by Tim Gilmore, 2/21/2016
Ten blackened shrimp on a spit lure me down A1A, the one road to the old fishing village, across salt marshes and island keys. The smell of the ocean envelopes the scrub oaks and grasses. The fogs and mists drip salt.
Over the mouth of the St. Johns River leans Singleton’s Seafood Shack, a pile of rooms and decks cobbled together with rough lumber and plywood. The floors tilt and turn. From the original structure, the floors slope down on pilings toward the river. Nets and sailfish deck the walls. A room by the back deck is windowed with chicken wire. Various maritime skulls collect a centimeter of dust where they hang from the ceiling by the bar.
Singleton’s is Florida. The sunshine burns you. The bar’s dusty. The wood’s unfinished. The food comes right from the water, every day. There’s no golf course here, no Cinderella’s Castle. There are, however, bottles of a hot sauce called “Colon Cleaner.” From deep morning before light, the catfish, the shrimp, the crabs are caught off shore, hauled in, cleaned, prepared, and eaten. Cats bask in the sun and prowl the porches and docks.
When the Food Network’s Guy Fieri, host of the TV show “Diners, Drive-Ins, and Dives,” visited Singleton’s in 2010, Dean Singleton prepared for him his mother Ann’s shrimp burger and his father Ray’s fried gator tail, Minorcan chowder, and blackened sheepshead.
Now I’m eating al dente crustaceans that yesterday swam in the shadowy waters behind me. I pick them up by their tails, squeeze them gently, and pop into my mouth the meat from their shells. Most of the earth’s surface is water. These many-legged, pop-eyed, robot-antennaed, swimming shelled creatures lay across my paper plate like martyred bug-goddesses.
I’m talking to my dear friend Hurley Winkler, who first told me about this place. We speak of Italy and the Everglades.
I eat Mayport shrimp all over town. Today, I’m eating Mayport shrimp in Mayport. It calls itself the oldest fishing village in the United States, but dates its founding to 1562 when Frenchman Jean Ribault first landed here among the Timucuan Indians.
The village came later and not much of it’s left. The bartender’s worked here for 31 years. A decade ago, he says, Singleton’s was one of a line of village seafood establishments. Strickland’s went out of business next door and the others sold to developers who wanted to build the kind of cookie-cutter condos that crawl like cancers on Florida’s coasts.
Dean Singleton held out. Offers of $10 million to buy the Seafood Shack failed to tempt him. The current restaurant opened for business in 1969, but if you include the family’s prior sea shanties, Singleton’s has served fresh fish and shrimp here for 71 years, since 1945.
A painting by local artist Monica Angiuli shows how the shack looked years ago. Ray and Ann Singleton started the restaurant in a 20-by-20-foot building, and Ray’s own boat hauled in the restaurant’s fare. Ann’s paintings of pigs now hang over the full bar.
Dean Singleton says he won’t sell because the property, as well as several residential lots in the village, has belonged to his family since the 1700s. It’s an original Florida Spanish land grant. His family was part of a large Minorcan migration to Spanish-era Florida. A nearby Spanish graveyard holds the remains of a number of those first Minorcan colonists.
Meanwhile, the sprawling Mayport Naval Station was built across the street from the village in 1942, enclosing even the Old St. Johns Lighthouse, built in 1858. When, 60 years later, the Jacksonville Transportation Authority declared more than 1,000 feet of Mayport’s dock space inadequate, half the village’s fishing fleet left for other ports.
This clear, cool, sunny morning, Hurley and I watch pelicans perch on posts. The birds seem extensions of the salted wood, but prehistoric, their long beaks clattering like something Captain Ray carved into existence decades before.
Beside the long main dining room, Captain Ray’s Model Boat Room features close to 130 models Ray Singleton carved by hand. He began making scale models of actual Mayport shrimp boats in the 1930s. Using mahogany, cedar, and poplar, he built models from memory, often of boats that no longer existed.
When Ray Singleton no longer could go to sea, having lost a leg to infection, his boats gained recognition both as Florida folk art and vernacular historical documentation.
Ray died in 1996. His model boats are dusty, but they’re still here in place of the condos that could’ve been and probably still one day will. The memories his hands carved from cedar sit in silent moorage.
Those fishermen whose boats his hands recalled, they too lived, and brought the sea to land to feed the village so long only reached by boat. The earth provides, and most of the landscape is water.