Round Marsh (by the Willie Browne Trail)

by Tim Gilmore, 3/5/2021

The Spanish priest called it “a miracle from Heaven!” It soared through the atmosphere above Florida and set the world on fire, like when God threw the Angel of Light from Heaven, the angel who became the Devil. The river came to a boil. The French settlers spoke of a bolt of lightning that struck the earth from the stars. The heat was so bright it consumed all the birds that lived in the meadows. This is one version of events; hold on to that caveat.

Had these French Protestants left their homeland and come to this wilderness for such tribulation as this? Was it not freedom to worship God that they’d sought? And yet God seemed to have opened the very Book of Revelation upon them.

Or perhaps God chose this strange method to feed them and their complaining proved they’d not deserved it. They’d suffered this summer of 1564, almost starved, and now they came to the sides of the river to see carpets of dead fish afloat. The fire from the heavens had boiled the fish alive and the French filled cart after cart.

God had touched this place. From certain footholds high up on the bluff or perched in a blue-green cedar, Round Marsh looked so perfectly circular that it was clear someone had designed it that way. Plant an enormous teacup in the earth and fill it with muck and reeds and grasses, with rattlesnakes and herons and spoonbills. Round Marsh looked that intentional.

Perhaps, and strange reports made by the French and the Spanish here four and a half centuries ago corroborated the possibility, a meteor had crashed into the earth here and Round Marsh had grown in its wake.

Dr. Jay Huebner, professor emeritus of Physics at the University of North Florida, proposed that hypothesis. Dr. Keith Ashley, professor of archaeology at UNF, doubts its likelihood. Digging into the earth shows no such signature from the heavens, no disruption in the archaeological record. Historians have suggested Round Marsh might be the remains of a rice paddy planted by British Loyalists around the time of the brief settlement called St. Johns Town during the Revolutionary War. Other Brits tried to grow indigo nearby.

On November 25, 1969, The Jacksonville Journal published a photo of Willie Browne in his hat full of holes pointing from a “marsh overlook” to Mayport across the St. Johns River. Another image of Round Marsh bore the caption, “Marsh inside the Waterfront Tract was once a Cypress Pond; Tree Stumps Now Lie under Silt of 4,000-Plus Years.”

Willie Browne, 1960s, courtesy Jacksonville Historical Society

When Browne died alone in his cabin in the woods on December 14, 1970, he’d donated his land, hundreds of acres, to The Nature Conservancy to honor the same instructions, in perpetuity, his father had given him, and keep the land “in so far as possible and to the fullest extent practicable, in its present natural state and wilderness character.”

The cabin stood just up the slope from Round Marsh. Willie and his brother Saxon had built it in 1952, the year before Saxon’s death. Browne’s land gift is now the Theodore Roosevelt Area, part of the Timucuan Ecological and Historic Preserve. The cabin remained until the National Park Service dismantled it in the 1990s. People had vandalized it and shot it up and ripped it apart and set it on fire for so long that by then it was barely standing. Park Service administrators feared one more fire might burn the forest down.

Willie’s cabin, courtesy Timucuan Ecological and Historic Preserve

Between the cabin and Round Marsh remained the fireplace of the house Willie and Saxon’s parents, William and Lily, had once called home. The family of John Nathan Spearing, who’d owned all this land before them, had built the big house called Shell Mount. Surprisingly, an architectural rendering of the house still exists. More surprisingly still, Ellis and McClure, an elite firm who also designed the structures for Jacksonville’s Sub-Tropical Exposition of 1888, designed it. Sometime in Willie’s early years, the house burned.

architectural rendering of Shell Mount, by Ellis and McClure, courtesy courtesy Timucuan Ecological and Historic Preserve

North of the tiny shell peninsula called The Spit and the heights of the bluffs, a World War II airplane, a Corsair, crashed into the marshes in 1945. You could get to it easily from the boathouse Willie and Saxon built. They’d scavenged pieces of aircraft aluminum and recovered machine gun cartridges. Long after the boathouse was gone, its slab would become the favorite fishing spot for park ranger Craig Morris and dozens of visitors hiking the Theodore Roosevelt Area’s Willie Browne Trail, largely consisting of the old dirt road from Mt. Pleasant Road through Willie’s land to the cabin.

Craig Morris, from Folio Weekly, April 6, 1999

Out in the marshes north of the boathouse floated a round circumference set into and distinct from the marsh, which Willie and Saxon called The Pond. How beautiful and strange that one body of water could exist within another, the way Colorinda Creek snakes through Round Marsh! In the 1950s, pieces of aluminum from the aircraft still lay in marsh grasses around its perimeter. Saxon said the plane had “crash dived into the grass,” that it “peeled the marsh back” and “left The Pond where it hit.” The plane and its pilot are still down there somewhere in the marsh.

In 2011, Bill Goodyear gave a talk to the Rotary Club about Willie Browne and the gift of his land. He remembered when he was a high school student visiting Willie with his history teacher Frances Smith Brewster. Willie would lead them “bushwhacking” through the brush. Once he showed them the old tabby remains far out “in the marsh in between his old cabin and what is called ‘Spanish Point.’”

They’d set out along the edge of Round Marsh, Willie armed with a pole about the length of an axe handle with an 18 inch blade affixed to the end. He sliced through thick cords of Virginia Creeper and thorny greenbriers that slung down from the oaks to skeletal palmetto fans spiking up from the sand along the muck. Beneath their feet crunched oyster shells, step after step.

Frances near Willie Browne’s cabin, 1955, courtesy Carolyn Gentry

Where a tall palm lay tipped over by a distant storm, its root ball held thousands of shells from several feet down. The dent it left in the earth was walled with shells left by Timucuan Indians and their forebears. A cedar lay blasted down from a gust years back and while it lay across the earth, pointing out over Round Marsh, new growth rose straight up from its collapse and burst clouds of dark green leaves overhead. The Spanish moss hanging from branches of cedar turned the shade a silvery blue green.

When Bill Goodyear died a couple months after his Rotary Club speech, his cremains were scattered, according to his wishes, across Willie’s wilderness.

Bill Goodyear, near where Willie Browne’s cabin once stood, 2007, courtesy Carolyn Gentry

Amateur archaeologist William Jones remembered Willie and his wilderness fondly years later. “Willie always claimed that on certain nights, he could clearly hear the thunder of horsemen racing by in the distance.” In 1990, Jones wrote, “To some people in the past, an air of mystery always surrounded the Bluff area, and it is true that late at night, one may hear, or imagine they hear, some rather eerie sounds.”

Most of Willie’s friends smiled teasingly when Willie, who always claimed not to believe in ghosts, spoke of the distant horsemen, but Jones recalled one of Willie’s old friends saying he’d visited one night and thought he heard them too. “I could plainly hear a noise in the distance that sounded like a group of horses racing past. I will have to admit I was somewhat stunned by the sound.”

In the 1960s, Willie used to tell his friend and benefactor Lorraine “Rainy” Clarke that he heard a horse gallop through the woods near his cabin every day at four o’clock. He said he’d never seen the horse. Rainy often listened for it. She never heard it.

Willie Browne, 1960s, courtesy Jacksonville Historical Society

When Jones thought of all the histories and layers of histories, worlds upon worlds, these woods and marshes and bluffs had known, it didn’t surprise him that people felt the past tangibly here. “Quite likely,” he said, “the early French from Fort Caroline, the Spanish adventurers from St. Augustine, the British from St. Johns Town, and the Union and Confederate soldiers, all during their time, roamed these very grounds.” And prior to these groups, “the ancient Timucuans” and the people who preceded them “left behind their heritage in the form of burial mounds and shell heaps.” No wonder, Jones thought, the bluffs and marshes had accrued a ghostliness. You could see it reflected in Willie’s thin face so pale as to be translucent.

from Tropic Magazine, October 4, 1970, courtesy Jacksonville Historical Society

Some nights strange lights flitted about Round Marsh. Were they that “Ghost Light,” will o’ the wisp, ignis fatuus, the light that appears at night over marshes as a result of the combustion of decomposition? Or some reflection long trapped, suddenly released, of a comet called the Angel of Light cast to earth?