Clifton: Oak Lynde

by Tim Gilmore, 8/24/2017

She came to know the house like she’d known no one, but her mother and father. You could know a house that way, if it had depth enough and shadows aplenty, if rooms moved of their own volition when you were away from them. You could scream out your lungs at the opening of one hall and none of the rooms at any other distance and turn of the house would know.

Addie lived alone in the vast echoes of Oak Lynde, her 32-bedroom house. The remaining Oak Lynde is but a butchered limb. The servants were there, but they were no company. They lacked her refinement.

Her parents, John and Carrie Stewart, were well-traveled and well-read, the best cultivated of their stock. Vienna or Paris might easily have provided a home if they hadn’t found it here instead on this oak-shaded peninsula between the St. Johns and Arlington Rivers in the early 1870s.

Sammis House, built in the 1850s

The Stewarts never seemed to fit in with the religious colony that formed itself around the old Sammis plantation house in 1873. The Florida Winter Home Association went bust when its rules and rigid definitions of Christianity excluded most potential new members. Then came the Arlington Bluff Association, which still held “daily religious services,” but opened the colony to “Christians of all denominations” and lasted out the decade.

For Addie, after her parents’ death, and long after the religious colony had faded into the trees and graves and ferns, the world here was enough, though she would always have the best the world could give. Because she lived alone did not mean she should deny herself. At Oak Lynde, only the finest meals would do. In Oak Lynde, one must wear diamonds and crown sable furs.

Jacksonville’s own Miss Havisham, Addie’s inheritance was such as to keep her suited, suitor or no suitor, for life. Until it wasn’t. And then she took in boarders. Oak Lynde became no dosshouse, however, because “Miss Addie” charged a weekly rate of $40, roughly equivalent to $1,000 today, broke-cheap for Paris, but a premium for these far-south swamps.

Miss Addie’s guests included people like Josiah K. Lilly, the only child of Eli Lilly, of the namesake global pharmaceutical company. Twenty years before becoming chairman of the board, J.K. Lilly stayed at Oak Lynde in mid-November, 1913, to attend the National Association of Wholesale Druggists’ convention in Jacksonville as a representative of his father’s business.

Josiah K. Lilly, from James H. Madison’s Eli Lilly: A Life, 1885-1977

For years, Mr. B.C. Sayre, who built a Victorian mansion in the 1880s along the river, had harvested roots, bark and berries to sell to Eli Lilly. According to a 1985 letter from Janet Graham, a descendant of Sayre’s, to preservationist Wayne Wood, Sayre harvested plants and byproducts of the riverbank Clifton woods, including “Ginseng, deer tongue, cherry bark, brier root, and palmetto berries” to sell to several pharmaceutical companies.

When Josiah Lilly first came to Oak Lynde, perhaps around 1910, according to an unverifiable 1976 typewritten history, the Lillys “loved Oak Lynde and were fond of Miss Addie [and] gave her $10,000 [almost $300,000 today] to keep it up.” According to this source in the city’s historic preservation archives, “Miss Addie” burned quickly through the Lillys’ money and began for the first time to seek boarders.

Oak Lynde, early 1980s

But the income from wealthy guests was not enough to stem the loss of Addie Stewart’s inheritance. She sold Oak Lynde to Lilly two years later. In renovating the house, the Lillys, who would build a sweepingly enormous mansion in Indianapolis, demolished most of Oak Lynde, leaving only eight of the original 32 bedrooms.

Another of Addie’s guests was Marcus Fagg, superintendent of the Children’s Home Society of Florida. As Lilly was always interested in funding charity, creating the Lilly Endowment in 1937, it made sense that he deeded the house to “Daddy Fagg” when Miss Addie became stranger and stranger in her final years and died, broken and poor and intestate. The Children’s Home Society became one of the largest “orphan’s,” or later, “child services” organizations in the nation.

As April Anderson writes in a brilliant 2003 University of Central Florida master’s thesis, Fagg led the CHSF for an astonishing four decades, from 1910 to 1951, having become state superintendent when he was only 24. During that time he raised the organization from debt, co-founded the Florida State Board of Welfare, helped write and edit national legislation like the Child Labor Law and the Compulsory Education Law, and all the while cared personally for destitute children in Jacksonville.

Unsourced records say Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings stayed in a cottage off the main house of Oak Lynde in the middle 1930s while writing part of her Pulitzer Prize-winning novel The Yearling. The claim makes sense, since the adventurous hermit who made her home at Cross Creek in frontier Central Florida spent time at remote and obscure abodes around the state like Gene Johnson’s Seafood Shack in the unincorporated hamlet of Summer Haven, along Old U.S. A1A, between whose long-weathered summer houses I married my wife.

Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings at Summer Haven, Florida, courtesy

The history of the Jacksonville Garden Club mentions “Mrs. Marcus Fagg,” Laura, club president from 1944 to ’45, praised the camellia show for attracting some 6,000 people, and described her time at old Oak Lynde.

“Her great desire was to live in the country and this wish came true with the home in Arlington […] There she gardened and took care of the birds, but also, went to town to be a Woman’s Club president and a Garden Club president, and to make many talks on the joy of birds in gardens.” This country estate remains a country estate, though hidden in leafy labyrinths in the middle of the city.

from The History of the Garden Club of Jacksonville, Florida, 1960

In 1920, a book of bad verse called Outdoors and In by a now-forgotten poet named Joshua Freeman Crowell contained poems about Cape Cod, Iron Mountain in New Hampshire, and Oak Lynde, where he had boarded with “Miss Addie.”

Crowell dedicates his poem “To the Great Oak at Oak Lynde” to Addie Stewart, though the poem only serves to imagine himself, “like thee / O Noble tree,” growing stronger and larger each year in his “faith in God.”

Perhaps Laura Fagg would have appreciated his poem “Florida Magic”—“To sit beneath a tall live oak, / Draped with a mossy, silver cloak, / And watch the flaming cardinals play” and so on. With apologies to Crowell’s memory, his poetry is post-Victorian schmaltz at best, though “grey glooms of moss” in his poem “Florida Woods” is not a bad phrase.

In his poem “Jacksonville from Oak Lynde,” he writes, “I see a mystical city arising, from clouds of silver it gleams.” His vision of the city from the house of “Miss Addie” ends, “Pathetically solemn, remote, with the silent river between. / At noon’s high note, it glistens with life, and at sunset it glows / As a crown of opals, with inward fire of beauty agleam!”

I picture the lost poet, scribing away beneath an oak beside the 32-bedroom house, and wonder if my writing might strike readers a century from now with the vague insipidity with which Crowell’s lines lap at my toes.

What I’d most want to know is whether my dear poetaster ever took Addie Stewart’s grand and too-fine fingers in his hand. How might the weariness of wealth he saw in her eyes have touched him? How heavy were her rings? How heavy her furs and her shoulders? How heavy the clipped wings of the inheritrix? Crowell never thinks to tell us.

And should not a poet have been there when the drug magnate philanthropists tore down most of her childhood house? Who lost that loss in the pines and ferns?

Shouldn’t I—shouldn’t you?—shouldn’t we have been there when Addie wandered through halls of uninhabited rooms each furnished for royalty who never came. Hummingbirds darted through their own bright colors. Was her solitude that small, that darting, that unobservable? What was her loneliness like? Did she once or twice laugh with the servants who prepared her lonely and guestless banquets?

Rick Beeson was seven years old when his parents bought the old house in 1964. James and Margaret Beeson had the house under contract when Hurricane Dora threw oak limbs across Oak Lynde.

He played with his four siblings in the vast attic that spanned the length of the house and hid and built imaginary worlds in the dirt beneath the raised first floor.

Having lacked central heat and air, an oil furnace heated the house, and when the Beesons installed a central system, James Beeson, a physician, converted the furnace room into a wine vault.

Rick recalls standing on the dock with his father when it collapsed and plunged them into the Arlington River. He saw plenty of snakes and snakebirds, but never alligators. He only dreamt about alligators. Frequently.

Sadly, he says, the old garden is gone. It had been there long before his family. Brick paths segmented the garden through its center and walls of azaleas and camellias surrounded it.

He misses the closed tunnel of azaleas that once stretched from the house to the dock.

“I heard stories of Miss Addie, the spinster,” he says, “but I made sure not to remember them. My older brother told us ghost stories all the time. I don’t even wish I could remember them for you. They were stories I made sure to forget.”