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Steve Robertson

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Old Florida Drifting Away
By Steve Robertson
Wednesday, November 29, 2006

Rated "G" by the Author.

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Some years ago, there was a commercial on television that featured a Native American shedding a tear because of the bad habits of many people who throw their trash out of automobile windows. As a man who was born and raised in Florida, I empathize with the tear as I witness the destruction of my wonderful state. Over the 62 years I have been on earth and in Florida, I have seen the old ways and natural settings gradually overrun by the myriads of individuals who are moving here. Swamps have been drained, rivers have been re-routed, lakes and rivers have been drained and polluted, the aquifer has been seriously lowered, forests and country sides have been denuded, and the sun had been obliterated by high-rise buildings. The habitats and homes of a billion animals have been destroyed and many are threatened with extinction. Donít get me wrong; I know that change is inevitable. The difference is similar to the changes in the human body. Normal cell replacement happens every second. When misshaped cancerous cells emerge, however, the whole being goes out of sync.

The invention of condominiums has been a bane to the environment. A high-rise building stacks hundreds of human beings on one little lot that formerly would have housed one or two families. Roads are so crowded with vehicles, one can barely make it to the grocery store in a reasonable amount of time. And old, quaint and rustic business establishments have been closed down and replaced by faux shams called fast food establishments or condominiums. For instance, The Lighthouse, a wonderful restaurant that sat by the Intra Coastal Waterway beside the McCormick Bridge on Beach Boulevard has been razed and is being replaced by condominiums. The wonderful old Jacksonville Beach Pier where my family and others enjoyed breakfast a couple times a week has been torn down and was replaced by a new concrete oneóthat doesnít serve breakfast. We used to go there weekends and enjoy triggerfish with eggs and grits while the beautiful Atlantic Ocean rolled in beneath us where we sat. The scenic First Street Grillóone of the few restaurants right on Jacksonville Beach with an ocean viewógone, replaced with condos. Even one of our favorite breakfast spots, Famous Amosógone, replaced by a real estate office.

Now comes the wonderful, sleepy little fishing village of Mayport, Florida. First, the gambling boats showed up, one of which has gone broke. Now the mega-corporation Vestcor is buying up all the property it can muster for the purpose of constructingówhat else? Condominiums. Mayport has long been one of my favorite spots. A fishing village is real old Florida. The picturesque shrimp boats line the rustic docks that run in front of fish houses. Of course there is now the huge Safe Harbor seafood-selling conglomerate that is housed in a giant new building just as A-1-A reaches Mayport and the Sun Cruise casino boat and parking lot which is across the street. Stricklandís restaurant and Parsonís went out of business years ago and these were favorite places where we ate. Many businesses have sold out to Vestcor. One of these appear to be the wonderful gentleman, Mr. Matt Roland who has owned and operated a fish house on the river for years and years.

One of the last restaurants that represent old Florida is Singletonís Seafood Shackóand it is a shack! I started going there over 25 years ago. It is a ramshackle old building situated right on the bank of the St. Johnís river that was build by old Capín Ray Singleton and his sons. Capín Ray was a former shrimp boat captain and a truly gifted craftsman. Anyone visiting Singletonís should be sure to go in the ďmuseumĒ on the west side of the building where the magnificent models of shrimp boats, snapper boats, ferries, lighthouses, et al. are kept. All are made from scratch from planks of wood. The craftsmanship is truly amazing. One of Capín Rayís sons, Johnny, is following in his dadís footsteps and is now making wonderful models, also.

Partially due to a plethora of pelicans, mallard ducks, seagulls and cats, and otherwise due to the normal smell of low tide, a slightly pungent smell greets the guests as they approach the building. Once inside on the immediate right, diners can see the freshest seafood to be found anywhere iced down in a huge, open cooler. The cooks pluck out what they need for each meal. This is seafood right off of the boats. A full bar separates the dining rooms, one which runs west and the other north. The inside is filled with picnic tables and benches and there is a screened in porch where diners can sit right over the water. It is a quite large restaurant. Large windows allow the diners to view the docks, shrimp boats, fishermen and the St. Johns River. It is not uncommon to see skyscraper sized container ships and car carriers moving slowly past up and down the river.

Service is prompt and we have found the waitresses to be very good. A few years back the quality of the food served in Singletonís had decreased, but not any more. They serve what are probably the best fried shrimp and fish to be found in the world. The menu is full and varied and I love the Minorcan red chowder. They also serve one of the best hamburgers to be found anywhere, which are made from Angus beef. And the prices are very reasonable. Singletonís doesnít open until 10 A.M.

Now, Vestcor is pressuring the owner, Dean SingletonóCapín Rayís son, to sell. To his credit he has refused and all of a sudden the business has been assailed by inspectors and other government officials that Vestcor has sicced on them. I am especially worried about the museum and the priceless models. Singletonís is constructed entirely of wood and would blaze up like an inferno if it caught on fire. Given the fervor of the desire for the property, I feel that is entirely possible. The restaurant can be rebuild but the fabulous models can never be replaced.

So, my wife and I have decided that we will give Singletonís as much of our business as we can in respect for Singletonís holding out against the condominiums. We have told everybody we know and many will support them as well. Maybe we can hold on to this little piece of old Florida. Some things are worth more than money.

       Web Site: Ranch Boy Books

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Reviewed by Carolyn Kingsley 7/7/2007
Great little story. I'm a Florida girl too, born in Daytona Beach 61 years ago. I have watched old Florida disappear, much to my dismay. When I was very young, I recall the panthers screaming in the trees at night. Now I understand the Florida Panther is on the endangered species list. Check me out on the den. I think it will bring back some memories.

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