Mr. and Mrs. Billy Arnold Oral History
Mr. & Mrs. Arnold Oral History, Billy Arnold, Mrs. Arnold, and Susan Payment, 1989.
Oral history interview concerning life on Ft. George Island
Transcribed at National Park Service, Kingsley Plantation by Ken Jones on February 27, 2009.
KINGSLEY PLANTATION STATE HISTORIC SITE
ORAL HISTORY PROJECT
SUBJECT; MR. & MRS. BILLY ARNOLD
The following is a transcription of an oral interview that was conducted with Mr. and Mrs. Billy Arnold on September 17, 1989. The subjects were interviewed at their home on Fort George Island by Museum Guide, Susan Payment. Throughout the transcriptions, the initials of the person speaking will be used for identification: Billy Arnold (BA), Mrs. Arnold (MA), and Susan Payment(SP).
SP: I’m speaking with Mr. and Mrs. Billy Arnold of Fort George Island and the date is September 17, 1989 and, uh, we’re going to discuss their remembrances of life on the island during their years here. First of all, I’m going to ask you both—you were born in Duval County and raised here?
BA: Yes, I was born in Jacksonville and raised here always.
SP: How about you? (to MA)
MA: I was born here and my father was born here and my grandfather was born here.
SP: Goodness. (Laughs)
MA: We’ve been here since 1866—not I—I haven’t been here since 1866, but almost.
SP: And tell me about your first remembrances of the island. Obviously, you’ve both been coming out here for quite a number of years. But, Mr. Arnold, did you come out here first and then once you got married—you came out here? (to MA)
BA: Well, when I began coming to the island, I was brought here by my father with my mother and his friends and I was about—a little under four years old when we started coming down on the boat. And then I remember many things about the inlet over here where they used to throw me off the bow of the boat and catch me and laugh and catch me at the stern ladder when I was about four or five years old and could hardly swim, but—
SP: You didn’t appreciate that.
BA: And then Heckscher Drive was built and Heckscher Drive had all wooden bridges. It was a narrow—about a one and a half lane road and had two little toll booths—10¢ each. And we’d come down here when we didn’t come in the boat, they would bring me down here with ‘em in the old automobile. I remember sitting between my father and one of the vice presidents of Barnett Bank, Frank Norris, in the front seat in shorts, and they wore pants that would just wear my legs out and I was afraid to say anything. And then when we got down here, the Club was built in 1926. They would spend long days and nights down here. And the dog and I would sleep on the sofa in the front of the fireplace in the bunkhouse until they got ready to take me home. Rhydon Dennette, the Rhydon Dennette that you interviewed’s father, was here then and he had a black dog about this high and he trained a black crow to ride on the dog’s back. And you know when you’re that age those things impress you more than anything in the world. And to this day, that was a highlight of my visit to Fort George for about a year or two.
SP: Watching the dog and the crow.
BA: Watching the dog and the crow.
SP: So your family didn’t have a house out here at that time?
SP: They stayed mainly in the Clubhouse?
BA: No, the houses that are here now were built when my father, Don Barnett, Frank Norris and others started Ribault Club. And they were build—the house down here that the state now owns—was build by Atwater Kent who’s a famous radio magnate at the time, one of the biggest men in the world in radio.
SP: The Castle or the Betz House?
BA: Yes. It was built by Atwater Kent. The house next door was built about the same time—I don’t know who built it—and the Barnetts bought that for about $1,200, including furniture, linens, china, everything. And the house up here, I don’t remember who built that, that was bought by Dr. Deerenforth for $5,000 including everything. The little house falling down behind it—fell down, nobody bought it.
BA: But those were the first houses that were gonna be residential, single family community on large lots in this new development around the golf course. The golf course was nine holes then. The Clubhouse was built, the lodge over here was built. The lodge was mostly bedrooms and a little living room area. And uh, that’s how the houses got here except for, of course, the Blues’ house was already here.
BA: That’s over a hundred years old. The Chapelles’ house was already here, which was built for the Mannings. But the houses right in this area all were built to do with the Ribault Club deal they were trying to get going and I gave you a little brochure showing the members and where they were from—what areas.
SP: Very helpful yeah.
BA: They are the ones that were the members. And when the Depression came, of course, it folded and mainly the Ribault Club—people were so busy losing money in the North and around—there wasn’t much activity for many and that’s when the Barnetts and the Deerenforths picked up these houses for such a reasonable price. And this property was owned by Frank Norris, one of the original ones, which I got from him over forty years ago.
BA: That’s how I came to be here.
SP: So you owned this property for over forty years—
BA: Over forty years.
SP: And you didn’t build on it until…
BA: About eleven years ago, I started. Because of many reasons.
BA: I was engaged to Bobbie, my wife, and before we were married, I said I have this beautiful property on Fort George Island and she said—“and we could build down there,” I said. And she said, “Well, what will we do if we had kids—where would they go to school?” I said, “We’d put them on the ferry and they’d go to school at Mayport.” So we lived in town ever since.
SP: And you weren’t wild about that idea.
BA: And we lived in town, right after I said that “ferry”.
SP: (to MA) When did you first come out here with him?
MA: I think when we were dating. I remember slapping at mosquitos. It was just a beautiful place and we would come here and ride around and look at his lot, naturally.
SP: But you were a little reluctant about raising a family out here?
MA: We talked about living there. For some grand sum like $30,000, wasn’t it?
BA: $35,000 we could have bought that for. We didn’t have it then.
SP: In the 1950’s?
BA: Early 19__ just before the state bought it. Just before the state bought it, whenever that was. I think it was in the late 40’s.
MA: We should have taken a picture of my mother’s face when Billy was recounting that he was going to live on Fort George.
SP: She wasn’t that sold on the idea either?
MA: It wasn’t too good.
SP: Well, obviously, you’ve seen the Plantation go through changes—when it was the Army-Navy Club, did you ever go down to the grounds to play around or—
BA: Yes, you know, my father and his friends, we would go down there occasionally and they had boats—the outboard motor boats that came with a big boat and they would run over there and go ashore occasionally and I was always with them. Along with their kids.
SP: Do you remember what the grounds looked like?
BA: Not really, not at that age.
SP: Right. You dad was a member of the Army-Navy Club or not?
BA: No, the Army-Navy Club was started by Admiral Blue for Army-Navy retirees only.
BA: And my father and Don Barnett and Frank Norris and the others started the Ribault Club, which is the Club here called the Fort George Club now. And this development area included the golf course area.
SP: Were there any members that were members of both clubs?
BA: Yes, yes. Admiral Blue was, for example. And Admiral Bassett, I believe was. Anybody that was a member retired Army and Navy were a member of that club—most of them were members of the Ribault Club also.
SP: Obviously, the Ribault Club had a fairly successful membership up until –
BA: Had a wonderful group of big people. Rockefellers, well, you have the list there. Rockefellers, Atwater Kents and uh…
SP: The Mellons.
BA: Mellons, the duPonts, and they were big people in this country and in the world, that were members of this Club, thinking it would be an island place to come to—like Jeckyll Island.
BA: That type of place.
SP: It just never really took off, though.
BA Because of the Depression.
SP: Because of the Depression—mainly because of the –
BA: Yeah—the Crash in 1929, I guess it was.
SP: Were there any orange groves out here when you were growing up?
BA: I don’t recall any except Ken Merrill bought the Atwater Kent house down here and he had an orange grove from the house to the water.
SP: But a very small one?
BA: Very small. Just his personal orange grove. There was a big sand dune on the water and he was back on the hill and he didn’t get enough breeze—so he bulldozed that sand dune down to the ground and nothing’s grown on it since. Wouldn’t be allowed to do that today. Course this is all sand dune territory. This little hill that the house is on is a sand dune. The big hill you came through by the gate is a sand dune.
SP: How long have—the Knauers have been out here for a number of years as well—
BA: Donna Knauer is the daughter of the Barnetts and the Barnetts bought that house that I told you about—about fifty years ago.
BA: They just love it down here. They’re down here always, as much as they can be.
MA: She was talking yesterday about the use of kerosine lanterns when she was a little girl in the house and then they bought a generator that never worked so they kept the kerosine lanterns anyway.
SP: It’s a good thing to keep today.
BA: Yeah, we needed them last night. And then they had the crank telephones down here too. You know where you crank it—
SP: Uh huh.
BA: You’ve probably seen those in antique shows.
SP: What was the service like—pretty bad? It’s not good today.
BA: It was do-it-yourself.
MA: Billy, the Club provided water to these houses, too, didn’t they?
BA: The Club has a water line that runs right down to here and supplied the water to the—of course there’s no electricity on the island period at that time. It was to be brought in, but hadn’t been. The paved road was a shell road, when they paved that we thought the island had been developed. We were sick over it and that was—gosh, I guess, thirty five years ago.
MA: Must have been.
BA: After the Club had folded. It hadn’t completely folded—almost.
SP: How about the interior of the Clubhouse, do you remember it?
BA: Yeah, I remember it very well, because I was in there quite a lot. I remember the tremendous fireplace. The big red couch was there until Reinhold auctioned off his furniture. And I wanted it, but Bobbie said we can’t have that big old ugly couch—the one you used to sleep on with the dog. I remember the Club very well. We had meals there and we played there and my family—in fact there were rooms upstairs in the Club, bedrooms, and there were rooms in the Lodge and sometimes we stayed overnight in the Lodge rooms and the rooms in the Clubhouse. And then Bobbie and I, after we had kids, we stayed in the Clubhouse rooms.
SP: This one?
BA: Yes. We used to like to come out for long weekends and bring our outboard motor boat and stay in the Club or the Lodge.
MA: We used to have house parties down there. Bring friends, you all come down.
SP: And stay there?
MA: It was a little primitive, but it was fun. The food was so good, because Mrs. Browning was a wonderful cook.
SP: Oh really?
MA: The lady who ran the Club.
SP: How about the Lodge? When did that fall to pieces? I mean, obviously—
BA: It began falling to pieces after the Club had folded and the Club was sold by the Ribault Club to four individuals who bought the Ribault Club and all of the Ribault property including the golf course for $90,000. And then the Lodge began to fold probably about thirty years ago, I would say. They used it even after this group bought it for awhile, then it began to deteriorate and not be used.
SP: Then there really was no attempt to –
BA: No attempt to fix it up—it just deteriorated to the extent that they stopped using it altogether and then, you know, now it’s just about to fall down.
SP: Right, yeah, it’s unfortunate. And it was Reinhold who expanded the golf course?
BA: Reinhold added the nine holes in the 60’s. It was always designed for eighteen holes, but when the Club opened they only put in nine. They were going to add the nine later. And Reinhold added the nine holes.
SP: And they were never added just because of after the Depression they decided not to do that.
BA: No, I think—you see the Club opened in 1927, late ’27. The big opening in the full page newspaper I have was early ’28. And there were only nine holes then, and then a year and a half after that, the big Crash hit—so they put everything on hold to see how they were going to do. So that’s why—they were going to go right ahead with the next nine holes in a short period of time until the Crash hit ‘em.
SP: Were the marsh tackies out here when you first came out here?
BA: I never seen a deer or a pony on this island.
SP: A deer or a pony, okay!
BA: I know I would remember it if I had. A marsh tacky—now, over on little Talbot Island—
SP: Uh huh.
BA: --there were a tremendous number of hogs and rattlesnakes.
BA: And they were there, in fact, there were hog pens over there.
SP: Oh really.
BA: Where the people just went on the island and put up an old pen and trapped ‘em and sorted ‘em and sold ‘em and took ‘em off.
SP: What other sorts of wildlife do ya’ll remember? Snakes?
MA: One rattlesnake in particular.
SP: Oh really?
BA: Well, there’re not really a lot of rattlesnakes on the island, but they are here. The rattlesnakes like Little Talbot better than any island I’ve ever heard of. And on this island, it was mostly birds. Bobbie and I, I remember, we were over there looking at an old ugly stork in a tree forty years ago, a little less than that. And the same things that are here now, the gopher tortoise, indigo snake.
SP: You’ve never seen any bobcats here, though?
BA: We’ve seen the bobcats!
BA: Oh yeah.
MA: We saw the panther one day.
SP: Oh yeah?
BA: The bobcats just disappeared a few years ago.
SP: There really aren’t any on the island at this time?
BA: I think they’re gone now. We haven’t seen any in about four years.
MA: We saw the panthers come across the inland waterway one day. It was quite impressive.
BA: But the bobcats were here and you can see the tracks and we’d see ‘em around the island.
SP: How about foxes? One of the rangers—
BA: Never seen a fox on the island.
MA: It’d be unusual. It’s amazing that there aren’t any. And also the deer. Because nearby, there’re a lot of deer. Over on the Davis’ and the Hodges’ property.
BA: And at Cumberland Island. Cumberland Island’s full of deer.
MA: There’s so many deer.
SP: It is surprizing.
MA: And pigs. And a lot of things that can swim so you wonder why they didn’t swim over.
SP: Right. I think it was Mr. Dennette was telling me something about either a cattle farm or a hog farm over on Big Talbot.
BA: Very likely. Yeah. We didn’t go there. I was down with my family and they were down with the Barnetts and he usually had his yacht down here. So we kind of concentrated walking across Little Talbot—the bridge wasn’t there, no roads were on it—to the beaches. And we didn’t go to Big Talbot much at all. They used to go up—the olders, my father and Don Barnett—used to go up to Cumberland Island to visit with those people up there. But we didn’t—very seldom we ever went on Big Talbot. So I don’t know what was there really.
MA: One of the rangers said he thought the deer were just hunted out—completely. And then just never came back.
SP: That’s a possibility. But you’re right, it is surprizing that I’ve never really heard of deer being—
MA: There were hogs here—they were way back—because they said they kept the underbrush cleaned out. They’re having a problem with ‘em on Cumberland.
SP: Well, they used to have a bad problem with ‘em on Little Talbot as well, until they rounded ‘em up and took ‘em off. But yeah, it is one of the problems. What they have to face at state parks is the hogs because of the camping, the nuisance.
MA: Well and they destroy the young trees.
SP: Yeah. As far as anything else going on in this area—any activities on this island or on Little Talbot or Big Talbot or even Amelia—what do you remember as far as the 20’s and the 30’s and 40’s?
BA: Well, the stone crab were up in Nassau Sound and my dad and his friends used to get in the small boats and go up to Nassau Sound for stone crab and some fishing that we didn’t seem to be able to do successfully here. And they went marsh hen hunting. I never was a hunter and never did go with them. But they would like to hunt marsh hen during the season at the real full moon high tides all around this area. And that was up around Big Talbot as well as Little Talbot and Fort George Island.
SP: Marsh hens are not really edible though, as you said before.
MA: They ate ‘em.
BA: They ate ‘em.
SP: They did eat them?
MA: They had a certain way of cooking them.
BA: There’s a way you cook ‘em. And there’re not many people that can make them edible. (Laughs) They did.
MA: It’s one of those recipes: you take two quarts of white wine and you can eat most anything if you do it that way.
SP: That’s right.
BA: Rhydon Dennette’s, that you interviewed, dad was one of the best hunters and best fishermen in the world and he knew everything about this area. And Ken Merrill, who bought the house down here which you call the Betz house, and Rhydon Dennette were very close and they used to hunt and fish together and they knew everything about this island, including how to cook marsh hen. (Laughs)
MA: We used to come down and have oyster roasts and that was maybe before I knew Billy very well. And we’d go to the Deerenforth’s house and of course we ate the local oysters, we didn’t know any better. And they were wonderful; they’re still good.
SP: Oh yeah.
BA: Well, we had, in our younger days, we had dates in town and ‘course the girls had to be in at a certain hour that was too early for the boys so we had to take the girls home. We got in a boat, we’d come all the way down to Fort George Island—get down there at one in the morning, spend a couple of days and go back.
SP: Just the boys.
BA: Yeah. Well, the girls couldn’t go. Fine with us. (Laughs) But we had a good time around this island. We’d anchor on a sand bar at high tide cause in those days you didn’t pay much attention to where you were and the tide would go out and we’d be high and dry. Be walking around the boat and have to wait six hours to get off. Things like that. Florida Yacht Club had cruises down here twice a year that were interesting.
SP: How long did it take you to get down here from there? By boat?
BA: Well, it took us then about three hours. And ‘course it depends on the boat and how fast…
MA: How long did it take us in the “Gazer”?
BA: Three and a half.
MA: Three and a half? This boat up here. We brought the girls down for years.
BA: This is a 47 foot yacht that I owned for fifteen years, that was built in 1934 and I was the second owner and we used to bring that down here quite frequently and anchor over here with our three daughters. And we’d come down for the week, ten days occasionally, and long weekends other times.
MA: No generator.
BA: We would tow the outboard motor boat and put that little dinghy in the water.
MA: Alcohol stove.
BA: Get crabs.
MA: Nice big chunk of ice in the box.
BA: It was very primitive, but the boat was the same…I sold that boat and the couple I sold it to lived on it for five years. And when they sold it, they called me and said everything’s exactly the same. The barometer is still broken as it was when I sold it to them. And we didn’t change anything from 1934. Beautiful mahogany.
SP: Oh, it looks like a wonderful boat.
BA: But anyway, that’s a Fort George—spent a lot of time at Fort George in that boat.
MA: Had a little cabin in front for the crew, you know, a little cabin in there. And of course, we didn’t have any crew. I guess I was the crew. But I was always amazed that someone would have designed a yacht with…
SP: Do you know where that boat is?
BA: It is in Sanford now.
SP: Is it?
SP: It looks really comfortable.
BA: It’s really well-built, heavy plank.
MA: We’d go to the games twice a year on it and take our friends.
BA: Football games.
SR: Really? That’s a good idea.
MA: Yeah. A lot of fun.
SP: That would definitely be a—
MA: The grown-ups would be in the main cabin and we’d give the back deck to the kids.
SP: How many did it sleep, total?
MA: Oh, to sleep we usually had—well, there were five of us.
BA: One – two – three – four – five – six bunks.
MA: Could have slept six . But we’d just go you know for the day. We’d take about twenty five to the game.
SP: A water taxi.
BA: The company American – American Car and Foundry built pullman cars and yachts, that’s the only yacht they built. And we had bunks like you had in the old trains that fold down. With a big Pullman thing you’d turn and fold down your bunk, all made up and fold it back up so you had room to use your boat. But that boat loved Fort George, as we do. (Laughs)
MA: Billy sailed star boats for many years and his stars were all named “Alimacani” for the island.
SP: Oh really?
MA: Chief Alimacani.
SP: That’s right.
MA: We always have a discussion about how to spell it.
SP: There is. A lot of people spell it with an “a”, with an “i”, without an “i”.
MA: We spell it with an “i”, but I guess the Indians didn’t quite use –
BA: Bobbie and I researched that the best we could and we found that it was supposed to be with an “i”.
BA: Do you know?
SP: I’ve seen it more frequently with and “i” than with anything else so…
MA: I think it’s probably someone at Kingsley nailed it down for us.
BA: We looked at some old documents that had it with an “i” and we assumed that was the original name.
MA: Some of Ribault’s writings—they spell it with an “i”.
SP: Uh huh. I’m more partial to the “i”.
BA: And I had that on the stern of my sailboat, Susan, and when we raced you know, they said “What’s the name of that—spaghetti? Is that the name of the boat—spaghetti?” And I’d say, “No, that’s the Alimacani.” (Laughs)
SP: Nobody knew quite what that was.
MA: Yeah, that chief was quite a powerhouse.
MA: The French would have died right away without the Indians’ help.
SP: Has there been much of an effort to explore the Timucuans on this island? I understand that some of the mounds were opened up in the 1920’s. Quite a few things that I’ve read and uh—
BA: Parts of the mounds have been opened over the years and uh—but nothing really professionally done to excavate them. And uh, I was talking to someone at your meeting the other day who was very, very determined for somebody to excavate the top of Mount Cornelia.
SP: I think I can guess who that is.
BA: There must be something there, he thinks. But anyway, I’ve heard of Indian burial grounds where they’re buried in circles with their arms like that. So that’s been looked at. And that’s on private property, I understand.
MA: And then the Christian burials may be different.
BA: chappelle’s site was probably one of the older sites that probably has—you can just dig anywhere and find pottery, and arrowheads and things on their property, ‘cause that was supposedly an Indian village. They have twenty acres there, the Chappelles. But that’s private property, too, but they would probably allow some professionals to excavate if anybody wanted to do it.
SP: If we could ever get it together and have it done. It’s something that does need to be done.
BA: It does.
SP: We did discuss that after the meeting. And more than a specific survey, a general survey would need to be done first to determine exactly what the best point to do a specific dig would be. I mean, obviously, Mount Cornelia is a subject that has been on a lot of people’s minds for a long time. But in addition to that, there’s a number of other things that probably should be checked out prior to that.
BA: There are many more historic sites than there are recorded in that twenty six sites they list as you know. There’s many many more on this island.
MA: Thank goodness they won’t be bulldozed.
SP: Not anymore. Hopefully. Yeah, I know some of the ring mound has been bulldozed through. But one thing that we’re going to try and locate—once it cools down and the mosquitoes die off—is the graveyards for the plantation. We’re not quite sure, but we need to really know where they are and we’re going to go out and poke around.
MA: And you know that the two above-ground graves that are up on the golf course.
SP: According to Rhydon Dennette and his dad, well his dad more than Rhydon Dennette Jr., he claims that there isn’t anything buried in there. I don’t know about that.
BA: The crypts?
SP: Right. That there’s nobody buried six feet under.
BA: Well, most crypts were—the same family has crypts like that up in Savannah—the McIntosh family—
SP: Uh huh, they do?
BA: And the crypts are above where they’re buried.
SP: Yeah, they’re—
MA: It’s like a tombstone.
BA: So they think that there were bodies under that.
MA: You know that cup that I gave you that that Georgia gentleman that dug it out and he talks about a crest being on the tomb and he thought that it was of Spanish origin. We don’t know if he means that one or not.
SP: That’s what we were wondering, too, I said, do you think he’s possibly just confused and you know he saw the McIntosh crypts and there were no markers on them at the time uh—
MA: It would be wonderful if we could find that crest—wouldn’t it?
SP: Yeah. It really would be. As far as the markers—you gave me the photographs of—I read other things, that they were not placed until the late 19th century when Rollins owned the property and these McIntosh descendants came down and said they wanted to place the markers on the graves—that’s a possibility—obviously they’re in very good condition—
BA: For that length of time.
SP: Right. You know, so—that would still make them a hundred years old.
BA: Uh huh. Authentic with the dates and all, probably accurate.
SP: Who knows. We may never know the answer to that one.
BA: Don’t tell anybody.
MA: I hadn’t thought about that. They probably used wooden markers.
SP: At the time, yeah. That’s why they’re non-existent and the same with the Kingsley burial ground—the slave burial ground—most likely they used wood.
BA: They used stone markers in those days, I’ve seen them in many areas.
MA: Maybe not at Fort George, that’s what I was thinking.
SP: Yeah, I think that the stone would have had to have been brought in, but obviously, I mean, they were wealthy and could have brought in markers. But who knows. I know according to Gertrude Rollins’ rememberings, her dad took ‘em down and destroyed them. Other people said that’s not true, I don’t know.
SP: That Mrs. Rollins didn’t want a graveyard that close to the house or something like that.
SP: Especially folks that she was not related to. That didn’t mean a lot to her. So we may not ever know what really happened to it if we can’t even locate the graveyard.
MA: Cold-blooded, huh?
SP: It’s a little, yeah. Do you know that much about the Rollins era out here?
BA: Not really, no, only what I’ve read and heard and not too much that you haven’t read and heard probably.
SP: Let me ask you a question. Would you like to tell me about the Friends of Fort George?
SP: How it came to be.
BA: When Fairfield was looking around here and it was announced unofficially to certain individuals, including myself, that they had planned to come in here, acquire this property. And, uh, they came by my office to see me and talk to me. I don’t know why they selected me, but they did, and others, too. They had some early-on maps of what they planned to do with it and immediately, I said to myself, that can’t be done, because the island is too small and it would absolutely devastate a very historic site. And so I talked to some people on the island and we decided we had better form a group. So we had a meeting in the Community Club on Heckscher Drive with the property owners and some others around this area. And we started the Friends of Fort George Island and we incorporated as a non-profit organization and we elected officers and we had a very loose membership arrangement.
BA: But one time I presented the City of Jacksonville City Council a petition with over 2,000 names on it who were members of the Friends of Fort George Island and only registered voters were allowed to sign the petition, so we don’t keep an accurate enough records to know how many we have, but at the height of it I’d say we had over 2,000 members. And now if we wanted to get them together for some cause, we probably could again.
BA: But we’re not—we don’t have regular meetings, we talk among ourselves and we have become well-known in the state regarding this eight year battle to save Fort George Island. The Friends of Fort George have done more and gotten Audubon Society, we got Sierra, we’ve gotten Florida Wildlife Federation—the Friends of Fort George have gotten those people to help with this thing. If it hadn’t been for the Friends of Fort George, they wouldn’t have done anything about it.
SP: And when was the Friends of Fort George officially founded—eight years ago?
BA: Uh huh. Eight years ago and it’s still in existence, and now we’re trying to help you with a thing called the “Management Plan”.
SP: That’s fine. We appreciate all the help we can get.
BA: If you want our help.
SP: Yeah, definitely. I think it’s important, obviously, that there’s a cooperative effort between the residents and state.
BA: And during this eight year period, we have gotten experts from the Smithsonian Institute to help us, from Puerto Rico to help us and certain plant life, animal life, historic people. University of Florida, Florida State University—all over the area—we’ve gotten people interested in this island who’ve come to visit it and study it and help us without charge during this eight year battle. Fairfield had paid as many as twenty consultants and their firms. We had more knowledgeable consultants, more consultants doing the same thing—honestly and not for money. Not that they weren’t doing it honestly, too, but I mean they were being paid to do it and these were not. And the Friends did all that and they elected me to be their spokesman with full authority to do what I needed to do. And I didn’t do it on my own—I always checked with everybody before I did things, but we needed one person to head it up and I was willing to do it to help save the island and that’s why I get all this notoriety and people cuss me—
SP: Your name in the paper.
BA: People cuss me and praise me.
MA: You get the praise and the blame—it’s all the same.
BA: And I say—let it go as long as we’ve saved it—I don’t care what they say against me or about me.
SP: That’s right.
BA: That’s the way I feel about it.
SP: Well, that’s a good attitude to take, I think.
MA: They just passed the hat when they needed funds.
BA Is that enough about the Friends—you think? No dues, no set funds; we just chipped in as we needed to.
SP: I see. And your plans for the Friends are just as a --on a per-need basis?
BA: Yes, on a per-need basis regarding Fort George Island.
MA: Watch dog.
BA: Many have said, “Well, can the Friends join this crusade against something else?” And we would not do that. We would not deviate from activities on the Fort George Island and the surrounding waters and marshes of this area. Now Timucuan Preserve—Charlie Bennett—we were a little active on that, but Fort George was included in that.
SP: Right. It really was?
SP: Okay. As far as the island being federally managed—what are your views on that?
BA: Well – my views and the views that I hear, because my exposure during this eight year battle, people stopped me on the street to talk about Fort George Island. They called me on the phone to talk about Fort George Island. They write me letters. And I listen to all of that. And just to analyze what they’re telling me—what the large majority say—is that they think it’s much better for the state to own and manage this island than the Federal Government, because the state is closer to home. And they think the State does a good job with their park system. Not that the Federal Government does not, but the large majority and I also, believe the State is by far the best agency—best government to manage this island. And I’ve always felt that way and I worked very hard to have the State get in a position so they could buy it—to get the seller in a position so they would sell it to the State. That was one of my main aims to do.
SP: That was kind of nice to hear Wednesday night, I was kind of surprised when the issue was brought up—that overall the feeling was that it should be managed by the State.
BA: Yeah, well Al Gregory asked that question and the answer was pretty loud that they wanted the State—
SP: And clear, yeah.
BA: --and they didn’t want the Federal Government. Well, I mean, the Federal Government does a good job in places, but they think for this island, the State is much better. The state owns property to the north—Little Talbot—on the island, and they manage the bird sanctuary, which, they say, as long as they keep it a bird sanctuary. So why put somebody in the middle, and as has been said, I think you heard it the other night—I wish you’d been there Thursday night, too, cause things were said a lot more strongly by different people, including myself, but—this island is too small for two governments. In other words, you wouldn’t want the Federal Government and the State government…You wouldn’t want the city government and the State government—you want the State. Or one of the others, but the State’s here—let’s work with the State and get them to enjoy it and be interested in it and make it good for people.
SP: You mentioned Thursday night, I believe, that you saw this area as a cooperative advantage—the Talbot Islands, this island—as a complex almost?
BA: No. No, what I said—that it had been suggested to me, that some name be used that would include Fort George Island, Little Talbot, Big Talbot and Long Island—such as the islands in the state of Georgia are called the “Golden Isles”—but we would not lose the identity of any of the islands.
BA: But you could call it—I didn’t suggest a name—but I mean one name—when you say the islands of north Florida, you would mean—
SP: All of them are taken into consideration.
BA: All of them when you say that—when you say the Golden Isles, you mean all of the island off of Georgia. So that would just tie the complex together, it wouldn’t have anything to do with the management of it.
BA: But, of course, the State does manage it.
MA: It’s just identity.
BA: It’s just identity. You talk about Fort George, say—“Where is that? Is that near Talbot?” See, but when you say the name, it includes them all.
SP: Say it’s one of the such and such islands.
BA: Now that was suggested to me very strongly. In fact, people would call me and say, “Billy, be thinking of a name.” Now that wasn’t new to me, I’d just say, “Okay.”
MA: I’m afraid the city thinks they already have one when they call it “The First Coast.”
BA: No, it’s not that. I mean, the First Coast is something else. It’s—
MA: There’s a sign.
BA: It’s not what I’m talking about.
SP: I don’t know. It doesn’t—it’s really Jacksonville itself—Jacksonville proper almost.
BA: What I wanted to do was just let them know Thursday night what people were saying and if I agreed with it, I told them I did or if they said something I didn’t, I told them I didn’t. But I do agree with that if anybody wants to do it.
SP: Let me ask you this—ask you both this. Where do you foresee Fort George and the area going, say ten years from now? What would you like to see? I mean, obviously you gave some of your opinions the other night.
BA: Fort George Island, in my opinion would have to be a golfing island and nothing else. Or an educational, recreational, historical island and not a golf—it can’t be both. Because the roads, in our opinion and those people that call me in mind, that every road on this island is a scenic road and you don’t widen scenic roads. You don’t pave scenic roads, because the run-off from the paving would damage things. So the roads really must stay the same for it to be Fort George Island. Well, if the golf course is kept a golf course, and the play is increased to allow to make a profit or split even, then the traffic would be so bad that it could not be used for the recreational such as walking, hiking, bicycling and tours. It would be too dangerous, because there would be so many cars coming off and on those narrow roads.
BA: Constantly. So it can’t be both is the opinion of mine and many others. It’s got to be one or the other and someone’s got to make that decision and I assume the State will.
MA: Salt water intrusion is a big problem. Very high chlorides here, we can’t drink this water. It would continue to get worse I assume if they watered that course the way it should be.
BA: But you ask about the future of Fort George Island—the future I would like to see in ten years or whatever period you want to go ahead is that it be a limited island as far as automobiles are concerned, with some kind of gate with a card you punch in or something to keep everybody from just running around here. And good signs and good self-conducted tours as well as conducted tours. And people would love this island if given the opportunity through paths to go to certain areas that I can show you and you probably know are so beautiful. And up on this corner then could be a wood tower, tree height, where it wouldn’t even be noticed, where people could go up—there’s some at Amelia Island—and from that tower, they can see the ocean. I have a little platform on top of this house, I can go up and see the ocean. They can see Big Talbot, Fort George, Little Talbot and the ocean from there. And they have a nice beautiful area to get up to it, walking area or hiking area or a riding—bicycle riding area. So the future of this island, I hope it will be very much the same as it is now as far as the way it looks. But I hope it will be used by many many more people than it’s used by now, excluding golfers. Now if you have golf, I’m not against golf, you cannot have those passive recreational facilities without being dangerous.
BA: To those who participate.
MA: You know Cumberland limits the number of people who come in each day. And that might be very important here, because there’s not much room.
SP: No, no, you’re right. The roads are a lane and a half. They’re not two lane roads.
BA: That’s right.
SP: And obviously the issue was brought up at the meeting. Something needs to be done about it truly. Speed, numbers, all of that. Because obviously, we do have more accidents. Do ya’ll have any vandalism here?
BA: Very little here. A while back…The reason I didn’t build the house til eleven years ago was because of vandalism. Between the time the Club was taken over by those four individuals—
BA: --and Rhydon Dennette left. He was the one who controlled—prevented vandalism. But the Merrills’ house, they went in there with an alarm and just cleaned all the furniture out of it. Twice!
MA: Oh, more than once. Their clothes and everything.
BA: You just could not have anything on this island. And it improved, we got a policeman moved on here, for example. And then more people were here full time and it got better, but it used to be absolutely terrible and that would be limited if you kept the traffic down.
MA: And those all-night parties.
BA: I mean you have vandalism now, as you know, at night. But if you kept the traffic down and had some kind of control over it, I hope they would have that and prevent the vandalism and even close it except to property owners and their friends and people who work here and church-goers and that. For the best part where vehicles are concerned.
MA: In daylight hours.
BA: There’s a possibility, you could build a visitors’ center off of this island. On Batten Island, a visitors’ center. And from that visitors’ center you’d have a parking lot and when the visitors came in, they could get their bicycles and originate their own tours there. They could begin jogging there. They could begin walking there, or they could have you and others conduct tours from there.
BA: But the automobiles would not be allowed on the island.
SP: And maybe like electric trams or something like that.
BA: Yeah. But the automobiles would not be allowed on the island except—without golf you wouldn’t have enough automobiles, except for vandals that come in, to bother with.
SP: Right, you wouldn’t need…
BA: And our problem.
MA: Jeckyll has some little trams that are nice.
BA: And the residents of the island would certainly be careful if that was done and they knew you were doing those type of things. They wouldn’t run around fifty miles an hour like some these pick-em-up trucks do.
SP: What would you think would happen to the Clubhouse?
BA: The Clubhouse should be restored and it wouldn’t take an awful lot of money to restore it. If the golf was closed, you could tear down those dumb-looking sheds build around it for the golf-carts and the fences and all that and go back to the original club and for very little cost you could restore it. If you restored it, it could be a museum with exhibits. It could be for educational history, for students as well as adults, conducted. It could be meeting rooms that would be rented. If somebody wanted to have a meeting down here, they could rent it, from the State, for the day or the night. Have their meetings there. It could even be a bed and breakfast if it was expanded. Now the bed and breakfast, that’s something that’s kind of different from the museum type of thing.
BA: It could be a very nice center. The clubhouse is well-designed and graceful, in my opinion. It could look good again with very little expenditure.
SP: Yeah. Obviously it’s got a connection with the island and it was part of the island’s history.
BA: That’s right.
SP: You know it’s a wonderful building in its own way.
MA: You’d have to find the red couch.
SP: The red couch! I know, that’s—
BA: You’d have to make a new red couch. I wouldn’t be part of that.
MA: Get a big black lab.
SP: This red couch sounds—
BA: And a black dog with a crow on his back!
SP: That’s right. We’ll teach one to do that. I know Rhydon Dennette was showing me some photographs and one was of a—his dad’s springer spaniel. He sat out in the birdbath all the time. There’s this dog sitting in the birdbath right behind the Clubhouse. His dad actually was the caretaker, more or less, of the Club in the off-season time?
BA: He was the full-time, year-round caretaker and manager of the Club. Year round. And they had a lady, you know, who was sort of the hostess and manager, too, but he was really the guy that was here fulltime. He and his wife.
SP: He mentioned to me that there were some blacks living on the island—or colored people—but whether they were actually descendants of any of those that lived on the Kingsley Plantation, he really didn’t know. You really doubt that?
MA: I wouldn’t think they were descendants.
BA: I doubt that.
MA: The land belonged to different people through the years.
MA: It’s a possibility.
SP: Are you all familiar with a section to the north of us known as American Beach?
SP: And that was a large black resort area?
BA: It is now. I don’t know how long it’s been that way.
SP: It still is? Actually?
BA: It still is, yeah. But it hadn’t been the way too long, has it, Bobbie?MA: Well, the beach itself has been their beach. There’s also one at the end where Mayport Station is now. There’s a beach there that was primarily for black people when I was a child. But American Beach was the one at Fernandina and I don’t think they own homes or anything there. I think they merely use the beach, it was their beach, designated for them.
Did You Know?
The planter's house at Kingsley Plantation, a unit of the Timucuan Preserve, is the oldest plantation house still standing in Florida. More...