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Lost – but entranced – in America’s oldest city

The first time we drove down the East coast of Florida to visit my folks, we decided to take a break at the seaside city of Saint Augustine. We soon found ourselves following a light colored Volkswagen bug, which left the pavement and trailed across the very white, beautiful sands of the city’s beach, disappearing in the fog. We weren’t quite so bold; leaving the car on the street, we made foot prints in the moist, clean looking sand, marveling at the lapping waves as sea gulls wandered nearby.

A Brief History Not Totally Pleasant

Castillo de San Marcos, St Augustine

Castillo de San Marcos, St Augustine

St. Augustine’s beaches are as pretty as its historic remnants are interesting. In a city founded 42 years before the English colonists arrived at Virginia to found Jamestown, you find many reminders of the Spanish conquistadores who arrived here first, including Ponce de Leon, who came here in the early 1500s scouting out the Fountain of Youth. There is actually a monument to Ponce de Leon in town archaeological park. Close to the oldest stone fort in America.

By 1565 Spanish King Phillip II sent envoy Don Pedro Menendez de Aviles to incorporate this oldest continuous European settlement in the U. S. And that required protection, especially from the British. But the Brits wouldn’t be bested and Sir Francis Drake attacked and burned the city in 1586. City elders then thought that maybe, a permanent reinforcement like a fort would be a good idea.

While that was being decided ownership went back and forth between Great Britain and Spanish, with the stone fort not built until 1672. Great Britain eventually prevailed, and the fort bordering the sea, once named Castillo de San Marcos, was Anglicized to Fort Marion. I didn’t realize it till years later, but while taking a graduate class on Native American literature, I discovered this fort had been a prison for American Indian braves.

Cells in the Castillo de San Marcos

Cells in the Castillo de San Marcos

In the 1860s, as the U. S. Military kept pushing Native Americans ever westward off their land, a number of braves were captured so that certain Western tribes would “settle down”. These braves were from mostly Cheyenne, Comanche and Apache tribes, put on a train and taken to live in Fort Marion’s dark, dank cells for several years. Even though there is a village “green” in the center of the fort, the cells themselves are wide, deep, and windowless, the bars in front providing the only access to light. Quite a poor accommodation for native tribesmen used to living out in the open under the stars.

But the jailers weren’t totally heartless. They tried to run the fort in military fashion, so they cut the braves’ hair, gave them uniforms to wear, and account ledgers to work with. But they weren’t practicing bookkeeping – they used the backs of these papers to create art of their homeland. In my lit class I learned they used pencil, watercolor and colored pencils to show braves on horses, running horses, braves in war paint, and other images they wanted to remember, some of it quite good. It is something you probably won’t see in the gift shop at the fort, whose name reverted back to Castillo de San Marcos by U. S. officials in 1942. But it is where I got lost in this unique old city.

Unique because there are a number of “oldest” things to see. There is the oldest jailhouse, and the oldest school house, the latter and frail looking wood shingled structure with old desks in it. But knowing that didn’t help me find my way around. We were on the top level of this gray masonry fort of cement and old sea shells, and took a few pictures of one of our teenage sons by an ancient cannon overlooking an inlet leading out to the Atlantic. Then the family decided to rush downstairs and tour the dungeonlike cells. I went down the many stone steps and spent a few minutes in the gift shop. And couldn’t find them anywhere.

Lost In The Heat

So I went back across the fort’s narrow drawbridge, over its dried out moat, and under some tall palm trees, heading toward our parking lot off South Castillo Drive (Route 1A). But they weren’t there either. So I decided to wander around the historic district, this Spanish quarter of sorts. I thought about stopping at historic Columbia Restaurant with its white stucco walls and rusty colored fountain in front for a drink, but I was afraid that they might miss me. That fountain didn’t have water running through it and it made me think of water even more.

I could have possibly gone into Ted’s Olde Tyme Ice Cream for fruity flavored ice-cream in a waffle cone, but what if they happened to pass it by as well? At 95 degrees F, it was unusually warm that day, even for early summer, and my mouth and head were starting to really warm up. Where were they? Finally, I headed back in the direction of the “Oldest Wooden Schoolhouse” on St. George Street and found the rest of the family, who wondered why I’d wandered off. “But I thought you all went to the car!” I exclaimed.

Ripley’s Believe It or Not

Reunited, we might have gone on the city’s reknown bright red sightseeing trains. They take you to visit numerous one of a kind old sights, from the Old Sugar Mill to the Lightner and Oldest Store Museums. But we opted for a sight close to where the trains, which is actually where the train shaped trolley cars, started: Ripley’s Believe it or Not Museum.

If you are the least bit interested in the odd, strange or creepy, then this is the place to go. My teenage sons loved it. It’s located in a painted over poured concrete building that is shaped like a castle, called “Castle Warden” by the locals because it was once owned by Standard Oil partner William G. Warden. But “warden” is a most appropriate name for the many secrets and fascinating facts it holds. It holds the tale of Chinaman Liu Chiung, who had two sets of pupils in each eye, and a skull of a two headed calf born in America. The videos Robert Wadlow of Illinois, the world’s tallest recorded man at 8 ft. 11 inches, and a man who can swallow pool table balls and bring them back up, are impressive. And there is an angled walkway that makes you feel like you’re drunk, but it’s actually mirrors that are fooling you, which the family all enjoyed. Even holographic leprachan images keep you entertained.

It is too bad American Robert Ripley didn’t get to see his museum become a reality. Before his death in 1949, he toured the country and had showings for a fee of the oddities he’d collected all over the world. I guessing his shrunken heads from South America were a hit. Now there are Ripley’s Believe It or Not Museums in several places in the U. S., such as San Francisco, California and Myrtle Beach, North Carolina, and a few locations now in England (London and Blackpool).

Ghosts Abound

There was actually a fire at Castle Warden, when it was still an inn, killing two women in 1942. Now museum staff swear they can hear doors slamming and the sound of furniture making a scraping sound, though all the furnishings in the museum are quite heavy. In this old city there have been many sightings of ghosts, from the St. Augustine barber pole hued lighthouse anyone can climb to various old mansions. We didn’t have time to explore the night time tours, but if you’re interested in riding in a hearse and carrying around a “ghost busters” Geiger counter or K2 EMF meter to measure cold, ghostly spots or little orbs of light near old homes, you can try the service out (call 1-888-OLD-1565). There is also an old the night trolley service that can take you to ghostly destinations if a hearse seems too ghoulish (

The food at the Gypsy Cab Company at nearby Anastasia Boulevard had reasonably priced Patty Melt sandwiches ($ 7- $ 8.50) and BLT salad wraps were very good. Some pricier places were offering “Floribbean” fare we missed out on; we had to be on our way. We could have camped at the Anastasia State Park, but the grandparents were waiting for us in southern Florida. We knew we’d just have to come back to enjoy more of America’s oldest city again.

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