by Tim Gilmore, 9/18/2020
1. Nothing Wasted
Urban legends abound out here. So do paper wasps. Half a dozen people have told me the old meatpacking plant and farmhouse is haunted.
The Lord House stares out at Old Kings Road, unseeing. The wasps hiss and drone on the dozens of nests they’ve built in this cavernous front porch. The porch stands up from tall wide brick steps with black wrought iron railings. It shelters beneath a pitched roof, red clay tile. Double doors open toward an ample fireplace.
The house, built at the turn of the 20th century, feels like a fortress. You feel it’s hiding something. Two tall windows, 24 panes each, occupy staunch blocks of stucco to either side of the porch. More red roof tiles coat the sloping wings the Lord family added to both sides in the 1960s.
It was a different place in her aunt’s memory. Donna Bellamy Masters shares with me her 86 year old aunt’s remembrances from the ’60s. “The house had a grand library, an open sunroom across the back and a platform leading out to the cement in-ground pool in the horseshoe-shaped courtyard. The dining room could seat 30 guests. There was a smokehouse nearby and a fishing pond further back.”
Teenagers who lived nearby were sometimes afraid of the place. They’d sneak out into the pine swamp at night with cans of Jax beer and sometimes, when the place was dark, dare each other to see how close they’d walk. They knew it as a cattle ranch and meatpacking plant. They looked for the slaughterhouse. One girl’s father had taken an old mare to have it put down.
But the Lords, Charlie and Lavaughn, were kind people, generous and gracious. If Charlie sold the horsemeat from his slaughterhouse to feed lions at the Jacksonville Zoo and greyhounds at the dog track, well, death was part of life, not the end, and nothing was wasted.
Donna says her Great Aunt Lavaughn “would help out with the slaughtering.” She was a “strong woman” and there was no ranch work her husband did that she wouldn’t do.
David Merritt was about eight years old when he had to take an old horse to the Lords. He remembers the vast field full of horses behind the house. “About all of the large farms had their own butcher and slaughter services,” he says, “just part of farm and ranch life back then.” The slaughterhouse was at the south end of the property, across from where the Old Kings Road Landfill is now.
It was a sad thing taking that old horse to be put down, David says, “but growing up on a farm, you got used to the facts of life. She was old and she was going to die. And then she wouldn’t be in pain any more.”
2. Purple Hearts
Maybe four years after he brought his family’s old horse here to die, David remembers this ranch breeding horses and selling foals. “I do remember a cowboy that lived across the road from us worked there once,” he says. “They apparently did a business in horses at both ends of their lives.”
Michael Faulk remembers Lord buying kerosene from his grandfather and that Lord “did lots of business” with Kirkland Meat Market in Marietta, while Ben Williams remembers “Old Man Kirkland,” from whom he bought hogshead cheese.
It was “Jeff the Tree Guy” turned the swimming pool into a koi pond when he bought the place in the late 1990s, using it as an “exotic” tree farm. “The Tree Guy” would be Jeff Meyer, father of Scott Meyer, who runs the progressive farm Congaree and Penn down Old Kings Road with his wife Lindsey.
Today, windows stand open all around the abandoned house. So do external entrances underneath, doorways without doors, descending to the bomb shelter. Was it Albert Crabtree built the bomb shelter, the insurance adjustor from whom the Lords bought the place?
Over one side entrance beneath the house, those trailing plants called Wandering Jews, Purple Queens or Purple Hearts cascade lavishly, pale purple velvet flowering in the shade. They’re not the only Purple Heart associated with this place. The Lords might never have moved out here if not for the other one.
Inside the house, Venetian blinds hang shattered. Paint peels from the ceiling above the hearth. Broken glass lies strewn through hallways. Just outside, a cascade of mountain rocks slides down the central back wall into the koi pond that fills the courtyard where the swimming pool was. Dragonflies dart over water lilies blooming pink beside Styrofoam cups in the dark water.
3. The Pain That Brought Them to Old Kings Road
Always a quiet sadness lay in Charlie Lord’s face, though he’d have scoffed at such a statement. The man did his work and worked hard. It wasn’t a sadness as much as a stoicism, an asceticism. In a farming community, if the work stopped, life was in danger, though Donna Bellamy Masters says the Lords “were known as the wealthier ones in the family.” In a farming community, nothing could waste. So Charlie ground his teeth and slaughtered the old beasts, and their deaths fed other beasts still in their prime.
That formula chafed, however, at the problem. It seemed only right that your time be yours, but it wasn’t. You didn’t have time. Time, instead, had you, and because time had no conception of itself, it treated you impersonally as well.
A few people knew what cost Charlie. Fewer people knew Lavaughn found the pain even harder to put away, to put by, to put down like an old horse. But the pain, says Donna’s aunt, “‘hardened’ her enough that she could slaughter the horses herself, and often did. Her son was a child when he died like a man in war, just as she was a child when she married that boy’s father.
Emma Lavaughn Riggs was 14 years old when she married Charles Henry Lord in 1925. Charlie was 18 when he married Lavaughn, the same age Charlie, Jr. was when he died. Lavaughn and Charlie the Butcher had Eva Bernice in 1929. They lived in the city still, in a rooming house at 1915 Main Street.
They bought the little woodframe house with the wide front porch at 1836 Bennett Street in Fairfield, just northeast of downtown, when it was new. Charlie was a cattle dealer, kept his family afloat as the nation slogged into the Great Depression. They had Charles, Jr. in October, 1932.
Bernice and Charles, Jr. grew up in that Bennett Street house, the only real home Charles, Jr. ever knew. They built a new house on West 70th Street up in North Shore in 1948. “Charles Jr. never felt like it was home in North Shore,” Donna Bellamy Masters says. “He would often go back to Bennett Street to see his friends.”
Private, First Class, Charles Henry Lord, Jr. was a member of Company B, 1st Battalion, 8th Cavalry Regiment, 1st Cavalry Division. On September 20, 1950, Charlie, Jr. “took enemy fire” in South Korea, earning a Purple Heart, and five days later returned to duty. Not six weeks later, in the Battle of Unsan, near Pyongan in North Korea, Charlie, Jr. was taken Prisoner of War. For another eight and a half months, Charlie was kept prisoner. He died on July 22, 1951. He was 18 years old. He never came home. His remains were never recovered.
“After Charles, Jr.’s death,” Donna says, “the family sold the North Shore house he never liked and moved out to Old Kings Road.” He never knew the ranch that people came to associate with his family. Though he always said his only home was the little house on Bennett Street in the city, his mother would call the ranch home for the next 40 years.
Donna last saw her Great Aunt Lavaughn, then 79 years old, at a funeral in 1990. She died five years later. “She told us she had recently purchased her carpet from the same company as used by Buckingham Palace. She had visited the palace and firmly inquired about the company name before leaving. That tenacity describes her personality,” Donna says. “She was a strong woman and she knew what she wanted.”
It’s hard to walk this dirt path beneath the blue-green line of cedar trees and not think of all the beasts that began and ended their lives right here. Then I stick my eye to a quick dart of green and spy a ruby-throated hummingbird. Recently I read how common swifts stay in the air for years without landing, inhabiting the air like fish live in water. Now I see something I’ve rarely ever seen. The hummingbird lands, perches perfectly on a twig so thin it’s barely visible. Then, just as quickly, it disappears. It lives its own life in its own world, which it allowed me to witness for two or three seconds. And I am grateful.