It is a salty, damp, safe place and the sound of bump-bump-bump at a rhythmic pace has lulled me into a deep sleep. I’m just waking up as the sounds retreat into a steady, low idle. I know we are back in the canal and almost home. I’ve been under the bow of our boat sleeping in a wicker laundry basket full of wet towels and I’m almost 4 years old. I crawl out and see my big sisters, both of them tanned a mocha color and squinting their eyes at the setting sun. Pam’s curly hair is wound up so tight from the water and wind she can barely blink and Peggy is still wearing her mask propped up on her forehead. Papa is sitting on the back of the drivers seat of the old wooden Sport-craft steering the boat and he smiles at me as I emerge from my hidey-hole. Mama, always busy and efficient, even in her cat-eye sunglasses and bathing cap, is gathering up our gear before we dock. It’s Dark Island 1966.
If I had to put one word out there that would sum up Dark Island for me in the 60s, it would be freedom. As kids, we had the freedom to roam, and to a child, that can be about the best thing in the world. First thing in the morning, Mama would strap my “bubble” on me and let me loose to play and swim with my older sisters and the other children of the island. If any of the Dark Island residents saw me without my flotation device, reports were made to the proper authorities. The Styrofoam bubble was later declared to be unsafe for children, but it did the job for me with style. Besides, I could swim like a fish, float like a cork and there was always an eye on me, be it parent, sister or neighbor. The booming voice of Broward Padgett next door used to ring out over the island, “Polly, put your bubble on!”
My sisters and I, along with the other kids on the island, kept our days filled with crabbing up the creeks in the marsh, fishing for shiners and mud fish, exploring the rocks on the gulf side and of course, swimming. The canal behind the house was still newly constructed with a fairly clean bottom and only the occasional barnacle. Our dock over the water had three decks to jump from, depending on the tide and your level of bravery. Splashes and squeals filled the air.
Polly, Pam, our neighbor Tony, and, of course, a bucket of crabs.
Out in front of the house, facing west, was the beach. Maybe it wasn’t Daytona, but it was free from marsh grass and barnacles, with plenty of sand to dig. It was here that my sister Pam informed me of the questionable fact that if I dug deep enough, I would hit China. Visions of exotic people in conical hats danced in my head as I moved massive amounts of earth with my beach bucket.
Many evenings were spent with our neighbors, Wally and Mary Tanner, and supper was often a jovial affair. Platters of fried flounder (gigged right out front), mounds of hush puppies and great bowls of Greek salad graced the homemade picnic table on our porch. After supper, the clink of glasses and rise of the music level (Boots Randolph always reminds me of these days) encouraged us to go play outside in the evening air.
One night after dinner, all the kids got up and went outside leaving just the adults sitting at the table. The problem was, they were all left sitting on one side of a table made with the benches attached. As kids often do, we found something we wanted to share and called for our parents to look. They leaned back to look outside and...the table flipped! Food, drinks, dishes and parents all landed in one pile. Luckily, no one was hurt but we kids got a show. I remember Mary Tanner exclaiming, “I landed in the salad bowl!” Later we would request they try to do it again.
Most nights it was just the five of us and we would sit out front facing the gulf and watch the lights of the shrimp boats in the distance. Sometimes, for a treat, we’d get to-go hamburgers from Mrs. Mayo’s Restaurant across the marsh. There was no TV and no AC. And for some reason, even though my mother was an excellent housekeeper, come bed time, there was always, always, sand in the bed. It was pure bliss.
This charmed life came to a close in the summer of 1969, when my parents built a new house in town. It was a sad day when we sold the beach house to the family from Gainesville. In later years I would ride by and see their name “Waller” on the mailbox and my eyes would narrow in jealousy. I wondered what they thought of the letters P-E-G-G-Y, P-A-M and P-O-L-L-Y that my father had spelled out in marbles permanently inserted in the concrete steps going down to the Gulf. Sometimes, when no one was home, I’d trespass and go sit on my steps or the sloping concrete seawall.
Trespassing at the Waller's in 1979
That’s enough of my history on Dark Island, now for a bit of history about the island itself.
Surrounded by the Gulf of Mexico on the front and a canal and sea of marsh on the lee side, the Dark Island of today is truly an island, albeit a man-made one.
In 1899, the property passed from Towles to H. Williamson of Leon county. From 1900 to 1941 it changed hands more than a half a dozen times between the lumber and naval stores companies of the day. In 1941, the Brooks-Scanlon Lumber Company acquired the property and then sold it to Proctor and Gamble’s Buckeye Cellulose when they came to Taylor County in 1951.
Buckeye was in possession of the Dark Island property in 1958 when a land trade was made with local land developer Ben Lindsey. Both Buckeye and Lindsey were interested in developing the island, but at the time, buyers were few and far between in this area. Then a proposal was made to mill employees and the project began to gather steam.
The proposal was, for $500, a Buckeye employee could have a newly developed waterfront beach lot with a central water system. These lots were “given away” in a mill-wide lottery, of which there were 34 winners (for 34 lots).
My father, Warren Ferrell, was one of the 34. The $500 each lot owner paid was to finance the installation of the water system. Buckeye offered a deal for the first $250 to be paid by payroll deduction, and the remaining $250 paid over the next ten years at $28 a year. I can’t help but chuckle considering what a waterfront lot on Dark Island sells for today.
Buckeye supplied one months worth of drag line operation to build the road and canal and the lot owners did much of the work themselves, running backhoes, bulldozers and shovels. My interpretation of the notes, progress reports and memorandums in the files my father saved from the planning/building phase is that Dark Island was a cooperative effort between local land development (Lindsey), local industry (Buckeye) and private citizens (mill employees/union members), with additional cooperation from the county.
Soon houses began to go up, and it was not long before young families moved in and Dark Island began to shape up. As you can see by the aerial photo, in the early years it was mostly sand. That was something of a novelty here on the mud flats of the North Florida Gulf Coast.
We're the first house on the island. Aerial photo taken in 1960.
Through the years, Dark Island has seen its fair share of natural disasters and one particular event is still discussed in my home on a regular basis. On November 2, 1972, a tornado hit both Dark and Cedar Island. The Perry News-Herald reported that between the two islands, six homes were total losses and many more were damaged heavily. Total losses were estimated to approach a quarter million (1972) dollars.
Our house had already been sold, but the day after the tornado, the Ferrell family rode down to the island to see how the house had fared. The landscape had changed dramatically. Both the Tanner house and the Reams house, which stood on either side of the Waller’s, were leveled, but our red cedar house stood. It was damaged and missing a roof, and the family’s belongings were scattered all the way to Cedar Island, but the structure was intact. The Wallers were home when the tornado came off the Gulf and they weathered the storm under a table, escaping with only minor injuries. They soon rebuilt.
The morning after the tornado, no roof but the pictures are still hanging on the wall.
In the years between the ’72 tornado and the storm of ’93, things were mostly quiet on the island. Kids still crabbed and fished and families watched sunsets. Eventually, the sand disappeared from beds as the houses rose higher in the air, became air-conditioned and closed to the salty air and wind.
Then, in 1990, something happened that cemented my love for this place. I met my husband by way of a mutual friend who thought the two of us had a lot in common (thank you Kenny!). As soon as we met and I learned Rod’s last name, a ringing bell began to register in my mind...he was one of those Wallers from Gainesville! His family had bought our house and his memories there were as fond as my own. He had sat out on those steps looking at the marbles and wondered who those girls were. We shared and compared tales of the island and he regaled me with stories (including showing off his scar) of surviving the tornado of ’72.
The first time Rod met my father, he praised Papa for his solid construction of the beach house, without which, according to my husband, the 15 year old Rod would have surely perished. Papa beamed a smile and told us the story of building the house.
He was a bachelor working shift-work in the lab at Buckeye and the island was virtually deserted when he began construction. He saved a few paychecks that paid for the foundation. Another few paychecks bought the lumber, another the windows. He’d work on the construction on his five days off and during the days of his midnight shift. Friends contributed labor and skills until finally, in the summer of 1960, it was time for the house-warming party.
Barney and Bobbie Ann O’Quinn were on the guest list for this celebratory event and they decided to bring a guest, a young woman named Tommie Towles. Papa made a date with her that night and a few years later that young woman became my mother. It wasn’t long before the bachelor pad had curtains on the windows and little girls running around in paradise. And that brings us back to where we began the story.
The Dark Island of 2011 is still the paradise it was in the 60s, although there have been some changes through the years. The marsh has encroached upon the sandy beach, the canal has filled in and become silty (if any kids swim there now, they are very brave), and the houses have gotten much taller.
Just a few of the original families remain, and of those remaining, most of the houses now belong to the children or relatives of those 34 men from 1959. The Waller’s sold their house in ‘79 and in ‘93, it was lost in the Storm of the Century (that’s another story). The lot stands vacant today. But the steps and marbles are still there, and every now and then, I am too.Copyright - photos and text
Polly Waller 2011