Purple Petunia Filling Station and Antique Bottle Collection

by Tim Gilmore, 7/15/2020, original story, 7/15/2012

1. Purple Petunia Goes Postmodern

For 25 years the old gas station, built in the architectural “revival” style of Shakespeare’s Globe Theater, was the Purple Petunia. When Post Modern Brewing opens at 2951 Post Street this upcoming winter, it will revive a storied Riverside location.

The Purple Petunia, despite its name and small square footage, was as big a character in 1970s and ’80s Riverside as the man with whom it was synonymous. Wesley B. Plott’s epitaph calls him “a big man with a big heart.” His best friend’s son says he stood six feet tall and weighed more than 400 pounds. From a child fishing with his father, Plott became a bottle collector, an “honorary member of the Fraternal Order of Police” and an accidental environmental activist.

Since 1994, when Plott suffered a stroke in the back room, where he was living after the divorce and the insecticide explosion, the Purple Petunia has waited. Now it’s going postmodern.

Pharmacist Andrew Suslak and his friend Brandon Merkle have perfected their home brewing for years. Suslak enjoys brewing, he told Bill Delaney for a June story in The Jaxson Magazine, because he likes “beer and science.” When Suslak and Merkle started “winning some awards,” they decided to turn a garage hobby into a new Riverside business.

Jean-François Lyotard

In his 1979 book The Postmodern Condition, French philosopher Jean-François Lyotard defined the postmodern cultural and social experience as an “antipathy toward metanarratives.” Nevertheless, the history of the  Postmodern Purple Petunia threads as many stories as a small city.

2. Early Glass

His dad took him fishing. Salt water trout. They were walking by the water on Livebeck Island, Clapboard Creek, near Cedar Point and New Berlin. The day was gray and flannel cool. November.

Wesley B. Plott’s 1961 Robert E. Lee High School yearbook photo

Wesley was 14. He crouched toward the mud and pulled out an encrusted old bottle and showed it to his dad, who told him to throw it back into the mud. But the mud was full of secrets. Usually it demanded great patience. This time, however, it had reached up toward Wesley and handed him an artifact of weathered glass.

from Wesley B. Plott’s 1980 book Antique Bottles Found in Northeast Florida

He took it home. He hid it from his father, showed it to his mother. They hadn’t caught any fish. This old bottle he brought home instead. His mother put the bottle on the mantle over the fireplace.

After that, everywhere he went, he looked for old bottles. Any kind of bottle he could find—liquor bottles, beer bottles, milk bottles. He brought them back from fishing trips and from long hikes in the mosquito-swarming woods. He salvaged them from trash piles and creeks and the eternal North Florida marsh. He imagined the whole trajectory of their coming to him from the moment they were made, and he saw all these trajectories as time-rivers that converged old glass upon him. His mother took the china out of her old oak cabinet so Wesley could display his bottles there.

Purple Petunia in 2012

In his early 20s, he was an expert at locating old trash dumps, and in his head he carried a map of their interspersions all over Duval County. He talked about a place downtown where he found 30 black glass whiskey bottles dating from the residence of a prohibitionist preacher.

The places in back lots where outhouses once stood, he said, frequently held the remains of bottles, china, toys, and other garbage. He became expert in finding the places that no longer were. He knew where outhouses typically had been located and he looked for certain discolorations of layers of soil beneath the grass and weeds.

Purple Petunia in 2012

He met an 80 year old woman in Springfield, just north of downtown, who told him about her father pulling her in a wagon when she was a little girl, pulling her to the marshy ground used as a neighborhood garbage dump along Hogan’s Creek. She showed him where they used to dump their trash, somewhere around Boulevard and West Ninth Street, and he began his own archaeological dig. He found bitters bottles, gin jugs, whiskey jugs, gin bottles, medicine bottles and more gin bottles.

Purple Petunia in 2012

Much of those underground collections of beautiful glass are lost now, and his knowledge of the whereabouts of those collections is lost as well. He knew the bottle dumps in White Springs and St. Augustine and Fernandina Beach and Fort George Island. He bore the yellow flies and mosquitoes and horseflies and ticks and put his shovel into the ground in the spiderwort and air potato vines behind the 1820s slave quarters at Kingsley Plantation on Fort George Island.

Purple Petunia in 2012

Elsewhere along Hogan’s Creek from the Springfield marsh dump the old woman had shown him, he found whiskey and gin bottles mixed with bottles for Keeley’s Cure for Drunkenness.

3. Growth of a Riverside Legend

In June 1980, Wesley self published a charming 50 page stapled book called Antique Bottles Found in Northeast Florida. He printed it at Kwik Kopy Printing on Cassat Avenue and charged $5.95. He included old maps and one or two page chapters with names like “Locating Dumps!” He claimed to have found clay pipes, a skull, an ancient Indian.

In 1970, city directories listed Wesley as a printer working for Jax Paper, living at 2902 Post Street, a block from Barter House Second Hand Clothing Store, which operated in an old service station. The following year, Wesley’s father James was listed as “antiques mgr” at the Purple Petunia where Barter House had been the year before. In 1972, Wesley’s mother Hilda died. She was 58. She’d struggled with weight and heart problems all her life. Wesley looked just like her. He took over the Purple Petunia that year.

2902 Post Street, where Wesley Plott lived in 1970, a block from the Purple Petunia

It didn’t look much like today’s service stations. Just as movie theaters were built as “movie palaces” in the 1920s, thousands of gas stations were built in naïve forms of the residential architectural styles of the 1920s and ’30s and ’40s.

The Pure Oil Service Station was built in 1937 in the so-called Tudor Revival style that flourished in Florida between 1900 and 1935. Tudor Revival houses featured half-timbering in upper stories and rooflines, purely ornamental, unlike in the original structures, including Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre, built in England in the 1500s. Osbert Lancaster, an English cartoonist and architectural historian, mocked Tudor Revival as “Stockbrokers’ Tudor.” These Ye Olde English houses were always ersatz and out of place in the Florida swamps, but a Tudor-Ye-Olden gas station screamed kitsch. Especially one with a grand chimney. Imagine a roaring fire stoked in a gas station on a Florida winter night.

Wesley saw the kitsch, the campiness. He was onto it, so he enhanced it by painting the cross-timbering, the rooflines, the doors, the visible beams purple. Wesley and his wife Anne used the building for their business, Algonquin Antiques and Auction Galley, “Free Appraisals on Antique Bottles.” With the addition of flower sales, the Plotts called the place the Purple Petunia Antique Shoppe and Flower Shop.

Wesley loved to look at the sunlight moving through the earthy colors of the old glass bottles on the shelves of his windows. He loved the aquas, the blues, the greens, the purples.

from Wesley B. Plott’s 1980 book Antique Bottles Found in Northeast Florida

The older women who grew up in Riverside Avondale in the 1940s and 1950s but moved out when it began to decline in the 1960s and 1970s always came back to shop in the 1970s and 1980s and they always stopped in at the Purple Petunia. The gay couples who began to move into Riverside in the 1970s and 1980s and heralded the renovations and artistic turnaround of the neighborhood always stopped in at the Purple Petunia. By the time Wesley died in 1994, the gay bar next door called The Norm was one of the most prominent gay hangouts in this large conservative town.

Twenty years after Wesley died, the purple paint persisted. Wesley’s epitaph calls him, “A Big Man with a Big Heart.” Ed Brooks, whose father was Wesley’s closest friend for years, says he drank eight to 10 cans of Diet Coke a day. Years after it had been boarded up, neighbors still called the building the Purple Petunia.

4. A Darker Side

When Don Gay was a Jacksonville police officer in the 1970s and ’80s, he’d get lost in conversations with old women in Riverside. “He’d ask them where they’d taken their trash when they were little girls,” his son Ed Brooks says. He wanted to know where to dig up the old bottles.

Don Gay, center, with Ginger and Shawna Rowland behind, from Wesley B. Plott’s 1980 book Antique Bottles Found in Northeast Florida

In fact, it’s Don whose top half appears from a hole at a bottle dig on the front of Wesley’s 1980 book. Don’s teenage son Ed took the picture. Ed’s stepmother and stepsister, Shawna and Ginger Rowland, appear behind Don.

They’d spend hours at a time digging for bottles in forgotten and buried trash dumps and Don often brought his son Ed along. By the time Ed left home to join the Army in 1983, four shelves filled with bottles wrapped around his bedroom. His dad soon moved to Memphis and “had one of those everything-must-go yard sales.” The bottles continued their strange trajectories out into the world.

from Wesley B. Plott’s 1980 book Antique Bottles Found in Northeast Florida

Don and Wesley organized regular digs on private lots around the center of town. The group of bottle hunters grew to about 100, with 50 people showing up loyally. Ed says, “Wesley was what you’d call a ‘cop groupie’ and enjoyed listening to police scanners and having police friends.”

Wesley’s cop buddies and an early ’80s spike in gold prices led to his becoming an “honorary” member of the police union. And to his killing one man and leaving the other bleeding around the corner. “Wesley,” Ed says, “capitalized on people selling coins and broken gold. That meant there was a lot of cash in the Petunia, so he hired off-duty police officers to hang around for security.”

from The Jacksonville Journal, January 13, 1981

The way The Jacksonville Journal described it in a story about Plott’s honorary induction into the Fraternal Order of Police, “Plott and his wife Anne were in their store Oct. 13 [1980] with Detective Lavelle H. Goff, when two brothers, Xavier and Joseph Richardson, entered the store with drawn guns. Xavier put a gun to Goff’s head, police said.”

Says The Journal: Goff broke free. Xavier “began shooting.” Goff “returned fire.” Anne “set off the silent alarm” and Wesley got a gun from the back of the store.

Says Ed: “One of the men held a gun on Goff and told Wesley to go get the money. He came out with a double barreled shotgun and killed the first man instantly. Goff turned over a table and emptied his pistol but missed and the second man fled. Wesley took after him and shot him on the sidewalk on College Street.”

Says The Journal: “Xavier Richardson, 26, died four hours later from two gunshots to the head. Joseph Richardson, 20, was wounded twice and,” exactly three months later, was “still in custody.”

Wesley, Ed says, had a violent temper. After Wesley died, Anne said he’d sometimes punch her in the stomach. Ed saw Wesley get angry only once. It was at an auction at the Petunia when items were going for low prices.

“He smashed a beautiful antique glass lamp and loudly proclaimed that either people start bidding the value of the items or he’d just destroy them all. Half the people were incensed. The other half were concerned antiques would be destroyed.” Ed says Wesley held the antiques hostage, and through them, the people in his shop.

5. Accidental Activist

The March 22, 1989 Florida Times-Union story was headlined “House That’s Not a Home,” with the subheader “Couple Says Pesticide Explosion Forced Them Out.” A photo showed the Plotts standing in front of their home at 2909 Post Street. Behind them, a “billboard” Wesley had planted in the yard declared “Warning! Do Not Enter” with skull-and-crossbone imagery. The Plotts stood at their front gate looking furious.

from The Florida Times-Union, March 22, 1989

The Plotts were suing Jacksonville companies Kenco Chemical and Seedsmith, producers of Spectracide. Vincent Gordano of the Environmental Protection Agency said the EPA had documented close to 200 cases of Spectracide cans exploding. Wesley said their 1926 house would have to be demolished and a foot of topsoil removed from the property.

In January 1988, toxicologists at the Florida Department of Agriculture began warning Floridians to throw away old pesticide containers, especially Spectracide. “Wesley B. Plott of Jacksonville,” wrote Roger T. Robinson of The Pensacola News Journal, “has been conducting research on Spectracide-related explosions for 14 months, since his wife developed a recurring skin rash shortly after a Spectracide can exploded in their home.”

from The Honolulu Advertiser, May 8, 1988

Plott traced the origins of Diazinon, an active ingredient in Spectracide, to Nazi Germany’s I.G. Farben, in its time the largest chemical and pharmaceutical company in the world. “I’ve been trying to get insecticides containing Diazinon banned nationwide,” he said. He noted that “a byproduct of the breakdown of Diazinon is Sulfotepp, a highly toxic substance,” five to 10 milligrams of which could kill a human being.

Wesley said he and Anne returned home one evening to find their house filled with a “rotting odor” that made him think “a body had been dumped” nearby. After cleaning up the remains of the explosion, a “spokeswoman” at a company phone number said the chemicals posed no danger. Two months later, daily headaches and nausea finally caused the Plotts to abandon their home and move into the back of the Purple Petunia.

The Florida Department of Agriculture advised the Plotts not to return home. Michelle Thomas of the National Pesticide Telecommunications Network said the toxic byproducts of Diazinon decomposition were extremely hard to get rid of. Jacksonville and Miami physicians submitted independent affidavits to circuit court judges asserting the Plotts could not return home.

Bob Phelps of The T-U wrote, “They still are living in one room of the flower shop, a converted gas station.” Wesley said the Plotts had called the house at 2909 home since 1977, but had no choice now but to demolish it and remove the top layer of soil.

Two decades after Wesley Plott’s death, the United States finally banned residential use of Diazinon. A March 30, 1984 New York Times article had stated, “Since before World War II, the development of certain pesticides and the creation of nerve gases for chemical warfare have gone hand-in-hand.” Several insecticides begun as “nerve agents” were developed by the infamous I.G. Farben, described by Mark E. Spicka in his article “The Devil’s Chemists on Trial: The American Prosecution of I.G. Farben at Nuremberg” as “the most notorious German industrial concern during the Third Reich,” which both “exploited slave labor at its synthetic rubber plant at Auschwitz” and produced the means to gas millions of Jews.

On January 1, 2005, Marla Cone wrote in The Los Angeles Times, “Diazinon was derived from the same family of chemicals as the sarin nerve gas developed during World War II.” It sold under brand names like Ortho, Spectracide and Real Kill. “High doses” of Diazinon, Cone wrote, “can kill people or cause neurological problems.”

6. The Final Campaign

It didn’t work. The campaign was as big as Wesley B. Plott and his personality. It had Purple Petunia written all over it. But it wasn’t enough.

Anne was staying with her parents in Ortega. After the Spectracide, the temper tantrums, the burglaries that Wesley himself may or may not have orchestrated—receiving and dealing in his own stolen goods, the stomach punches, she’d finally had enough.

“All those yellow ribbons tied to trees, sign posts and utility poles along a five mile strip of Roosevelt Boulevard,” wrote Bob Phelps for The T-U on February 22, 1992, “are only the opening shots in a man’s campaign to woo back his wife of 18 years.”

Wesley still resided in the back of The Purple Petunia. Today, 30 years after the Plotts were to demolish the house at 2909 Post Street, the house still stands, lovingly renovated, with a wide front porch beneath old oaks. “Next step,” Phelps wrote in ’92, “will be skyward.”

Whatever effects Diazinon had on the Plotts’ health, Wesley’s weight worked hard on his heart and coronary arteries. His mother had wrestled with her own weight and health the same way. Wesley always identified more with his mother, having once shown her the old glass he’d found and hidden when he caught no fish with his father. He had taken after his mother, both physically and emotionally. She’d died in her 50s and so would Wesley.

Wesley’s parents, Hilda and James Plott

Come Valentine’s Day, 1992, Wesley hadn’t seen Anne since October. He’d “hired an airplane” to circle above Anne’s wealthy parents’ house where she’d been staying, “towing a banner proclaiming his love for his spouse.”

Wesley used 700 yards of yellow ribbon festooning signs that said, “I love you. Follow the yellow ribbons home.” The ribbons led from Anne’s parents’ home to the Purple Petunia, “down the Roosevelt Boulevard median in Ortega. The route continues to McDuff Avenue, then loops around Collier Street and Willowbranch Avenue to the flower shop that Plott and his wife had operated for years.”

Anne never responded. Wesley suffered a massive stroke in the back room of The Purple Petunia in November 1994 and died shortly thereafter. He was 51 years old. His obituary called him the “owner of his own floral shop” and “honorary member of the Department of the Sheriff’s Office.”

Andrew Suslak has found no bullet holes in the old gas station, though the “No Shirt, No Shoes, No Flowers” sign remains by the front door. He’s looking forward to renovation and to Opening Day for Post Modern Brewing. Hopefully its opening will dovetail with the end of the Covid-19 pandemic. Renovation should open up some “dead spaces,” Suslak says, “that we hope to access for the first time in 85 years.” If the ghost of Wesley Plott doesn’t stop by for a pint, perhaps the 1930s, the early years of the Pure Oil station, will yield forth some secrets. Says Suslak, “We’re still coming to appreciate the full mystery of the place.”

See also Wesley B. Plott’s Downtown Bottlescape