Wednesday, January 11, 2006


My father’s parents came from Ireland. I do not know the exact year or the town in Ireland. They settled in St. John’s, Newfoundland and it was there that my father, James Francis McDonald was born. From there they moved to Boston, Massachusetts.

When my father was eighteen they moved to Jacksonville, Florida and settled in the northwest section of town known as Panama. It was considered country in those days. It consisted of fifteen acres all set out in fruit trees peach, pear, plum and persimmon, and scuppernong grape vines. I loved to swing in the grape vines. The house was three stories.

I remember my mother driving Charlie our horse hitched to a gig and cutting through the woods from our home in what was called Campbell’s Addition in the Northeast end of Springfield to spend Thanksgiving Day in the country. I was only four or five at the time but I remember it well and seeing the woods fires and my mother telling me that it was tramps camping in the woods and her saying “Get up Charlie”

After we had moved down town I was staying during the day with my grandmother (my mother’s mother). My cousin Lucy who lived in the country in Panama was about six years older than me. She came to my grandmother’s and asked if I could go out to the country for the week-end. My grandmother asked Lucy who was with her. She said “the man that works on the place was around at the store getting the groceries.” My grandmother said I could go. I hurried to change my clothes. I had to put on new stockings which I usually complained about but I never said a word putting them on as fast as I could. When we got around to the grocery store a man came out and put a box of groceries in the wagon. Lucy jumped up on the seat and took hold of the reins and told the horses to “get up.” I said “Lucy, where is the man?” She said “0h shut up child there a’int no man. I just told your grandmother that, so that she would let you go.” I was having the time of my life when Uncle Robbie came for me on Sunday with his bicycle. I had to sit on the bar of his bicycle on a cushion all the way home and we were five miles from town. We often spent the day there after we had moved down town.

One time I remember the ladies were crabbing off the dock. The men had gone out in the boat to do some deep sea fishing. My mother was calling to one of the ladies to bring her the crab when she backed off the dock. She clung to the pilings of the dock while the other women yelled for help. A man passing on the road on his bicycle heard the calls and came to the rescue. He was terribly fat and when he lay down on the dock I was afraid he would be pulled in. However he succeeded and they took my Mother up to the house where her clothes were dried out. She had on a heavy black skirt and it kept filling with water. She kept telling me “I’ll be out in a minute darling” when I started at one time to jump in with her. Some years later we learned that his name was Wagner and I was in school with his son Jerry. I also knew the daughter Lucille.

After Grandfather and Grandmother McDonald had passed away Aunt Katie and Aunt Mollie with Aunt Katie’s children, Lucy and Frank moved into East Jacksonville. They were not in the area of the Jacksonville fire. They rented the old home and some years later it was burned down. There are still a few wild olive trees standing on the hill where the house once stood. The wild olives were originally a hedge up each side of the house. I have taken my children from time to time and shown them the site where their ancestors lived.

I was just nine years of age at the time of the Jacksonville fire of May 3, 1901 but I have a very vivid memory of it. We were just finishing dinner when we heard the clang of the fire bells. So I went out on the side walk. My grandmother’s home was just three blocks straight down Ocean Street from the fire station. I often went out to watch the engine drawn by big dappled gray bores come out of the fire house and turn the corner. Today they kept coming and coming until there were no more to come. I knew it must be a big fire

My Uncle came home for dinner as the noon meal was called in those days. After dinner my Uncle told my grandmother that he would go and see if he could find out how near the fire was. He returned in a short time and said “Mama you don’t have anything to worry about the fire is five miles or more away”. It was my grandmother’s anniversary (wedding). She always kept a piece of the Christmas fruit cake wrapped in a linen table cloth and from time to time poured some wine over it. My Uncle said, “Mama get a bottle of wine, and we will have a “hot time in the old town tonight”. Little did we know how true those words were going to be?

I stayed with my grandmother after I came from school every day until my mother came from work in the evening. We lived just a block away. She always made me change from my school clothes. This day was no different. I had on a faded calico print the worst dress I owned. That was all I owned the day after the fire.

The fire was getting closer all the time. The smell of fire was in the air and you could scarcely see the sun for the haze of smoke. It looked like a ball of fire and it was just as hot.

It wasn’t long before another uncle; my grandmother’s married son came to help her save some of her belongings. He had gotten his wife and baby on a boat across the river. His father-in-law was a river boat captain. My other uncle had learned that the fire was spreading all over town. He had managed to get a Negro man with a truck that hauled freight for the department store that my uncle worked for. He took him in the saloon in back of the grocery store on the corner and tanked him up with beer. Houses all around were on fire and my uncles were urging us to get out of the house. I kept bringing my doll things down on the porch begging my uncle to put them on the truck. Just as they were about to drive away he threw my doll carriage on the wagon. It leaned to one side after that. Years later I gave it to his little girl.

My grandmother had locked her dresser drawer in which she had her household money and the lovely locket of her mother hand painted on ivory. Her father had five of them painted for his five daughters. I always loved to look at it. My uncle came in with the axe and wanted to split the dresser open but my grandmother wouldn’t let him. She could not remember what she had done with the key. As a result everything was lost.

To this day I often wonder why I didn’t take my dolls especially one that had been given me by the lady from whom my grandmother rented the house. It had belonged to her daughter who was grown up now. It was almost as big as a year old baby, had long golden braids, ears were pierced with ear rings in them and a trunk full of beautiful clothes.

My aunt had dragged down the stairs a trunk of my father’s thinking it contained some of my mother’s treasures, silver and china which she had stored in her mother’s linen closet. However it turned out that it only had in it a few pieces of china, some books and old clothing of my father’s. My father had gone to a city in the North to go in business with a friend. He was a Jeweler and my mother had a chest of his containing his jeweler’s tools to send him when he got settled. This all went with everything in the fire.

Well we finally got on our way but not before my grandmothers house was on fire too. A piece of burning shingle fell striking me on the hand which burned me all afternoon. We went through a narrow wood walk along the banks of the creek winding our way to the North. There was a large grove of huge oak trees which bore the name of the man that owned the land called Searing’s Grove.

It was crowded with people, household belongings and animals. We stopped to rest for a while. While we were resting my grandmother opened the box which she had been carrying thinking it was her silk ruche she had gotten for Christmas. They were worn around the neck slightly back on the shoulders like a small fur is worn. To her surprise when she opened the box it contained a cheap doll which had been given me by Cousin Pauline which she had gotten with tea from the A&P Tea Co. I did a regular Indian War dance when I saw it. I cry to this day when I think of the lovely dolls left behind to burn.

Before we left the house I had seen a lady pass by, dressed in her Sunday best, wearing a large hat adorned with an ostrich feather leading her cow right down the middle of the street.

My uncle was pushing us out of the house when my mother arrived gasping for her breath and suffering with an asthma attack which she was subject to. She had been waiting on a customer for mosquito netting and asked him if he knew anything about the direction the fire was taking. He said “You don’t have any thing to worry about lady. It’s going east. The Catholic Church is on fire”. My mother dropped the netting saying “My God man that is right where my child is.” She left the store immediately. Walking so fast and the distance she had to walk is what brought on the asthma attack. She didn’t even stop by our home which was only one block from my grandmother’s. She was so anxious to get to us. I had been begging my grandmother to let me go get Mama and she told me not to dare move that Mama would find us. My mother lost all of her beautiful jewelry. My father had made her so many lovely pieces, brooches and bracelets. It was the First Friday of the month and my mother had been to Mass and Holy Communion that morning. Before going to work she slipped off her diamond ring into her top dresser drawer. I remember a bracelet that she wore made of gold and silver woven together forming a lover’s knot that my father had made her.

Someone had thrust the family photo album into my mother’s hands. My grand mother was clutching a long box, and my Aunt had her kitchen apron held up in front of her with all her friendship cups in it. We rested in the grove until my mother seemed a little relieved of the asthma attack. Then we continued on into the neighborhood beyond, going from one friend’s house to another. Everyone was crowded. An elderly friend of my grandmother’s gave me a bonnet of hers to keep the sun off my head. When we got around the corner I threw it in a ditch. I got a laying out for this.

We stopped at the home of a friend of my uncle’s and though they were crowded, they allowed us to rest for a while. They were just a few blocks from the creek where the fire stopped. My grandmother and aunt continued on into East Jacksonville, as my uncle had told them to do. He was sure of finding refuge with an old friend of his in East Jacksonville when he left with the colored man and the wagon. My two uncles had managed to save a few bundles of clothing etc., and my grandmother’s sewing machine. He was almost overcome by the smoke when he reached his friend’s home.

My mother and I were still sitting on the porch of my uncle’s friend when a young man my mother knew came along driving the Express Company’s truck with his aunt’s piano in it. My mother went out to him and asked if there was any chance of getting us to the other side of the fire area to the foot of the viaduct. He said he was going that way and would take us. He had to lead the horse on foot from time to time and lift up fallen wires with the whip and then guide the horse over smoldering ruins of houses and buildings. It was almost dark when we got to the foot of the viaduct. My mother and I walked across it to the home of her cousin which was some distance from the foot of the viaduct. Her house was pretty crowded but she took us in. We slept four to a bed that night with a chair beside the bed with pillows on it for me. My mother said I clutched her hand and cried out all night “Mama, Mama”. We stayed there about two weeks.

An old lady, a distant cousin made me the first dress I had. The dry goods stores built temporary buildings of wood to enable the people to get materials for clothes. The Red Cross set up a commissary in Hemming Park. We were given cots and bedding. My mother also got a sewing machine. We then joined my Grandmother, Aunt, and Uncle in an apartment in Springfield. With cots and boxes to sit on and another to act as a table to eat off, this was all we had to start housekeeping.

The fire started in a fiber factory in the Northwest part of town. The fiber was used in upholstering furniture and making mattresses. It was believed that a carelessly thrown match while the Negro workers were resting after lunch was the cause of the fire. It had been very dry and hot for a month, with no rain and the wind sprung up shortly after the fire started which caused the fiber to be carried by the wind starting fires in several areas at the same time so that the firemen were handicapped in fighting them. Most of the structures were of wood construction and wood shingle roofs with the exception of a few buildings in the in the business section. Fire equipment came from as far away as Savannah, Ga. The fire spread over a two mile area and consumed 466 acres in the heart of the city stopping on the North by Hogan’s Creek, on the South by the St. John’s River, to the East and West by the creek. The Post Office, the Astor Hotel and Duval Hotel were the only buildings left standing.

Later we moved to a house on Riverside Avenue. It was while we lived there that my dream took shape. Several blocks from our house I often passed a little white house that sat way back from the street on the bank of the river. Two huge oak trees with limbs like protective arms over the grounds. There was a white picket fence enclosing the yard across the front. The grass was always green and two white rabbits hopped around in it. The gate was two steps up from the sidewalk. I would stand peering through the gate, entranced by what seemed to me a veritable fairyland. This picture stayed in my mind all through the years like a mythical “pot of gold” at the end of the rainbow.

From the ashes of that tragic fire of May 3, 1901, a new Jacksonville was born, reborn to a new growth and new progress that was to see it become one of the greatest cities of the United States. Skyscrapers began to rise, new hotels, churches and theaters.

I had just shortly recovered from Diphtheria at the time of the fire. I had become infected with the disease while spending the day with Annie and Joe Lackman while Aunt Della went down town to purchase some material. Little Herbert, four years old was feverish and vomiting. I held him on my lap. He died with Diphtheria and three weeks later I came down with it. It was while I was ill that Mrs. Brickwedel gave me the doll that had been her daughter’s. Other members of the family gave me some German coins for my bank. When I was taken ill I remember my uncle carrying me from our house rolled in a comforter to my grandmother’s. When the doctor told my mother that I had Diphtheria and would have to be quarantined I wondered why she was crying. She was begging him not to report it as she was obliged to work. The doctor said if he did not report it he would be running the risk of being barred from the profession if it was learned that he had failed to report a case of Diphtheria. He finally consented to me being quarantined in an up stairs bedroom of my grandmother’s home. Miss Lottie Buck, who was a nurse for whom my grandmother had done a favor at some time offered to be quarantined in the room with me. Disinfected sheets were hung at the door and everything was sterilized that was passed to and from the room. Miss Lottie stayed right in the room with me until I had recovered.

Time marched on but always in the back of my mind was the little white house. One day, shortly after the fire my mother and I went to the ruins of our home to see if we could find anything. Standing on a pile of debris just as if some on had placed it there was a statue of St. Joseph that Sister Mary Anne had given to my mother when she was married. It was not even scorched. We also found my bank which was of metal and looked like a bank that you see in stores with a combination lock. The coins were all melted together. Later we managed to separate them so that you could see the dates on some of them and tell what they were. Another time I was spending the day at Aunt Della’s, Joe and I decided we would walk over to ruins of my grandmother’s house. They only lived on the other side of the creek from the fire area where Brickwedel’s grocery store had been. The door to the safe was propped open with a stick. I put my foot against it to tie my shoe lace. The door came down on my foot and none of us could lift it off. There were men nearby cleaning up the debris and a colored woman was carrying water to them. When they saw what happened they came to our help. The colored woman took off my shoe and stocking and my toenail came with it. She bathed my toe and tore a piece off her apron and bandaged it up. One of the men carried me to the street car on Main Street and we rode to Phelps Street where Aunt Della lived. Mama was coming there for supper. We had planned to play games, but I was in too much pain for games.

Time marched on for me also. I grew into my teens. There were parties, straw rides, Thursday evening band concerts on the Springfield Blvd., sitting on the lawn holding hands with your boy friend, dancing to the music and summer evenings going by trolley to Phoenix Park on the banks of the St. John’s River to see the Mabel Page Stock Company. It was also the good place to wind up the straw ride with a watermelon cutting. “The Jolly Crowd”, a club composed of all of our crowd often had our picnic there. We met once a month at first one home and then another and about two or three times a year to have a dance.

Pablo Beach, as it was known in my girlhood was a popular summer resort. You had to go by train in those days. The 4th of July was a great holiday at the Beach. I had friends there that I often spent a few days with. I remember one time that I was there Alice and I wanted to go visit with Gladys Wheeler. She lived quite some way down the Beach known as South Pablo. Her brother Ed went with us. He soon tired and left us to come home by ourselves. As we walked down the Beach, a man walking his dog kept whistling and we were afraid he was whistling at us. There was nothing but high sand dunes along the side of the ocean. We would run and climb up one side and slide down the other side. We finally made it back to Alice’s house and were giving Ed down the country to his mother when he jumped from behind the door.

Sunday excursions by boat on the St. Johns River to Green Cove Springs were another enjoyable pastime. One Sunday a girl friend of mine and her boy friend and me and my boy friend went down for the day. We packed a picnic lunch. There were tables and benches under the huge oak and magnolia trees and there was a pool for swimming. The pool was quite slippery on the bottom due to the scum from the sulfur water. My girl friend sent her boy friend to get her camera to take some pictures. I never will forget the look on her face when he stepped into the pool and promptly went down on his face, camera and all. I never did find out if she was able to have it fixed. I had been to a party a few nights before. My boy friend had to work, so I went with some one else. When I asked my boy friend to get me some magnolia blooms he said “Why didn’t I have that pine tree (he was quite tall) get them for me.” He was mad about me going to the party with him.

June 21, 1909, I graduated from St. Joseph’s Academy. It was not the happy occasion it should have been. My grandmother died shortly after we arrived at the Convent for the exercises. Therefore they never took place. However, I was presented my diploma and medals.

I had been dating a young man for some months. He was in the auditorium. When he learned of my grandmother’s illness he located a Dr. and also my uncle. My grandmother was anxious to know if he had arrived. This was the third heart attack she had had in as many weeks. The Dr. did all he could, but she passed away. I had been taking a business course along with my graduate studies with the idea of doing office work. My Uncle through a friend of his got me a temporary job at the Post Office. Usually they didn’t employ women. I was at a matinee at the Duval Theater when he came and took me out to go see about this position. I can’t recall just how long I worked there. However, my friend Gertrude Paris got me a position with the Daniel Advertising Agency where she worked.

I often visited at her home with her and her mother occasionally having dinner with them. They had two young men boarding with them. They were from New Orleans of French descent. Gertrude was dating the older brother and I began dating the younger one. We couples and another more settled couple, friends of Gertrude’s went down to the beach the 4th of July. The following morning I read an ad in the morning paper for a secretary at the Florida Time Union. I applied for it and got it. I liked the Circulation Manager that I worked for and also the other employees in my department. In fact, from the Editor In Chief down everyone was quite friendly. My boss’s office was next to that of the bookkeeper. On Monday the men came down from the press room, composing room, and the engraving department to get their pay and naturally I got acquainted with many of them. There was one in particular that was real good looking. He often came to my desk to get a requisition for supplies for the engraving dept. He worked in his undershirt and I couldn’t help but notice his wonderful physique. He reminded me of the poem about the village blacksmith.

One day I was busily typing and hadn’t heard him come in. When he leaned down and whispered in my ear “You know little girl I love you” I nearly fell off my chair.

Then he started asking me to go to lunch or dinner. I made all manner of excuses but it didn’t faze him. It got to be a joke around the office when I told him I had to go to the dressmaker. He would wait downstairs where I usually came out on my way to lunch. It finally got so I would have someone on the lookout for me and go out another door. This went on for some time but I finally started going out with him.

The Circus came to town and a crowd from the T-U was going. He came and asked me if I would like to go. I wasn’t too keen on it because I thought we would have to ride on the street car. When I mentioned that fact he said we could go in a car. So my ears perked up and I thought better of it. Then he took me to see “The Chocolate Soldier”. However he took me to many other plays and musical concerts. He played the cello himself and was particularly fond of good music. He was also an artist. His paintings winning him acclaim wherever exhibited. Through him I learned an appreciation of art and music, opening up a new way of life for me.

He persisted in waiting for me until all my younger boy friends drifted away. I was always finding a box of chocolates in my desk drawer and on Sunday would come a box of flowers with a gift of some kind tucked in. At Christmas it was white kid gloves and a beautiful silver purse. After about a year he proposed marriage. I accepted a beautiful diamond ring from him. Still I was not sure of my feelings towards him. He was so different from the boys my age that I had gone with. I was afraid of the differences in our age. So after a few months I returned the diamond. He almost cried. I could see he was broken hearted. I felt badly too and wasn’t sure if it was love or sorrow I felt for him.

He left a few days later on his vacation by Clyde Line Steamship for New York and Danbury Connecticut. That was where his family settled when they came to this country from Scotland. He told me some time later after we had decided to try it again that he was feeling so blue while sitting on the deck one night that he threw the ring in the ocean off Cape Hatteras.

I missed him while he was gone and I approached him about dating again on his return. When he mentioned giving me a ring again he asked what I liked next to diamonds. I told him “Nothing.” However, he decided for himself and had a setting made by a well known jeweler with two diamonds and a ruby possibly with the idea that the number three might bring more luck this time. The ruby flanked by two diamonds being symbolic of love and happiness. It has evidently proven so for we were married June 4, 1913, leaving by Clyde Steamship for New York and Danbury, Connecticut on our wedding trip.

Billy had purchased a lot as an investment when he came down to work for the Times Union. So while we were planning to be married he started having a house built on it. We moved into our new borne July 12, 1913. While I loved it and it was a white house. It still did not fulfill my dream. Billy also had the dream of having a home on the river and said,” We will be looking and some day we will have a home on the river.” However we lived there thirty five years and our four children were born at that location. Every Sunday we would read the real estate ads and when there was anything that sounded interesting in waterfront we went to see it. It was not until 1941 that we found a waterfront lot that we could afford and started buying it. In August 1947 we started building and according to the contractor we would be in the house by October. We did not get into the house until Dec. 18 due to storms and the delay in construction due to World War Two. In the meantime we were busy clearing the land and setting out the plants that we had brought from our old home.

The house was of block and frame construction, painted white, with red roof and red brick on window sills. The fence across the front corresponded with it, having posts of white block topped with red brick and farm style wood palings. The land extended 400 feet to the river and was shaded with magnolia, oak, gum, maple and hickory trees, besides the flowering trees of redbud, dogwood, golden rain and Crabapple which we have added. At last my dream has come true.


Annie in Austin said...

Hello Christopher,

This was a lovely story with a happy ending, too! I love family stories and have been researching my own family's history, but we have nothing like this detailed saga - you are so lucky to have it.

I've enjoyed your posts [under various names] at GardenWeb, where you treated my questions kindly, and am glad you found Garden Rant and commented there - it's been a very intesting site so far, hasn't it?

Although I've never been to Florida, as a teenage I read a book about the early days called The Barefoot Mailman. Did you ever hear of it?


Christopher C. in Hawaii said...

Hi Annie,

I am glad you enjoyed my grandmother's story. The happy ending was as much the garden as the house on the water. I was probably born with dirt under my nails.

Glad to hear too that you got some enjoyment out of that brat illicium9. He is a lot to deal with and is not exactly stress free for me. It was not something I did with no thought about what I was doing and if I even should. Oh well, illicium9 is dead again. Seven more lives to go.

My Florida book growing up was The Yearling By Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings. I'll have to see if I can find The Barefoot Mailman

christin m p in massachusetts said...


First, I want to say I felt proud to know that wonderful people like your grandparents both had family connections to New England -- that your grandmother’s father lived in Boston until he was eighteen, and that your grandfather lived for many years with his family in Danbury, CT. The world sure could use more people like your grandparents -- people who valued pulling their own weight and contributing their gifts to the world, rather than draining it as so many are wont to do today.

I love your grandmother’s story. Reading and listening to family stories -- whether of my own family or someone else’s -- has always been one of my favorite pastimes. Besides the enjoyment derived by the way they enable us to travel through time, I especially like that they resemble puzzle pieces which, when they’re all fit together, give us a more complete picture of ourselves or of the descendents of other clans. Almost from the very beginning of the story, and then again when closing, your grandmother relates her strong appreciation for plant life (right down to the wild olive hedges which remained on the land where her Aunt Katie’s and Aunt Mollie’s house once stood) -- an enthusiasm that she obviously passed down to your father and then to you.

I was easily able to imagine the events she relates -- her memories of seeing a catastrophic and chaotic event from the well-ordered perspective of a typically clear-headed nine-year-old... feeling the extreme heat of the encroaching fire... watching and listening to the elders scrambling to gather valued possessions, and imagining their anxiety and exhaustion during the hours spent seeking rest and refuge from the unrelenting fire... afterward, remembering the elders speculating on a possible origin of the fire... and later, how she survived a childhood illness -- one which was common at that time in history.

I could identify well with the dream inspired by the little white house by the bank of the river. I grew up in a house by the bank of a beautiful river. No matter how many years pass, I still hold on to the dream that someday I’ll have my own pretty little house. And I think a river bank would be a lovely setting for it.

Mostly, though, I was moved by the part of the story relating to your grandparents’ courtship and marriage. (I know, I’m way too mushy, but I can’t help it -- I was born that way.) I could see why your grandmother was so enraptured by your grandfather -- I mean, with all his talent... and even just exposing her to the arts in itself. I’m glad he was so open-hearted and persistent, while still respecting her rights -- he did everything in just the right measure. And I’m glad that she felt sorry for breaking his heart, whether it was out of romantic love or human compassion. Anyway, it didn’t matter what the reason was, because she found she missed him when he was away -- always a good sign.

In the story itself, the happy ending is that they finally were able to build their dream home, surrounded by all the beautiful trees and flowers. But in the story within the story, I read the happy ending as being the magic in their meeting and getting back together and marrying, and then passing along their wonderful combination of gifts forever through later generations.

Christopher C. in Hawaii said...

I am glad you liked the story too Christina. It is interesting to look back in time and have some clue about why things and people are the way they are today.

It was a little sad to see her old house under construction and not lovingly restored and tended, but it was built in 1947. The fact that it was still there is amazing.

When I drove out to Little Talbot Island north of the mouth of the river there were giant McMansions side by side with much older smaller homes on these narrow barrier islands. You know a house was bulldozed to have this symbol completely fill the lot.