Floral Bluff

by Tim Gilmore, 6/17/2012

Up above the orange trees, you could see the Bigelow Mansion on River Bluff Road, until it burnt to the ground on New Year’s Eve, 1950.

Up above the orange trees, you could see the Bigelow Mansion burning.

Up above the orange glow of the fruit in the trees, you could see the Bigelow Mansion on River Bluff Road, until it burnt to the ground on Christmas Eve, 1950.

New Year’s Eve, 1950, Christmas Eve. Irreconcilable discrepancy. So goes history.

He said he remembered looking through the trees at the mansion when he was about 10 years old. He doesn’t remember what it looked like. He remembers it being a mansion through the trees up on the bluff above the ravine.

Down Floral Bluff Road, these 1970s and ’80s ranch-style houses and these wood-frame houses from 1917, 1927, 1932, this yard confining these four barking and snarling Doberman Pinschers, this dead-end at the river on the other side of these duplexes and shabby apartment houses, these acres of vacant riverfront property, and at the river these bony palmettos and broken-up culverts and riprap and this grocery cart in the water that slaps at the dirt—here were slaves.

He said he remembered Halloween nights, when he and the boys from neighboring streets would slip into the old Bigelow family graveyard and whisper improvised incantations to the headstones of Robert Bigelow and Elizabeth Ann Richard Bigelow.

On River Bluff Lane, hovering out over the ravine, these houses and back decks on stilts. Plantation Drive and River Bluff Road, steep drop into the ravine, positioned high, here was the plantation house, the mansion.

He said he remembered running through the Bigelow family graveyard, how he laughed with his friends, how they pointed at the graves, how they promised each other they would live forever.

All over Floral Bluff Plantation, original 1790s Spanish land grant, Elizabeth, granddaughter of the original grantee, and her Yale-educated husband Robert, having moved here in 1832, heard their slaves holler when they worked into the summer night, until they sounded like some mysterious part of the weird landscape, until they sounded like they would be here when the Bigelows had long disappeared.

The Bigelows could not imagine the town to come—Floral Bluff, Florida, the plantation having been subdivided into housing lots in 1887, Robert dead just after the Civil War, and the father of the town, Gilbert Shepard, also its postmaster, and the general store and women’s club and the dock at the end of Floral Bluff Avenue, the dock that became the center of town. Shepard always thought that was funny, that the center of town should be out in the river. But the Floral Bluff post office closed in 1919, and Floral Bluff disappeared into Arlington, and Arlington disappeared into Jacksonville, which had been a town people sometimes came to Floral Bluff for a day or weekend to get away from. Not anymore.

The family graveyard is privately owned by descendants who live somewhere in New England and it’s surrounded by a rusted chain-link fence. Weeds grow tall across the graves. Drywall and cement block and plaster exterior walls of houses built in 1973 and 1981 crowd it. It looks like a vacant lot. Which is what it is. Which is what it’s not.

One recent summer midnight, a 1975 Chevrolet Blazer sped through downtown streets and mowed down a 45 year-old man who lived in a low-rent downtown boarding house. The truck was found abandoned just south of Jacksonville University on Floral Bluff Road.

He said he remembers running through the graveyard when he was a little boy. There were always children running laughing through the graveyard. He said he remembers that Christmas Eve night the Bigelow Mansion burned down on New Year’s Eve, 1950. He ran down into the ravine and watched the plantation house flaming toward the sky. Here were slaves.