Beach on the Atlantic

28 January 2009

Today’s weather in St. Augustine was a bit more like what I expect in Florida—too warm and too muggy for me to like it much. But, it sure does make Mama happy. The incredible fog we dealt with yesterday and into last night, was completely gone, and in its place a big, bright, beautiful blue sky and much higher temperatures.

The tire guy came just as promised, discovered a faulty valve stem and repaired it. Then, another Cracker Barrel breakfast and we were on our way back into downtown St. Augustine.

Being such a tourist destination, St. Augustine has two major options for guided tours of the city–the Ripley’s (Believe it or Not) folks, or the Old City Tours. (Robert Ripley’s first museum is here in St. Augustine.)  Both companies run “tram” style touring vehicles—like the little land trains most amusement parks use to move you from the car park to the front gate. We chose the Old City Tours, and bought tickets a level up from the basic tour, so our tickets not only covered us for two days, but admission to the Old City Jail and the History Museum were included in the price. Yesterday, we had jumped off and on the tour a couple of times, and on one segment, hadn’t been terribly impressed with our tour guide/driver, or his vehicle. Today, we were lucky! We are pretty sure we got the cream of the crop—a beautiful vehicle, with park bench-style seats and all lined in oak. And, more importantly, a driver who was friendly and well-spoken, and full of interesting tidbits of information about the history of his town. We enjoyed him so much, we refused to get off his train! We rode the entire length of the tour, without stopping for food or shopping, got to see America’s oldest tree(called The Old Senator due to its extreme “shadiness!”), and finally got off at the Old Jail, only when our guy, Friar Bob, was taking a break! Since that’s where we were really headed anyway, it was the perfect experience.  I snapped this photo of Mama and John as they waited for our tram.

The Old St. Augustine Jail represents state of the art incarceration facilities—from 1891! Built with money from Henry Flagler, like so many things in St. Augustine, it is restored to its original pink stucco exterior, and as it was in its day, made to look more like a hotel, than a prison. In fact, the sheriff and his family did live in the inviting, typically Victorian-looking front of the building. The jail, and the gallows are in the back!

The tour guides at the Old Jail are in turn of the century costume, and the maintenance workers are in black and white striped prison suits with “characters” to represent when dealing with the tourists. Mama and I spoke to one sad-looking black man wearing the stripes, who told us his story. He said he’d be obliged to us if we’d tell the sheriff he was innocent. He turned in a lost wallet, he told us. It had two dollars in it. But, when it was claimed, the owner said there had been three dollars in it when it was lost, and the black man was jailed. An all too familiar type of story in America’s past.

Our tour guide was an older gentleman—his character, a deputy sheriff. He treated his little group of us as though we’d been sentenced to a stay in his facility. He separated men from women, walked us into cells, and told us of the conditions we could expect. The men were warned that they’d be put on a chain gang, most likely, and would come back to the jail after their twelve-hour work day, hot, sweaty, dirty, and dog-tired. And, he told them they could even have a bath—once a month! Women were told we’d be working in the kitchen, or in vegetable garden, feeding the inmates and the sheriff’s family. There was no running water, and the cooking was all done on a wood-burning stove—no matter how hot the Florida day! We were all walked through the kitchen, and even allowed a rare peak at the living quarters for the family. When we were finally taken upstairs to the main cell block, our tour guide had a brief conversation with an audio-animatronic version of the sheriff before leaving us alone with him. When that speech was over, we were on our own to find our way out of the jail! I was pretty impressed with the effort that went into planning this flavour of living history presentation. It was delightful and took up a good hour or so of our day.

Next door to the Jail is the Florida History Museum. It presented a fairly typical museum experience, with a few dioramas, lots of glass cases, and much to see and read. Beginning with the coming of the white man and the native Indian folk they discovered here, through struggle after struggle for the swampy “Land of Flowers,” and right on into the era of statehood, railroads, and finally tourism—the beginnings of which were represented by a diorama including one of the first motor homes!  The “Tin Can” travellers were the adventurous folks of the 1920s, who converted their cars into the first RVs, and camped their way through the wilds of Florida! 

We got back on the tour tram after buying a souvenir for a friend, and a couple of batteries for my battery-eating camera, and rode it until we were near the spot where we wanted to have lunch. We walked a couple of blocks with the ocean on our left, to a little place called The White Lion, where we had the restaurant to ourselves, due to the fact that we’d missed the regular luncheon hour. We ate, then wandered our way around and through some more streets of the beautiful little downtown, and included a favourite little used and new bookstore in our travels. Mama bought a couple of books, one by a local author I need to learn more about—his name, Randy Cribbs. He seems to write about the area in particular, and I flipped through one book of his poetry and it is excellent.

We had come to the point, now, where most of the rest of the activities we would choose to do in St. Augustine, were going to require additional fees, and should have been started much earlier in the day. So, we made a group decision, that heading home was in order. As John was maneuvering the bus out of the downtown area, and I was marvelling at the beautiful clouds gathering to the west, we decided to take the coastal route south, at least until it got too dark to enjoy it. What a beautiful drive! We got to where we could see the Atlantic Ocean and had the waves to the left of us, and the lovely sunset to the right—fabulous. We pulled off at one point, for me to take photos, and soon thereafter it was well and truly dark.

We broke up the drive home with a stop at a favourite restaurant of Mama’s, The Holiday House, in DeLand. We were all really tired by the time we got home, and it wasn’t long before we were all headed to bed to dream about our St. Augustine trip, and lock it firmly in our memories.