by Tim Gilmore, 11/6/2017
He thought it was a log lying across the road. Then it moved. Joseph found his daddy working in the garden and told him he’d just seen a rattlesnake that stretched from one side of Musslewhite Road to the other.
Back then, Musslewhite and Sauls were still dirt roads. The Canadays called U.S. 301 “the hard road.”
“When Daddy caught sight of the snake,” Joseph says, “it was moving off into the underbrush, and he just went in after it with nothin’ but his garden hoe.”
The family didn’t take many pictures back then, though there’s an image of Joseph’s Great Great Grandmother Connor, a kerchief tied around her tired head, a bottle of Happy Kids Syrup on the table in front of her. And there’s the photograph of Joseph’s daddy, the end of his rake leveraged at his gut, hoisting the dead seven-foot-long diamondback rattlesnake in the air, its rattle barely off the dirt road.
“Daddy just left it layin’ there on the side of the road,” Joseph says, “and after it got dark, we heard this pop pop. Kid I went to school with was shootin’ it. The next day he bragged to everybody how he killed this big-ass rattlesnake.”
Joseph hasn’t lived in Callahan since he enlisted in the Army in 1972. When he sees the McMansions sprung up on the sides of the now-paved Musslewhite Road, he tells them wistfully, under his breath, “Y’all are killin’ my childhood memories.”
“It was nothin’ for us to see rattlesnakes four or five feet long in the yard,” he says. He and his brother played in the swamps and woods all day and his parents told them not to get within a rattlsnake’s body-length and to watch the other side of downed limbs when they stepped over them.
Having no running water, the family bathed down in the Clay Hole, from which clay was excavated to top the road.
Joseph’s family was the first to live in the old Johnson house after the murders.
His daddy oversaw timberland for Container Corporation, which had partnered with the Johnson family, tree farmers who owned 2,000 acres of pine trees.
The intersection of U.S. 301 and U.S. 1 served as a major crossroads for the timber industry in the 1950s and ’60s. “All the timber that come down from Georgia and up from Central Florida crossed that intersection on its way to the paper mills in Fernandina,” Joseph says.
Either side of Sauls Road near Musslewhite, the woods line up in rows, pine trees planted as evenly as farmers would plant a hill of beans or a row of corn.
When the Canadays moved into the old Johnson house, bloodstains still marked the floorboards of the porch. “Eventually,” Joseph says, “We painted over it.”
On Sunday, August 12, 1956, 27 year old Mark Doty Johnson stabbed his parents to death on the front porch. He told the sheriff he’d killed his father because they “just couldn’t get along.” He hadn’t planned on murdering his mother, but since she was there, he killed her too. His sister Juanita wasn’t home, but he wrote her letters from prison saying he’d get her if he got out.
The spacious two-story house sat empty for a few years until the Canadays moved in. To this day, Joseph can’t stand wisteria, with its gorgeous grape-like clusters of purple blooms, because the gnarled and thick-stalked old wisteria vines that encircled the house crawled always with rats. The vines were the rats’ own personal forest.
But Joseph loved the days he spent fishing as a boy down in Boggy Creek, catching catfish and bass. “Sometimes, if we caught plenty, Mama would cook it up for everybody for supper that night.”