Tree Hill: Farmhouse and Pyramid

by Tim Gilmore, 8/19/2023

Either its name is prosaic, unimaginative, or Tree Hill is the paragon and typification of every slight hill grown through with trees. Its earth soaks up its stories amidst 52 inches of annual rainfall. Because history is spirit, even as the mill grinds sugar cane in 1843, the strange translucent pyramid built in 1980 already catches the sun through winged elm and eastern cottonwood leaves.

Indigo blooms on its stalks in the fields, first Spanish land grant in 1805, addition in 1817, citrus golden round in the dark green near Francis Richard’s mill that processes cotton and sugar cane at Strawberry Creek, 250 acres called Red Bay Hammock, creeks impounded to form the mill pond that crescents around Tree Hill.

For half a century the mill grinds on, through the Civil War when Jacksonville burns across the river and burns and burns and burns a fourth time, through division and sale of the land to investors, until about 1870.

Across the St. Johns, Anton Macy ferries Cleveland and Louise Johnson and their children perched in two buggies packed with chickens and household goods alongside their cows and horses and goats to 11 and a half acres, some records say eight, on Lone Star Road purchased for $930.

at the cane mill, 1923, F.W. Bruce Collection, Tree Hill Nature Center

The Johnsons clear the blackjack pine and oak and loblolly bay and palmetto thickets and brambles and build a modest farmhouse, 1914, where the eastern side of Arlington Park Cemetery will later plant its dead, and make the earth say beans and corn and tomatoes and potatoes. They bottle milk and churn cream and harvest eggs and call the place Red Bay Ranch and Dairy.

the 1922 house in 2023

The storms drench the farmlands all summer long. The whole house swells with humidity. Fire from lightning touches the lanolin in the bales of cotton stored tight on the wooden front porch and fuels the blaze that incinerates the family home. Before Christmas ’22, the new house stands on the hill the southside of the lane, 7150 Lone Star Road, it stands there a century later still, and from the earth the Johnsons reap cane and syrup, cotton and corn, beef and poultry.

the creek, Arlington Park Cemetery

Cleveland dams a creek that decades later runs through the cemetery, builds a ram pump, powered by water pressure, pumps the creek up to a water tower beside the new house at the top of the hill. The tower stands until ’35. Then the Johnsons dig an artesian well. The pyramid catches later light through that noble oak 300 years old.

The pyramid and the Johnson House

The Johnsons’ daughter Claris, she goes everywhere on horseback, even in coming years, though the 1960s and ’70s, when the Arlington woods pave over and department stores rise, and Arlington Thrift and Neisner’s Variety Store, and when Lum’s Restaurant sells beer-steamed hot dogs. When she marries George Jaques in 1930, they build their home east of the creek on the hill, then build out Lone Star Stables where later rises the pyramid.

The Johnsons: Mary, Claris, Bruce, Louise and Cleveland, 1925, F.W. Bruce Collection, Tree Hill Nature Center

The cemetery platbook first grids up the land for graves as Arlington Park, 1935, and schoolkids play, walking home from school, on the pavilion used for funeral services. A Florida panther, they say, waits behind the brick gateposts for late-night travelers.

Claris, hair long in braids, and George take kids on trail rides. She knows the land almost like Willie Browne, who lives over on the bluff without electricity. Moonlight rides and campouts. The Jaqueses own 75 horses and ponies. Neighbors, far and near, board horses here. The family lives in a turpentine shack, refusing electricity until ’57, cook on a cast-iron stove. The kids grow up bathing in the creek.

Claris Johnson Jaques, date unknown, F.W. Bruce Collection, Tree Hill Nature Center

Always is Florida wild and welcome to wild things, monkeys already establishing colonies across the state, but the new capture terrifies schoolteachers and mailmen and gives husbands the chance to laugh dismissively and feel brave in their big comfortable chairs. Famed herpetologist, the man who’d milked 50,000 rattlesnakes before first being bitten, Ross Allen of Silver Springs, featured in Robert Ripley’s Believe It or Not syndicated newspaper cartoon, reptile handler for Tarzan movies and The Yearling, drives up to the hill.

original Ross Allen postcard

Allen toils and tramps through the understory and bracken, this day in 1950, and locates the boa constrictor, 10 and a half feet long, lodged in an armadillo hole, shovels the hole wider and removes the 50 pound snake. He lets Cleveland Johnson’s grandson Cleve hold the serpent on his shoulders, says if it starts to constrict, to squeeze the snake’s head. Somebody snaps a photo, Cleveland watching from the right, Ross Allen in the center pulling ticks from the reptile, Wilfred Neill, whom everyone calls “Doc,” though he drops out of the University of Florida while working on a doctorate in zoology when he feels the coursework is beneath him, and who drinks bourbon, his 2001 obituary will say, “as if it were Dr. Pepper,” stands to the left and holds the rest of the monster.

Wilfred Neill, Ross Allen and Cleveland Johnson, 1950, image courtesy Jacksonville Historic Preservation Commission

Claris talks her way through the landscape when she brings kids on trail rides, shows them the Richard Mill Pond and Mill Creek and the Jacksonville, Mayport and Pablo (not “Jump, Man, and Push”) Railroad bed, the Spanish American War battery on the bluff, and the people who’d lived in the houses in the woods abandoned since the Civil War.

Claris Jaques, early 1980s, image courtesy Valerie Grisham-Kennedy

Gurney Kennedy, professor of music at Jacksonville University, brings his little girl Valerie to the stables on the hill to buy bantam eggs for Easter. No luck that year, but years later, Val brings her Brownie troop, seven and eight and nine year old girls, to Lone Star Stables in the early ’80s. They meet Ms. Jaques, legend of the landscape, browned and weathered, wrinkled and wise. Val’s daughter Erin sits horseback, wearing pigtails and bangs, her pink plaid shirt tucked into her high dark jeans.

Erin Grisham with Claris Jaques, early 1980s, image courtesy Valerie Grisham-Kennedy

Lone Star Stables rides on into the ’90s, though the family places a parcel of Tree Hill for sale in 1970, when neighbors form Preservation Association for Tree Hill, PATH, and raise $10,000 with an option to buy this paragon and typification of every hill with trees.

Elementary school programs start in ’74, an old garage becomes a biology lab in ’77, prefiguring the Animal Encounter – housing live snakes, alligators, armadillos, goats, squirrels and raccoons, an owl and a opossum – the boardwalk trails, the Compost Area, and the Butterfly Festival, where every year children watch a thousand butterflies of 15 native species released at once. When the stables close, that land too accretes to Tree Hill Nature Center, now 50 acres of hardwood forest and swamp.

And the pyramid rises, 1980, from the center of the trails that snake through longleaf pines and sweetgum trees, from light scintillating and dappled on Red Bay Branch, from the cemetery across the street. Ted Pappas, son of Greek immigrants, one of Jacksonville’s most prolific architects, designs the pyramid, now the Tree Hill natural history museum, an apex to the hill, earth church, archetypal symbol catching sunlight off summer storm clouds.

The pyramid rises in the summer heat like ancient history and new science from the second highest point in Duval County, taller than the Neff House on Mount Cornelia, lower than St. Johns Bluff. From a cinder block base on an earthen berm, the pyramid rises in extruded aluminum tubing covered with Tevlar, a trademarked “multi-filament mesh.” Inside the pyramid, a single pathway spirals up a slight rise, floor by floor, to the top. The pyramid sites Tree Hill, figure and type of every hill with trees, its own alchemical symbol, ever also an ouroboros, a thing here before it was here that will be here after it’s gone.

After Claris is buried in Arlington Park Cemetery in 1993, 300 feet from where her first childhood house catches fire in 1921, her nephew Cleve Powell recalls plowing the land for each year’s corn crop. He remembers the moment of iron meeting iron. The plow strikes. The boy stops. He sticks his hands in the earth, wrests his grip through broken roots and earth farmed when Spain owns Florida and traversed by indigenous people when the Ancient Egyptians build their pyramids, and pulls up a small toy, a cast iron horse, that belonged to his Aunt Claris when she was a little girl, a plaything impacted into the earth by housefire, now a sacred relic.