Cool editorial by Opinion Editor Jim Sutton What's next: Fish Island Park. We can do it with available Florida Forever funds, thanks to Amendment 1, drafted by Sierra Club, Profs. Joe Little and Jon Mills, and St. Johns County Commission Chair Henry Dean. The City of St. Augustine Beach got state funding for two parks. The City of St. Augustine can do the same for Fish Island. Yes we can!
RECORD EDITORIAL: In Fish Island’s stillness, thrive souls
Posted Aug 10, 2018 at 6:01 AM
Updated Aug 10, 2018 at 6:01 AM
“History never really says goodbye. History says, ‘See you later.’”
— Eduardo Galeano
Fish Island may have been an unknown slice of marshland a year ago. Jesse Fish was likely a character known to a cadre of historians.
Today, it is a cause célèbre. It’s a poster child for a vocal and growing movement of residents, standing side by side to shield it from ruin by D.R. Horton ... this time around.
The island is important to anti-growth elements, clearly fed up with unreasonable demands of development and the unappetizing knack of local government to appease them.
But Fish Island is clearly a fight on two fronts — environmental and historical. The one-two punch is proving powerful.
Still, for some, history is a word. For some it’s a tool. But history is more. It is people, and struggle. It’s joy and grief. It leaves something behind — always.
In 1971, the St. Augustine Historical Society did a deep-dive of its resources and came up with a plan to compile short vignettes of the souls in our past. The series of stories ideas was compiled, and Mrs. Virginia Edwards, retired as an editor in the Copyright Office of the Library of Congress, got the job of preparing the articles. They were then offered weekly in The Record under the title “It Happened Here.” They were later published in a book, “Stories of Old St. Augustine.”
If you have trouble touching to the human side of history, we offer this glimpse of the spirits who struggled there — decades after the story of Jessie Fish crumbled, and before its resurrection. It’s taken from the series we published. It was titled simply “Fish Island.”
In the spring of 1870, a party of winter visitors decided to take a day’s outing and they hired a little sailboat to take them to an island south of St. Augustine in the Matanzas River, which they called Fishers Island.
It was, of course, Fish Island, named after the man who had lived there nearly a century before, the famous Jesse Fish, whose real estate transactions after the Spanish left in 1763, had embroiled half the property in St. Augustine in litigation. He had established a beautiful plantation, El Vergel, on the island south of town.
But when the party of visitors arrived at their destination, there wasn’t even a dock for them to land, so the men in the party had to disembark and carry the ladies to high ground over the mud flats. Once ashore, they followed a grass grown path to the house, Jesse Fish’s manor, now sadly run down. A member of the party described it thus: ‘It was the only habitation on the island and a more forlorn and forsaken-looking place I never saw.’
It had once been a fine residence, built of stone, with a handsome terrace and a balcony supported on stone arches, but by 1870 there was not a pane of glass or a window shutter left in the whole building. The black, gaping windows stared at the little party as they approached and gave them the impression that they were looking into the eye-sockets of a skull. As they drew closer, they discovered that the tumble down old house was not unoccupied. Some little children were gathered at one of the windows, and they stared at the visitors as though they had never seen strangers on their island before. A dog barked savagely, but the members of the little group strode on, not to be deterred from seeing the famous orange grove they had been told about.
They found a few stately lines of old trees, their boughs still laden with fruit, but everything was wild, weedy, and falling to ruin. On the way back to their sailboat, they found a woman at work at the Fish manor. She was busily doing her week’s wash with her six children clustered around her and she was delighted to have someone to talk to.
She told the northerners that she had taken over the house by squatters’ right for the simple reason that she had nowhere else to go. Her rent-free home was better than nothing, even though they froze in winter and had to board up the windows to keep out the chilly winds. But she was worried about her children. They were growing up illiterate, since there was no way to get them to school in St. Augustine, and she was terrified that illness might strike suddenly. Her only chance then was to put the sick child in a leaky dugout canoe and paddle to St. Augustine for medical help.
The woman had a terrible story to tell about the fortunes of the family which had preceded her in the lonely, ruined house.
They had had six children also, ranging in age from a baby in arms to a little girl nine years old. One Friday a terrible electrical storm swept over Fish Island. A bolt of lightning struck, killing both the father and mother, and sparing the six children, but leaving them alone and unprotected in the wilderness. The nine- year-old girl coped the best she could. She fed her brothers and sisters with figs picked from the trees near the house, mashing up the inside of the fruit for the baby.
Every day she went down to the shore of the Matanzas River to watch for a passing boat, but it was not until the following Monday morning that she spied a craft going by and screamed for help.
The boatmen buried the dead parents and took the little orphans to St. Augustine to be cared for.