by Tim Gilmore, 10/19/2020
1. Seven or Eight Nails and One Rule
At the shabby old motel where he grew up, where the Ku Klux Klan burnt a cross and moonshine soaked the pastures, the retired judge still practices law. Donald Matthews spent his childhood chewing tobacco and playing in cow tunnels beneath Normandy Boulevard, while his father ran the Normandy Motel like an army camp.
In fact, it’s a good thing Charles Henry Matthews never caught Jedd and his friends stealing the motel’s fire extinguishers. “My dad was an army master sergeant,” Matthews says. “He had one rule and that was his rule.”
Jedd Dees remembers the motel in the late 1970s, when he was in high school, the buildings painted dark green. “We would steal the fire extinguishers and recharge them with water and air, then drive around in our cars spraying people.”
But the only trouble Donald Matthews remembers came from the Ku Klux Klan. Recently retired as a judge and child support hearings officer, Matthews reopened his law practice in the Normandy Motel’s front office. He says the KKK grew as thick in the nearby woods as the moonshine stills.
The old postcard advertises the motel at Highway 228. “Florida’s finest,” the back of the card reads, “Located 3. Mi. West of Jacksonville. Continuation of Post Street (Normandy Blvd.).” Along the unpaved horseshoe driveway stood eight one-story buildings, each split into two motel units, “All Corner Rooms.”
The Normandy featured “circulating air” and “hot water heat.” Its “Beauty Rest Beds” were “quiet and restful away from the railroads.” Out front stood a gasoline pump beneath a Coca-Cola sign. Seven decades later, one motel cottage stands alone out back, painted shamrock green, doors replaced with plywood and clasped shut.
Donald Matthews first opened his law practice when he bought the old motel from his father in the mid-1970s. A few years later, having rented out the rooms as single-unit apartments, he converted four cabins into one long building in which he and his wife Peggy opened the Gallery of Antiques and Collectibles.
Now in his own mid-’70s, the judge has remained here all his life. “In building this place, my dad did not use one nail,” he says. “Instead he used seven or eight nails where one would do. A bullet will not penetrate this building.” Like the remaining motel structures, he has no plans to go anywhere anytime soon.
2. Cow Tunnels, Homecoming Queen
All this land was cow pasture. Donald Matthews’s maternal grandparents, Thomas W. and Alma Lee Bivins owned maybe 800 acres and 700 cattle. “There’s still some of their buildings back in the woods off Normandy behind the new Publix Supermarket,” he says. Grainy photographs from the 1920s show young Mary Bivins, Donald’s future mother, in that landscape with her German Shepherd, whose name now no one knows. In the earliest photo, he’s still a puppy.
In 1933, Mary was homecoming queen at Robert E. Lee High School in Riverside. Later, the judge says, “She made my dad, when they were courting, park half a mile away because he drove a pickup truck.” By way of explanation, he says the kids who attended Lee back then had money. “White trash,” on the other hand, was “almost colored,” as the distinguishing adjective insultingly implies.
When the State built what Matthews calls “the new highway” in the mid-1940s, naming it for the storming of the beaches of Normandy, Operation Overlord, in the summer of 1944, it sliced the Bivins’s pastureland in half.
“The cows would go up the hill and toward the highway,” the judge says, “so the State built my granddad a tunnel under the highway for the cows to cross. It had a spring in it and we kids used to spend all our time playing down there. We practically lived up under there, always chewing tobacco, ankles deep in mud and cowshit.”
His father Charlie discharged from the military in 1949. He’d fought in the Battle of the Bulge and been shot three times. Matthews’s parents ran the Normandy Motel and the Cecil Motel next door where a CVS Pharmacy stands now. He says his father was strict, but his customers were loyal. “You’re only strangers the first time.”
On one side of the cracked asphalt horseshoe drive stood buildings one through four, now combined as the Matthews’s gift shop, and on the other side buildings six through nine. “There was always a hole, an empty spot, where my dad never built number five.” Buildings eight and nine, now connected, house a nail salon and insurance office, while building seven stands alone.
“My granddad and dad built it as partners,” Matthews says. “They used lumber from tore-down railroad cars. Under the stucco, you can still see the railroad car markings. They built it with what things they could find, and let me tell ya, there’s no better place to be during a hurricane.”
In front of the motel, his parents ran a general store, where they sold candy, bottles of Coke, ice cream and kerosene, with a gas pump out front. Today the bricks are painted orange and the building houses a mobile phone store. You can see the gas pump, the only one for miles, in the old postcard.
“Because you don’t make a lot of money from dairy farming,” the judge says, there were moonshine stills all around Billy Goat Hill, not the hill of the same name in the Cathedral District downtown, but the Normandy Boulevard hill that drops from a Publix Shopping Center to Wills Branch Tributary beneath the Interstate 295 beltway toward Riverside Memorial Park Cemetery. It’s back in there, where hill and creek meet, the old Bivins Dairy buildings stand, slowly collapsing into the earth.
Bivins Road, named for Matthews’s maternal grandparents, runs for a block, holds a gas station, three small houses and a pawn shop across Normandy from what the judge says was “the blood bucket of the Westside.” Today the former Hilltop Inn is Gray and Gray Auto Insurance Agency, with the infamous Shep’s Discount and Salvage, run by former firefighter and convicted arsonist, Shep Ellison, just behind it. The Hilltop featured sawdust shuffleboard. “If you were a stranger and you went in there with them rednecks,” Matthews says, “you might not come out right.”
Trouble from the liquor stills and the Hilltop Inn never made its way to the Normandy Motel, the judge says. “My dad wouldn’t tolerate drinkin’ and cuttin’ up.”
The only trouble was the Ku Klux Klan. The Normandy, Matthews believes, may have been the first white motel in Florida to integrate. “My dad was from Alabama,” he says, “but he was very open-minded. He said if he could serve with black soldiers, they could stay at his motel.”
That was sometime in the middle of the 1950s. Charlie Matthews, always wearing his fedora with a hatband, carried his pistol everywhere, in case of trouble, for three years. One night, the Klan burnt a cross in front of the motel. “They didn’t mess with him for long,” the judge says. “My dad served with Patton. He was a crack shot with his pistol.”
3. Hanging on to Home
Outside the old motel, traffic and gas stations clog the landscape, but Donald Matthews can still see the layout of his childhood. A history major in college, he collected, in his words, “every kind of junk.” He and Peggy first opened the giftshop because he had so much early 1900s Heisey glass, pressed and blown glass figurines and tableware from the A.H. Heisey Company, that they didn’t know what to do with it. It’s a reflection of their hanging on to home in an ever dramatically changing landscape.
So I step into the Gallery of Antiques and Collectibles, walk the nubby ultramarine carpet past floor-to-ceiling shelves of Lampe Berger fragrance oils and into the depths, room after room, passing Hummel figurines, 1970s paintings of sad clowns, porcelain Nativity scenes, Precious Moments plates and a final room full of Christmas figurines. One sign says, “All Christmas figurines in this room, 75% off,” and the Post-it Note beside it says, “If it was 75% off, it is Now…80% off.”
Peggy, Donald’s wife, daughter-in-law of the erstwhile motel owners, says they’ve owned the shop for 33 years. “We’ve sold most of the antiques over the years,” she says, “but we still have lots of exquisite collectibles.”
Her main business these days comes from Lampe Berger oils and lamps. She points to the oils perched on clear glass shelves to my left, “fragrances that range from no fragrance at all to the woods to eucalyptus.” On my other side, an arrangement of lamps stands to the ceiling, “and they range in price from $35 to $600.”
Lampe Berger, Peggy says, originated in Paris in the 1800s, when oils were burnt to kill bacteria and odors. Sales have been good during the Covid-19 pandemic. The eucalyptus oil, Peggy says, is coming through the vents in the store right now.
4. After All This Time
In one photo from her later years, Mary Matthews wears clown makeup. In another, she wears a live python around her neck. Elsewhere, she’s nestled down in a recliner, with pillows advertising “Fabulous NONI” and “White Trash Cooking” recipes, beside a Rummikub box, with a snow white cockatoo perched on her arm.
A color-added photo shows Mary, decades younger, wearing a peach gown with sheer sleeves, her hair curled, dimples either side of her smile, a bouquet of roses in her arms, a bold but slender gold statement of a watch on her wrist, and high school diploma, tied in a ribbon, held loosely in one tiny fist. This is Mary Matthews, the homecoming queen.
Faded photos show a broad forehead, Nordic brow ridge, buttons to high collar, then those dimples matched to earrings, modestly, brocade upon breast, posed with her firstborn son, his hair buzzed short on the sides, longer on top, folded over with a military sheen. This little boy is Tommy, Donald Matthews’s older half-brother, from Mary’s first marriage. Tommy’s father was an alcoholic, abusive, and Alma Lee wanted to kill him.
The curves in old cars, 1950s, early ’60s, shimmer and gloss like the backs of beetles beneath shade trees on this rugged horseshoe road. In another old photo, the family car parks before a rounded travel trailer at a fishing camp, striped awning out front, traveler’s chests and Adirondack chairs.
This cool October morning, the savory smoke from Caribbean jerk chicken blows from a grill vent on a nearby sidewalk. Hemi engines on pickup trucks taller than the houses on Bivins Road rattle windows. White boys drive trucks waving Confederate flags and blasting hip hop. Fast food joints have replaced the cattle and the longleaf pine woods fell to parking lots. Yet landscapes stand in layers, palimpsests, and if you scratch the tissue-thin present, the past bleeds up.
“We probably need to step back some from the shop,” Matthews says, though selling collectibles “was always part-time.” Having grown up here, having bought the place out from his father when the franchise motels and hotels, the Holiday Inn and Ramada down on Lane Avenue, and mobile homes that rented for three or four dollars a night at Naval Air Station Cecil Field, drove the “mom and pop” motels out of business, he’s rooted at this intersections of Normandy Boulevard and Fouraker Road. He first met Peggy, in fact, working on his grandfather’s dairy farm, when they were small children. When he made judge, the Matthewses ran the old motel as antique shop and law firm, and now that he’s retired, the Normandy Motel headquarters his practice once again. “We’re getting on up in years,” he says, “and we been here near about forever. Where would we go after all this time?”