by Tim Gilmore, 9/24/2021
And another thing, Old Willie Browne tells the priest, that “branch water,” brackish and brown like thickly steeped tea, with all its tannins from leaves and pine needles and fallen branches, “is good water to drink.”
Father Dearing says he’s heard old people use the phrase “branch water,” but never heard it was good for you.
“The people that got rheumatism?” Willie says. “We had a little horse, that when these ponds filled up here, he had rheumatism. It was bad in his front legs.” Willie’s father would say, “I don’t know what we’re gonna do about Old Ned now. He just stays in that cold water. He’ll never be able to walk.” But, Willie tells the priest, “You know that horse would go through those ponds all that winter and drink that water and it made a new horse out of him. Never had another bit of rheumatism, see?”
It’s winter, as threadbare as the wilderness gets in Northeast Florida, and the Reverend Frank Dearing, a direct descendent of the founder of Jacksonville, Isaiah Hart, wanders the woods and hillocks with Willie and an unidentified friend.
“This is the record of a conversation with Willie Browne,” he says into his tape recorder. “I am a resident of the St. Johns Bluff area between Jacksonville and the Atlantic Ocean in Florida.” The priest’s voice is nasal, inflected by the broadcasters’ accent of the mid-20th century but softened by his regional drawl. “We are standing beside a massive old cedar tree,” he continues, “at the site of Old Fulton Town. The time is the middle of January 1967.”
Willie, so thin as to be skeletal, lives in a small cabin he and his deceased brother Saxon built further up the bluffs. He’s lived out there all his life, on land his parents had referred to as Shell Mount. When he dies in December 1970, he leaves his hundreds of acres to the Nature Conservancy, stipulating they be spared development.
When Father Dearing turns to Willie and says, “Willie, we are standing here by this big cedar tree,” Willie, hard of hearing, shouts over him, “How’s that?”
Willie sounds like he’s speaking against a roaring wind. His accent is both clipped and singsong, more the speech of a poor Georgia farmer, though his parents had means and migrated south from New York, than the reverend’s smoothly refined cadence and diction.
So Dearing repeats himself. “We’re standing by the big cedar tree about a hundred yards up from the beach.”
Much of what Willie says is indecipherable. Sometimes long segments of Willie’s speech come clear; other times, a distinct phrase emerges from the thick fog of poor recording technology and particular lost Southern accents from 60 years ago: “And the house sat right over there.” It’s unclear what house he means.
“That was the old plantation house, huh?” Dearing asks.
“No, I don’t know,” Willie says, “but it was there before the Civil War.” And when Lily, Willie’s mother, came down to Fulton in ’84, the Teargardens “was livin’ in that house, you see? And the house was over by the store.”
The town of Fulton was platted in 1881 by New York philanthropist R. Fulton Cutting, who bought 475 riverfront acres just east of Shipyard Creek. Fulton, on the site of the previous township of Shipyard, would be a “mission settlement” to help further the educational and economic opportunities of former slaves and other black residents of the area.
Lucy Ames Edwards quotes former Fulton resident Mary Hole in the October 1956 Florida Historical Quarterly as saying, “The right people did not get put there and the negroes did not respond.” Fulton dwindled down to the solitary “old Irishman,” Henry Ferrar, the town “caretaker,” tending it for a disappointed Mr. Cutting, who sold it to Mary’s husband, H. Frederick Hole.
On the old tape, the three men are driving the now vanished Old Lone Star Road. As Willie casually mentions a house that burned down, he says, “This is the old road used to go down—” and Dearing interrupts him. The reverend seems puzzled about which way certain roads used to go. Willie mentions old land grants from Spain and England, the Sanchez Grant, the Atkinson, says, “This is the shipyard road, see? There was a street cut through here and nobody knew where it was, you see?”
Willie describes landmarks of a community then already gone. He points out a few remnants, landmarks to where the landmarks stood. Sometimes they’re all his in memory. Certainly they’re all gone by the time of this writing. Nelson Street, Ferrar Street and Spanish Lane are gone. The streets of 1960s and ’80s suburbs cross those much older disappearances in the landscape. Perhaps there’s a tree that still stands, a longleaf pine or cedar whose meaning signifies in a story no one remembers.
Even Fulton Cemetery, in the woods now replaced by a suburban street called Woodsong Loop West, has been “removed.” Already by 1956, as Edwards wrote in “Stories in Stone: A Study of Duval County Grave Markers,” she was “grieved to see that the head and foot stones of all but two graves have been hauled away. One of these stones marks the grave of a native of Nova Scotia,” and the other a supposed Lord “Harry” Peter Chamberlain, “who had lived in America under an assumed name.” Former neighbors were doubtful of Harry’s noble birth.
“And the remains of an old road cut through here,” Dearing observes.
“Oh they had ’em everywhere,” Willie says, “and since then, they fallen apart, you see.” He points out where the peach orchards stood, where Old Man Fielding’s fields were. “So we used to come right across here. There was a household in there. Great big hickory trees use to be there then.” Before the storm that tore them down. And there’s the pond still full of “cannon shot” from the Civil War.
A little later, Dearing tells whomever might listen to this recording, “We’re standing just south of the cedar tree and the old road, looking at a map of Fulton made in 1898 at the direction of Captain Hole.”
The map shows “the amended plan of the Town of Fulton, Duval County, Florida, U.S.A., comprising the Andrew Atkinson Grant, at the old shipyard landing, the site of the Indian town of Homoloa, the property of Captain H. Fred Hole, showing the lands sold to B.G. Jarvis and others, the streets discontinued by authority of the County Commissioners, and the riparian marshlands belonging to the property.”
The Brownes picked up their mail from Captain Hole, who’d first come to Fulton in ’89, starting a business making bedding and upholstery fiber from palmetto. The families were good friends. A few old Christmas cards from Mary, Fred’s wife, to the Brownes endure from a century ago: “Old Friendships are dear to memory, and we cherish this Truth in a world of change, where one abiding Joy is the Remembrance of Old Friendships.”
Garrulous beneath the crackle of faded audio, Willie tells Dearing how three strangers, two young men and an older man, came to Captain Hole’s house once, asking about an old well. The older man said there used to be a well right there, but he hadn’t been in the area in 50 years. The men left, but returned in the middle of the night, pacing out a line along an old grape arbor, and dug a hole “big enough to bury a horse in.” They absconded with “treasure,” leaving behind a muzzle-loading pistol they’d also unearthed. “I think it must have been some silver,” Willie says.
The map shows Ribault Street, named for French colonist Jean Ribault, May Street and Homoloa Street, named for the dubious recollection of a Timucuan community. It shows Lone Star Road coming all the way through Fulton to the river, twice the length of today’s road of that name, which ends much further west. In fact, Lone Star Road no longer comes anywhere near Lone Star, the old black community the road once passed through.
Unseen, ghost roads, unused for a century, cross official blacktop. The past traces itself, increasingly faint, increasingly subsumed in the undergrowth. The name “Fulton” exists only as Fulton Road now, once Carroll Avenue, once Shipyard Road, cutting out in the shallow water at Fulton Boat Ramp. The 1898 map shows shadow roads, marked “discontinued,” indicated by dotted lines between official streets. Thus do names float over the landscape, unanchored from what they once signified, like the whisperings of ghosts.