Yeah Yeah Goin’ To Jackson
Ville. Florida. That’s Jacksonville, Mr. Cash. You’ve been singing about the wrong town. We’re all going to Jacksonville. Plus, we’re all going to St. Augustine, too. You know someone could write a country western song about going to “Jax” and tell it like the locals do. It’d probably be a hit, just like this happening Florida city. And, oh my, there are volumes to discover about these glorious place so you’d best get out and about and see just as much as you possibly can.
Did you know Stephen Crane wrote about Jacksonville in the 1890s? If you pick up a copy of one of the world’s greatest short stories, “The Open Boat”, you’ll learn about his quest to find his shipwrecked SS Commodore. It’s all right there.
Another famous Jacksonville-ite is a gentleman called Merian Caldwell Cooper. Adventurers will remember his name for he traveled to many of the world’s darkest, most exotic and unexplored backwaters, as it were, like Siam (now Thailand) and Abyssinia (now Ethiopia). Remember these rugged expeditions happened not long after WWI when travel was a bit dodgier than it is now. Think “no cell phones or GPSs or even Handi-Wipes!” Cooper became a documentary filmmaker and gained fame and acclaim for his 1933 film King Kong. Many believe the lead character was fashioned after none other than himself. A long and hugely successful Hollywood career followed, even earning him two Academy Awards.
Johnny Cash sings about the fire going out in Jackson. Well, it didn’t go out in Jacksonville in 1901. In fact, in practically burnt the whole darned town down. It was as if Mother Nature cast down a path of conflagration two miles wide with flames devouring 2,368 buildings leaving some 10,000 residents with no place to call home. As true southerners, they picked themselves up by their bootstraps and started all over again. For the record, some claim this devastating event was and still is the largest fire in the metropolitan South.
On To St. Augustine
In 1905, well-known author Henry James wrote to the English poet Edmund Gosse about St. Augustine and here’s what he had to say.
“I am stopping for two or three days at the ‘oldest city in America’ – two or three being none too much to sit in wonderment at the success with which it has outlive its age.”
Well, mull that over for a spell.
Mr. James was right about the “oldest city in America” bit. In fact, their own historians state their community was founded in 1565 and is the “oldest continuously occupied settlement of European and African-America origin in the entire US”. If you remember your American history, the English colonized Jamestown in 1607 and it wasn’t until 1620 that the Pilgrims slogged ashore at Plymouth Rock. There is history all around us here today.
And much of it is related to... tobacco. The Virginia Company of London initially sponsored the colony and its growth, basically, and needed to make a profit. Indentured servants cleared the land and toiled in the steaming heat. The colony grew more with the introduction of Africans in 1619 from West Central Africa’s kingdom of Ndongo in Angola. Their numbers grew substantially from the 1650s on. The tobacco industry’s roots grew, as well, with the planting of each and every tobacco seed.
For the record, St. Augustine got its name from Don Pedro Menéndez de Avilés who was a Spanish admiral sent here to roust the French out of the area and protect the lands for Spain’s King Philip II. He and some 600 others came ashore in Florida on September 8, 1565, which happened to be St. Augustine’s feast day. You’ll learn more about this early history as you explore.
You might want to satisfy your fun quotient with a Jax attack. Get out and find a park, which shouldn’t be hard to do as Jacksonville oversees some 80,000 acres worth. Hemming Plaza is the city’s oldest and is great for a picnic on a shady bench. Don’t forget some Peterbrooke chocolates, made right here. The chocolate-dipped popcorn balls are to die for. Salty, sweet, crunchy, creamy. Oh, there goes the diet!
If you’re a zoo buff, you can wander among the thousands of animals at the Jacksonville Zoo and Gardens. In 2014, it celebrates its centennial anniversary and the animals are absolutely ecstatic. Party hats all around.
For a more refined outing, there’s the Cummer Museum of Art & Gardens, with a permanent collection of approximately 5,000 pieces. Draped along the banks of the St. Johns River, the Gardens are the brainchild of Arthur and Waldo Cummer, brothers with the funds from the family’s Michigan lumber operation. The early plantings flanked theirs and their parents’ homes. While the men ran the family business, the women orchestrated the development of the plantings and the designing of the reflection pools, arbors and sculptures.
Well, here we are. It’s time to don your white linens, a floppy-brimmed sunhat and see just exactly what all this fuss is about.