Most tourists visiting the St. Augustine Alligator Farm pay little notice to the narrow, tree-lined road they use to get to the attraction’s parking lots. A short drive down that road will introduce you to one of the most interesting neighborhoods on Anastasia Island. Old Quarry Road – as it was re-named in the 1970s – was first used by the Spanish to drag large blocks of coquina from the quarry at the present-day Amphitheater to Quarry Creek. From there the blocks were loaded on barges and floated across the bay to be used in the construction of the Castillo de San Marcos.
Centuries later – in May 1917 – Alfred Day bought a parcel described as:
Beginning at Quarry Creek, highwater mark, run thence along old Light House Road, 222 feet, thence northwest to land of Hite, 190 feet, thence west to marsh, thence along Marsh, 350 feet to point of beginning.
He built a house looking out over Quarry Creek and the marsh surrounding it. The three-story house was large with wide eaves and wrap-around porches to shade the rooms on the lower floor. The construction used local resources – coquina for the foundation, heart pine and cypress for framing, cedar shingles for siding and palm tree trunks as pillars to support the porch. It had 12-foot ceilings and each room had windows on at least two walls to best catch the seabreezes. The house was built for summer comfort – the only heat consisted of two fireplaces and later a floor furnace in the living room. The property was bordered on the north and east sides by the Heckscher estate with woods to the south.
In 1940, the estate of Alfred Day’s widow, Laura, sold the property to Adolph Bittner. Mr. Bittner created the Buccaneer Lodge in the house and managed it until October 1952 when he sold the house to William and Marjorie Barrett (our parents) and moved back to Germany. I’ve tried to get more information about “the Lodge period” but haven’t found much yet. Although many locals from my parents’ generation remember it for luncheons and private parties, city directories during that period don’t mention it.
At some point during the time Mr. Bittner owned the property, “old Light House Road” became Young Avenue and was extended across the marsh to connect with Coquina Avenue. Quarry Creek was only a trickle of water at our end and was no longer used to define the property line. There were only four other homes on Young Avenue with lots of woods and marsh to keep children occupied. We had plenty of wildlife – racoons and armadillos, owls, wild pigs and even an occasional alligator.
For several years our only source of water came from an artesian well located on the property behind us. Because this was “sulfa” water, we had the Culligan man visiting frequently to replenish the water softener. There was a cistern under the house and at one time all the gutters emptied into it. On the back porch a hand pump was used to draw water from the cistern. I’m sure before there was such a thing as water-softening, the rainwater was put to good use.
My younger sister and I were still pre-schoolers when Dad had a small barn built at the back of the property and bought each of us horses. He then went back to sea leaving Mom to deal with the horses and all the kids they attracted. The horses were the first things to go when Mom and Dad were divorced in 1959.
The house’s large porches served many purposes. Grandma’s wicker furniture – with a little help from some old sheets – became castles or forts on rainy days. Many a production was staged on the porch including the magic show where my cousin and I were going to saw my sister in half. [Fortunately for her, Mom decided to check just what it was we were planning to do with that saw.] It was also a great place for birthday parties and other noisy functions.
Many of my memories of that house have to do with sounds. You knew it was getting close to dinner time when the National Guard shot off their cannon during retreat. I remember laying in bed in the early morning stillness listening to the shrimp boats. I could hear them motor from their docks in the San Sebastian River, up the bay, through the draw at the Bridge of Lions and on until they passed the old Spanish fort and turned to head out the inlet. Of course there were lots of animal sounds – from the alligator farm came the rumbles and moans of the alligators during mating season and the screams of the peacocks. The raccoons were always arguing with each other out in the marsh and the owls frequently added their voice to the conversation. In the background to all of this was the sound of the surf. Once the traffic and other noise of the day settled down, the surf was always there.
After my parents divorced, Mom closed in one side of the porch to make a classroom for the kindergarten she started. For close to 10 years, her school provided income while allowing her to be a stay-at-home mom. It was the only room in the house with both heat and air-conditioning thanks to a window unit installed during the construction. As a result, it became our “Florida room” each summer after school was out. While it was a great thing for the family, it did destroy the much of the beauty of the house.
In the early 60s the neighborhood started to develop. Just beyond our property, they began filling in parts of the marsh to build homes along Coquina Avenue. Across Young Avenue a small development was built in “our” woods – you can see the cleared land in this photo.
At one point, the city dug up the street to install sewer lines supporting some of this development. Under the old live oak just outside our driveway gate the construction crew dug up the bones of two Indians. Since Indians had been involved in the quarry operations during the fort construction and signs of an Indian village were found just behind the alligator farm, it wasn’t surprising to find Indian remains in the area. Then someone happened to remember a story about a pirate – I can’t remember which one – who was coming to see the governor of Florida about some kind of amnesty deal. This pirate expected a double-cross so according to the story he buried his treasure on the south side of a live oak tree on Anastasia Island – and killed and buried his two Indian servants with it. That announcement brought out every metal detector and shovel for a 10-mile radius – keeping the neighborhood in chaos for weeks. Of course, there was no treasure – just a lot of disappointed treasure hunters.
We weathered many storms in that house. Most hurricanes came from the Gulf and had lost much of their punch by the time they got here. Flooding was the biggest concern so our house – built with a high crawl-space – was the logical place for friends and neighbors with houses built on slabs. This worked well until Dora came to visit in 1964. Because Dora was coming at us directly from the Atlantic, Mom decided to head inland for this one. Although the house was not damaged, we lost several trees on the property – one just missing the house. We were all glad we didn’t stay for that storm.
I left home when I enlisted in the Air Force in 1972. I was home for holidays and leave – and long weekends once I was stationed in Mississippi. I drove – with one other person – non-stop from Omaha, Nebraska, for my sister’s wedding. The reception was to be held at the house so you can imagine the work that went into getting it ready. I spent most of that vacation polishing brass doorknobs and silver trays and scrubbing anything that could be scrubbed. The wedding was beautiful and the house looked glorious.
Some point after that the city changed Young Avenue to Old Quarry Road. For years they had tried to pave the road, but that would have required cutting many of the old oaks and cedars that lined it. The residents fought hard to keep the trees. Finally an arrangement was made to pave the road while leaving the trees. Fortunately, most of the character of the old road is still intact.
Mom died in 1983 and we sold the house soon after. Several years later the new owner made a deal to use the house in a movie. The movie – Illegally Yours – never made it to movie theaters but still occasionally shows up on movie channels. The old kindergarten classroom figures prominently as the family kitchen. I was in Germany when it was finally released and someone sent us a home-made video tape. At some point during its journey to us, the tape lost all its audio. Didn’t matter – it was less distraction while we looked for local landmarks and friends who had been hired as extras.
The house has been sold several more times and each new owner has worked to restore it. The classroom is gone and the porches returned to their original glory. The yard has been landscaped beautifully. We’ve gone back once – when it was featured in a Christmas tour of homes several years ago. It was a delightful visit.
We lived an enchanted childhood in a glorious old house built for family living in a world that no longer exists. Who in their right mind would allow children to roam the woods, marshes and roads unsupervised day after day? Can you imagine a scenario today with five neighborhood children – all with the measles – camped out in one house while they recuperate? Cellphones? Our parents got us headed home by ringing the bell outside the back door. Each family’s bell had a distinctive clang. The house still thrives, but it is no longer the home of our childhood. That world no longer exists, but today each of our homes includes the essence that made the big house so special.
It’s called family.