Last Day on the Road!
Hello again, I’m still Don Milne, your ROADTRIP-'62 ™ traveler and we’re nearing the end of our trip from Mackinaw City, Michigan to Jacksonville, Florida along US-23. We’re leaving today from Waycross, Georgia. That’s nineteen days out from our beginning point and there are no freeways for us to drive today, just as it was in 1962. This is another day of travel through the Atlantic coastal plain, though we won’t quite reach the Atlantic Ocean itself. As we complete this virtual roadtrip, I want to remind you that if you see anything you like, get out on the road and enjoy it in for yourself. A virtual roadtrip may be fun, but there's nothing like the real thing! And, at any time, click on an underlined word below to learn more about the places on the trip. Now, let’s buckle up our seatbelts and finish this trip!
I’ll have to check the age of the place, but I’d like to have breakfast at Jerry J’s Country Café. I’ve read that it’s THE breakfast place in Waycross, serving huge handmade biscuits. After breakfast, it’s time to hit the road again. If I were bolder than I am, I could have spent last night out in the Okefenokee Swamp. There are several outfitters licensed by the Fish and Wildlife Service that can take you out there. But we’ll start out traveling along the edge of the Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge. This was established in 1936 to preserve the swamp and is the largest National Wildlife Refuge in the eastern United States, at 402,000 acres. The Okefenokee Swamp is approximately 7,000 years old, comprising a peat-filled bog in a large, saucer-shaped depression. The name is derived from Choctaw Indian words meaning "Land of the Trembling Earth", because the peat moves then walked on in some areas. The depth of the peat ranges from almost nothing at the edges of the swamp to over 15 feet in some places. Okefenokee used to be subject to large natural fires every 20-30 years, which helped to create prairies and slowed conversion to forests. The last major fire was in 1954, so if we were here in 1962 we may have seen an area still recovering. But in the early 1960s a structure called the Suwannee River Sill was constructed to keep water levels higher and there have been no big fires since. The Fish and Wildlife Service is still evaluating whether that was a good idea or not.
Once past the swamp, there is not too much to see on the way to Jacksonville today, as this is mostly flat farm country. It was once swampland much like we saw at Okefenokee Swamp Park yesterday, but this sits a little higher and was drained for farming. In Homeland, Georgia, we are joined by US-301, through Callahan, Florida. That highway is infamous for speed traps in the section through Lawtey, Starke, and Waldo, Florida. Even the American Automobile Association has advised motorists to avoid this stretch of the road in some years. Folkston, Georgia is the last town we’ll see in that state. It’s famous for the "Folkston Funnel", a double track railroad which serves as the main artery in and out of Florida. I had my fill of train watching yesterday, but if you’re into that, Folkston has a viewing platform with lights, ceiling fans, restroom, and even a railroad frequency radio scanner!
Finally at Boulogne, we cross into Florida, the last state on our journey. One bit of trivia on US-23 is that we began in former French territory, and end in former Spanish territory. About 22 miles south of the border, at a bridge over Thomas Creek, we enter modern day Jacksonville, Florida. We are still almost 14 miles from downtown, and in 1962 this spot would not have been in the city at all. But in 1968, the city expanded to encompass the entire area of Duval County. It is now the largest city in the contiguous United States. Because it includes Atlantic coastal areas and beaches, we can say we’ve reached the Atlantic Ocean when we reach Jacksonville, even though US-23 ends 16 miles from the beach. But from our 1962 perspective, Jacksonville still does not reach the ocean. So while we won’t see the ocean here, we will see a vibrant riverfront port. The St. Mary’s River at Jacksonville has over 70 piers and wharves in its harbor, with three owned by the City of Jacksonville. The harbor also has one of the east coast's most fully-equipped shipbuilding and marine repair centers, able to accommodate anything up to 700-foot ocean-going ships. And, like the Great Lakes at the beginning of our trip, ocean-going ships do dock here.
One of the commodities that enters the port is coffee. Jacksonville imports the fourth largest volume of coffee in the United States, about 45,000 tons a year, mainly from Brazil, Colombia, Guatemala, and Mexico. There are four coffee roasting plants in the city, so there is a good chance that your morning cup was roasted right here; especially if you drink Maxwell House coffee. This brand was around in 1962 and had been using their famous slogan "Good to the Last Drop" since 1917. Maxwell House operates its largest coffee roasting plant in Jacksonville, producing 1 million pounds of coffee a day. They also have other roasting plants in Houston, Texas, and San Leandro, California. The blend was developed in 1892 by Joel Cheek for the Maxwell House Hotel in Nashville, Tenessee. Mr. Cheek partnered with John Neal in 1901 to manufacture and sell the coffee commercially, and we can still enjoy it today. There are also several smaller roasters in Jacksonville that do not go back to 1962, including Growers Alliance Coffee Company, a fair trade company.
The port at Jacksonville was not always this busy or successful though, due to sand bars that shifted in the river and made navigation hazardous. But by 1895 there was 15 feet of navigable water over the bar, which kept the city growing. As ocean-going ships had continued to grow, the city leaders petitioned the federal government to dredge the channel depth of 30 feet. The government agreed to use our tax dollars for this if the City of Jacksonville would build piers to accommodate the larger ships, and in 1916 the river became a world-class port ready as a regular port of call for shipping lines. A side benefit of the broad river is the impressive skyline of downtown when viewed from the opposite side. Of course, many of these buildings were constructed after 1962.
A large city such as this usually has a lot of museums, and Jacksonville is no exception. Some are too new for us to see, but both of the art museums date back to pre-1962. The Cummer Museum of Art & Gardens opened in November, 1961, so we would have seen it when brand new. It was originally in the home of Arthur and Ninah Cummer, right on the St. Johns River, and has since expanded on the same site. Ninah Cummer had a relatively small collection of sixty pieces at the beginning, that has grown to over 6,000 works encompassing 8,000 years of history. The American Art Collection, with works by West and Stuart, American impressionists including Hassam and Frieseke, regional artists and even Ashcan School works, is especially deep. The European collection houses paintings, sculptures, works on paper and in the decorative arts from the twelfth to the twentieth centuries, being very strong in Old Master paintings. The museum is also well known for its outstanding collection of Meissen porcelain, one of the three most comprehensive collections in the world. However, this collection was donated to the museum by Ralph Wark and his sister Constance in 1965, so we would not have seen it and it is a bonus for us now. There are also two acres of formal historic gardens, created by Mrs. Cummer and first planted in 1903. I’ll be seeing those after the interior.
In case you’d rather see modern art, you should stop at the Museum of Contemporary Art Jacksonville (known as MOCAJ) instead. This one is a tough call for a 1962 roadtrip, as it primarily collects works from 1960 to the present. However, it was founded in 1924 as the Jacksonville Fine Arts Society and does collect modern art from 1945 to the present. In 1948 the Museum was incorporated as the Jacksonville Art Museum, so it’s been around long enough. The museum moved into its current building, the historic Western Union Telegraph Building, in 1999, changing its focus to post-1960 and its name to MOCAJ. There are now almost 800 works of art, including painting, printmaking, sculpture, and photography. The restoration of the building to its original Art Deco style was completed in 2003.
After choosing one of the art museums, let’s see a historical museum next. Jacksonville’s Museum of Science & History is one of the older of that type in the country. It began in 1941 as The Jacksonville Children's Museum and soon moved into a Victorian mansion near the Cummer Museum. It was still there in 1962, but moved in 1969 to a newly-constructed building downtown. The museum changed its name in 1977 and again in 1988 and now encompasses science and 12,000 years of history. One exhibit is a 1950s house, which should be particularly interesting for our time period. Another exhibit takes a view of the Great Fire of Jacksonville. This 1901 fire was the most destructive event in Jacksonville’s history. In just over eight hours, the fire destroyed over 2,300 buildings and left almost 10,000 people homeless, though only 7 people died. The Great Fire was the third largest urban fire in American history; only the 1906 San Francisco Earthquake and Chicago Fire of 1871 were larger. Fortunately, we don’t see metropolitan fires of that magnitude any more.
Time to grab a quick lunch at a downtown restaurant. There are dozens of restaurants downtown, very near US-23, but the trick is to find an older one. Candidates to check out include the Bay Street Café, inside the Blackstone building; the Paradise Café; Sterling's Downtown, at the Historic Seminole Club; the David Café; Little Joe's Café, on Riverside on our way back from the Cummer Museum; or Traveler's Grille, inside the Greyhound Bus Station. Notice that the word café is a favorite around here? However, I'm going to stop at a Jacksonville original that has since blanketed the country: Burger King. Burger King began right here in 1953, after Keith Cramer was invited by his stepfather, Matthew Burns, to come out to California and inspect the McDonald's restaurants. Mr. Cramer owned a local drive-in, but after witnessing the success of McDonald's he and his stepfather partner applied the formula to a new restaurant. By 1962, there were Burger Kings in many parts of Florida and nearby states. They were flame broiled then and now, using the newly-invented Insta automatic broiler. So let's grab a Whopper and fries, just like in 1962! After lunch, it’s time to leave the museums and enjoy a sport!
One sport we won’t find anywhere else is Jai Alai. Back in the 1960s, Jai Alai was played in many places including Connecticut and Rhode Island, though Florida was always a stronghold. The game is similar to hand ball, with players using a hand basket called a cesta to hurl a ball against a wall. The game originated in the Basque region of Spain, the court is called a fronton, and the ball can move at up to 180 miles an hour! It came to the United States with the St. Louis World's Fair in 1904, and Florida became the home of the nation's first Jai Alai fronton in 1924. Betting on the sport was legalized in 10 years later. Jai Alai reached its peak in popularity in the late 1970s and early 1980s but several things happened that later diminished the business. There was a game-fixing scandal in the late 1970s, the players went on strike for two years in 1988, and then major league football, baseball and basketball franchises, and casino gambling finally showed up in Florida. There are now only six frontons remaining in Florida, and the state gaming office says they are all losing money, using poker, off-track horse and dog race betting and slot machines to stay in business. We can’t see a live game here today, but we can watch both Jai Alai and dog races at the greyhound track.
There are greyhound racing facilities in the Jacksonville area. We could see races on at least three tracks in 1962 and there are still two open today, St. Johns Greyhound Park, and Orange Park Kennel Club south of town. Jacksonville Kennel Club, just south of US-23 on McDuff Avenue, opened in 1935 and is now closed. The site is now part of the local school system but the old signs are still in front of the building. At the other locations, we can watch and bet on live dog races and see Jai Alai games on their state-of-the-art simulcast system in the comfort of the grandstand. Greyhound racing was created in its modern form, featuring circular or oval tracks, with the invention of the mechanical rabbit in 1912. The inventor, Owen Patrick Smith wanted to stop the killing of the jackrabbits used previously so that we could see greyhound racing like horse racing. The dogs reach speeds of 45mph during races of either 550, 660, or 770 yards. Maybe we can make a few bucks betting!
I would go back to a museum, but several are too new for our tour, including the Museum of Southern History, Karpeles Manuscript Library Museum, and the Jacksonville Maritime Museum Society. The Museum of Southern History showcases Civil War and southern society history. The Karpeles is part of a nine-city museum group that houses writings of great authors, scientists, composers, philosophers, statesmen, sovereigns, and leaders, from all periods in world history. The Maritime Museum has exhibits on Jacksonville’s shipping history, including a real sailing ship and scale-model ships. But besides museums, there’s more for us to see here. One of the more unusual places for us to go is the Annheuser-Busch Brewery. Unlike the one we passed in Columbus, Ohio, this brewery still gives tours! Only five of their breweries do so, and you can only see the Clydesdale horses at three of those. Alas, this is not one of the sites. What you do see is a guided tour through Anheuser-Busch’s state-of-the-art technology for brewing Budweiser. After the tour, on which they prohibit backpacks, bags, parcels and luggage for security reasons, you can stop at the Hospitality Room. If you’re over 21 years old, you can sample a variety of their beers there, sometimes getting a sneak peak at a new product.
I’m still thinking about sports in Jacksonville, and there’s a good reason. This is of course the site of the The Gator Bowl! This annual college football bowl game is now played at EverBank Field, but back in 1962 was played in the Gator Bowl Stadium, sometimes shown as the Coliseum on maps, which occupying the same site. It is the sixth oldest college bowl game, held annually since 1946. The Gator Bowl was also the first bowl game to be nationally televised coast-to-coast. Starting in 1953, the game was usually played between a Southeastern Conference (SEC) team and an at-large opponent. The 1962 game, played December 29, 1962, had Florida defeating Penn State 17-7 and MVP’s for the game were Florida quarterback Tom Shannon and Penn State’s Dave Robinson. A little-known fact is that the Gator Bowl is run by a non-profit charitable organization, with donations going to public schools, Pop Warner football, and the Boselli Award of Excellence, among others.
I think we’ll spend the rest of the day at the Jacksonville Zoological Gardens. One more zoo should be fun, and I’ll even eat some expensive zoo food for dinner. That way, I can stay until closing. The Zoo originally opened in a different location in 1914 with only a single red deer fawn. In 1925 it reopened at its present site on the Trout River and has grown from that first 37 acres to its present 89 acres. The Zoo is now in the process of becoming an officially recognized botanical garden, in addition to a zoological garden. We probably would have seen a very good assortment of animals in 1962, as by the end of the 1960s it housed what may have been the largest collection of exotic animals in the Southeast. It thereafter experienced money troubles, but a major redevelopment began in 1992. What we see today are many new exhibit areas, including the Birds of the Rift Valley Aviary, Great Apes, an expanded train ride, and an elephant and breeding complex. The reason they have undertaken to build a botanical garden inside the Zoo is that Jacksonville does not current have a botanical garden, unlike many large cities. I’ll be wandering, and maybe stop at the Palm Plaza Café for dinner. I haven’t had any southwestern style food on this trip, so nachos, burritos, or tacos would be welcome.
Time to finally stop at our last motel of this roadtrip. Jacksonville has grown so much in the last 45 years that the small older tourist motels are nearly all gone. There are newer chain motels at all the usual places, like freeway interchanges and the airport, but neither the motels nor the freeways were here in 1962. There are a few places I checked which seemed too run-down, as is usually the case. On the north side of town I passed Etta's Motel, Legette's Motel, the Mount Vernon Motor Lodge, and Monterey Motel. We can still check out the Gator Lodge or the Emerson Inn Motel, both located about 2 miles south of the end of US-23; or maybe even the Bethelite Hotel & Conference Center, which may be one of those remodeled Holiday Inns I mentioned many days ago. Sadly none of these is in the perfect spot, right near the end of our Roadtrip-'62 ™ down US-23. Stop back here next week for a recap of the trip...and some ideas about our next trip through 1962!
All photos by the author and Copyright © 2012, 2021 - Donald Dale Milne, except as noted.
All other content Copyright © 2012, 2021 - Donald Dale Milne.