since Eugene Vanderpool “is a gentleman well known for his liberality and integrity.” At 135 West Bay Street, F.K. Gardner is the proprietor of the Crystal Saloon and Rooftop Garden. “You will not be seeing Jacksonville unless you make a visit to this celebrated Roof Garden.”  The Florida Fish and Produce Company, located at the foot of Davis Street, downtown, “employ[s] in the course of their business operations over 800 men, and have a yearly output of 30,000 barrels of fish.” The men who run the Florida Fish and Produce Company “are classed among the most progressive citizens of Jacksonville, as well as among the most liberal.” R.J. Riles, “one of Jacksonville’s most influential citizens,” has “for many years […] assisted materially the city’s advancement and prosperity.” At 225 West Bay Street, Riles sells jewelry and souvenirs.” He is “alderman of the Fifth Ward” and “employs five men and two ladies.”

He walks along the side of Big Fishweir Creek as it tunnels beneath the road and over thick mud silt and across cypress knees standing up in the shallow waters. He’s kayaked the Ortega River into Big Fishweir Creek before. He couldn’t go far. The silting was too aggressive, the tide just high enough to occlude the broken branches and ruins of old docks jagged at every possible angle beneath the muddy surface of the water.

More than a hundred years ago, Leah Mary Cox orchestrated a boating party on the creek behind her house. Fishweir Creek was deeper then.

In the photography, nine men and women fill a canoe. There are big hats and big dresses. Everyone’s arms are covered down to the wrists. Four large dark umbrellas shelter them either from the sun or from the possibility of rain.

The trees recede into a blur in the background. The ripples on the water are frozen in a drained gray. One large oak branch protrudes across the top of the image. The people in the boat recede, even in their frozen state, into the anonymity of the past that always backs away from us even as its currents pull and direct us into the future in ways only those who come after us will begin to be able to see.