Fort George Island: Neff House and Betz Sphere

by Tim Gilmore, 10/31/2016

An Associated Press headline read, “UFO Panel to Examine Odd Ball,” and United Press International headlines announced, “Five Scientists Meet Over Steel Ball Today” and “Further Probe of Weird Metal Ball.”

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In late March 1974, the Betz family investigated the damage a brush fire had wrought along the marshes beside their 1920s’ Tudor-style Fort George Island house, when their 21 year old son found the hollow 22 pound steel sphere.

Strange things began to happen after they brought the steel ball inside, though the house had always carried bad luck. To this day, the Betzes are the only residents to have lived in the 89 year old house year-round. They called it “The Castle” and called The Castle home for 18 years.

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Even Chicago realtor Nettleton Neff, who commissioned Mellen Greeley, once called “the dean of Jacksonville architecture,” to design his Florida mansion in 1927, never lived in the house. Greeley called the Neff House his “most unique” design, but there was something about it he never could like.

In August 1926, Neff’s wife Katherine died in what The Chicago Daily Tribune called “a mysterious fire” at the Neff’s summer home at Roaring Brook, Michigan.

In June 1928, Neff’s 21 year old son William disappeared from Harvard University and was found two weeks later, having hung himself in an apple tree outside Stonington, Connecticut.

On April 7, 1931, having never set foot in the winter mansion he’d built on Mount Cornelia, Fort George Island’s highest point, Nettleton Neff shot himself in the right temple with a .45 caliber revolver in his Chicago office. He was 50 years old.neff-chicago-headline

The Betz family attributed the strange happenings inside the Neff House to the mysterious steel sphere they’d found at the site of the fire at the marsh. Only the steel ball, imprinted with a triangle, had survived the fire unharmed. When they set the ball on their table, it seemed to “navigate” its way about, stopping and changing directions of its own accord. Doors opened and slammed throughout the house.

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In October 1975, Sandy Strickland wrote in The Jacksonville Journal that the Betzes had begun to hear “organ music in the seven-level, 21-room mansion, but no organ was found in the house.” She reported “mysterious phone calls” and inexplicable “voices and banging doors.” Then “glass from closed cupboards would sometimes crash onto the floor.”

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I won’t name the man who found the ball in 1974, though plenty of occult and UFOlogist websites do so, not to mention old newspaper and magazine articles, but I had the pleasure of teaching his son in a college literature course called “Ghost Stories” five years ago. We read Toni Morrison and Shirley Jackson and Henry James, and my student wrote of the Neff House.

I’m not naming them because quacks and cranks have been harassing the family for 42 years. My former student says his father just wishes the story would die, so perhaps I shouldn’t be writing these words.

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Antoine Betz, whose son found the Betz Sphere, mid-1970s

But his father spoke of the sphere regularly in the mid-1970s. At first the Betzes brought the ball into their house as a curiosity. Fort George Island frequently yielded evidence of its long-ago lives from the slaves that worked Kingsley Plantation to the Spanish Mission of the 1500s to the Timucuans who’d lived here before Jesus was born. The Betzes settled on the explanation that the sphere was an old cannonball.

One day, as the young man who’d found the sphere was playing guitar, the nearby sphere began to “vibrate like a tuning fork” and emit strange resonances with particular guitar chords.

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Growing up in The Castle had always been mysterious. Fort George Island runs low through the salt marsh, sunken into its landscape, as massive oaks lean their thousand-pound limbs over narrow shell roads.

The narrow dirt roads that lead secretively through the woods to The Castle break into hills, then drop, then curve about banks of maples. The vicious thorns of the prickly ash, or Devil’s Walking Stick, offer themselves menacingly as stair-rails on paths among the hills. Most kids who lived on or occasionally visited the island witnessed ghosts, whether they imagined them or sensed them.

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But though storybook houses almost seem to invent their own stories and plant them in the minds of bright children, nothing nearly so peculiar had happened to the Betz family at the Neff House as the series of occurrences that followed the discovery of the sphere.

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The Betzes weren’t quacks. They were sensible responsible citizens. In 1967, 40 years after Mellen Greeley built the Neff House, the Betzes became the first family to occupy it year-round. Gerri Betz, then in her mid 30s, was quickly becoming known in quite varied circles as an entrepreneur, an activist, a feminist, though not, in her own self-estimation, “a women’s-libber.”

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Gerri Betz, late 1960s, courtesy First Coast Magazine

In First Coast Magazine’s October 2016 issue, Caren Burmeister offers a captivating portrait of Gerri Betz as a powerful woman, beginning with her 1960 takeover of payments on a tractor-trailer, a transaction that launched her own fleet of refrigerated trucks. Burmeister chronicles how Betz helped organize the North Florida Surfing Association in the 1960s and fought to salvage an old Heckscher Drive bridge as a fishing pier.

Betz ran for state representative in 1972, the same year she was almost arrested, with great irony, for protesting, with a megaphone on the sidewalk, a failure to increase police salaries.

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Gerri Betz, running for office, 1972, courtesy First Coast Magazine

When Gerri and Antoine, a marine engineer, moved into the Neff House in 1967, they added the swimming pool and kitchen wing, and rewired the house. Decades after Nettleton Neff’s suicide, the house lay amongst the hills and deep trees of Fort George Island unlived-in. The Merrill family of the namesake shipbuilding and dynamite companies had bought the house for a “holiday retreat,” but left it empty most of every year.

Though the history of the Neff House soaked in suicide and abandonment, the Betzes attributed its seemingly paranormal manifestations not to ghosts, but to that strange steel ball that UFO enthusiasts would soon consider an alien “secret weapon” or “bugging device” or “doomsday weapon.” The ball quickly became known as the “Betz Sphere” or “Betz Mystery Sphere.”

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youngest Betz child with the sphere, 1974 or ’75

In 1985, the Betzes left the Neff House after not quite two decades. They’d grown weary of conspiracy theorists and the kinds of characters who’d later populate X-Files episodes contacting them constantly. They stowed the ball away, though even the lack of public knowledge about its whereabouts stoked new conspiracies.

Today, as Caren Burmeister writes, Gerri has “owned more than a dozen companies in Jacksonville,” ranging from fish camps to real estate developments.

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Betz Tiger Point Preserve, image courtesy Timucuan Parks Foundation

In the early 2000s, Gerri sold massive landholdings to the City of Jacksonville and the St. Johns River Water Management District for land preservation, almost 550 acres for the development of the Betz-Tiger Point Preserve near Pumpkin Hill on the Northside and another land parcel of the same size for the Thomas Creek Conservation Area.

One of Jacksonville’s greatest businesswomen, mostly unsung, Gerri doesn’t talk about the sphere these days, though she knows where it is. She calls her years in the Neff House “really good times” and misses the views from the top of her Castle’s corner tower.

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4.

When the Betz family left, the Neff House became temporary housing for nearby archaeological digs, then in 1989, a short-time park ranger residence and Florida Park Service office. Again the house stood mostly empty. In 2002, the Park Service demolished the kitchen wing the Betzes had added and sealed the house shut once again.

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The Betzes’ pool glows the eerie green of shaded algae and the lianas of an invasive copse choke its boundaries and hillside steps. Halloween mosquitoes cloak the hill and house in their high-pitched buzzing whine. If you stand still for 60 seconds, the mosquitoes will cover you like chain mail.

My former student sends me an image shot with his phone of an old photo hanging framed on a family wall. In the image of the image, a young Gerri Betz stands with a bare-chested young boy who’s either my student’s uncle or his father.

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Neff House / Betz Castle, early to mid-1970s, courtesy anonymous former student

His father no longer talks about the sphere. Shortly after he’d found it, he was eager to discuss it, but then, says his son, “Back when it was in the news, before I was born, there was this all-consuming tirade of phone calls and people asking questions. Since then, he’s completely avoided it.”

Even on the day my former student speaks with me, he says, “Some reporter somehow got his cell number and was pestering him today, and that put him in a bad mood.”

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In 1974, the steel sphere story made international headlines. In a Jacksonville Journal piece, accompanied by photographs of the youngest Betz child with the ball, the sphere rolled across the Neff House floor in one direction, stopped, waited patiently, rolled in the opposite direction “about four feet,” stopped, “turned again and rolled to the left about eight feet,” then “made a big arc and came right back” to the reporter’s feet.

UFO trackers from across the country contacted the Betzes and paid unannounced visits. The sphere “had a powerful magnetic field.” It “transmitted a radio signal.” U.S. Navy researchers housed across the water at Mayport examined the ball, but came to no conclusions. As the UPI reported “Five Scientists Meet Over Steel Ball Today,” Northwestern University’s J. Allen Hynek, well known for his 1977 book The UFO Experience: A Scientific Enquiry, reported that after his meeting with the headlined astronomers, “None will go so far as to say it’s extraterrestrial.”

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Gerri Betz told reporters the family’s toy poodle, when placed near the sphere, had covered her ears and whimpered.

“If you pick [the sphere] up,” Gerri told reporters in 1974, “hold it over your head and shake it vigorously, and then put it down, it has a motion inside. It almost feels like it’s trying to get away from you. It actually feels like a huge Mexican jumping bean.”

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Antoine and Gerri Betz, with the infamous Betz Sphere, 1975

Other newspaper accounts suggested the mysterious sphere was a ball bearing from a valve somehow dislodged and sent wandering from a paper mill or a Taos New Mexico sculptor’s lost steel ball. The anonymous sculptor said he’d purchased several such steel balls, though he refused to say how or from where or whom, then transported them from South Florida up the interstate highway system before cutting westward to home. He said he’d lost several steel balls on the trip, but couldn’t explain how one might have rolled 25 miles from the highway to the marshes of Fort George Island.

Whatever the Betz Sphere was, wherever it is now, and whatever the Betz family today believes the sphere to be, international harassment from ardent seekers who need to believe that “We Are Not Alone,” that despite all evidence to the contrary, Justine’s statement that “Life is only on earth, and not for long” in Lars von Trier’s 2011 film Melancholia is untrue, have consistently stalked the Betz family for four decades.

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film still, the moon crashing into the earth, Lars von Trier’s 2011 film Melancholia

More than 30 years after the Betzes left their Castle, the Nettleton Neff House molders among the hills on the most secretive roads at the back of Fort George Island. The Neff House is the loneliest structure in Northeast Florida.

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Hurricane Matthew recently ripped up old cedar trees and scattered them across the derelict footpaths and the cordoned dirt roads in the hills.

Perhaps M. Night Shyamalan could connect some purpose in the extraterrestrial sphere to the ghosts of suicides who never resided in the house they’d had built.

In fact, four years ago this month, I wrote a Neff House story that focused entirely on a group of kids who trespassed the grounds to shoot a film and spooked themselves out and left. I still like that story, but since it wasn’t the real and deep marrow of Neff House, I’m renaming it the Neff House Witch Project.

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Neff House, the Betz family’s “Castle,” early 1970s, photo courtesy Jacksonville Historical Society

In light of telling the fuller history, however, perhaps those young filmmakers’ stories weren’t so ridiculous.

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It will soon be a century that the house has stood perched against and rising above the nearby bluffs, its blinded windows paradoxically peering out at the salt marsh. For nearly its whole history, the stillborn house left behind by the suicide of Nettleton Neff has waited empty. I know no other house that has so successfully and for so long denied residence.