Oceanway: Christel and George Bartchlett Folk Art Collection

by Tim Gilmore, 10/9/2016

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Against a brown velvet background in a wooden frame against the wood paneling of the den walls in Alan Bartchlett’s home, colorful blossoms burst from a flower basket, but this elaborate piece of folk art is no ordinary still life.

The bright red three-dimensional rose petals are made of fish scales, the baby’s-breath blooms, well, “Them’s the bones you get stuck in your teeth while you’re eatin’ the fish,” and the basket itself is a triggerfish hide beaded with tiny snail shells. Off to the side hover butterflies with wings made of fish gills.

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Christel Bartchlett, photo courtesy Alan Bartchlett

In her house on Goat Island in the 1940s, Christel Bartchlett would pull the scales off fish, clean them, dye them the color she wanted, then heat them to make them malleable enough to shape.

Alan says, “My mother was the only woman I ever knew that she was happiest if you give her a dead fish for Christmas.” He says she made “dozens at least” of such artworks, that everybody in the family has at least one or two, but he has the best of the best.

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Just inside the bathroom door hangs a sawfish bill, its sharp and serrated points jutting to either side and a painted lighthouse ascending the flat surface. On another wall roost manatee ribs, decorated with blue fish-scale flowers, one stenciled and one hand-painted, both with images of little girls.

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In his computer room, Alan shows me a model house made of willow sticks. It’s a simple square house with a chimney on the side.

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A note on the bottom reads:

THIS LIttLE LOG CABIN

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I wont To be handed down in the family, / first to Fenella. Then Ralph. Then Wanda. / Then Leo. Then George. Then SonJa. Then ALan. / Each will Take good care of iT for The other. / if one child should Desist, it should go to / The next one on List. each child will Let / The other no. That They are next To get / The Little Log Cabin. The Log Cabin was built / by Geo Bartchlett our father in 1936. While he / and our mother Christel and [Three] 4 children / fenella ralph. Wanda. Leo. Was Traveling from ohio To / Jacksonville. Dad built This Log Cabin in his / Spare Time while camping along The rivers. and / Dreaming of his own Home. He would build someday. / alan will keep The Cabin in The family. / This is what I wont. Love Mom Bartchlett / Christel Bartchlett

Alan’s parents came down from Ohio to the Panama Park area of Northern Jacksonville along Trout River.

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Alan’s sister, Sonja Bartchlett, milking a goat on the eponymous island, 1940s, courtesy Alan Bartchlett

“It was the Great Depression and there was no work in Ohio, so my parents traveled South to see what they could find. In Jacksonville, my father decided he’d become a fisherman. Now there’s one story, and this is the one most accepted, he don’t know nothing about fishing, but he’s entered some kind of a partnership with a local fisherman. And there’s a storm. He don’t know the boat. He don’t know to turn the boat into the waves, so he hit the waves broadside and the boat filled up with water. He made it barely to land and the land he made it to was Goat Island.”

When his father washed ashore, he weathered the storm and set up a lean-to that became the site of the family home. In Jacksonville Journal and Florida Times-Union articles from the 1950s through the 1980s, features writers repeatedly referred to George Bartchlett as Robinson Crusoe.

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Bartchlett House on Goat Island, Bartchlett kids fishing out front, early 1940s, before Alan was born

When Alan was 12 years old, his family left the island, dismantled their house for a second time, and used the materials, now twice recycled, to build a new house and a tool shed on Tiny Drive in rural Oceanway. Alan’s niece lives in that house still, half a block from Alan.

That house is built of hardwood recycled from the Bartchletts’ first two Goat Island houses. “Try to drive a nail through those roof beams,” Alan says, “and I bet you can’t do it.”

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Little Rock House, built by Leo Bartchlett in the 1940s on Goat Island, courtesy Alan Bartchlett

The last of several Bartchlett houses left on Goat Island was the Little Rock House Alan’s brother Leo built when he was “little more than a kid.” The Bartchlett kids used it to play in and spend the night. It would have lasted a millennium.

Now all the houses are gone and few photographs remain, but butterflies with wings of fish gills still hover near a small square cabin made of willow twigs. There are few treasures in Jacksonville more hidden and more worth finding.