by Tim Gilmore, 12/17/2022
The gravestones stand a few steps from the front porch, three of the 10 unreadable. The earliest death date is 1879. “She has gone to the land where the weary enjoy the sweet rapture of sacred repose,” says Ella Boulware’s epitaph. She was 53 years old. Her stone lies toppled on its back, so the marble hand that’s meant to point upward to Heaven instead points west on 17th to Silver Street.
Somewhere in this yard beneath the old cars, the discarded tires, the grocery carts, the bare-bones go-kart, the cinder blocks, gas cans and paint buckets lie at least three other graves. If they ever had headstones, they’ve been gone a long time.
Surely these two stately oaks stood already large before the last grave was planted in 1929 and these cabbage palms can live for 150 years. If these trees could speak, to paraphrase Wittgenstein, could we understand them?
Some documents refer to Lindsley Cemetery, others to the Springfield Advent Christian Church Cemetery. The church is gone and these streets stand in old farmland, once fertilized with crematorium ash. The porch and gable of the woodframe house at 138 West 17th, built in 1951, face the graveyard. The side of the house faces the street.
Elder Eugene Lindsley had been farming his 16 acres here for four or five years when his mother-in-law Ella died. Lindsley’s farmhouse stood around the corner where West 16th Street is now.
“An ear of sweet corn, raised by Mr. E.A. Lindsley, near this city, and exhibited at the office of Gould & Co., on Bay Street, attracted much attention,” The Jacksonville Commercial Reporter announced on August 4, 1880. “It was large and sound, and entirely free of worms. Mr. Lindsley says that he has tried to raise ‘sweet corn’ for four years and never succeeded before. This year he used Gould & Co.’s fertilizers, and no worms troubled it.”
Lindsley raised an acre of tobacco and built what a January 15, 1896 Florida Agriculturist article called “a substantial building placarded as ‘La Rose Cigar Factory No. 59.” Jacksonville, its urban center two miles south, had become a major cigar manufacturer, with Cuban revolutionary José Martí speaking to the rollers down at El Modelo throughout the early ’90s to foment revolution from Spain.
This land had been a blackjack ridge, covered in blackjack oaks, water oaks, sycamores and pines. The Agriculturist article describes the soil at length and Lindsley’s methods for ploughing it with his “fine large Tennessee horses,” then relates how he “hauls seventy-five or eighty one-horse wagon-loads to the acre” of manure from the stables of the Southern Express Company and other businesses down in the city.
That spring Lindsley was trying out a new source of compost – the cremated remains of animals from the city crematorium, “not from the main furnace where melon rinds and tin cans are burned, but from the special furnace where bones and dead animals are consumed.”
Lindsley eventually brought the Adventist church to his farm. The church began out on the Plank Road in 1896 and two years later moved to Lee and Church Streets, a white congregation in the largely black and Cuban district of LaVilla. The church on West 17th Street is described by a Works Progress Administration document from around 1940 as a “white, T shape, American colonial type wood building erected 1920.”
Eugene died at home at 244 West 16th in 1925. His obituary called him a “highly esteemed resident the past 50 years,” a native of Syracuse, New York, survived by his widow Mary, a sister, and an unspecified “number of nieces and nephews.” He was an elder in the Adventist church and performed “many” unspecified “acts of kindness and deeds of charity.” His funeral was held Friday, February 6th, right here at “the church on 17th Street.”
Mary’s buried here too. She was 83 when she died four years later. From certain angles, their conjoined monument blocks the front porch behind it but seems to wear the small gable of the house as its own. Beneath this moss-soaked ancient oak also lie Elder Eugene’s parents: Isaac, who was 76 when he died in 1896, and Alsina, who was almost 82 when she died in 1902.
Of the seven epitaphs here, three are for people named Eugene. Beside Elder Eugene Lindsley lie the Kurtzes, both of whom died in 1904: Eugene L. was four years old and Eugene W., a carpenter, had just turned 43.
Through the Great Depression, the woodframe structures slowly settled in the brutal summers, beat down in rains and humidity and heat that the New York-born farmers who lie buried here could hardly have imagined earlier in their lives.
Then real estate developers knocked the old structures down and built small wooden houses, calling the new development “New Springfield,” in reference to the grander and older neighborhood called Springfield immediately south.
Standing here at sunrise, facing Eugene and Mary’s graves and the broken blinds and aluminum foil in the windows of the front porch behind them, I can’t tell if time means our own future disappearance or the buildup of history, ourselves included, that’s left behind.
Time moves forward, but I feel the past building up behind us and confuse that accumulation with time itself, so I feel like I’m walking backward.
It’s how the philosopher Walter Benjamin wrote of “the Angel of History,” facing backward and blasted forward. His face is “turned toward the past.” He wants “to stay, wake the dead, and make whole what has been smashed,” but is blasted by exploded Paradise Lost into the future.
Looking at the abandoned rooming houses across the street, absorbing the decades of deterioration since World War II and White Flight, I think of how many worlds have come and gone right here since Ella died in 1879 and Elder Lindsley fertilized his crops with the ashes from the city crematorium in 1896.
Every harvest is a memento mori. Seen the other way, however, Walt Whitman said, “The smallest sprout shows there is really no death, / And if ever there was it led forward life, and does not wait at the end to arrest it, / And ceas’d the moment life appear’d. / All goes onward and outward, nothing collapses, / And to die is different from what any one supposed, and luckier.”