I spent the weekend in St. Augustine, Florida with my friend, Dusty Abshire. We had a lot of catching up to do and thought the backdrop of America’s oldest continuously occupied city would be perfect.
I had been to St. Augustine many times as a kid: I grew up just 35 miles away in South Jacksonville. My family often stopped there on the way south to visit relatives and my fourth grade class took a field trip there in 1960. Of course, I had not seen the place in more than 40 years, so I was curious about how it had changed.
Boy, Had It!
The St. Augustine I remember was like a teen age boy’s bedroom with smelly old clothes thrown around everywhere. It was a mess. You had all of this old stuff all around, a jumble of historical significance tossed about like dirty laundry and old comic books. There were only a few sites sort of converted into tourist stops: Castillo de San Marcos, Ripley’s Museum, The Old Jail and The Oldest House. That was about it.
I remember being most interested in The Old Jail as a kid: all of those scary stories of what would happen to us if we didn’t mind our Ps and Qs. I spent the $2 I brought along for such purposes to buy a set of rubber wrist manacles in the gift shop. Ripley’s Believe It Or Not Museum was a disappointment for this 10 year old. I wanted to see dog boys and Siamese Twins but this was more a museum than a sideshow.
I do remember our tour of the Fort: Castillo de San Marcos, a wonderful coquina structure that withstood attack after attack. I have carried one of the stories told on the tour 40 years ago with me ever since, a tale about a Seminole Indian chief held captive in one of the dank arched ceiling rooms in the place. He starved himself until he was thin enough to pull through a tiny window 20 feet above the floor and escape. Turned out, he wasn’t quite skinny enough, and though he did escape, he left several inches of stomach and side meat on the rough coquina edges of that window.
We toured the old fort again this weekend and I sought out not one, but two National Park Service guides to ask about that story. They concurred: it never happened. Seems in the sad years of St. Augustine’s past and my youth, the guides created many myths and legends, most of which were not true. Shucks.
St. Augustine today is a tourist Mecca. The locals have mastered the fine art of sucking dollars out of visitor wallets and are doing it on every corner. The result is that the city is full of people: riding around on one of the two big commercial sightseeing lines, eating endless stuff.
One of the ways in which the locals have learned to capitalize on their position as America’s oldest continuously occupied city is by doing ghost tours. With all of the old creaky buildings, all of the graveyards with barely readable headstones, there must be wandering spirits, right? Dusty had even seen a couple of paranormal investigation television shows set in the town. Today there are about a dozen different ghost tours operating in St. Augustine.
We took one. It was the highest rated Ghost Tour on TripAdvisor.com and we had to search a little to find its headquarters. Our guide was a delightful, though slightly tipsey man with a scratchy voice in a top hat. He walked us through the old city and told tale after tale. It was all very creepy and fun and well worth the price.
The next day, we asked about a few of the stories and learned that, like the tale of the Seminole chief held in the Castillo, they were mostly fabrications! Yes, the Spaniards did capture an invading French armada trapped in a storm. Yes, they did invite them to swear allegiance to Spain on the shore, but instead of only one agreeing, many accepted. Yes, they killed those who remained loyal to France, but they shot them. They didn’t behead them one by one until the water ran red. Oh, and the whole event occurred two miles south, not right in the yard of the great Castillo.
Yes, a small walled up room in the old fort had been discovered. There were even bones in there, but they weren’t the bones of the Captain’s wife and her Lieutenant lover chained to a wall and left to die by her jealous husband. They were chicken and pig bones. The room had been used for refuse during a long siege and had been walled up when the odor became too much.
Please understand: I’m not raging on St. Augustine. Not at all. It’s a great place to spend a long weekend and it is full of history and atmosphere. There’s even some really good pizza! But all of the historical significance is now packaged in a sticky sweet candy covering, irresistible to tourists. The town is like a giant bag of ruffled potato chips taunting, ‘Betcha can’t eat just one!’ And you can’t.
It reminds me of my first trip to Pisa decades ago. You know Pisa: the Leaning Tower. That structure has become the economic heart of the Italian town. It is its reason to be, the only reason anybody stops there. Oh, there’s lots of historical significance to Pisa, and lots to see. But people don’t go to Pisa for that: they go to see the tower and to take a trick photo or two.
I think every town needs a Leaning Tower of Pisa, a reason for people to come from elsewhere and spend a few dollars. St. Louis has its Arch, Seattle has the Space Needle, San Diego has the zoo, and Marietta (just north of Atlanta) has The Big Chicken. If St. Augustine wants to lay claim to tall tales and enhanced 3-D creepiness, I say, ‘Go For It!’ As every great History teacher knows: if you want your class to remember the names and dates, you have to make what happened then and there exciting!