by Tim Gilmore, 6/17/2012
An old Timucuan Indian trail led along the coast from the city of St. Augustine up to Jacksonville when the entire village fit into a small part of today’s downtown and was called Cow Ford. The trail wandered up from the riverbank through what’s now the very center of the city, Hemming Plaza, and forked into separate paths. One path went northwest and ended at the St. Marys River, later the boundary between Florida and Georgia.
By the time the packhorses and oxcarts of Spanish conquistadors roamed the road from the St. Johns River to the St. Marys River, the ancient Timucuan trails had been beaten into the earth. No one could say how long these paths had led through the woods.
And when the English took Havana away from Spain in 1762, Spain traded Havana for Florida, and the English turned the Timucuan trail into a highway leading from New Smyrna to St. Augustine to Cow Ford and past the St. Marys River. Kings Road was the sole highway for all commerce and traffic to East Florida from the colonies up North. More than a decade would pass before American independence, and 60 years would pass before anyone started calling the hamlet on the north bank of the St. Johns River Jacksonville.
South of downtown, the old Kings Road, the old Timucuan trail, winds through Mandarin and Southwest Jacksonville, along Old St. Augustine Road and St. Augustine Road. The trail up through downtown is mostly lost, but it picks up on West State Street at the Ritz Theatre, a block before Interstate 95. Here it retains the name Kings Road and moves through the neighborhood of College Park and the campus of Edward Waters College. The oldest “Historically Black College” in Florida, EWC was founded for black students immediately after the Civil War. Its buildings are old and lovely and brick and ornamented in stone with crosses and quoins and gargoyles. In 2004, the school lost its accreditation, because its administrators plagiarized reaccreditation materials from Alabama A&M University. That same year, EWC’s graduation rate was nine percent, the lowest of any college in the state of Florida and the twelfth worst in the entire United States. Around the corner on West Sixth Street, in April 2010, 22 year-old Jumar Henry beheaded his mother with a knife, wrapped her head in a plastic bag, and left it in a field of weeds three blocks away.
Bracy’s Barber Shop in the two-story whitewashed concrete block building stands shuttered across the street from the Edward Waters campus. Down Kings Road come Family Dollar stores and EZ Stop Food Stores. The sign at 2358 advertises, “Fries Whiting Shrimp & Fry.”
Few would consider this nowhere road a highway, but it’s the oldest highway in the state. Since its origins long predate the state, perhaps it’s silly to measure the road in state terms. And who can say what pre-Columbian Indian trails in what present-day states are older than others? Who can say this road isn’t a thousand years old? Who can say who keeps you company here? Like reading the turns of plot in a Dickens novel, following the movements of a man who’s been dead for more than a century, following a road is following dead women and men. Following Kings Road is following the Indians who cut this trail, it’s following the traders who pulled their carts through the spaces between the trees. Maybe some of the trees they passed still bear green, but there can be no uncertainty of sharing the path with the past. A trail is a trace. Following any road is following its dead. The dead on this road are the quality of wind over the railroad and of sunlight across the shacks.
Ryan Burkhalter wears a heavy wool coat against the blustering December wind, as he walks through the post-apocalyptic landscape of the salvage yard for Burkhalter Wrecking, Inc. His voice is calm, low, monotone, but friendly. He says to take your time. If you have any questions, he’ll be over in the office. He says, “We’ve torn down just about every building downtown,” by which he means that his family’s wrecking company has torn down most of those downtown buildings that have been torn down. Pieces of beautiful lost buildings lie scattered across these three and a half acres, like hacked-off limbs on a battlefield.
A life-size fiberglass elephant stands by the Kings Road entrance.
Dozens of tubs, sinks, toilets in rows, some porcelain, some rusted iron.
Doors doors doors
A faded red metal rocket inclines at a 45-degree angle on a metal pole. “Auto Sales” has almost entirely been effaced from the rocket.
A 1950s Nash automobile stands upended with its hood in the ground and its butt up in the air.
Sheds full of forgotten doors and windows. Signs everywhere you look.
“Roast Beef Chicken Steak Sandwich”
“Atlantic Coast Line”
“Superburger or Fish Medium Soft Drink & Fries $1.69”
“25’ Great White $23,900.00”
Stacks of fireplace mantels
Old floorboards, you can see the ground through the cracks, in an old barn full of doors.
In the back room, broken windows stacked.
Ten foot-long wrought-iron grapevines
Large cast-iron bells
Two-foot-tall electric sign letters—“r,” “a,” “s,” “R,” “e,” M”
Armless mannequins standing in corners
Aluminum hospital beds
Out back, dumpsters lean crookedly. Two walk-in metal safes sit beneath a devastated oak. A wall-sized sign: “R Liquor.”
Rusted-away signs, “Jax Beer The Drink of Friendship.” Jax Beer sold out more than 50 years ago to a New Orleans brewery.
Half a million bricks in the brickyard.
Beneath the crisp cold sky, a circle of pillars, 50 or 60 feet across, stands in the dirt. Pillarhenge. In the center of the pillars, a rotten and paint-chipped spiral staircase leads nowhere. Its central newel post points to the sky. Behind the alienated staircase stands a giant yellow McDonald’s “M,” the “Golden Arches” themselves. Pillarhenge must somehow be the perfect fractal microcosm of the present world. You have to know where to find it. You have to know this nowhere road out back of this nowhere town.
Wooden sign—“Chicago Arms Apartments”
Ryan grew up around the salvage yard. He stands in front of a wall-size mural of the Main Street Bridge from the 1940s. He likes being out here, no one else around. It feels like the end of the world and the end of the world is comfortable. These open-air sheds hold between 4,000 and 5,000 doors, and today’s fierce wind bangs the doors back and forth against each other and against the tin roofs and side supports.
In 1935, Ryan’s grandfather left his job in real estate and started a wrecking company. This move seemed appropriate. It was the middle of the Great Depression, after all. P.L. Burkhalter’s son Gene took over the business and tore down his own Springfield house, but still served as chairman of the city’s historic preservation commission. Maybe parts of the Springfield house are here. This yard might be the recycling center of Jacksonville, but it’s no headquarters for preservation. Instead it seems to warp the whole city toward its gravity and vacuum it in, pulverizing it in the gravity of its density, and extracting doors and windows and signs and columns and furniture into a distilled and purified and concentrated assemblage of the physical history of the whole town. This salvage yard is a psychogeographical collage.
After Burkhalter’s, Kings Road splits into New Kings Road and Old Kings Road. Though Old Kings travels just two blocks before it dead-ends at railroad tracks, on the other side of the tracks it begins again and continues the original Timucuan trail. Its population has quickly become smaller and sparser.
Past Pritchard Road, small rotten houses with washing machines in their front yards spy through the dense trees. Even the oaks here seem sick. Rusted house trailers sink into the ground. After Trixy Street and Dixie Street, the Dixie flag flaps flaccidly over one house and the house next door and the house next door to that. A handwritten sign on a piece of plywood issues a warning in faded letters that say something about “trespassers” and a “shotgun.” A Confederate flag hangs over the corner of Old Kings Road and Barney Road. Don’t be black here. Or brown. Or Jewish. Or Catholic. Don’t be the wrong political party. Or just about anything else.
All these Confederate flags fly miles down the road from the miserably tanking oldest black college in Florida, both of which occupy this beghosted Timucuan trail. The Americans here don’t recognize the sovereignty implied by the Confederate flag. Nor do the Spanish or the English. The Timucuans don’t either. The Confederate flag holds no purchase on this oldest highway, holds no status on this ancient Timucuan passage.
A burglar broke into the Barney Road house of a woman who had died eight days before. Her son stopped by to check on the house and found his nephew, who after having kicked in the back door, was trying to steal a TV stand, a dresser, and a preserved deer head. The son told police his nephews had threatened to burn down the house if they didn’t get the things they wanted from it.
Several houses down Barney Street, a dirt road leads into dense trees. Back behind these trees is a cleared circle of sandy soil on which 43 cars are parked. Most of these cars have been parked here for decades. Behind this circle stands a thicket of pines and oaks and pines and pines, behind which are parked 39 vehicles—cars, trucks, campers, buses. You can’t see the first circle from the road, and you can’t see the second circle from the first circle. Walk through these trees and junked chassis and search as you might, there appears no way to have driven these cars into these circles, through these trees, from the street.
Coming to the second circle, you had come to the end. The end of the world was far more comfortable back at Burkhalter’s. Here, the end smells like something rotting and simultaneously menacing and very likely to eat you. Maybe it’s not too late to ascend that spiral staircase at the center of Pillarhenge.