by Tim Gilmore, 12/19/2020
You couldn’t hear Willie Browne walking through the woods. Usually he was as quiet and unseen as the wildlife. He belonged to these woods, after all, as much as they belonged to him. Or more.
A wire fence stretched along Fort Caroline Road and a sign warned, “Private Property, Keep Out,” and though Frances Smith respected property rights, she also knew she had to meet the hermit. As her former student and friend William Goodyear wrote in 2007, “Frances Smith Brewster was one of my teachers at du Pont High School. She taught history, civics and economics—all subjects of interest to me. Several of her friends from Florida State University used to take me along when they traveled around the state to visit historical sites.” The group visited the Ocklawaha River at Blue Springs and the bluffs over the St. Marys River. They were surveyors of the spirit of place. So Frances and Bill both became those rarest of individuals, friends of Willie Browne.
The day they met him, back in 1954, they’d wandered about 200 yards through the forest when they heard a voice call out from the path behind them. What were they doing on his land? So Frances politely told him the truth. She was a history teacher, Bill was her student, they’d heard about Mr. Browne and they wanted to see where he lived. Browne may have been a hermit in the woods, but he was also a reader. His mother had been a schoolteacher and Browne had an old school bus he used as his library of old newsmagazines. He liked Frances immediately.
When Willie Browne’s father gave him these hundreds of acres just south of St. Johns Bluff on his 16th birthday in 1905, he entrusted him to conserve the land. He told Willie to keep the land as close to its natural state as possible and to “keep hunters off it.” Five decades later, he read the sincerity in these trespassers’ faces and invited them to his cabin.
I’m beginning this story on the 50th anniversary of the death of Willie Browne. When Browne died alone in this cabin in the woods on December 14, 1970, he’d donated his land, all of it, 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.”
No JaxPsychoGeo story, certainly not this commemoration, is meant to be definitive. There are people far better suited than me to write about Willie Browne. Craig Morris, who died this year on September 22nd, was one of them. Frances Smith Brewster, who died in 2010 was another. William Goodyear shared his remembrances with the Rotary Club four months before he died on December 14, 2011, 41 years to the day after Browne died. According to Bill Goodyear’s wishes, his cremains were scattered in Willie Browne’s wilderness.
Where Willie Browne’s cabin stood, a doorjamb, no door and no walls, frames the afternoon winter sunlight through webbed curtains of greenish gray Spanish moss hanging languid on mighty oak branches. Crowns of palm trees seem to float in the tree canopy around them like lost satellites. The salt muck and reeds of Round Marsh lie just the other side. The cabin is gone, but nine brick post perches of the foundation remain. Mosses and resurrection ferns coat the brick.
Lynn Raiser remembers her high school civics teacher Frances Smith getting married. Now professor emerita of Exceptional, Deaf and Interpreter Education at the University of North Florida, Lynne recalls Bill in the class ahead of her at Du Pont. It was June 1956.
At Frances’s wedding reception, Bill said somebody needed to get out to Mr. Browne’s place and give him a piece of wedding cake. The reception was in San Jose, maybe 45 minutes from Browne’s cabin. It would be the only time Lynne ever met Willie Browne.
“So here we are,” Lynne says. “We’re piled in this car, it’s nine or 10 at night, and we’re dropping off wedding cake to the middle of nowhere. We’re driving through those woods and going past these pine trees and it’s pitch black except for our headlights.”
It was an adventure. She was heading across town at the end of this most celebratory of days to see the mysterious recluse of whom everyone spoke. “We couldn’t make a phone call to say we were coming, because Mr. Browne had no phone. I remember approaching the cabin, then entering it. There was the glow of an oil lamp. I was in awe. I had just met Mr. Browne. Even now, at this age, I think, ‘I really did go into Mr. Browne’s cabin.’”
Lynne knew who Willie Browne was. Everybody did. Though she remembers the sojourn to his cabin at night, however, she can barely remember the hermit himself. “That moment has meant so much to me, but I realize,” she says, “I’m not remembering him, this person so famous in the community. I’m remembering the setting, the glow of the lamp in the middle of the woods.”
The cabin was small, neat and spare. Willie slept in a narrow, simple bed across from a woodstove and a small table with a battery-powered radio and a kerosene lamp. He stayed abreast of the news through the radio and The Florida Times-Union. He liked to read old magazines by the glow of the lamp at night. The cabin always smelled pungently of the woodstove. Until the end of his life in 1970, he had no electricity, no telephone and no running water.
Here Willie Browne had lived almost 50 years with his brother Saxon. The tin-roofed cabin, with windows on three sides, stood two feet off the ground and about 20 feet long. Its plank and batten walls were never painted.
Willie was about 12 years old, Saxon about 10, when their parents left them to live in the woods and moved back across the river to Jacksonville. William and Eliza Browne first bought perhaps 600 acres here during the Yellow Fever epidemics of the 1880s that killed their two daughters. The city seemed the source of disease. These woods were full of mosquitos, which no one yet understood were the vectors. William, an attorney, ferried across the river daily to his riverfront office in the city. When Shell Mount, the old two story house the Confederate widow Margaret Spearing lived in when she sold the Brownes this land, burned sometime around the Great Fire of 1901 that reduced Jacksonville to ashes, William and Eliza returned to the city and left Willie and Saxon to the land.
The boys slept in an old barn until they built the cabin. They fished, grew vegetables, kept some cows, built a small sawmill and sold oyster shells from the bluffs. From the city, their father wrote them [sics in advance], “Your Mother got the flowers and was delighted with them particularly the big rose Itook the plums down to her this morning and she enjoyed them immensely If you got them over to the Grant I hope you marked the trees so we can find them so we can dig them up and plant them Look out and do not mix with any one who is about small pox people. When you get the sills home I will come down and we will get the house started I mean for you boys to build it so you can learn how.”
Willie never learned to drive. He once walked a cow three miles to Lone Star Stables to have it bred, as Joan Vinson, whose parents ran the stable, remembers. Saxon drove a Model T. After he died in ’53, the Model T hunkered in a small wooden building beside a barn about 150 feet west of the cabin. Willie kept the car in working order, not to drive but to use as a power source. Its engine ran a flywheel attached to a belt that ran a saw and other power tools.
When future park ranger Craig Morris, then seven or eight years old, visited Willie Browne with his father, a physician, in the late 1960s, Willie showed Craig the ancient skull and bones he’d found nearby. Craig would soon have his own encounter with Timucuan Indian bones in the land. A couple years later, when Craig’s family first moved to a new Fort Caroline subdivision, he went for a walk and noticed hundreds of bones protruding from where developers had bulldozed the bluff.
George Carter remembers the area around the cabin being “all in disarray.” In addition to the outbuildings and school bus full of old magazines, George remembers “two or three or four” old Jacksonville streetcars parked nearby. How the old vehicles got there, he says he doesn’t know.
Carter is descended from the Spearings, who owned this land before the Brownes. When I mention Margaret Spearing selling the land to the Brownes, he grows impatient, says, “That’s not what happened.” Indeed, he says, the Spearing family always felt animosity toward the Brownes. After Confederate General John Nathan Spearing, whose grave lies close to Browne’s cabin, died in 1879, his pregnant widow moved back to Jacksonville and left the land on the bluff in the care of the Brownes. Eventually, Carter says, the Brownes paid Margaret’s back taxes and took over the land themselves. “Whatever actually happened,” George says, “our family always said the Brownes swindled the land away from us.”
After headlines like The Jacksonville Journal’s November 25, 1969 “Recluse Donates $1-Million Tract” appeared, old rumors about Browne’s secret wealth resurfaced. The idea fit those perennial urban legends about poor people being secretly wealthy. When asked why he wouldn’t sell the land to developers, Willie Browne said, “Money cannot buy happiness and this place makes me happy.” Yet that very stance made people who couldn’t understand it assume he had hordes of hidden wealth.
So after leaving his land to The Nature Conservancy in 1969 made national news and people from around the country thanked him in personal letters, and after volunteers restored the cabin to “lived-in” condition the year after his death and added the glassed-in porch Browne had always wanted, vandals ripped the cabin to shreds and set in on fire. In 1978, people dug into his gravesite, only then marked with a flowerpot. In 1980, thieves stole Willie’s old kerosene lamp and wood stove. Though Willie had kept hunters off his land for 80 years, people began using the cabin for target practice, riddling it with bullet holes. By 1995, vandals had pulled out the ceiling and floorboards and set fires inside. So the National Park Service, a quarter century after Willie’s death, took the old cabin down, leaving only the foundations.
A quarter century after Willie’s house was dismantled and 50 years since his death, his presence still pervades these woods. Everyone said he knew you were there, even if you didn’t hear him or see him. He was a legend in his time, contradictorily a famous recluse. While he may look like a Flannery O’Connor character, he’s now revered as a kind of Gandhi figure.
Willie Browne quotations appear in magazines, conservationist PowerPoints and memes alongside those of John Muir or Helen and Scott Nearing. “There will come a day when there will be nothing but a concrete jungle from New York City to Jacksonville,” and “People have to work in the cities. They can’t live in the woods anymore. But they ought to have a place in the woods they can go.” Last year, on the 50th anniversary of Willie’s gift of his land, Florida Times-Union reporter Mark Woods wrote a column called “We Should Have a Willie Browne Day.”
Walking amidst the foundations of Willie’s cabin, I don’t feel sad or bitter about those vandals. Their clueless disrespect and arrogant ignorance is too typical and too small for Willie’s gentle greatness. It somehow feels right the brick feet of support posts are all that’s left. This cabin, where Willie Browne died alone 50 years ago, was tiny. A friend found him in his rocking chair, a book in his lap. I feel I could lie down in a Vitruvian X and touch my hands and feet to its further corners. It’s an exaggeration, but not by much. In the wilderness, we rarely see what doesn’t want to be seen. So it’s easy enough to feel Willie Browne’s still out here. Even if you didn’t see him, he always knew who was on this land.