by Tim Gilmore, 2/1/2019
They called it “the house where the workers lived.” One of the oldest houses in Duval County, it stands anachronistic and empty in the vines that scale the chimneys on its east and west walls. Front porches span the width of the house, first story and second, rusticated masonry blocks walling the lower porch. Streaks of red and brown stain the old tin roof.
This derelict relic of Oak Grove Plantation, built by John Pickett in the 1850s, stands still in the line of great and massive oaks either side of Old Kings Road just west of Lane Avenue North.
Several outbuildings, even an outhouse, stand back from Old Kings. Low-slung barn-like structures were addended, rebuilt, as original portions came down, decade after decade. What’s left is the old philosophical question of whether, if all the parts of an original structure are rebuilt when demolished, the building that stands is the same structure as the one that’s gone.
John Pickett’s two story Oak Grove house stood across the street from the workers’ dormitory. Nineteenth century photos show the house with its first and second story porches, scrollsaw patterns of elaborate trim decorating the tops of both levels.
The earlier photo shows a horse and carriage on unpaved Old Kings Road, well-dressed men and women on both levels of porch, and a palisade fence surrounding newly planted citrus trees out front. In a later photo, people look down from the upper porch through a growing citrus grove. The house went up in flames in 1943.
After the fire, the cause of which seems never to have been determined, the community coalesced. In the next five years, neighbors helped rebuild the homestead and refurnish it. The newer house today stands at 6636 Old Kings, across from the workers’ house and outbuildings, a palisade fence and scattered citrus beneath the oaks that still stand sentry.
You can tell Oak Grove by the grand oaks towering either side of the tractor trailers that roar ceaselessly down Old Kings. The trees have been growing so long they stand like the weight of history nailed up through the present.
In other old photos, men array themselves, some sitting, some standing, in hats and beards, those without beards drenched in handlebar mustaches, at the back of the workers’ house. They’re all white. If, as on most Southern plantations, slaves had worked Oak Grove prior to Emancipation, there’s no record of them. One man’s clean-shaven. One man wears a bowler hat. Another sits with an accordion in his lap. Barrels stand beside the back porch, an iron water pump in the foreground.
It’s hard to see, through all these years, what connects this isolated rural community. Pickettville, once just called Pickett, dates to a Spanish land grant awarded shipwreck survivors Maria and John Seymour Pickett in 1808. In an undated family history, Joyce Pickett writes of a Minorcan named Antonio Pons and how “Antonio’s daughter Maria, then 15 years old, eventually became Seymour’s second wife.” The Picketts built a sawmill.
Somewhere between Pickett and Dinsmore to the north was a train stop called Britzville named for a nearby plantation owned by Charles Britz. In a few early 20th century references, Britzville is a Duval County ghost town. The pines and swamps had long usurped it. Likewise, in his 1928 History of Duval County, Florida, Pleasant Daniel Gold refers to Pickettville as “the New Pickett Station on the Atlantic Coast Line Railway.”
Pickettville kids attended Six Mile Creek School, the vestiges of which sometime ago disintegrated into the muck up through which grow cypress knees, lianas, and thorny blaspheme vines. Public School No. 44, Pickett Elementary, replaced Six Mile 80 years ago down Old Kings by the Harrison Pickett House. Elworth Pickett, who ran Pickett Dairy, and Jim Pickett appear in a 1961 photo of the Six Mile Creek School reunion of the class of 1900.
The “ladies of the Pickett Club,” which formed in 1924, made and auctioned quilts to raise proceeds for the local mothers’ milk bank. The Civilian Conservation Corps, a New Deal program putting Americans to work in the Great Depression, built the extant clubhouse in 1937. The CCC built a canning kitchen, decades ago demolished, at the back, and in the 1940s, a dance orchestra called Dixie Serenade played the club’s stage every Friday night under the unpainted pine paneling.
In 1991, 66 year old Ollie Gardner told The Florida Times-Union’s Steve Gelsi of the “the frolic” Pickettville had at the clubhouse “every Friday night after the war.” At the Pickett Club, he said, “We’d have a square dance and they’d have some [moon]shine.”
For 31 years, Home Demonstration Agent Pearl Laffitte visited the Pickett Club, later called the Pickettville Civic Club. Demonstration agents were employees of the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Extension Service, whose jobs were to help teach “homemaking” to poor families in rural America.
A 1946 Department of Agriculture publication explained, “Women look to the home demonstration agent for help in their activities having to do with the home and family living. Girls turn to her for guidance and inspiration as they prepare for the future. Farm families generally feel she has a knowledge and a sympathetic understanding of their problems. All know she is a friend.”
A two-page 1961 history of the Pickett Club says Laffitte “served for 31 years, aiding many who were never club members. Retired—not her! Just busy with another job!”
In 1970, Interstate 295’s Pritchard Road exit opened in Pickettville, and since farming was increasingly only profitable for large corporations, not for families, the old families began to sell off agricultural land for industrial purposes. Light and heavy industry had begun to invade Pickettville after World War II. Cow pastures, grapevines and rows of corn gave way to construction of precast concrete, plumbing manufacture, and long lines of tractor trailers.
A 1981 Florida Times-Union neighborhood profile captures the contradiction: “Pickettville is a quiet, rural Westside neighborhood near I-295, crowded now by industry.” Almost 30 years later, Pickettville still looks mostly rural, but when big rigs aren’t idling loudly or jake braking, they double the speed limit down Old Kings and Pritchard Roads and Soutel Drive.
Back in 1981, Herbert Pickett, born in 1899, lamented, “It’s nothing like it used to be. There wasn’t but about five families out here then, a mile or two apart. We grew corn, sweet potato and sugar cane.”
Herbert remembered listening to preachers “in a grove of oak trees” before Inman Memorial Methodist Church was built in 1906 with lumber from the Pickett sawmill. The oldest existing Inman sanctuary was built in the 1930s.
Natalie Pittman, who grew up attending Inman, said in 1981, “There isn’t any more land. We don’t have any subdivisions. A lot of the old farms have been divided up among family or sold.” Old widows lived in small wooden houses and young people moved away. A few heirs of old families still farmed and grazed cows, but most of them were gone. Some vestigial inheritors rented out the old homesteads. Others brought in house trailers and rented them out.
“The elderly haven’t lost their pride that has sustained them all these years,” Pittman said, but they were dying. The old farmhouses, now rental properties for strangers, were falling into disrepair. Church congregations had dwindled to handfuls of oldtimers.
St. Gabriel Ethiopian Orthodox Church moved into Inman Methodist’s sanctuaries and campus when the old church finally folded in 2016. Two weeks prior to this writing, all four of Jacksonville’s Ethiopian and Eritrean churches celebrated Timkat, Ethiopian Epiphany, on these old swampy grounds.
Pickettville’s old Soutel Drive houses have disappeared with the street’s widening in the last two years. Now more than ever, Pritchard / Soutel’s become Pickettville’s tractor-trailer highway. Hipped tin roofs and wide porches once stood where Soutel’s outer lanes now run. Children once lay their heads in the quiet of night where 18-wheelers rivet brakes and roar engines.
A similar old house stands at 6717 Old Kings. Its hipped roof comprises four tin triangular sheets that meet in its apex. The wide four-posted front porch extends into the sinking muck before the square wooden house. The house was built in 1915, moved from nearby to its present location in 1935.
Bulldozers cleared all trees and undergrowth just west of Pickett Dairy. Elworth Pickett, featured in that 1961 photo of the Six Mile Creek School reunion of the class of 1900, built this bungalow at 6607 Old Kings in 1915 and a dairy barn, now gone, out back. With his wife, Gladys Lane Pickett, family namesake of Lane Avenue, where the Pickett Club stands, Elworth operated Pickett Dairy through the middle of the century. Gladys died in 1991, Elworth in ’77, leaving the dairy to daughters Amelia and Evelyn, whose husband Earl Passmore ran Pickett Dairy until its demise.
Just the other side of Soutel, around 1920, the J.B. Thompsons built a two-story house on the surrounding 14 acres of farmland they purchased from Harrison Pickett, great grandson of Seymour Pickett, who built the family sawmill here 200 years ago. The Thompsons moved Harrison Pickett into the house and took care of him here until he died in 1928.
They never imagined Patrick Allen Herald, seven decades later, would walk the house naked but for his mother’s and sister’s underwear; they’d also never heard the term “serial killer.” Herald confessed to killing three of five prostitutes murdered nearby in the early 1990s.
Down by the Pickettville Landfill, which Jacksonville operated from the 1940s to 1977, barred owls whoop over the chromium, lead, arsenic, mercury and cyanide contaminating groundwater. They weren’t impressed with Patrick Allen Herald or Dixie Serenade. They’ve no concern for disputes of the borders of Britzville, Pickett, Biltmore and Dinsmore.
An ever-expanding city swallows up its outside communities. New strangers hide in between. Loners lurk in the original structure between the tearing down and the new construction. The foundation stands in composting dioxins and disposals of minuscule metals. We’ve already contaminated ourselves.
At least we have the photos and the oaks. I hope they live another 500 years and choke out the road. I hope our grandchildren are wise enough to recognize their majesty, respect them, revere them, adore, praise and love them.