Lovelace Park: The Great Non-Fire of 1973

by Tim Gilmore, 5/13/2022

Who had ever heard of a police department setting 40 acres of woods ablaze in the middle of a suburban neighborhood as a safety measure? Was it true kids were playing with witchcraft in those woods? Just how bad were those forbidden activities to require such a drastic response?

It’s January 1973. The world had gone wild, reverted, reseeded itself, and nobody knew what to do with its youth. The hopes of the 1960s had crashed into the ’70s and the younger siblings of the flower children were huffing plastics and paints and disillusionment by the wastewater treatment plant.

The things that happened out in the woods stirred a panic. From the Latin, panicus, from the name of the Greek god Pan, panic related to the woodland doings of the god half-man and half-goat, things unspoken, unspeakable, terrifying sounds from behind the trees, outside civilization, reminders that something bestial persisted in the human.

Pan and Daphnis, marble sculpture by Heliodorus, circa 100 BCE, Naples Museum of Archeology

Word spread quickly across the neighborhood of Greenfield Manor. Was the police department’s solution too drastic? Did what teenagers were doing in those woods necessitate such an extreme response?

Undersheriff D.K. Brown made the public announcement. Parents had complained of “sex parties” and “marijuana parties” held in the woods on city-owned land near Southside Junior High School and Greenfield Elementary. Such occurrences in any neighborhood were troubling, but the proximity to schools only further raised the stakes.

from The [Jefferson City, Missouri] News-Tribune, January 5, 1973

Undersheriff Brown announced that in and around the 24 paths through palmettos and passion flowers, coral beans and coonties, oakleaf hydrangeas and oak trees, police had discovered evidence of old campsites, of sexual activity, of beer drinking and glue sniffing.

On those same trails today, campsites huddle against longleaf pines, while malt liquor cans and Robitussin bottles and potato chip bags and Hello Kitty roach clips litter the banks of the drainage ditches that run through the woods beneath the high-rise that houses Mt. Carmel Gardens Senior Apartments on University Boulevard.

What kids called “the woods” in 1973 is now Curtis Lovelace Park, named for the conservationist and environmentalist who made himself a thorn in the flesh of every elected local official in the late 1960s and early ’70s. Newspapers regularly called the “insurance man” and recent secretary of the Young Democrats a “hellraiser” and a “young Turk” and a “gadfly.”

from The Orlando Sentinel, November 21, 1973

Later in the year, on Friday, November 2nd, as Lovelace was speaking against a proposal to allow the burning of high-sulfur fuel oils, he was “stricken with a blood clot” and died. He was 44 years old. In December, City Councilman and future mayor Jake Godbold introduced a resolution to rename the wooded area then called German Park in honor of Lovelace. Councilman Joe Carlucci moved that the entire City Council Agriculture, Recreation and Public Affairs Committee sponsor the resolution.

Back in January, while parents on Sam Road and Todd Road, on Skipper Lane and Carrevero Drive, believed something needed to be done, they thought a full-scale wildfire in the middle of the neighborhood too much. How could such a solution be safe? The woods were boxed in by Barnes Road South, Knights Lane West, Sack Drive South and Loran Drive East. If the police department burned all 40 acres, could they guarantee the fire wouldn’t spread to their houses?

from The Miami Herald, January 6, 1973

Their concerns made national news. The United Press International wrote it up. The Miami Herald headline said, “40-Acre Burn Plan Fires Up Jax Citizens.” Some reports used words like “hysteria,” said what was actually happening here were “petting parties” at a “lovers’ lane.”

Witches’ Sabbath by Francisco Goya, 1798

The churches said something else was in the air. You could hear it in the songs on the radio, young women as witches with the moon in their eyes, the lure of the mysterious in the occult combined with the dangerous and “still little understood effects” of “mind-altering drugs,” the dark examples of the Church of Satan in San Francisco and the Manson Family in Los Angeles. More like Los Diablos.

Anton LaVey, late 1960s

Whatever parents and church groups said, Mike Martin and Wayne Mills remember drinking beer and huffing paint and a transmission fluid called Go. Christine Carlton remembers huffing something called Black Plastic Rubber in the “underground fort” she and her friends had made. She wants to make sure I understand she doesn’t abuse drugs today, she’s not an addict, and she wouldn’t recommend anyone do what she did.

“The underground fort was where we would do our huffing,” she says. “We dug a hole, quite large, and put all kinds of things over the top, first plywood, then shrubbery. If you didn’t know it was there, you would walk right over it.” You couldn’t stand up in the fort, she says, but once you “dropped down into it,” it would seat four people.

from The Spokane Review, September 22, 1972

In the 1970s, the Woodhill Chemical Sales Corporation of Cleveland, Ohio, self-described as “a leading producer of specialty chemical repair products for the home and auto,” manufactured a range of goods teenagers huffed in Florida and across the continent, including “aluminum jelly” and “naval jelly,” superglue, liquid steel, and white or black plastic rubber, of which you could buy two for a dollar.

from The Chicago Tribune, September 27, 1969

“It was a pretty cheap high,” Christine says. Down in their hole beneath plywood and azalea branches and palmetto fronds, she and her friends placed BPR, as they called it, in the bottom of plastic sandwich bags, placed the bags over their noses and mouths, and huffed themselves to disorientation, loss of inhibition and hallucinations. “That stuff made you hear things that were not there. We thought we were under attack one time and I heard helicopters flying right over us.”

Then came the police raid, actual and non-hallucinatory. “The cops found it and kicked it in,” she says. “My friend and I was skipping school and lying down in our fort to take a nap. Then all of a sudden someone was bashing the top in. The cops had their guns pulled and was yelling if anyone was in there, they better come out now. So we came out and they took us to jail.” Christine was 16 years old. Her parents picked her up from the juvenile facility that afternoon.

Meanwhile, newspaper columnists lampooned the misunderstandings and concerns of the parents of Southside Junior High and Greenfield Elementary School students, while the mayor’s office roasted residents who’d called city officials to protest plans to burn down the woods in the center of their neighborhood.

Longtime Florida Times-Union columnist Bill Foley led with the meteorological quip, “Today’s forest fire has been called off because of the flood.” His second and third paragraphs read, “The forest fire actually was a brush clearing sort of thing” and “The flood was one of telephone calls to city officials after the clearing got exaggerated into a full-fledged, scorched earth, squirrel-chasing woods fire.”

The United Press International explained the bizarre situation to newspaper readers everywhere: “A plan to burn 40 acres of underbrush near two schools to halt suspected ‘sexual activities’ fizzled today under a flood of protests from area residents.”

Foley wrote, “The brush clearing escalated into a holocaust by word of mouth.” The School Board “adopted an emergency resolution” to demand the burning be halted. City Councilman Joe Carlucci declared he would “personally call it off.” Jack Newsom, the 6’6” hard-drinking press aide to Mayor Hans Tanzler said, “Never in anybody’s wildest imagination was it in anybody’s mind to just go out there and burn the whole damn thing up!”

from The Fort Lauderdale News, January 6, 1973

If there had been “in anybody’s mind” and “in anybody’s wildest imagination” the desire “to just go out there” and do such a thing, it wouldn’t have surprised Curtis Lovelace. It’s at least ironic these woods have borne his name since the Year of the Great Non-Fire.

On December 14, 1968, James Walker of The St. Petersburg Times wrote, “Democratic Young Turks from Duval County arrive in Pinellas County today armed for revolt against the party hierarchy.” Walker quoted Lovelace saying state party chairman Pat Thomas was “inept.” The headline said, “Duval Demos Gunning for Pat Thomas’ Scalp.”

In November, 1970, Lovelace advocated a proposed ban on statewide burnings of old railroad ties, rubber tires and used oil by citrus growers who claimed that 10 percent of their groves were saved by burning these materials on cold nights. That same year, news reports showed Jacksonville’s air and water pollution the worst in Florida and Florida’s pollution among the worst in the nation. “The polluting interests and the government are so closely interwoven, you can’t separate them.” Lovelace said.

When in January 1971, a Washington, D.C. judge issued a preliminary injunction halting construction of the Cross Florida Barge Canal, Dr. William Partington, director of the Florida Defenders of the Environment, told Associated Press journalists at an Audubon Society convention in Naples, Florida, “I doubt if you will find a sober conservationist in Florida tonight. They’re all going out to buy champagne.” Jacksonville conservationists Helen Bird and Curtis Lovelace had fought the canal hard. “Hallelujah,” Lovelace said. “I think it’s going down for good.”

In 1972, Lovelace spoke against Westinghouse-Tenneco’s plans to fill in Black River and build nuclear power plants floating off the coast of Florida. Two years after the Greenfield Manor Forest Fire Fear and the death of Curtis Lovelace, ads placed in The Boston Globe explained how “Offshore Power Systems,” a “Westinghouse-Tenneco enterprise, will produce the world’s first floating nuclear power plants in Jacksonville, Florida.” OPS never built the plants and Jax faced a national shaming for offering more funding than its total city budget to an upstart company in exchange for a risky prospectus.

Curtis Lovelace was a powerhouse. Every elected leader who felt his sting in their side knew it. Surely plenty a politician breathed a sigh of relief at Lovelace’s freak young death. Half a century later, these trails, these greenbriars and muscadine vines and southern live oaks, which should owe their presence only to the earth from which they evolved and flourished, know not the names of Jake Godbold and Joe Carlucci and Curtis Lovelace.

The Great Non-Fire has faded into scattered distant memories. New illicit substances have replaced the old ones here just as new pines and palmettos grow and photosynthesize in soil that once was new pines and palmettos. Today’s panic forfeits yesterday’s. It’s springtime. All things regenerate.