by Tim Gilmore, 12/13/2016
Greg Rozier is descended from the founders of Bayard. His pony tail emerges from the back of his NASCAR baseball cap and a Band-Aid covers the bridge of his nose. The sun falters through dark cedars as we stand between two time-beaten 350 square foot wooden cabins near the back of Bayard Antique Village.
As his speech is dyspraxic, it’s sometimes hard to tell what he’s saying. Between puffs on his cigarette, he mentions a noose and something about yolks. He waves an arm toward the turquoise 600 square foot cabin behind us and tells me of other cabins long ago back there in the woods.
“Than then the lady die,” he says, and points toward the two-story house by the Antique Village entrance at U.S. 1 in the distance. “Noose to be,” he says, “the lady” lived up there.
Inside the turquoise cabin, a heavy woman with silver hair pulled back in a bun says the lady died in the old boarding house, not the house up front. It was 115 years old when developers demolished it to build the generic strip mall that now houses Battery Depot, Pizza Hut, and Allstate Insurance.
She’ll only identify herself as “Mrs. Slowski,” but says rapidly that she accepts broken necklaces, earrings, bracelets, and other defective jewelry on trade. “The woman died up in the old inn back in 1920s or ’30s. The inn had prostitutes where men would stop while making their way back and forth between St. Augustine and Jacksonville. Years later, people heard her spirit goin’ about in there.”
The Bayard Inn, one block north on U.S. 1, was first called the Wing Hotel. In 1885, W.W. Wing, a former Union soldier, moved to the nascent village of Bayard, having profited from operating sawmills along the St. Johns River in the nearby town of Mandarin. Bayard was a depot village attached to its stop for the Florida East Coast Railroad. As soon as Wing called Bayard home, a willful sawmill belt pulled him into his own machine where it murdered and dismembered him.
Wing’s widow Juliette converted her dead husband’s enterprise into a profitable family business for the Wings’ five sons. By the late 1890s, one son had built the three-story wooden inn in which the Wings ran a general store at ground level, rented 12 hotel rooms on the second and third floors, and called the building’s back rooms home.
Corners situated with beds smelled damp many a night and crept cold at Christmas, but always seemed right. The boys consecrated a spare wheel from the elegant back shell of an early Ford and walked it amongst them on hikes through hill or swamp or furrowed dirt road or brick.
Even now, certain smells of those old rooms, experienced at night a century ago, bring back most emotional memories at Christmas 2016 for young people born in 1996 who understand what history means.
Then, just before Halloween, Bayard Antique Village vanished into the past as had recently so much of old wooden Bayard.
By five o’clock Wednesday morning, October 26th, Channel 4 News reported, “Bayard Business Destroyed in Fire.” Three weeks after Hurricane Matthew grazed Jacksonville and ripped tiles from the roofs of the Antique Village cabins, flames pummeled the hot October night beside the old highway. Reports of the Village’s death, however, were greatly exaggerated.
That same Wednesday, Bayard Antique Village posted on Facebook that it was “NOT destroyed last night, but there was a fire and we lost a few cottages. No one was hurt, and all kitties are accounted for. In fact, they are the heroes of last night for it was several of them who awakened and alerted the caretaker.”
Late in the 1920s or 1930s, depending on which City of Jacksonville document you consult, Bob Horne built the Beautyrest Cabins, and in 1967, Jimmy and Vivian Searcy reconstituted the motor lodge as an “antique village.”
After Horne worked a few years for Stuckey’s, the roadside “pecan candy” stores where weary travelers stopped beside two-laned highways across the South in the days before the Interstate Highway System, he opened his own “pecan candy” shop at Beautyrest Cabins.
In 1996, Vivian Searcy died and the Antique Village went up for sale. Two years later, Jim Moore and Pam McCaleb bought the large barn and 17 individual cabins in rural Bayard at U.S. Highway 1 and Old St. Augustine Road. Some dealers had called Bayard Antique Village home since 1967.
There had been talk of demolition. Rumors had spread of developers razing old buildings to replace them with cookie-cutter subdivisions. Big-box corporate “office parks” had appeared nearby overnight, squeezing thousands of employees who filed papers and answered angry customer-service phone calls into tiny office cubicles. Dozens of big boxes housed thousands of smaller boxes, and every box was identical, except in scope and size.
Some Bayard antique dealers remembered when the village was Horne’s Beautyrest Cabins, and the bland proliferation of corporate “office parks” and strip malls threatened their legends and sense of the wondrous strange.
Like the antique dealer who sold the hundred year old church pew to a couple who quickly returned it. Whenever their six year old daughter sat down on that uncomfortable heart pine, someone invisible to them sat beside her. They judged it like unto an angel and yet like a ghost, fully at home sitting sad and too familiar with their daughter.
Grandchildren of the Searcys and longtime rural peddlars of the odd and occult breathed easier where Moore and McCaleb bought the Antique Village and swore to keep the cabins the same. There’d be no computers or fax machines. They weren’t Luddites, but Romantics.
The Searcys’ grandson Jim Antone, who sold iron furniture in the Village, had grown up playing amidst the cabins, running between them and noting the moon on nights more foggy than others when smoke from rural chimneys curled up ancient oaks and pines. He’d heard stories and made them up and sometimes couldn’t tell the difference. Now his grandmother had died. Now the Village was kept alive.
Even in the 1970s, as the Interstate Highway System ploughed multi-laned across the continent, brutally bifurcating communities thriving thick with juke joints and churches and wayside inns, spawning byway candy stores and motor lodges and motor hotels, villages of one-room cabins middle-class white Americans could call their own for a night, strange roadside attractions still constellated, unregulated, along the roads of the unimaginably vast North American darkness.
Such motor lodges offered a family bar and restaurant, private room-side museums of taxidermied creatures and mysterious objects—bullets or blood-stained letters or smashed cash registers or battered-down doors or disputed wills-and-testaments or abandoned rhinestone rings and poison rings and mood rings and lockets romantically cursed.
Supposedly the Beautyrest kept locked away its storied “eyeball comfit,” a candied eye meant to have been swallowed, delectable destruction of evidence of murder. It had something to do with the lady who died upstairs in the inn. It had something to do with the success of Horne’s Pecan-Candy Shoppe, adjacent to the Beautyrest at Bayard, then franchised by the 1960s to more than 40 Horne’s restaurants and stores on lonely roads of the Coastal South.
And like many another Southern roadside attraction, the Beautyrest contained its own zoo. Its zoo was a cage or two. Distances stretched longer in the 1930s and 1950s and motorists tired of driving through the long dark night could find a bed and their own room and a family meal and, before departing in the morning, visit the bobcat and buzzard in their chicken-wire cages.
Southern Gothic writers from Flannery O’Connor to Richard Ford to Harry Crews have featured sad roadside zoos as characters in their landscapes.
In O’Connor’s Wise Blood, Hazel Motes speaks with disgust of two scabrous black bears crammed together in a tiny cage. “They don’t do nothing but sit there all day and stink,” he spits.
As if such wild beasts, deprived of how they’d learned for hundreds of thousands of years to adapt to natural vicissitudes, were to blame for the cages in which blind bald ignorant redneck apes had trapped them.
The Bayard Antique Village curves along its oblong one-lane road, centered on an open-air red barn built in the 1960s and laid with stinking carpets. The two-story residence that houses the village’s offices faces U.S. Highway 1, and 17 separate cabins ranging from 350 to 680 square feet span the back oblong.
Two of the cabins lay in ruins, burnt in the late October fire. Greg tells me the fire department “termin’ it to be somethin’ necktrical.” Several other cabins are empty.
Nine bowls filled with dry cat food attract four or five cats before the caretaker’s cabin at the back of the oblong road. Two doors, side by side, front the cabin, and old wooden chairs, birdcages, plastic milk cartons, and wicker baskets stand stacked against the front beneath the “No Trespassing” sign.
Dozens of cats lay perched on window-unit air conditioners, on car hoods, on front porch steps, in the crooks of cedar branches, on plastic deck chairs, in coonties and ferns. Cats step through the ashes of a cabin, and the odor that rises from the earth is not cinder but feces.
Thousands of horse figurines line shelves in a red cabin called “The Curiosity Shoppe,” where cats lounge on chairs and women in gingham dresses play foosball.
In the long barn that centers the oblong loop, wooden tables stand sparsely spread with old football pennants, strange figurines, American flags, and glass bottles.
Mrs. Slowski’s cabin, called “Ali Mama’s,” is the most vibrant, ceilings hung with purple and bright azure tulle, a phalanx of plastic camels standing on a shelf between brass candlesticks, and everywhere, covering all walls, sumptuous cascades of cheap beads, glass green and yellow and blue, swamp pearl, obscene profusions of globules of Pepto-Bismal pink and cerulean, like a spring sky over Bayard, and seeds painted mahogany and bamboo, and wooden beads painted mustard and vermilion.
The coolest colors smell like that most lovely fading to dusk of scores of years. In that one bedroom, rented in the purple night, the two of you touched fingers to faces, and the rest of the world fell away. It was possible, back then, to be alone. All the world was that evening alone and in-love that was all the world.
Remember the blue, distant and deep, before the fire? All the artistry and beauty I’d ever hoped to achieve was loving you. Do you remember how we held each other tenderly all night in those lost rooms long before we were born?
Then I recognize an old dog and old clown on a broken shelf in a side cabin. Surely they’re memories of my own self-conceptions. Dimly I remember leaving them behind as desperate but hopeful signatures. I doubt they’ll forgive me, I know without a doubt you will not, and at long last I can’t stomach myself.
A shambling man locks the gates. We’ve just left the dusking Village loop. Night falls, and fog. The coming cold night is humid. We laugh at some misspelling on a handmade sign. One more time, I have left myself behind.