by Tim Gilmore, 2/16/2022
1. Secret Capital
Though it’s peaceful by the water, Sarah doesn’t care for the water moccasins, “the needles on the ground” or the encampments in the woods. Antonia feels let down. “There’s a nice trail, but no beach,” she says. “It’s very misleading.”
It’s called Beach and Peach Park because it’s just off the intersection of Peach Drive and Beach Boulevard. Technically there are beaches: shoals of lakes and swamps and forested seeps. Decades ago, the kids who played in these woods between back yards called them “Muddy Hills” or “Mud Hills,” riffing off the nearby subdivision “Windy Hill.”
Two decades ago, Jacksonville City Council called these 72 acres Beach and Peach Preserve, which makes sense because:
a) It’s a land preserve in the middle of suburban sprawl,
b) Those Jacksonville residents who’d like to rename the city, expunging the seventh president and the genocide of indigenous peoples, might find “Beach and Peach” the right new name for this Florida city that’s really the capital of South Georgia, and
c) Beach and Peach Preserve sounds like something you could buy in a roadside tourist shop that sells jellies and jams (and seashell chandeliers) on the Florida coast.
Zeke strokes his long goatee lovingly, says, “It’s the best place in the city to ride your mountain bike and get some air underneath you.” Volunteers carved these trails and ramps into the hilltop back of Beach Boulevard, set stairs and decks and laid carpeting. When these dirt bikes soar off an earthen ramp, they seem aimed for the tops of the pines.
Beach and Peach Park lies in the square cut by Beach Boulevard – with its African markets and Asian food stores, its tattoo parlors (and at that eponymous intersection, the Goony Golf dinosaur) – Southside Boulevard, between Regency Square Mall and the cloverleaf intersection with J. Turner Butler Boulevard – JTB, the major “office park” (itself an incongruous concept) corridor between Interstate 95 and the beaches – and older suburban subdivisions spread toward the eastern beltway of I-295.
“It’s perfectly situated,” Craig tells me from just outside his occasional hobbit hut, “to be the secret capital.” When I ask him, “Of what?” he puts an index finger to his lips and shushes me.
I ask Craig if he knows where these massive slabs came from. They’re stacked and overgrown with layers of ferns, with here and there a dark way in, an ingress, a ginnel that runs between. Brian Krupp, who grew up out here, says the rocks came up when the pond was dug. The pond has as many origin stories as those stories have tellers. Another childhood resident, Josh Owens, says the “li’l hut made for a good barbecue smoker too.” Outside this passageway to the place in the slabs and ferns where Craig’s been sleeping he’s raised some clotheslines, made a firepit.
Craig keeps his place clean. He’s not part of that other group, he says, the ones who’ve left the sofa and the grocery carts and blankets and pallets and suitcases spread across a clearing and built bonfires of plastic deeper in the woods. He wasn’t out here midsummer 2018 when somebody found the homeless man dead in the pavilion by the main path. “Nah,” Craig says. “I was out west ’round then.”
Though Craig never tells me of what Beach and Peach is the secret capital, he points to a zebra longwing, the “state butterfly,” nods his head slowly and says, “See?”
2. Muddy Hills and Sunken Vehicles
Jody Minter grew up nearby. She recalls “the guys on Peach and Bunnell taking dirt bikes back there,” remembers “old forts and a dilapidated tree house.”
Rebekah Berk knows this pond, how it was “created by accident from a tractor crane hitting a spring.” At least, she says, “That’s how it was explained to me 30 some odd years back. It’s deep enough to have gathered a collection of stolen cars and a boat.”
Buck Buchanan, who grew up nearby on Tiffany Avenue, from 1969 to ’87, shares his version of the pond’s genesis. “It was dug for the dirt for the original Southside Boulevard at Beach Boulevard overpass,” he says. “But they hit a spring and had to stop digging.” In the wake of that accident, Buck caught fish in these waters and rode bikes with friends on these hills.
Jody laughs about the stolen cars and boat, says, “That sounds about right,” and Rebekah adds, “I know firsthand about that boat.” Jody calls her a “damn hooligan,” but nobody adds details.
James McDonald has another story of the pond’s beginnings, says, “Oldtimer told me in the ’50s they were digging where the lake is, mining something, and hit an underground water cavern and flooded the hole.” Who the “oldtimer” was, and who was mining what, recede in the dark with other specifics.
Pamela Howell lived on Nimitz Court North off Southside Boulevard from the time she was born in 1954 through the mid ’70s. Growing up, her brother ventured further and further from home, and as a teen, bought a small Honda motorbike. “Somebody stole that motorcycle,” she says, “and it was found out there in the lake.”
Several childhood residents of the streets near Muddy Hills say the current “urban park” or “wetland preserve” keeps the landscape much as they knew it in their earliest years. “It was a cool hangout between neighborhoods,” Michael Waldrep says, “just like the JTB dunes before the [St. Johns] Town Center [shopping mall] come along. We had forts out there in Muddy Hills where we rode our bikes and motorcycles. We fished in the lakes.”
When he was eight years old, Brian Krupp, who grew up on Eve Drive East, wandered back in these woods with his little brother and their BB guns. In the summers of the mid 1980s they swam in the lake. When he was a little older, Brian says, “We used to party in the warehouses back in there. Camped as teens out there. Rode four wheelers and dirt bikes.” He shares that connection to these hills and trees and waters with his sons. “Still take my kids out there on bikes,” he says, “take them fishing in the pond.”
Brian says the warehouse was torn down in the 1990s, and whatever it was, “We always called it The Firehouse because it had old hoses in it. They weren’t fire hoses though. More like for big pumps. It was built out of block and two levels. Had a loading dock for semis, then a lower section. We had ramps in there and used to climb on the roof and party.”
Scott Spooner lived on Anders Boulevard in the 1970s before he hit his teen years and remembers “.22 wars” in the woods. “The younger kids rarely ventured in,” he says. Teenagers “wrapped up in pads and helmets with Shorty .22 bullets and pump pellet guns.” Mostly, he says, “I kept to the school park and played baseball there and stayed out of the woods, although I remember finding an ‘underground fort’ out there one time.”
3. A History of Horses and Turtles and Pigeons
Pat Gionet grew up on Peach, sand dunes in her back yard. She fell in love with “Mud Hills” when she and her friends rode their horses over the sands and pine needles and bracken. Ernest and Evelyn Anders had developed Southside Estates in 1945 and Beach Boulevard had bridged “town” to the beaches, opening all this between-space for modest new homes, at the end of ’49.
Pat called Peach Drive home for 52 years, from 1953 to 2005. Her parents bought their house at 4140 before it was even built, one of three or four plans for small concrete block houses, no air conditioning. They had a second house built on their property, 4142, which Pat bought from them in 1975.
“Growing up,” she says, “you would never look out the window without seeing kids on bicycles or walking. On Christmas morning it was standing room only in the streets because everybody had to go out and show off their gifts.” At one time, Pat says, Peach Drive residents had 22 horses and ponies.
These woods were first called “Mud Hills,” she says, when dredgers dug a ditch on the east side of the woods and piled the dirt beside it. Long before the current ramps and bike jumps, kids rode those hills and fished for bream in the lake. Pat caught a three pound bass here not 20 years ago.
She rode her horses through these woods for decades. If Southside Estates was “Ozzie and Harriet” in the 1950s, the ideal “sitcom suburb,” Pat also remembers the blast in February 1976 when members of the Outlaw Motorcycle Club planted the car bomb between Eve Drive East and West that sent body parts to rooftops. She rode horses with her friend Aileen Dunlap here in the 1960s and Bobby Smith in the early ’70s. She rode her mule Shiloh by the pond in the early 2000s.
It broke Pat’s heart when the City drained the pond and refilled it. She’s not sure why making the woods a “park” made that necessary. The pond hadn’t formed naturally, but became increasingly “natural,” and then for no reason she could “fathom,” was most unnaturally emptied, killing all its aquatic life, and filled in again. She remembers an SUV pulled from the dried depths. “The bed of the shallow lake was covered with dead fish and dead turtles,” she says, “and all the debris people had thrown in there for decades.”
John C. Christian remembers the Dodge Power Wagon his friend’s grandfather drove on Peach Drive around 1970. “The cab was completely stripped out,” he says, “with only a large tree stump for the driver to sit on.” John and his friend ran a “side hustle” from the old man’s yard, always avoiding the large geese that “roamed the property, vicious as any junkyard dog.” The old man raised chickens.
“And around back,” John says, “he had a coop where he raised pigeons. We would load up a couple dozen birds and put them in the back of an old F-100 Ford pickup in wooden cages and head on over to Chopstick Charley’s on Philips Highway, knocking on the back screen door. Charley would come out and buy a half dozen or so for a dollar a piece. Actually this was more expensive than chicken for the size, but these squabs were for their own personal use. We made no money on the deal. It was just something we did to help my friend’s grandpa.”
4. The Most Glorious Place in the World; So What?
I’m circling the water through the woods by the backs of houses on Eve Drive East, when a friendly voice calls out behind me, “There’s an alligator in that lake!” A trim gray bearded figure comes up behind the voice, longish gray hair in a Standard Feed ballcap, holding a thermos reeking of booze. It’s not quite noon.
He says his “crazy next-door neighbor” tried to lure the last alligator with “a chicken on a hook” into a rickety cage he’d made. That alligator was seven or eight feet long, he says; somebody from the Fish and Wildlife Service removed it to free it elsewhere. His name is Jim and Jim likes alligators. He describes the day that neighbor moved away as “the best day of my life.” The neighbor was “a felon and a wife beater and everything else, but everybody was scared of him ’cuz he was such a big dumb redneck.”
Jim’s lived here for 20 years. The park is his back yard. He asks me if I’m a professor and when I plead guilty, he laughs and slaps his knees and says, “I knew it!” He asks me what I teach and says, “You know I’ve never read a book? Not one. I started to read Jonathan Livingston Seagull one time. I’m gonna write one though.”
Everybody’s going to write a book one day. So they always say. Jim’s going to call his book So What? When he was in high school, he thought he’d play football professionally. He played quarterback for Wolfson High School, “won the city championship” in 1980. He relitigates a controversial fourth-down play from 42 years ago, says, “I thought that was my ticket, man.”
He took a business course at Florida Junior College once and asked the professor why he wasn’t running a business instead of teaching classes about it. “Then I found myself homeless and the Army said, ‘We got a job for you!’ They said, ‘But there’ll be people shootin’ at you, you know.’ I said, ‘If they hit me, do I get to keep the bullet?’ They said, ‘Yeah.’ I said, ‘I’ll take it.’”
He takes a sip from his thermos and tells me about the foxes he’s seen out in these woods, the snakes, the coyote. He calls himself an alcoholic and tells me about the woman with the little redheaded boy who walks these woods, how she showed him the video of the alligator on her phone. “I told her,” he says, “you better be more protective of that little boy. He’s the perfect size for that alligator.”
I ask him why he calls himself an alcoholic, always interested in how people diagnose themselves. “It probably has something to do with the DUI I got when I finished off a one-seven-five of scotch between nine and nine and was headin’ up to get another bottle,” he says. The police threw “Stop Sticks” in front of his car and blew out three of his tires. Then they placed his nine-millimeter handgun and his second handle of scotch on the hood of his car, laughing, and took pictures with their phones.
He takes a big swig from this thermos and says, “But hell,” smiles from ear to ear through his beard, shakes his head from side to side and says, “This is my day off and this place is my back yard and there’s an alligator out here and it’s the most glorious place in the world!”