by Tim Gilmore, 6/9/2023
From her second-floor bedroom at the back of the house, two windows looked out on Big Fishweir Creek. The chimney ran up from the first-floor fireplace between them.
“We didn’t have air-conditioning back then,” Patricia says, “so you left the windows open for the breeze. I could hear the boats out there and the bells going off as the bridgetender raised the bridge, and the trains rolling along the other side of Roosevelt Boulevard.” The acoustics of the water amplified the sounds from underneath and sailed them across the creek.
If a three-story house can be modest, 1950 Morningside is. Or reserved. Handsome and symmetrical. It’s Georgian, like the Hanoverian architecture of London and Dublin, named for the four Georges who occupied the British throne from 1714 to 1830.
And it’s the spit of land out in the creek behind the house where Patricia, 15 years old, ventured into a storm once to rescue Shadow, her all-white cat, her gorgeous best friend. It’s that spit of land where her father built boxes for the wood ducks to nest, then watched the fledgelings “just dive out of the boxes right into the water.” On the “far side of the spit,” an osprey roosted high in a treetop, year after year. It’s that spit of land that her father sat and faced in his last years and fed the ducks and the raccoons and, yes, even the nutria, from a big bucket of corn kernels. (And Patricia, who loves animals the way her father did, swears the nutria was “so ugly it was cute.”)
Her father, Melvin Knowles, “grew up on the water” in Hudson, Florida, just north of Tampa on the Gulf Coast, the son and grandson of Bahamian sponge and conch fishermen. When Melvin was 10 or 12, he came face-to-face with an alligator, and soon posed smiling and holding his rifle, the alligator strung up dead beside him.
When Melvin was 22, he and some friends took an old Greek boat from Apalachee Bay, just under Tallahassee, down to Key West, sponge fishing and adventuring. He kept a journal of the trip, sketched scenes and made a model of the boat. Today the model perches in Patricia’s dining room.
“She was launched in 1913,” his journal reads, “the year after I was born, and was christened the Poledouris. The Polly was constructed with ribs of stout oak, planked with prime cypress, and decked with the best heart pine.” The journal tells of visiting the family who operated the lighthouse at St. Marks, of vicious storms, of spotting a Great White shark. “Some distance inside the mouth of the St. Marks River, beyond the reef forming our sheltered anchorage, a steel Coast Guard Cutter had been purposely run aground after it caught fire. The rusted hull and superstructure extended well above the surface of the water. Our anchorage was about halfway between the reef and the old wreck.”
Melvin went into commercial fishing for a while, then married a woman with the unbelievably elegant Southern name, Swann Estelle, a water bird from a star. He worked as a bookkeeper for W.H. Clark Wholesale Fruit Company. Swann graduated from Columbia University School of Dental Hygiene in 1939 and eventually served as president of the Northeast Florida Dental Hygienists’ Society. There’s even an annual Swann Knowles Scholarship Award.
When Patricia and her siblings were teenagers, they helped out in the fruit company packinghouse beside the Beaver Street Viaduct across from the Jacksonville Farmers’ Market. Eventually Patricia found out, ironically, that her father couldn’t swim. An aunt once told Patricia that “many of those old fishermen” couldn’t.
Yet he wrote in his 1934 journal of The Polly passing the Suwannee River to Cedar Key, then Anclote Key and Pass-a-Grille, south past Sanibel Island, then of catching a kingfish off Ten Thousand Islands. Off Key West, he decided the liver was the most delicious part of the sea turtle.
“We were somewhat timid about joining the fleet in a Greek boat,” he wrote, “considering the stories we had heard of the Conchs attacking and firing upon Greek spongers who had dared invade the Key West sponge grounds.” The term “Conch” meant Key West conch fishermen descended from English settlers in the Bahamas. Nevertheless, “We were well received by the fleet, and we soon came to know and appreciate the kindness and generosity displayed by these people whose lives and customs were so different from ours.”
Patricia says, “My dad could read the water. He knew right where he was, out on the gulf, although you couldn’t see land.” Though the open waters might seem placeless, Melvin Knowles seemed to know his coordinates and the tides and where the fish would be. Though he spent his career with Florida citrus, he needed the water. “So Fishweir Creek and that little spit of land gratified him. He needed that.”
The family had moved from a much smaller house nearby. When they’d first married, Melvin and Swann had lived in a 1200-square-foot woodframe house on Edgewood Avenue. The Morningside house meant arrival and Melvin and Swann, married for 59 years, would spend the rest of their lives here.
On May 8, 1934, Melvin Knowles wrote, “To-day we were the only boat to sell. Large Wool sold for $3.20 per bunch. We shared $45.00 and immediately opened Key West bank accounts.” That night, the three friends saw a movie, Clark Gable and Claudette Colbert in It Happened One Night. That Saturday, the 12th, it seemed like “every person in town was out on Duval Street.”
Another entry: “June 13. Heavy winds. Back into Key West. Strung sponge, 55 large Wool, 6 small, 1 rage and 10 Yellow.” The next day: “Put sponge on dock for sale but were offered only $1.27 for the large wool. We refused to accept the offer. There was some agitation along the dock. There was a rumor that a Greek boat was coming into Key West to sponge. There was mention that one party was intent on running us out.”
In an introduction he wrote for the journal six decades later, he wrote, “With a stiff breeze blowing, the rail underwater, and Cherry at the helm,” he’d felt a “sense of peace, joy and contentment” he would never forget and never quite realize again.
Patricia still thinks of “that little spit of land” in “that tiny inlet” of Big Fishweir Creek behind the house on Morningside as “a magical place.” She points to a photograph, taken just after her father died, of that stretch of back yard. There’s his chair, where he fed wildlife daily. He’d tap the bottom of the tin bucket and the ducks would coalesce. There’s the hammock her mother stretched for him between trees along the inlet.
Patricia points into those trees, into that day in 2001, into the photograph. When she and her siblings and other family members assembled and sounded the duck call, no mallards came. It wasn’t her father calling them. The osprey that roosted every year on the far side of the spit never returned.
And right over there, Patricia says, among the palms and reeds and spiderwort and butterwort and bladderwort, stood her “noble” shadow. I love the way that sounds un-capitalized, but Shadow was her “old white cat,” a “big fellow,” her “best friend.” She’d named this white Shadow less ironically than it might seem. When Patricia was in third or fourth grade and the cat first came to her, she and her siblings watched The Mickey Mouse Club on TV. The show featured a character named Corky Brady, daughter of the widower town sheriff, who relies on her heroic dog friend White Shadow.
When the Knowles family moved across the Ortega River and Big Fishweir Creek, Shadow tended to lose himself in wet weather. For a few weeks after the move, the rain came and came and would not cease. Then Hurricane Dora, only a category-one storm but the only hurricane to hit Jacksonville directly in recorded Weather Bureau history, came two years later in ’64.
“I remember these storms and this wet weather,” Patricia says, “but I can’t remember just when Shadow did his little disappearing act.” She recalls winds soaked with rain pulling great trees over alongside the house. She recalls the lights being out, but few people even along the wealthiest streets had air-conditioning anyway.
She tried then and she tries now to understand Shadow’s intentions. I ask her if perhaps he was trying to head back to the last place he’d known as home before the family moved to Morningside. Both urban legends and verified stories tell of dogs and cats tracking as far as hundreds of miles to previous home locations. She’s always thought he’d gone out hunting, perhaps crossed the muddy channel over the inlet to the spit, then got drenched in rain and became sick.
She remembers the day. It was raining hard, one of those storms where it feels like the earth is upside down and raining the swamp and the creeks and the rivers down on Florida. She’d been looking for Shadow for days. She’d put on her raincoat and “gone slogging around and couldn’t find him. I looked and I looked and I called and called and could not find him.”
She’d wandered throughout the spit and now crossed the inlet at the mud ford into her back yard, “and I was coming back up to the house, probably about up in here,” she says, pointing to a place near where her father fed the animals in those last years, “and I just turned around one more time, and there he was, watching me, sitting on the bank, across the inlet in the rain.”
So Patricia, 15 years old, rushed across the water in the downpour, picked up her best friend and tucked him inside her raincoat. Shadow was sick. He’d lost weight. He’d grown too weak to come back around to the house. He couldn’t breathe well. His nose had gone from red to white. When she brought him into the house in her coat, Patricia begged her mother “to make Shadow well.” She did, along with the vet, and a course of Penicillin.
Speaking over a black-and-white photo of Shadow from 1964, Patricia says, “Shadow, Shadow, he was my, my, he was my best friend. What can I say? I loved the old dude. Still do.”
A week before her father died, Patricia asked him, as he lay in bed, if he wanted to go see the creek. He couldn’t speak. He raised a shoulder to indicate his readiness. She and her sister and brother and mother wheeled him in his chair to the waterfront for just a moment and, one final time, the ducks came.