by Tim Gilmore, 3/21/2020
1. Play Forts in the Hills and Miss Hawaii ’67
“When they tore down the peat hills,” John Hal Price says, “we found so many bones. I had two bags full of them and the museum came and took them. I cried.”
John lives in St. Louis now, but this childhood experience of climbing through human remains in sand hills altered by developers creating new subdivisions and shopping centers has haunted him all his life.
He’s not alone. All across America, men and women who once, as children, explored the landscape developers had bulldozed to build new neighborhoods in Jacksonville, Florida, who found the dispossessed bones of black cemeteries or American Indian burial mounds or disruptions of disease grounds, could create their own small inchoate nation.
Says John’s childhood friend Mark Hodges, “I grew up right next to Gateway Mall when they were building Montgomery Ward’s [Department Store]. As kids, we found all kinds of bones and skulls. We built play forts in the peat hills and we used to stand the skulls we found on sticks to scare away our enemies.”
To be sure, lots of lovelier memories live in the minds of people who knew Gateway Shopping Center and Gateway Mall when they were young. Marina Scott bought her first Beatles album, Meet the Beatles, at G.C. Murphy Variety Store here in 1964. She still has it. Lorene Peterson Mizell shares a photo of her younger self in a ’60s hula outfit in front of Montgomery Ward during the store’s “Hawaiian Days” sale.
“Miss Hawaii 1967 was there!” she says. “That’s her on the far left with the black hair, so beautiful and sweet.”
Memories of skeletal remains, however, are never far from the conversation. The adults knew there were “Yellow Fever burials grounds” here. Six decades later, childhood Northsiders who remember the dunes before Interstate 95, from before developer Sam Morris Spevak broke ground for Gateway Shopping Center, recall a mound called Yellow Fever Hill in the early 1950s.
A dozen people have told me about digging up bones in the dunes. They took them to school. They played with them. One boy’s father placed a skull on his desk at his transmission shop. If they felt any qualms, any sense of disrespecting the dead, most of them don’t mention it. They were childhood archaeologists playing King Tut’s Tomb. The suffering of those who died horribly in Jacksonville’s 1888 Yellow Fever epidemic, bleeding in their guts and gums and rectums and eyes, was as foreign and unreal to them as Ancient Egypt in the movies.
2. Easter Bunnies, Slippery Dips and Patterns of Urban “Flight”
“I worked as the Easter Bunny at Gateway Mall when I was in high school,” Pat Bullard says, fondly remembering “Mrs. Wilson” as “mall manager.” It was the early 1970s. “The costume sure was hot,” she says, “but I loved the kids.” Pat became an elementary school teacher in Callahan, just north of town, where she’ll be retiring two years from now.
Meanwhile Donna Renee Burns “worked for Mrs. Wilson at Fashion, Earrings and Gifts from 1982 to ’85. It was right next to Orange Julius,” the fruit drink chain that’s been in business since the 1920s. “I filled in for the Easter Bunny one day when she,” not Pat, who was teaching school by then, “didn’t show up.”
Sissy Morgan Guinn remembers roller skating in the mall on Christmas day in the ’70s. Those joyous hours on this most magical day made some of the best memories of her childhood. “It was so much fun, especially skating around the U-shaped display at Lerner’s [Clothing Store]. The floor was tiled and you could easily bust your butt, then up again and down the ramp to J.C. Penney.”
In 1959, Gateway was one of the first suburban shopping centers to pull stores to relocate from downtown Jacksonville. In 1967, as Ennis Davis writes in his 2012 book Reclaiming Jacksonville, the addition of an enclosed mall made Gateway the largest shopping center in the city. Because of the particular patterns of “white flight” in Jacksonville, which also meant the “flight” of the black middle class, desperations congealed in particular urban centers and their satellites to the immediate north. By the late 1970s, only those who couldn’t leave the worst neighborhoods didn’t leave, which corresponded with the 20th century height of crime in America. The same social forces that sucked the lifeblood from downtowns and urban neighborhoods now pulled that same decay further out to the earlier rings of postwar suburbs.
So the murders began. And the robberies. Even the indecent exposures. “I’ll tell you how I got my job at [J.C.] Penney’s in late ’79,” says Robin Elswick Bridge. “I was working as a cashier at [G.C.] Murphy’s [Variety Store] and just happened to be walking through Penney’s. I was walking along the outer aisle and there was a man standing, literally, in one of the round racks of clothes. As I got closer to him, he stepped out of the rack with the proof that he was a boy hanging out of his shorts.”
Robin approached the clerk at the jewelry counter who called mall security. “Security chased the guy out into the mall and caught up with him around Orange Julius. I had to hang around and give a statement. Meantime, the manager at J.C. Penney came downstairs and offered me a job. I took him up on his offer and worked there in the catalog department while I finished my degree at UNF.”
Meanwhile, the Slippery Dip stood several stories tall and spanned multiple lanes beside the interstate. You slid down on burlap Croker sacks. You had to stay away from the metal edges on the sides or they’d cut you. Every time a woman named Sandra hears the 1968 Steppenwolf song “Magic Carpet Ride,” she thinks of the “Gateway Slide.”
Somebody said somebody put razor blades on the slide. So many somebodies said somebody put razor blades in Halloween candy. And hypodermic needles “filled with AIDS” in gas pumps. It’s the kind of story Jan Harold Brunvand, the sociologist who popularized the term “urban legend,” categorized for decades.
The slide was dangerous. She’s surprised, thinking back, that nobody died. Oh, but it was so much fun! Though the exposed sides would cut your legs and your hands. Someone else says her mother was a nurse, wrapped a kid’s leg, cut from ankle to knee. Razor blades, somebody said, and then the slide was gone. Not even abandoned. Dismantled. Disappeared.
By the 1990s, when the urban neighborhoods the middle class had fled in previous decades started coming back to life, with neighborhood revitalization groups and architectural surveys, the early rings of post-World War II suburbia were crumbling. Thus began the great dying of American’s shopping malls.
By the time I wander Gateway Mall and Shopping Center, trying to imagine where the Smallpox and Yellow Fever Pest House once stood, North America contains more than a thousand “dead malls” or “ghost malls.”
I watch two pigeons chase a plastic bag in eddying circles around a puddle of human urine. In the empty parking lot, a crow the size of a small dog stabs its beak at the flattened carcass of a snake.
3. Pest House in the Sand Dunes
Just when Sand Hills Hospital was built is unclear. It seems to enter the record already standing, as though it had been there forever. Sufferers of the terrors of Smallpox died at Sand Hills in the epidemic of 1883, though St. Luke’s Hospital, built just east of town on Hogan’s Creek in the late 1870s, erected a “Pest House” for Smallpox cases.
Sand Hills Hospital stood a safe distance northwest of town. The Board of Health sent the first victims of what became the Yellow Fever Epidemic of 1888 to Sand Hills right away.
A footnote in Merritt Webster’s 1949 book A Century of Medicine in Jacksonville and Duval County says, “Fortunately the Sand Hills Hospital had been constructed prior to 1888 in the pine woods on an elevated tract of land about three and one-half miles north of Jacksonville. A forty-foot pavilion and other buildings were added. Later the hospital was said to have twenty separate buildings and several tents.”
Other sources call Sand Hills a “crude pest house / hospital,” and Richard Martin, in his 1973 history of St. Luke’s, says the hospital closed its doors between epidemics and wars.
What could be stranger than the sight of the vast lumbering wooden hospital standing abandoned since the last apocalypse and awaiting the next? Did hospital beds, needles and scalpels lie waiting, unused, buckling and corroding in the humid summer heat? A hospital then was a place people went to die. Surely, 13 decades ago, there were children who wandered through the woods during times of peace and health, wondering at the strange toxic mint haze in the air from the nearby lumber operation, who dared each other to wander the halls of the abandoned hospital and listen for ghosts.
We can see into Sand Hills Hospital through the narrowest apertures of history. There was Jane Delano, who left Bellevue in New York to become matron at Sand Hills during the epidemic of ’88. Those used to the brutal conditions in Jacksonville no longer thought to protect themselves from insects, but Delano demanded the windows at Sand Hills be covered with screens to keep away the mosquitoes. No one yet understood these pests to be the vectors for Yellow Fever and the harbingers of death.
In her 1988 University of North Florida dissertation, Nursing and Health Care in Jacksonville, Florida, 1900-1930, Linda Emerson Sabin writes of a former St. Luke’s nurse she interviewed in 1982. Esther Troeger Oetjen recalled a fellow nursing student in 1917 who contracted Smallpox and was sent to Sand Hills. “The student returned so scarred that she left the nursing program.”
Already, by that time, the neighborhood of Norwood was platted, running northwest-southeast along brick-paved Norwood Avenue, beneath Moncrief Creek and above Sand Hills. Norwood Elementary School opened in 1926. Two blocks from the school, lumber magnate Wellington Cummer had run Standard Turpentine Company, which became one of Florida’s greatest polluters for most of the century, since 1910.
Somewhere along the way, Sand Hills disappears from the record just as mysteriously as it enters it. Its epitaph would have to read, “From Before 1888 to After 1917.” Then again, one childhood resident of Golfair Manor, the 1950s subdivision built next to the dunes where Gateway Mall was built in the ’60s, remembers “an old shack” still standing on top of the peat and sand. Could the last vestige of Sand Hills still have been standing that late?
4. The Bone Hunters
The bones, John Hal Price says, could be found about where Montgomery Ward Department Store later stood. “There was a park at the end of Marlboro Circle East,” he says. John lived just next to the park, the dunes and the expansion of Gateway with an indoor mall.
John was 12 or 13 years old. Across from Gateway, those hills, made of sand and peat, stood rare in the flat Florida landscape. “We called them the Peat Hills,” John says.
When developers began to bulldoze the hills, they made new mounds of shifted and unearthed earth, a new landscape that called the children from new suburban subdivisions over to play. “When you’re a kid,” John says, “you can’t keep out of it. Toy cars. Army men, plastic soldiers. Anything we could find and anything we could think of. We were there every day during the excavation.”
John’s subdivision, Golfair Manor, was about as old as he was. All the world was new. It was a great time to be a kid. The main streets that surrounded the community seemed to shelter it. John calls them “the streets that kept us together.” And then the ancient world broke through the new, came up from underneath. Now it was an even better time to be a kid. Suddenly there was mystery.
“One evening, we were playing, a couple of my friends and I,” John says, “and we started finding bones. All kinds. Teeth were the thing. Got to be a hunt to see what we could find next. Parts of skulls started showing up. I took a few home and didn’t show my mom.”
The excavations continued. What else could be as exciting as discovering, when you’re hanging off the cusp of childhood toward adolescence, that hidden worlds existed beneath your feet? “Next day,” John says, “we all took grocery bags out and kept digging. I had two full bags of human bones. Someone told their parents and word went around about a burial ground that had been dug when a Yellow Fever plague hit the South.”
Now kids worried that they and their friends might catch it, some old buried disease newly brought to light. A haunting. A curse.
Louise Hall Hersey remembers the day the construction stopped. “The unknown graveyard was first thought to be an Indian burial ground,” she says, “then maybe an old burial ground for prisoners from off North Main Street.” When historians determined the burials those of “Yellow Jack or Yellow Fever victims,” physicians explained to nearby neighbors they couldn’t catch the disease from the ground.
Or from the bones.
Linda Curtis was in elementary school when Gateway Mall was built. She too lived in Golfair Manor, the subdivision just next door, and says, “The sand dunes were our favorite playground.” She remembers “an old shack” that still just barely stood “on top of one of the dunes.” Whether the shack could have been the last standing relic of Sand Hills Hospital, there’s no way now to know. “When they were building the mall,” she says, “we found a skull out there and took it to school.”
John Hal Price says, “One of my friends told his parents who called the police. That night a police officer and a man from the Jacksonville Museum, that’s what we called it, came by and confiscated the bags I’d collected. They were very hush-hush about it. It broke my heart. I was fascinated with these things. I probably had close to an entire skeleton in those two bags.
“There were lots of rumors about what might have happened,” he says. “Maybe slaves had caught the fever and died and were buried in a mass grave. We’re talking 50 years ago, but I remember it.” It’s unclear whether Jacksonville’s Museum of Science and History still has those bones, buried somewhere in its collections, if indeed it ever received them.
Jim Sieg was in fourth grade when one of his friends, Donald Sluder, “brought leg bones to class from the Yellow Fever burial grounds.” Jim’s memories are more than a decade older than John’s. The “bone hunting” occurred in waves. While John remembers finding bones during Gateway Mall’s construction in the late ’60s, Jim remembers bone trophies dug up from the first Gateway groundbreaking in the mid 1950s.
“They were wrapped in newspaper,” Jim says, “and Miss Harden, the teacher, freaked and sent Donald out of the classroom.”
“And then what?” I ask.
“There were quite a few kids bone hunting in the fields,” Jim says, “so she was annoyed rather than shocked. It was all largely ignored.”
Largely ignored? Teachers annoyed but not shocked? I’m trying to imagine what might happen in 2020 if a child brought human bones into a classroom. Just how much student behavior was “largely ignored” in those supposedly innocent days when sitcoms like Leave It to Beaver depicted the clueless purity of American youth? Is this the kind of “innocence” that James Baldwin writes, in The Fire Next Time, actually “constitutes the crime”?
Charlie Suggs, who also fondly remembers the race cars at Gateway, defends the dignity of the dead against neighborhood bone hunters in his childhood memories. He still has photos from 1971, at J.C. Penney’s automotive center, of drag racer Tom McCurry’s infamous “Wagonmaster,” describes it as “a partial Buick station wagon bodied dragster, an exhibition car that made runs by itself, with a four wheel drive setup that blazed the tires sometimes the full quarter mile. Seems it would go the quarter mile in the 10 second elapsed time at 165 mph.”
The moral pang, however, in witnessing neighborhood bone trophies stays with him even now. Says Charlie, “I had a friend, his dad had a transmission shop on Norwood, and one day going back into his office, I saw the human skull on his desk.” George Blum’s shop went out of business in the early ’70s, but the building remains, behind Bono’s Barbecue.
“Not sure what ever became of that skull,” Charlie says. “I guess back then no dignity was observed when it came to discovering unknown graves.”
Time has ways of walling itself off from other “times.” There’s nothing stranger. One year, children scream in fever dreams and their livers burst and their faces burn golden yellow and bleed red and black from their eyes and their noses and their ears and their mouths. Then time swings shut a door and the birds sing cheerful matins in the peace of a new morning.
False hawksbeard and wild strawberries grow in their own earth that cares not for, nor knows of human beings, but children run free over dunes and dig out the teeth and the fingers of those other children who suffered, just a minute ago, so terribly. It’s fun. Teachers ignore it. The jokes are clean. We call this condition “innocence.” Even as Sand Hills Yellow Fever Hospital ever inhabits and stalks, inside out, Gateway Mall and Shopping Center, still awaiting the next apocalypse.