by Tim Gilmore, 2/28/2022
This hot wet rainy day in the spring of 1981, three old men in damp suits stumble behind their flashlights in the shadows and dripping corrosion of the abandoned fertilizer plant. They find here what they knew they would. Not cancer. If aberrant growth is to eat through their bones and blood, it’s too late to turn it back. Their decades in these old buildings ensure that. And they’ve already received their 18-karat gold retirement wristwatches.
They find inside what Jacksonville Journal columnist Bob Phelps named the month previous: nostalgia. He led his story with it. “Former Fertilizer Makers Set Reunion,” the headline ran. “Nostalgia can be found lying in the oddest places,” Phelps began.
And indeed, here it is, lurking in the dripping dark, where the air itself seems composed of oxidized metal, the fishy metallic tang of fertilizer burning sweetly in the long twisted hairs of the old men’s bulbous nostrils, here where occasional phosphorus fires smoldered for days beneath mounds of fertilizer.
“Largest sale I ever made,” says Charlie, and although Eddie and Norman know the story, have heard it more times than they can count, they still lean in to hear it again. “To one company,” Charlie says, “500 tons!” He’d told Phelps, “We had to work day and night putting out fly flakes.”
Charles Brian was chief sales executive for Florida Agricultural Supply Company, a subsidiary of Wilson and Toomer Fertilizer Company, and worked out of the latter’s 27 acre site on Talleyrand Avenue. Wylie G. Toomer and Lorenzo Wilson had started the plant here in 1893 and it quickly became the largest fertilizer producer in Florida. Eventually Wilson Toomer ran satellite operations in four other Florida towns and employed 500 workers here on Talleyrand, producing a million tons of fertilizer a year.
Early on, Wilson and Toomer locked horns with Jacksonville’s other fertilizer giant, E.O. Painter, going head to head in full page ads in The Florida Agriculturist, which Painter himself purchased. “Want Big Crops? Then Use Ideal Fertilizer,” Wilson and Toomer admonished, while E.O. Painter promised “anything in the spraying line from a gill atomizer to a power pump or a dry dust blower,” under the risky wordplay, “Let Us Spray.” Whether you found the campaign funny, faithful or sacrilegious, you were shocked in 1913 when Edward Okle Painter drowned in the St. Johns River and insurance companies confiscated his corpse, sending thug physicians for “Dixie Dissections,” desperately seeking to prove Painter’s death was suicide to avoid payout.
FASCO Fly Flakes packed the insecticide Malathion into a sweet-smelling fly bait suspended in ground-up oyster shell. Plenty of times Charlie had gotten a little too much of the stuff in his head, but figured the headaches, the dizziness, the blurred vision, the diarrhea were worth the payday. You could buy five pounds of fly flakes for a dollar-eighty in 1955, and as Charlie told Bob Phelps, “You could throw them out in your yard and a single pound would kill more than a million flies.”
Now Charlie, Eddie and Norman walk between enormous metal tanks, never completely emptied when the plant shut down. Wilson and Toomer sold this complex to Plymouth Cordage Fertilizer Company who sold it in 1965 to Ernhart Corporation who sold it to Kerr McGee Chemical Company in ’71. They shuttered the plant in ’78, but these men still know every inch of the abandoned, decaying structures. Norman loosens his tie, his white button-up soaked through the yellowed armpits.Insecticide vats had been left collecting rainwater from leaks in tin roofs, sifting through to limestone and filtering into groundwater and nearby creeks and the St. Johns River. The old men joke about their own physical resistance, how tough they are, how the fly flakes played out by 1960 because the flies evolved to resist it. The old salesmen’s wives had developed resistance to them decades ago. They laugh and Eddie nibbles on a wart on his index finger.
They step back outside and move through the rain, the rows of fluted columns from the administrative building just visible in the hot haze. They marvel for a moment at how monstrously grow the weeds around the old nitrogen plant. They circle the labs, the old research facilities, mention some of the old rumors, the strange things that sometimes happened to vermin when they grew hungry for the recipes that once had killed them, the side effects that occurred in cabbages and mustards, Cruciferae, when they became junkies on nitrates and synthetics. Remember that old wives’ tale? Cabbage heads that grew teeth at the center?
Charlie knows the site better than anybody, even knows where the first horses were buried (no, they didn’t send them out to make glue), the draft horses that hauled drays of fertilizer and lived in the stables before automobiles took over deliveries and the stables turned into garages.
Eddie and Norman clap Charlie on the shoulders and the back. He was the best boss they ever had. They remember the Mayflower Hotel days. Charlie sure knew how to treat his boys. “The Whiskey Rebellion!” Norman grins and growls. That’s what they’d always called it, referring to the bloody protests against the whiskey tax during the presidency of George Washington. Should’ve held those meetings at the George Washington Hotel instead!
“Remember,” Charlie reminds them, “how nicely maintained this place always was.” He’d told Bob Phelps the same thing. “Used to be beautifully landscaped.” Hated to see it like this. Wilson and Toomer manufactured and sold Gro-Tone lawn and garden fertilizer and “had an image to maintain,” Phelps wrote. Squinting at the smokestacks and plumes of stink up and down this polluted shoreline, Charlie told Phelps, “It was the prettiest development on Talleyrand Avenue.”
How much longer would these old buildings stand? Charlie gathered about 100 guests at the Thunderbird Motor Hotel to reminisce about the old days. It was the people they missed, the camaraderie, but these old industrial buildings and offices and breakrooms and hallways, concrete block and aluminum, tin and steel, housed those memories.
The land itself, beneath these crumbling empty structures, lay concentrated with toxins, with dioxins and PCBs – polychlorinated biphenyls, with arsenic and lead. Groundwater infused with trichloroethylene and arsenic belched out in deadly swelling bladders underground and joined the flow of the St. Johns River.
In the mid-20th century, Wilson and Toomer imported more guano from South America at 1611 Talleyrand Avenue than any other entity in Florida. By the 21st century, the Environmental Protection Agency declared this site the most polluted in Florida, gave it the state’s highest score on its Hazard Ranking System and earmarked $69 million to clean it up.
In 1981, Charlie reached out to “Mrs. Robert Milam,” Muriel Milam, daughter of Lorenzo Wilson, to help fund the reunion. Charlie told Bob Phelps, “A few of [his former employees] always come around and hoist a few with me when they’re in town.” A few tons of neurotoxin underfoot, a few shots of Jameson Irish Whiskey down the gullet. Fred Coffee of Cullman, Alabama, sent Charlie a letter, saying, “I can sincerely state that the 15 years (1946-1961) that I was associated with those two organizations (Wilson & Toomer and FASCO) was the most happy period of my life.”