by Tim Gilmore, 11/20/2021
1. Of Widow’s Walks, Widowers and Widows
The widow’s walk rises from the hipped roof and peers out over the marshes, the inlets, the oaks and palms. From up here, from this viewing platform in the cupola of the waterfront vernacular house, no wife watched the waters for her husband’s return. The house did stand at Pilot Town though, where lived the bar pilots, boat captains who regularly assisted commercial vessels across the shifting sandbars on the fickle floors of the St. Johns River.
For before this house belonged to sheriff and gunrunner and “swashbuckling populist” and “Florida’s fighting Democrat” and city councilman and Governor Napoleon Bonaparte Broward, Jonathan Gilbert, a dentist, had it built. No widow walked above, but a widower built the house.
Thus did a Mrs. Gerald Johnson, Sr., righteously remind readers of The Palm Beach Post on May 29, 1955. “I believe things should be told truthfully,” she scolded the editors, “so that is why I am writing you this. So will you please state it is a mistake.”
The “this” to which Johnson, so fond of vague pronouns, referred was the historical status of the old house in Pilot Town. “It is true this was a summer home of Governor Broward when needed, but Dr. Jonathan Gilbert of New York City, grandfather of my late husband, Capt. Gerald Johnson, built this home for himself and he died there. My mother-in-law, his daughter, Mrs. Laura Gilbert Johnson, lived next door for years.”
The widow admonished the editors to “Please note it was the Gilbert home years before the Browards lived there,” adding, “Dr. Gilbert drew the plans and built the home as winter home for his family. His wife died just before they were ready to move to Pilot Town as it was always called.” Ms. Johnson’s “late husband” grew up here on Fort George Island and his grandfather, Captain Joe Bie Johnson, she asserted, “was the first pilot on St. Johns Bar. He, too, lived on this island.”
2. Saltwort and Wasp in Pilot Town
Photos of the Broward daughters and friends standing in the water and wearing full Victorian swimming accoutrements notwithstanding, these lands are shell on muck interspersed with marsh populated with rattlesnakes, water moccasins and alligators. The weathered wooden dock wends its way through saltwort, marsh grass and palmetto up to the back of the tall house.
Here on slender Batten Island, at the foot of the larger Fort George Island, the great oak greets you, growing away from the upright cedar beside it, granting the cedar its sunlight. The oak arches its momentous branches laced in curtains of lush Spanish moss. It’s not clear why the Gilberts built their house here. Pilot Town was the rugged headquarters of local river wranglers, not of wealthy Northerners.
It was dangerous to “cross the bar.” Constantly the sand bars crawled across the bottom of the river, frequently unpredictably, willful underwater beasts, and bar pilots made their living guiding ships from the Atlantic Ocean through the St. Johns River to Jacksonville. In 1820, two years before Jacksonville’s founding, navigators organized the St. Johns Bar Pilots’ Branch. They built houses on Batten Island and called their settlement Pilot Town. Three of those original bar pilots’ houses remain, the oldest dating to the 1850s.
The house, which the Browards bought in 1897, looked over the river until 1916, when the St. Johns was dredged and deepened to increase commercial shipping. Dredge spoil accumulated and extended the land on the riverbank. The fill reduced the height of the front porch and spread back beneath the house. A decade later, Heckscher Drive lay over the dredge spoil and connected the roads north of town across the keys to the ocean.
The house has changed little since Gilbert built it in the late 1870s; though Napoleon kept his primary residence in the neighborhood of Springfield back in town, the Browards owned the old Gilbert house through the 1990s. They enclosed the first floor of the expansive front porch with heavy screens, now removed. Wasps now pock the scrollsawn Victorian webwork of porch brackets and wooden balustrades with dozens of paper nests about which they buzz and hover in the late year. From inside a long back window, lace curtains cloud the sunlight already dappled through the oak.
3. “Wonderful Nerve” and “Holy Terror”
Friends and enemies alike referred to Napoleon Bonaparte Broward, Jr. as a “giant of a man,” physically, personally and politically. Newspapers as far away as New Orleans noted, in early January 1894 that Broward, then sheriff of Duval County, was “noted for his firmness and bravery.” Said the story in The Times-Picayune, “He is a man of wonderful nerve and would not hesitate to show it in the discharge of his duty,” as he had when “hold[ing] off a mob at the county jail a year or more ago.”As a politician, Broward ever used his humble beginnings as a selling point, the salt-of-the-earth origin myth of the self-made man. Broward grew up “humble,” however, only because the family lost its slaves and its wealth during the Civil War, returning to the plantation in 1867 to find it burnt and overgrown.
Proud of never having attended school and of being “self-educated,” of having rafted logs on the river when he was only 14, after being orphaned at 12, of having known the river and the sea so variously, as bar pilot, as ship’s cook, as fisherman off Newfoundland, Broward seemed born of water, some kind of self-fertilized parthenogenetic Poseidon.
Broward learned his politics while defying the law as Jacksonville city councilman and sheriff of Duval County. Though as sheriff he took a stand against Governor Henry Mitchell who sponsored a prize fight between “Gentleman Jim” Corbett and Englishman Charlie Mitchell in Jacksonville while boxing was still illegal in Duval County, he more (in)famously smuggled guns to Cuba to aid the revolution against Spain.
In 1894, Jacksonville’s Cubans met regularly and secretly at the back of Jose Huau’s Bay Street store, five blocks east of El Modelo Cigar Factory, raising money and planning expeditions southward. In ’96, Napoleon and his brother Montcalm, with their friend George DuCottes, bought the steamboat they called Three Friends and embarked on two years of freebooting guns and ammo down the coast of Florida to Cuba, the once and future sheriff eluding federal authorities, the boat thrice impounded.
Broward had been elected to city council in 1895, with The Florida Times-Union running the headline, “Well! Broward Was Elected at any Rate and He is a Holy Terror,” and was reelected sheriff in the midst of his illegal activities in 1896. He bought the Gilbert house at Pilot Town the following year.
His biggest ambition, as governor from 1905 to 1909, was to drain the Everglades, a feat that political cartoons in Jacksonville newspapers showed him ready to complete, with boots and shovels, alone and by hand. Another cartoon shows Broward wearing a bandit’s mask and a shirt that says “Drainage Board” while pulling a pistol on a tiny pigtailed woman and saying, “We need der money, miss.” She faces away from him, covers her eyes with her forearm and hands him a small bundle labeled “School Fund.”
Six decades after Broward’s death, on October 17, 1971, Bill McGoun wrote in The Miami Herald, “Napoleon Bonaparte Broward may have had a bad side but if he did it has not been recorded. Paradoxically, this sentence comes two sentences after and four sentences before McGoun writes about Broward’s desire to drain the Everglades and three paragraphs before this sentence: “Progressive as he was, he was reactionary on one issue: Race.” Indeed.
In 1889, as sheriff of Duval County, Broward helped change Jacksonville’s charter to bar black people from holding office. In the years following the Civil War, since Jacksonville had largely supported the Union and always had a large black population, a record number of black leaders had been elected to political office. Broward also supported holding Democratic primary elections to decide on party candidates because only whites could vote in primaries, a law Florida Senator John Mathews of Jacksonville would fail in seeking to reinstate in 1947.
Broward and former Governor Francis P. Fleming stand, in a 1905 photograph, stern and fierce as Valkyries at the rostrum in the chamber of the Florida House of Representatives, a Confederate flag tacked atop an American flag behind them, Confederate flags on flagpoles to either side just before them, Confederate banners draped across tables and platforms in front. They stand with Fred Robertson, a printer and Confederate veteran whose life’s ambition was to collect and preserve Confederate records and materials. The tones of the image, dark with bright flashes of light, seem Wagnerian, almost proto-Nazi, like a still from a Confederate Leni Riefenstahl. The occasion is Robertson’s presentation of Confederate flags captured in Florida during the Civil War.
When Governor Broward addressed the state legislature in 1907, he laid out a plan for apartheid, proposing that Congress “purchase territory, either domestic or foreign, and provide means to purchase the property of the negroes at a reasonable price and to transport them to the territory purchased by the United States.”
Broward was elected to the U.S. Senate in 1910, but returned ill to Fort George Island, then died at the family home at 937 Church Street in town, 53 years old, before he could enter office. “Raised literally on the water during youth,” The Charlotte [North Carolina] Observer reported on October 14th, Broward rose “from having been somewhat of a joke” to being a “vital force in the life” of Florida, “removed on the threshold of a national career.”
4. Absence Accumulated
It was 1948, almost 30 years after his father’s death, when Napoleon Bonaparte Broward III and his wife Vivian moved their family into the Pilot Town house and raised their three daughters there. The governor’s widow Annie moved in with them. For three quarters of a century, the house had rarely if ever been called home year round.
Napoleon III and Vivian called the house home for the next half century. In May of 1982, they traveled downstate for the unveiling of a thousand pound statue of the governor by the swimming pool of a Holiday Inn motel in Fort Lauderdale. The governor’s son wore sunglasses, a tie and a natty plaid suit jacket. He sat at the statue’s feet and looked up at his father’s likeness while Maria Rosas of The Miami Herald snapped a photo.
In 1991, two years after Napoleon III died, Vivian sold the house to Broward Craig, son of her husband’s sister Agnes, and continued to live here herself until she died two years later. Craig sold the house, decaying and derelict, to attorney Karl Zillgitt, who began to restore it, in 1996.
Leafing through faded documents, I find photocopies of photocopies of badly taken renovation photos. Kitchen cabinets and potted houseplants. Cast-iron bathtubs and pallid green wallpaper. Some of the images are sliced in half. Dadaistic memory boards. Appropriate metaphors for memory. Rooflines and eaves in the sunset.
In 2004, the Zillgitts sold the Broward House, or, in memory of Mrs. Gerald Johnson, Sr., the Gilbert House, to the Florida Trust for Public Land. Today it’s the headquarters of the Timucuan Parks Foundation, the official friends group of the Timucuan Ecological and Historic Preserve, of which the house is part.
The house remains mostly empty of furnishings. It feels simultaneously worn and devoid of a past and what living this house hosted it keeps secret. I think about whether it’s been lived in cumulatively more than it hasn’t and conclude the absence outweighs the habitation.
The years do not flow straight. Time, looking back on itself, declines to be consecutive. Up through the attic walks the governor, mustached like President Taft. Out from the widow’s walk looks his granddaughter. The prize fight Sheriff Broward tried to halt took place after all. The state militia marched on the fairgrounds to prevent the fight, a minor legal technicality hitched, Corbett knocked Mitchell out and brawls broke loose in the drunken crowds.
The mosses swing in the breeze. It was all so long ago now. What I thought the distant scream of a fire engine turned out to be the crowing of a rooster. What I thought the red cry of a rooster turned out to be the fire engine’s clarion call. Sounds from outside make the empty house all the lonelier. I think of the widows, widow of the governor, widow of the governor’s son, decades apart, rocking in wicker chairs out there on the porch. Nobody will be here when night falls.