by Tim Gilmore, 6/19/2022
The New Triangle doesn’t welcome me. Nor bar the door. It’s just a blockhouse at the apex of the triangle of Trout River Boulevard, Ribault Avenue and Old Lem Turner Road. This thin, pale but leathery man with the long dark beard and blazing eyes steps me back for a moment. I can’t help but think he looks like Rasputin. He ducks into the bar and I hesitate, then follow.
Nobody leans over the pool tables. Seven people, five men and two women, all older than me, perch above bottles of Bud Light. A bumper sticker on the refrigerator across the bar shows an assault rifle and says, “I Lubricate My Guns With Liberal Tears.” Above the hairless man with faded neck tattoos beside me, a flag stapled to the ceiling says, “Fuck Biden. And Fuck You For Voting For Him.”
The bearded man with the blazing eyes I see nowhere. The hairless man in the tank top beside me keeps referring to “Mama,” puts his hand on the shoulder of the woman beside him. He’s come here since the year 2000, grew up in various parts of Florida and when his mother needed taking care of in Sarasota, he brought her up to Jacksonville where he and his friends parked their motorcycles at The Triangle. “She didn’t even drink then,” he says. She nods at her beer.
“It ain’t nothin’ great,” he says. “Just a neighborhood bar. And that’s the neighborhood.” He nods and waves an arm toward the line of patrons. Dart boards, ash trays and Confederate flags bedeck the countertop. “The neighborhood ain’t nothin’ great,” he says, “but it’s the neighborhood.”
Most times the Northside’s no trouble, though he saw that couple breathing heavily outside his window that afternoon, grabbed his gun, then watched them hop fences. There’d been a burglary and cop cars had already blocked in his house.
And suicides happen wherever despondency meets a gun. The neighbor across the street started an argument with his next-door neighbor, and since his next-door neighbor had a gun and the across-the-street neighbor didn’t, the across-the-street neighbor grabbed his next-door neighbor’s gun and shot himself in the head.
“The thing I couldn’t believe,” he says, “is all these police everywhere, and they just left him layin’ there for hours and there was cats crawlin’ all over him, and I saw all these neighborhood cats all on top of him, and I just said to the police, you know, ‘Hey, can’t we do something about this?’”
Throughout the 1960s, Jesse Carver had his own barstool in The Triangle. His daughter Helen Jinright says Jesse met his girlfriend Jeanette here and that when Helen had her “daughter, my firstborn” on June 18, 1972, her father insisted on bringing the baby to the bar that first night of his granddaughter’s life. “I had no choice,” Helen says, “but it was alright.”
The New Triangle was The Triangle throughout the 1950s, the ’60s and ’70s, then became Debbie’s Place, Bloomers and briefly Baby Bloomers. It became The Triangle again in the ’90s. Tommy the bartender says Oldtimer Dan’s been coming here longer than anybody else, but Dan says he’s a newcomer. Dan knew the oldtimers, but they held the bar up with their knees into their 80s and then died. Dan’s been coming here for 25 years, says before that, he always heard it was “a blood and guts bar.”
Louise Hersey says at one point it was The Magic Triangle, that it was the place to go “if you wanted to get your brains beat out.” A doll perched behind the bar wears a red coat, cap and shoes and bears a series of grotesque bulges — red swollen lips around a cigarette, pink boils of protuberant cheeks, muddily fogged granny glasses and what looks like a large bullet hole in the forehead.
Stanley Stover says there never was trouble at The Triangle. For a while Stanley lived with Rick Van Cleave, whose parents Mary and Frank owned the place for decades. He spent most Friday and Saturday nights here from the late 1960s all through the ’70s.
Mary and Frank bought an old adobe house, built in 1924, at the end of Old Lem Turner at Trout River and bought The Triangle in 1948. Online property records say the bar was built in ’55, but there’s a general consensus amongst the older folks in the neighborhood that The Triangle long pre-dated that. Rumors even persist that Rex Sweat, Duval County sheriff from 1933 to 1957, had the original place torched. Stanley and Rick were both firefighters and for a couple of years at the end of the ’70s, they lived in Rick’s uncle’s — Mary’s brother’s — house at 61st and Pearl.
“I loved The Triangle,” Stanley says. “It was never rowdy. Ten or 12 of us would play pool and shuffleboard there and drink beer before we headed off to the club. We’d go down to Sonny’s Lake Forest Lounge at Lem Turner and the Ribault River, they’d have live bands in the ’70s, or Jax Liquors on Dunn Avenue.” Frank made his own sausage out back, Stanley says, had his own secret seasoning, brought the boys sausage burgers before they headed out.
Generations of men frequented The Triangle. Old men sipped their beers on one side of the bar while their kids occupied the pool tables and played The Eagles’ “Hotel California” and “Witchy Woman,” the Doobie Brothers’ “South City, Midnight Lady,” and “Old Black Water” on the juke box.
The best time was gathering friends up from The Triangle, renting a U-Haul truck and driving down the races at the Daytona 500 every year. “Ah man,” Stanley says, “Beaucoops of memories. Rick would throw his mattress from his bed into the U-Haul, we’d pile in our stereo speakers, 20 to 30 cases of beer and firewood. We did that for many years.”
Barry Sing remembers when an “ex-cop named Ray” and his wife Vern bought the bar in the 1980s and turned it into Bloomers. Ray played piano, old tunes, mostly country songs. His son Mark, Barry says, was “a master dart thrower” and ran the bar at night. Mark fell asleep while driving one night and crashed and died and Ray sold the bar. Briefly, new owners called it Baby Bloomers, then named it The Triangle again.
In wintry early 2005, the writer Susan Cooper Eastman walked into The Triangle, looking for J.W. Rich, who’d split his home between a nearby house trailer and The Triangle for 30 years. J.W.’s fellow drinkers said they’d often seen him crying at the bar. He came in most days at 10:30 in the morning and drank until he went home at night. He was 63 years old, limped on one hip, had “a gimpy right arm” and lacked a lower jaw from cancer.
Susan had come to ask him about Johnnie Mae Chappell and Detective Lee Cody. “I wish he’d walk in that door right now,” J.W. said. “I’d kick his ass.” He claimed Cody bullied him into a confession, placed a gun against his head and said he’d shoot him dead if he didn’t tell the detective what he wanted to hear.
The March 10, 2005 Folio Weekly headline said, “Florida Governor Silent on Demand for Justice in Chappell Murder.” When the updated story ran in Orlando Weekly on January 12, 2006, it bore the headline, “Beers for a Racist: It’s Not Hard to Find the Man Behind One of Florida’s Most Notorious Race Crimes.”
In the spring of 1964, Elmer Kato, Eugene Davis, Wayne Chessman and J.W. Rich were driving around drinking, angry about Civil Rights protests and race riots when, according to his friends, Rich said, “Let’s go kill a nigger.” Driving the rural Northside, parts of which were mostly black, other parts known Klan country, the men spotted Johnnie Mae Chappell, a 35 year old black woman walking down New Kings Road, carrying groceries home to her children, when Rich fired Chessman’s gun and killed her.
Detectives Donald Coleman and Lee Cody would later be fired after they claimed homicide lead J.C. Patrick, whose son killed him with a shotgun, and Sheriff Dale Carson had hidden evidence in the Johnnie Mae Chappell case. All charges for Kato, Davis and Chessman were dropped and Rich was paroled after three years of his 10 year manslaughter sentence.
In The Triangle that night, 41 years later, J.W. Rich told Susan Eastman he was the only one in that car who didn’t fire a gun, but that nobody was aiming at black people. The boys were just having fun shooting at street signs. Rich referred to Chappell as “that black lady,” but called other black people “niggers.”
Willie Chappell had only ever seen one photograph of Johnnie Mae, the one published in Jet Magazine on April 9, 1964, showing Willie looking down at his murdered wife. J.W. Rich told Susan Eastman that despite all evidence to the contrary, it was Willie Chappell who’d killed Johnnie Mae.
Churches and dive bars sometimes form similar congregations. Few other communities welcome sinners unconditionally and accept them as broken human beings. Susan remembers how the Triangle took care of J.W. The bartender “adored” him, knew the whole story, but believed “at the very least that he didn’t intend to kill Mrs. Chappell.” She kept a schedule of his doctor appointments, called the cab if he was too drunk to walk home, called him at home if he was late getting to the bar.
I’m talking to Oldtimer Dan, whom fellow drinkers, surrounded by Confederate flags on the ceiling and the walls, heckle amiably as The Triangle’s sole Democrat. Retired from owning his own construction company, he wears sandals, black shorts and an olive green t-shirt, his curly gray hair plastered with dried sweat. It’s Dan who brings up both Lem Turner and Corrine Brown.
Candy, long silver blond hair parted down the middle, wearing a purple “Made in the ’60s” t-shirt with a peace sign, debates the possible meanings of “some good shit” with Dan. Dan says he doesn’t need to know what shit somebody calls good; he knows he doesn’t want it. Candy argues that “good shit” isn’t necessarily as bad as it sounds. “It could be Mary Jane,” she says, “not just meth or heroin.”
Dan thinks highly of Candy, says, “She used to work for a big mortgage company. Now she’s retired. She took care of all her kids and still drives a brand new truck. She’s earned it.”
Across the bar, between an American flag and a Confederate flag license plate with the words “Rebel Bitch,” St. Patrick’s Day banners and a small disco ball hang before a wooden pallet stood upright in a window, stark sunlight streaking through the louvers. “Other side of that window,” Dan says, “used to be the old road. That was a drive-through in the old days.” He says it was liquor back then.
If you want liquor today, you need cross the street to Trotters. This being the Northside, The Triangle is a white bar while The Jacksonville Trotters Motorcycle Clubhouse is a black bar. Trotters is old too, though the Silver Star on Avenue B is much older. The Triangle has always opened at 10 a.m. Trotters doesn’t open ’til eight at night.
Every now and then, folks from Trotters come into The Triangle, but since The Triangle only serves beer and wine, the natural flow of things runs toward Trotters. Dan’s been there a few times. “Corrine Brown hangs out in there,” he says. “I sat down next to her one night and I said, ‘Hey, I know you! Aren’t you a senator or somethin’?’ That’s when they asked me to leave.”
In 2017, Corrine Brown, U.S. Representative from 1993 to 2017 and state rep from ’82 to ’92, was convicted on corruption charges for running a charity called One Door for Education Foundation as a personal “slush fund.” The 11th Circuit Court of Appeals overturned the conviction after deciding a juror had been “improperly removed” for claiming the Holy Spirit spoke to him about the trial. After Brown pled guilty in May 2022 before a re-trial was scheduled, headlines shouted, “Convicted Felon Corrine Brown Running for Congress Again.”
“Well!” says Tommy the bartender, “She’s a Democrat and you’re a Democrat!” and Dan says, “The only time I’d ever vote Republican is to vote against Corrine Brown!” A squeal of laughter rings out on the back porch and a woman named Glenda blows a cloud of cigarette smoke and says, “Somebody’s got Candy all stirred up!”
Dan says there’s ghosts in the Moose Lodge, Loyal Order No. 2134, across the street on Lem Turner Road. “That was the old meat market,” he says. “I was in there once at two or three in the morning and I heard the ghosts in there rattling their chains.”
That reminds me of something, the strange customer I’d followed into the place. I ask Dan if he knows a tall thin pale man with a long black beard and blazing eyes. Softly he scoffs but says nothing.
“This ain’t Lem Turner Road,” Dan says. “Right,” I say. It’s the one block that’s left of Old Lem Turner, the road that cut through right here before the newer road was paved.
Lemuel Turner, 77 years old, “affectionately known to thousands of pioneers,” according to his 1912 obituary, as “Uncle Lem Turner,” was born on his family farm just across Trout River in 1834, when the town of Jacksonville was 12 years old. His grandparents had settled here on 640 acres in 1790. The wooden bridge that connected this road across the river preceded the ferry Turner operated from a landing in the woods at the water. United States forces burnt the old wooden bridge; Turner fought for the Confederate States. By the turn of the 20th century, people called the old path “Turner Ferry Road.”
Heirs sold the Old Turner Place in the 1950s. Duval Development Company rebranded the land along the northside of Trout River from Blockhouse Creek to just west of North Main Street and called it Highlands. Blockhouse Creek took its name from the structure where the Turners housed slaves. When the wind’s right, when the grasses are tall enough along the shorelines, you can still hear their screams.
Discussion in The Triangle turns to just how long patrons have bought alcohol here. “It was probably moonshine before it was anything else,” somebody says. Someone else adds, “You know who it was built the old wooden bridge? It was old Lem Turner!”
Another old man, authoritatively, nods drunkenly, says, “This bar was here even then.” I turn my head his way with a question and he nods again. “This bar was always this bar.”
It may be tautologically true that this bar was always this bar, but it surely didn’t exist when Union troops burnt the old wooden bridge. How far back it goes though is a mystery. It might well pre-date city directory listings. Susan Eastman remembers a sense of timelessness at The Triangle, a “perpetual decrepitude, like it was always rotting, but never quite rotten.” A friend who wishes to remain anonymous says his mother’s stepfather helped the notoriously corrupt Sheriff Rex Sweat burn it down once. His father says, “It was an open secret that Sweat had moonshine operations.” It might well have happened, but it’s hearsay handed down decades.
A momentary hush falls across the bar and something seems to solve itself. Then the front door opens and another hairless man, wide as he is tall, steps in, catches sight of Back to the Future playing on the TV above the refrigerator, and says he braved a bear with glowing eyes on a curve in the hill to get here, says Back to the Future is his favorite movie. I saw that very same bear, a statue in the corner of a used car lot.