by Tim Gilmore, 2/19/2014
The face is flat. The orbital cavities are large and bulge at the outsides. The lower jaw is gone. Teeth are broken.
The bones of a domestic cat are scattered across the landing halfway up the vine-wrapped brick stairs to the balcony. There are several vertebrae, longer pieces of backbone and tail, and leg bones. And the skull.
The balcony stretches wide across the back of the Old Spanish Trail Way Station, hemmed in by the rusting arabesques of wrought-iron railings. From the balcony toward the distant trees are the nearby tattered palms, the piles of trash the weeds and forest humus reclaim, and the tin sheds and barns hidden in deciduous winter thickets.
This building clashes beautifully and decadently with itself. The porch railings that span the balcony could be straight from New Orleans. The yellow and red brickwork, quoining at the windows, and arches over windows and outside staircases give the building distinctly Old West / faux-Spanish overtones. Walls of outcropped coquina, the natural limestone found in rare deposits on Florida beaches, stand as testaments to the building’s origins.
It’s hard to decipher the truth about the building from the urban legends. I always try to discern the truth, but I don’t disrespect urban legend. Urban legend thrives even in this bizarre rural setting, because it’s folklore. Folklore concerns itself with the truth people try to make of life and their place in the absence of sure knowledge, and to disparage that would be to disparage my own heart.
Last year, a group appealed to the Jacksonville Historic Preservation Commission for historic landmark status for the Old Spanish Trail building, but its owner asked that I not identify its exact location.
The appellants claimed to know something of the history of the building, though they didn’t provide their sources. Their appeal ended with the commission motioning to investigate the building’s history and consider its landmark status. Whatever the truth, the appellants brought together stories that explained the building’s historical self-contradictions.
It’s true that Beaver Street, as this local highway is called, through Jacksonville and its western satellites, is part of U.S. Highway 90, this section of which was called the Old Spanish Trail, an echo of the earlier Camino Real, which ran from the Pacific Ocean at San Diego to the Atlantic Ocean at St. Augustine, Florida.
The building’s address differs between newspaper articles and even the City of Jacksonville’s property appraisal documentation.
In the 2013 meeting, Joel McEachin, head of the commission, said, “We don’t know about the history of it. There’s a lot of rumors and stories going on about the building, but it’s always been sort of a store, retail use, and rooms for rent in the upstairs.”
Oral history has it the building was constructed in 1835 as a stagecoach way station. A residential area called Thigpen, now Baldwin, developed itself to the west.
According to local unofficial history, 80 years after the way station and tavern was built, a “Spanish Colonial” architectural veneer was superimposed on the original structure. This would have been about 1915, shortly before Florida began its post-World War One land boom that featured houses and whole neighborhoods built in pseudo-Spanish “Mediterranean Revival Style” architecture. The location of this building, either new or remodeled, along the former Old Spanish Trail would have made its initial design, or re-design, make sense.
In the Historical Preservation Commission meeting, the appellants claimed, “The purpose of the highway was to encourage the notion that the trail followed the old Spanish roads, using the romance and historical paths to promote tourism.”
The appellants claim the way station was used by both Union and Confederate troops as a supply line during the Civil War, that it later became a tavern, then a brothel, a boarding house, and decades later, a roadside attraction that sold gasoline and such Florida tourist offerings as alligator heads, boiled peanuts, and jars of local honey. Another urban legend has it that Al Capone hid here on his way south to Miami.
Nearby, eight foot-tall stands of brown dead broom sedge grow against a sunken house trailer, a basketball goal, and distantly spaced heavy iron bells. Dead vines encompass corroded lamp posts like crowns of thorns.
Shotgun shells litter the wintry dead-brambled ground in the woods alongside the highway. Vagabonds wander through these woods up and down U.S 90, leaving behind scattered clothes, a wooden jewelry box, neglected books and magazines, a flashlight.
Everywhere I travel across North Florida’s neglected spaces, I see evidence of North America’s vast and unaccounted-for transient population.
Sweatshirts, old pairs of jeans, and batteries decay into the forest floor. This place is clearly some kind of way station for people who’ve lost their way. Or people whose way is totally outside society’s.
My sister loves ruins like I do. She sees the beauty in the earth’s reclamation of the world and she makes it the subject of her beautiful photography.
She reminds me of Ralph Waldo Emerson’s “transparent eyeball” in his 1836 poetic essay “Nature,” where he describes himself as “Standing on the bare ground,—my head bathed by the blithe air, and uplifted into infinite spaces,—all mean egotism vanishes. I become a transparent eye-ball; I am nothing; I see all; the currents of the Universal Being circulate through me; I am part or particle of God.”
People talk about “the real world.” My former-military students talk about coming back from the military to “the real world.” When I was a kid, adults talked about graduating high school to go out into “the real world.” But the real world is the earth from which arose the human world and to which everything human always returns.
So everything that’s happened along U.S. 90, and in this old structure with its multiple layers and veneers, makes this place and all the dead sedge and falling barns around it, a way station between the world, which is always decadent, and the earth, from which everything arises.