by Tim Gilmore, 8/24/2023
“What my mother did with horses and with children was remarkable,” Joan Vinson says. When children with health impairments visited the stables, the horses seemed to connect with them in some beautiful and almost uncanny way. “With the child in the saddle,” Joan says, “Mama would walk them around and talk to them and it was magic.”
Joan grew up at Lone Star Stables when the surrounding Arlington was wooded and mostly undeveloped and the Milky Way shone like diamonds in an opalescent haze over the oaks and magnolias. Her father made her a “popgun” that shot chinaberries between two shoots of bamboo. She was in 12th grade at Terry Parker High School before electricity came to the family home. Her mother taught her and her four siblings about all the plantlife and birds around them, about abandoned historic structures and the stars.
With her 84th birthday approaching, Joan tears up when she talks about her mother. Small children assume their situation is like everyone’s, their norm totalized. “As an adult, though,” Joan says, “when I told other people about my childhood and they just couldn’t believe I grew up the way I did, and how much it amazed them” – I hear a catch in her throat and her voice shakes – “well, I can get a little teary talking about it.”
Joan’s mother was Claris Johnson Jaques (pronounced “Jakes,” and often misspelled as the French “Jacques”), a legend in the landscape. Before I understood who Ms. Jaques was, I realized I’d been hearing about her as “the woman on horseback” for years. People saw Ms. Jaques riding all over Arlington, a conglomeration of old neighborhoods and once-rural communities developed in the mid-20th century and larger than the urban core across the St. Johns River. Claris Jaques seemed to have ridden up from Arlington’s past, the prehistory of its suburbs, like an archetype.
Claris’s parents, Cleveland and Louise Johnson, had moved from the core of town to Lone Star Road in 1914. Claris was born in an old house that once stood near where the foot of the Main Street Bridge now touches the Downtown Southbank at Treaty Oak. She married George Jaques in 1930 and the couple moved into an old turpentine shack east of Red Bay Branch.
“It was a one-room structure,” Joan says, “back when they cut turpentine and got sap out of the pine trees. These were buildings where the workers stayed at night. They didn’t live there, but they could stay there. My parents moved it from somewhere between where they built the stables and out where Willie Browne lived. My grandfather and my father put a partition in there for a bedroom and the rest of it was all open. When I was a child, they added two concrete block bedrooms.”
Cleve Powell, unofficial Arlington historian and Claris’s first cousin, told her that wherever he went in the world, working with the Army Corps of Engineers, he met people who told him they’d once ridden horses at Lone Star Stables. When Joan worked for Memorial Hospital, patients regularly told her they’d known her mother. Claris and George started boarding in the early 1950s, charging 50 cents an hour for a trail ride, and Joan’s sure thousands of people, across several generations, rode or boarded horses there.
The daylong rides Claris offered more experienced riders, six to 10 riders at once, guided them not merely through Arlington’s natural history, but back through time. Joan loved accompanying her mother on these tours.
“We’d pack a lunch and go all day,” Joan says, “down through Old Gilmore, past Willie Browne’s property, to the Spanish American War battery on the hills, and we’d have our lunch there. We’d poke around in the ruins, then we’d head through that old, old black community, Cosmo, where we had to ford a creek, which was so much fun, and then we’d ride down the old JMP railbed.” The JMP was the abandoned Jacksonville, Mayport and Pablo Railway, which coursed so slowly through these old Arlington communities that people jokingly called the JMP the “Jump, Man, and Push.”
And all the way through these daylong rides, Claris Jaques told the riders who accompanied her the history they passed through, and the names of trees and shrubs and flowers and fruit, the names of birds, the herons and jays and spoonbills and wrens and warblers and ospreys and wood storks and titmice.
She was too much a natural teacher to ever think of herself as an educator. Ms. Jaques was gentle, soft-spoken, always wore her hair in braids and mostly wore jeans and a flannel workshirt. She did keep dresses, which she wore occasionally, hung on a nail in her bedroom. “She had a way about her,” Joan says, “that when she talked, though she was never loud, people listened.” Men said she was the first woman they’d ever seen who drove a truck. Early on, that was a Ford Model A “that had been cut down and had a wooden bed on the back.”
Joan calls her father a “character,” and even as she describes him, returns to descriptions of her mother. “He should’ve been born in the previous century,” she says. “He always aspired to be the rough and tough cowboy the movies depicted.” Life at the stables allowed him that role. “He was the top hand. He knew animals. He knew horses. He did leathercraft. I have a purse he made. He would stencil and color the designs.”
Even as her mother worked from the stables, she took part-time jobs. She worked at the first Dairy Queen in Arlington. “She didn’t have time, but she just did it,” Joan says. She worked in the school cafeteria. The best part-time job for Claris was driving a school bus, which gave her “breaks in the day. She could come back to the stables and do what needed doing.”
Joan remembers visiting Willie Browne with her mother twice. Browne was the legendary old man who lived out in hundreds of acres of woods, swamp and shell midden near St. Johns Bluff and who donated his property to the Nature Conservancy when he died in 1970. Joan remembers “whatever room the back door let you into,” kind of a “kitchen / back porch,” was dim and dark. Browne was frail and soft-spoken. He was gentle like her mother.
Another time, “Mr. Willie,” as people often called him, walked his cow about six miles from his house to the stables to be bred by the Jaqueses’ bull. Summer or winter, Browne always wore khakis and a long sleeved shirt buttoned up to the collar and his old brown felt hat.
Joan had ridden bareback behind her mother since before she’d learned to walk. Horses were “second nature,” she says, though even so, her first memories of horses were as “a nuisance. They were a lot of work. They had to eat twice a day and had to have a bucket of fresh water at all times.” As she grew older, however, horses became their own beings. That happened when she got her own horse, Lightning, but also through the most terrifying event she’s ever witnessed. She calls it “the Great Stallion Fight.”
Lightning was a Quarter Horse, named for his speed. Joan was 13 or 14 years old when her parents got her Lightning and no one else ever rode him. “He was my buddy,” she says. “His name fit him. He was not a horse for an unskilled rider.”
Joan rode barrels with Lightning at the community rodeo at Burnett Park south of the river in Mandarin. Already laughing, she says, “After the third barrel, you want your horse to go as fast as he can go, so I slipped my feet from the stirrups and kicked him in the flanks. When I went to put my feet back, the stirrups weren’t there, because he’d run out from under me. Needless to say, I didn’t win the prize money. Neither did he.”
She was 10 years old when she witnessed “The Great Stallion Fight,” which she remembers, “play by play,” and says, “I can still hear those horses screaming.”
The woods were open around the stables and no other houses stood nearby. So the Jaqueses would turn out the animals to wander and eat grass, then round them up later in the day. “Daddy would tie Pal in different areas to eat, then in the evening go out and unbridle him and the horse would go into the barn on his own.”
Pal was a palomino who lived into his mid-20s and sired several colts. Because he would bite, Claris told her children never to go into his pen and never to go into the yard when he was coming in from the woods. One day, like many others, Gold Bug, Pal’s offspring, whom George Jaques had named for the Edgar Allen Poe story, stood tied to a chinaberry tree. “Gold Bug was old enough that Pal could start to see him as a threat, so Daddy told us, ‘You be sure that young stud is put up before Pal comes into the yard.’”
The kids, Joan says, “dilly-dallied. We didn’t get Gold Bug untied and out of Pal’s way and the only thing that kept Pal from biting Gold Bug to death was that he still had his saddle on so Pal couldn’t bite him at the withers.” The horses fought thunderously “all across the yard.” They would back off and charge each other, then stand up and box each other and bite. Claris tried to corner the horses with a bullwhip and kept telling the children to get back inside the house, but the kids were afraid for their mother and kept running along behind her. Finally when the horses ended up by the fenced-in citrus yard, Ms. Jaques got them on either side of the fence and closed the gate. “When Daddy came in from the woods afterwards,” Joan says, “well that was another storm.”
She can’t put a date on the house burning, but it “was before ’83, because Daddy was still alive.” They’d built a two-bay garage out back as living quarters, called it the bunkhouse, because the old turpentine shack was about to fall down. Nobody had lived in it for years. Joan’s high school diploma and old sewing machine went up in those flames.
After her parents’ deaths, the family sold the land to Tree Hill Nature Center, where Claris’s childhood house still stood, now in the shadow of a pyramid, designed by architect Ted Pappas, consisting of aluminum tubing covered in multi-filament Tevlar mesh. Besides the land itself, however, two things, either side of Lone Star Road, feel to Joan like sacred relics of that magical childhood.
“Decades ago,” Joan says, “we tied a lead rope, which would attach to a horse’s halter, to a young tree limb. The limb was “big around as a grown man’s wrist. Then after everything got cleared out, and the stables and the house and the bunkhouse were gone, the tree of course kept growing. So the tree grew around the rope, around the brass snap that you would put on the halter ring. It’s called a snaffle because it swiveled. And it was just a few years ago, we saw that rope embedded in that oak tree at the Butterfly Festival. It’s still there. I can’t even conceive of how that rope remains.”
Meanwhile, on the other side of Lone Star Road, at Arlington Park Cemetery, the item most sacred lies invisible. “When we had my mother’s funeral,” Joan says, “everybody that knew about it came. And it was a big deal. But not until we got to the gate of the cemetery did we realize how big a deal it was. There was a mounted police officer at the gate standing at attention. She was off-duty. She didn’t have to be there. She had ridden there with Mama.”
And now the tears return. Joan warned me at the start of our conversation that she has a paralyzed vocal chord and might have to cough and stop talking to drink some water. I haven’t heard her cough once, but she’s choked up with tears a few times.
“After we’d got Mama’s tombstone placed,” Joan says, “I’d found one last horseshoe on the land where the stables had been.” She wanted to place the headstone at her mother’s grave, but feared cemetery management would remove it. Besides, presenting the horseshoe was a personal communication between daughter and mother. “So,” she says, “I buried the horseshoe beside her headstone. Nobody can see it, but I know it’s there.”