by Tim Gilmore, 11/6/2017
Joseph points to the house that Eugene, the younger Musslewhite son, built out on River Road past Black Town. In their time, the 1960s and ’70s, the modest ranch-style brick houses along this long meandering road, pine-sheltered and shaded, were the abodes of Callahan’s wealthiest. Now, brick and plaster McMansions with two-story Styrofoam-enclosed plaster porch columns dot the woods down River Road.
Callahan was always a place to which one might escape. George Courson, the good-ole-boy warden who tortured prisoners to death at Sunbeam Prison Camp in today’s Jacksonville, whose case influenced the 1967 Paul Newman movie Cool Hand Luke, was convicted of manslaughter in 1932, saw his conviction overturned for “considerations outside the evidence,” fled town, and after several other twists in the plot of his life, settled down in Callahan, where he raised a family and died in 1950.
As we head further out River Road, we discuss the growing drug problems in small towns and pass the house where Pete Wright buried his wife alive.
Three years after Joseph left Callahan for the Army, “A member of a prominent Northeast Florida dairy farm family was charged with murder after the midnight burial of his young bride, apparently while she was still alive,” the Associated Press reported in early November, 1975.
An unidentified “family relative” found 26 year old Peter using a bulldozer to fill a hole containing 19 year old Laura Sykes Wright in a back pasture of his father’s 3,000 acre Callahan farm at one in the morning and demanded he stop the machine.
The unnamed relative, the A.P. reported, “then managed to get the woman’s head above ground, but she was dead.” The couple had been married for two months.
Investigator Roy Dorn, of the Nassau County State Attorney’s Office, attributed the murder to “the usual husband and wife things.” The Associated Press reported that Dorn’s “details were sketchy” and said he “wouldn’t elaborate.”
Joseph recalls “about a three year period,” around when he graduated Callahan High School and enlisted in the Army, “maybe 1969 to ’72,” when the “whole small town identity” of Callahan irrevocably changed.
He fondly recalls the Rainbow Restaurant at that central highway intersection where “the whole town” met after high school football games, the drumming of the marching band ringing loud atop the woods, and says, “They had the best French fries.”
From the ’70s through the ’90s and into the 21st century, remaining Callahan residents expressed excitement when a new franchise fast-food restaurant, a Taco Bell or McDonald’s or Burger King, came to town. Such franchises replaced the old family-owned joints, but suggested to rural small towns some idea of what cities perhaps might offer.
All through the landscapes in the outer rings of larger and increasingly suburbanizing cities, small towns ceased to identify as self-sufficient communities and saw themselves increasingly as satellites, less or more worthy, of their nearest urban centers.
So Taco Bells and Kentucky Fried Chickens, many of them merged with mega-franchise gas stations every few miles on major U.S. interstates, proliferated in the outer environs of small towns, just as did meth labs and crack cocaine kitchens as the ghosts of old moonshine stills.
Joseph’s maternal grandfather served time in prison for moonshining. His grandparents grew corn up in Georgia just over the Florida line and distilled it to large jars to sell their moonshine.
Since Joseph joined the Army in ’72, something’s happened to small town communities, and the explanation seeps and roils toward us as cautiously we round “Dead Man’s Curve,” the steep turn that first memorialized Callahan’s young teenage boy drivers who fatally failed the cut on River Road before it challenged, years later, other 16 year old boys, they’d had two or three Coors’ tall cans, desperate to impress jejune green girls in the back seat with some pseudo-macho combination of their youth, their precocious drinking, and their mastery of an automobile, to take the curve boys before them had lost.
Joseph says nobody in small towns takes the police seriously. He says drug crackdowns in cities have driven narcotic activity out into the trees where it’s easier to hide.
Whether or how today’s opioid and crack demand and desperation differs from the circuits of moonshine that carved invisible networks through these woods and swamps, he cannot say. Still, the willingness to produce for profit is one thing, but the need to consume one’s own obliteration demands an entirely different consideration. What produces such desperation?
He’s not sure if people who live out here are, or ever were, more desperate than people who lived in “the cities.”
He suspects, though, that it’s become easier to hide in small towns outside cities, even as conglomerations of small towns laced themselves into outer neighborhoods in simultaneously urbanizing and deteriorating cities in the 1960s, ’70s and ’80s.
Gathering after a football game at a Taco Bell in Callahan in 2017 compares Callahan’s kids to every other gathering at a Taco Bell across Jacksonville or the outside generic circles of wealthier enclaves in Fernandina, to the north, or Ponte Vedra, to the south. Taco Bell is Taco Bell, not Callahan.
But the laughter over French fries and burgers and surreptitiously sipped beer at the Rainbow Restaurant after a Friday night’s high school football game in the cool autumn of 1966 marked distinct childhood moments and community crosscurrents.
As the 1970s ploughed through the town, black linebackers and white runningbacks began to congratulate each other over hot dogs grilled beneath the pines.
Then Callahan welcomed, its arms wide open, the franchises that sought it—Burger King, Huddle House, and finally, fine franchise retail buffet and impersonal chain-restaurant steakhouse dining after a Sunday morning church service—Western Sizzlin’.
Still, five two- and three-story buildings stand one side of U.S. 301, old railroad ties buried just beneath the dust of the median, the old town funeral home split in two after a fight between the brothers who inherited the family business.
The circuitry built across these woods for hundreds of miles seems more complicated than any secretive communication and political action, however labyrinthine and covert, deep in the heart of the city. What moonshine circuits situated reliably through Waycross, Georgia and Macon and on up to Savannah,
doubled down into Jacksonville, down Middleburg and then Keystone Heights to the west, and eastward to Daytona, Port Orange, Deltona, and into landscapes where supposedly 15 foot long diamondback rattlesnakes lived, or else yet survived this little strange town or that?