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Fort George Island is a large, heavily wooded island across the St. Johns River from Mayport, and to go into its centuries old history would take more time than I care to do here. I would like to give you some of the highlights as I have read and seen them. This island is very well endowed by nature with natural resources, and its closeness to the ocean must have been some inducement for the various people who settled here.

    My first view of Fort George Island was from a small rowboat as we fished in the St. Johns River near Mayport. This was in 1927 and I remember watching as a band of wild horses swept down the river bank with a red stallion leading them. They were running like something possessed, but I can still remember watching as the wind tossed the white mane and tail of the stallion. It did not take the band long to get completely out of view, but they have never gotten out of my mind. Here was something that I had read about in all of Zane Grey's novels, and I liked it.

    All of the horses had gone from the Island by 1930 and I wondered what had happened to them. Found one doubling as a plow horse and cow horse. He was tough, quick and very intelligent. The red stallion had been captured and brought up to a sand dune on the ocean front, where the Sea Horse Motel is now located, to be broken. It was anybody's guess as to who was broken, but I don't think it was the stallion. I spoke to the fifth grade at Atlantic Beach Elementary School (September 20, 1973) and told them the story of his horse. After I had finished speaking, one little girl wanted to know if the horse was still alive. I find that Indians and wild horses interest kids more than fast automobiles.

    There was one horse captured and dragged across the river from Fort George who became almost a household pest. When the horses were towed behind a bateau, it was necessary to hold their heads up to keep them from drowning themselves. This horse was named Prince and he would go up steps like a dog and would follow his master wherever he went. Prince learned to cross his front legs and smoke a cigar; and he also learned to beg for goodies. There was no carpet on the floors of the stores and Prince did not wear shoes so he was allowed to come and go as he chose. Often he would come into a store, try to get someone to give him a soft drink or piece of candy, and, failing this, would stamp his feet and walk out! He would do anything but work, and this he flatly refused to do. When he was hooked to a plow he tore up the plow and that was it.

    Martin Cooper, Sr. tells me of going for an outing on the Island one Sunday afternoon, and as he walked around enjoying life he was whistling a little tune. When he looked up three stallions were bearing down on him apparently ready to take him apart. He shut up quick and was not hurt. Apparently, the whistling annoyed the horses. May be he was like the man who said, "Whistle while you work and drive everybody nuts."

    Fort George Island still has many magnolia trees located there, and if you are wondering why so many of them are badly chopped up and out of shape, the reason could be Mr. Woods. He and his sons cut magnolia leaves from all over the place and sold them in Jacksonville where they were used in decoration and in medicine. Martin Cooper, Sr. tells of the time Mr. Woods fell out of a tree and broke his back. The only way to get him out of the woods was on a wagon and they had a long way to go to get to the hospital. Guess you can stand whatever you have to, but it almost makes my back hurt to think of a man living through twenty miles of jarring travel while in that shape. They did not have springs on two-horse wagons then.

    Hoke Eberhardt tells of having found a young colt unattended and his decision to bring the baby home. Just in time, he saw mama coming with blood in her eye. Having heard of people walking on water, he thought that at least he could walk on saw grass. No luck, for he was up to his armpits in muck in a few steps, but he was safe from mama and he hoped his friends would think enough of him to pull him out. They did.

    Wild hogs on the Island afforded many people fresh meat during the depression where otherwise they might have had to do on an all fish diet. An old boar hog can really be a mean thing, and you had better have a good gun, some fast dogs, or some good climbing trees near by. A hog can't climb a tree but he can sure teach you to climb one in a hurry.

    One of the boys told me of gathering coal over on the Island for his winter's fuel and I thought he had slipped a cog until he told me why the coal was there. This coal was spilled from the East Coast docks and when the river was dredged the spoil, including the coal, was dumped on the Island. Made sense when he explained to me, but it sure had me wondering for a while.

    Along the shore of the river in Pilot's Town, or Fort George there is an old home that I have watched for years. It has a widow's walk on it, and the house must be old for it was there long before I came here. Just in case someone does not know what a widow's walk is; it is a platform on top of a house with a rail around it so that a sailor's wife might take a telescope and spot her husband's ship coming home. The reason they are called "widow's walk" is that so often a sailor failed to come home through no fault of his own. The old days were rough and communications were limited as to how far you could hear a person's voice in a shout. When ship-to-shore radio first came in, it was felt almost imperative for every home to have a radio capable of listening to the shrimp boats. It was not always good listening for some of the announcers were a little uncouth, if that is the right word. Some were big liars, telling the other boats that he had not caught a thing when his nets were bulging. With shrimp now $2.89 a pound, one would expect more evasive action than ever before.

    When prohibition became law, business picked up on and around Fort George Island with rum-runners coming up the inlet and sometimes running aground with the revenuers hot on their tail. Any time a boat load of whiskey was aground, it was a day of celebration for the local people. One of my friends was an agent back in those days and he tells some tall tales of their problems.

    For some reason entirely beyond my understanding, August Heckscher started his toll road, Heckscher Drive, from Jacksonville to Fort George Island. The toll was fairly high and there never seemed to be much traffic on the road. Maybe he had an insight into 1920 when he started the road; that we would have a boom and you could sell anything for a while. The boom did not last long enough for him to make any money out of the venture unless the State paid him a fair price for the road. It now connects with the road to Fernandina and is served by a ferry from Mayport. I have heard lots of reasons, none of them plausible, as to why the road to Fernandina is still a toll road.

    After the Revolutionary War, pirates thrived up and down the St. Johns River and all of its tributaries, as well as out to sea. McGirt was probably the most notorious of the river pirates and no one was able to catch him because he always vanished up some tributary and it was impossible to find his hiding place. One would suppose that McGirt's Creek was named after this man. Jean Lafitte's brother operated off the coast as did Black Beard, Edward Teach. Those bandits would go anywhere for a dollar. There are many tales of hidden treasure around but it would be rare indeed to see someone sporting doubloons as bobs.

    The names of McQueen, Mclntosh and Kingsley along with Rollins have all played a big part in the history of this island. According to the records, McQueen would buy any land available because he did not intend to pay for it anyway.

    John Mclntosh was a scrapper and was constantly involved in intrigue and fighting. He played a part in history that has been largely overlooked. He and Governor Button Gwinnett of Georgia got together for an expedition into Florida and, because of its failure, the two of them became involved in a duel. Gwinnett was shot just above the knee by a large caliber pistol ball which broke his leg. Since there was no medical aid nearby, the wound proved fatal. This caused Button Gwinnett to be the first signer of the Declaration of Independence to die. This was in the year 1777, shortly after the signing of the Declaration.

    Button Gwinnett was married in England and somehow he acquired the habit of rarely ever signing his name. His signature on the marriage certificate in England and on the Declaration of Independence are two of the very rare instances of his having ever signed anything. Some enterprising and wealthy soul tried to buy his autograph from the church of England for $30,000.00; and might have succeeded if the government of England had not intervened. Get your copy of the Declaration and look at the signature; both the name and the writing are unique. The three signatures on the left side of the document are from Georgia; Lyman Hall, George Walton, and Button Gwinnett. Never did fifty-five men risk more than the signers of this instrument did.

    In 1817, Zephaniah Kingsley bought Fort George Island from Mclntosh after Kingsley had been burned out of his Orange Park home by Indians. Kingsley was evidently able to raise good crops and support both his family and slaves well. Kingsley was a slave trader and was not unduly popular with some of his neighbors. Kingsley moved his entire family and slaves to Haiti and was booked for passage there out of New York when he died at the age of seventy-seven in 1843. Maybe he was fortunate, for had he lived he could easily have been the first man to be hanged for piracy on the importation of slaves. The first man hanged by this new law, as put on the books after the emancipation act, was Nathaniel Gordon of Portland, Maine. He did not take kindly to the deed.

    We have a copy of Kinglsey's will dated July 20, 1843 and one would wonder if he had a premonition of something bad going to happen. The will is composed of three pages and certainly shows a clarity of mind and an intent to have things worked out in every little detail as he wanted them.

    Here is the eighth paragraph of the will: "I do hereby order and direct, that whenever I may happen to die, that my body may be buried in the nearest most convenient place without any religious ceremony whatever, and that it may be excused from the usual indiscreet formalities and parody of washing, dressing, etc., or exposure in any way but removed just as it died to the common burying ground."

    Immediately after the Civil War, northerners began to flock into northern Florida. Fort George Island became a winter resort with two big luxury hotels and the privacy of being on an island. Heretofore, it had been difficult to get large steamers across the bar, but work was begun on the jetties and this gradually deepened the channel until large ships were able to come into the river safely. That jetty work has continued through the years until today large carriers are brought in regularly.

    The Fort George Hotel did not last very long, having been built in 1886 and having burned to the ground in 1888, but it did a beautiful job while it lasted. They advertised an open fireplace in every room, and with all of the fresh produce on the island available as well as plenty of fresh game, they must have set a good table. Another epidemic of yellow fever struck in 1888 and this did nothing to increase the patronage of the island. For many years Fort George and many of the small communities on the river were served by the little packet steamers, Emmalene and Hesse.

    "Republic of East Florida" could have been the smallest republic ever until the U.N. found how easy it was to create new ones. John Mclntosh created his small republic on Fort George Island but the republic had a very short life span. Our Rotary Club did have a piece of their currency, and I wonder who filed it away to keep from losing it. Miss Dean Snodgrass gave it to the club while I was president. Mr. Mclntosh was a very industrious man and was always moving around like his coat tail was on fire.

    The Army and Navy Club was founded on this island in 1923, and bought the old home of the Rollins family for $12,000.00 as its club house. A new and much more pretentious club house was built close by the old home, but this house burned in 1936 only to be rebuilt immediately. This club was very active until 1948 when it was disbanded and its property sold to the Florida Board of Parks and Historic Memorials for the sum of $45,000.00.

    Hilton Floyd tells of having worked as a cowboy on a ranch near Kissimmee one summer, and while they were sitting around a camp fire one night the foreman told this story. "When I was about eighteen I helped to round up a drove of wild horses and we herded them all to Mayport where they were put on a barge and carried to Fort George Island." The foreman at that time was about seventy years old and that would have set the time about 1870, when the horses were moved. We have no way of verifying this story, but that could have explained the presence of the horses on the island. The horses were small and rough looking with curved hooves where there had been rocky soil to wear off the excessive hoof growth, but they were tough and they were exciting.

    Much of the early growth of Florida centered around Fort George Island, Orange Park and Mandarin, and many famous people came here for their winters. It seems a bit of irony that Harriett Beecher Stowe should have bought the old plantation Laurel Grove in Orange Park where the old slave trader Zephanial Kingsley had succeeded so well with his slaves. Mrs. Stowe came here immediately after the Civil War and had visions of farming with recently freed slaves. She could write better than she could farm, and it did not take her long to lose ten thousand dollars. She then moved across the river to Mandarin where she apparently fared somewhat better without the impediment of a farm.

    Much of the early tourist trade in this section was due to the writing and enthusiasm of Mrs. Stowe. She never failed to be an ardent supporter of this beautiful country. Anyone who has ever visited the old part of Mandarin with its beautiful oak trees and orange groves could hardly be any less enthusiastic than was Mrs. Stowe. She and her husband both left their mark on that community. I was surprised to learn that her husband's brother built a church out in Kansas. They were real crusaders. The Parkview Hotel in Orange Park was the gathering place of many of the famous people from the north. Among them was General Grant, General Sherman and no doubt Mrs. Stowe spent some time there. I don't find any record of General Robert E. Lee having spent any time there, but he did visit Jacksonville on two occasions after the war.

    It puzzles you as to how so many people could farm and raise good crops on Fort George Island and now you can hardly find a trace of their fields, for practically everywhere you find big trees. It is wonderful how quickly nature can take over when given an opportunity.

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