‘Cracker Gothic, a Florida Woman’s Memoir’ spins tales of GCS

By Nick Blank
Posted 4/10/19

GREEN COVE SPRINGS – At 17, Wanda Suttle Duncan couldn’t wait to get out of Green Cove Springs.

The tale weaved in her book, “Cracker Gothic, a Florida Woman's Memoir” from Library …

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‘Cracker Gothic, a Florida Woman’s Memoir’ spins tales of GCS

Posted

GREEN COVE SPRINGS – At 17, Wanda Suttle Duncan couldn’t wait to get out of Green Cove Springs.

The tale weaved in her book, “Cracker Gothic, a Florida Woman's Memoir” from Library Partners Press, tells how she came around to love Green Cove: warts and all; the eerie and the serene.

The book contains 22 essays detailing characters from Duncan’s past, personal struggle and Green Cove oddities. The book highlights the strong contrast of what she thought of the city when she left and when she returned to take care of her mother suffering from dementia.

Duncan lived on quiet Elmore Street, a stone’s throw from the St. Johns River. She said she was born the year the now-closed Clay Memorial Hospital opened, and she graduated from Clay High School in 1977.

Early on, Duncan saw the weather, terrain and lack of opportunities as restrictive.

“By the time I was in high school, I thought, ‘I’m getting away from here.’ It felt stifling, which is typical of adolescents. I just knew there was a big world I wanted to get to,” Duncan said. “I was too young and naive to see there were other ways to be here and be happy.”

She moved to North Carolina, where she still lives, but she started taking frequent trips to look after her mother. The trips back and forth were exhausting and taking their toll, she said. Her mother died in 2016.

“I kept telling people it’s like living with a 170-pound handicapped 3-year-old. She couldn’t make decisions for herself. You couldn’t reason with her,” Duncan said. “She wasn’t combative, but what a challenge it was to be under the same roof.”

Duncan’s husband died by suicide three years after she began the trips south. Green Cove Springs was where she needed to be after her husband passed. It was a place to heal.

“I hit this breaking point in North Carolina,” Duncan said. “I thought, ‘I have got to get away.’”

For her master’s program at Wake Forest University, she had already compiled short stories about her experiences. A prod from a colleague prompted her to form a book, not only her story, but of the colorful characters and urban legends.

With every trip to Green Cove Springs, she said re-absorbed the town and examined old stories from her childhood.

“I started really appreciating that town, the quirkiness, the history, the scenic beauty. All of those things kind of started for me again,” she said.

One story was Shorty Garrett. In the 1950s and 1960s, Duncan vaguely remembers him on a bike. She quizzed people about him and she found a Clay County Crescent article profile of the man.

“I read at some point he lived in a shack made of signs that were hammered together in a cove on the river,” Duncan said.

A group of men got Garrett’s name on the ballot for sheriff. Duncan said he was rumored to be a former roadie at the Barnum and Bailey’s Circus.

“It was a big joke, but the newspaper interviewed him and asked him what his platform was,” Duncan said.

He would sit in the front row at the Clay Theatre and heckle the movie screen and offer a, “rolling commentary.”

“I think every small town has somebody like that. Green Cove’s got their fair share,” Duncan said with a laugh.

Albert Roy Davis was a scientist who lived by himself, Duncan said. Davis was her neighbor who delved in modifying crops, magnetism and the paranormal. Davis had a Harley-Davidson and a pet monkey, Duncan remembered.

“He claimed to have corresponded through his computer device with one of his dead colleagues,” she said. “Didn’t everybody have a scientist that lived next door to them? I didn’t think much about it.”

Any city as old as Green Cove Springs has some eeriness about it. One essay recounts Duncan’s experience in the back corner of a cemetery on State Road 16, referred to as “Babyland” reserved for young children. In another essay, she pointed out Green Cove’s relationship with the 30-degree latitude line, rumored to have mystical qualities.

“Not only does it run through Green Cove, it runs exactly between the house I grew up in and the house where my mom lived,” Duncan said. “I’m not making this up.”

Duncan, a seventh generation Floridian, uses the term “cracker” to describe someone who descended from a pioneer family in Florida. It’s a contentious term with lots of interpretations and disputed origins. They include a racist connotation about overseers or a term of pride referring to cracking whips of cowboys and academics have even pointed to the term appearing in the William Shakespeare play, “King John,” referring to a braggart or loudmouth.

“I’m just choosing to take cracker away from that, at least for me personally, and I say I’m using that word because I come from humble roots,” Duncan said. “Both my mom and my dad came from people who were not moneyed or landowners.”

Now the things she ignored in Green Cove Springs as a teenager are easier to recognize now. Duncan recalls the sounds of trains going through town. She walked to the park and reveled in the richness of the water and the wildlife.

“[The trains are] the most beautiful sound. It was true back then and it’s still true today,” Duncan said. “I always roll my windows down. I love that smell, the earthy, dark sulfur smell of the water.”

Her book is available at Spring Park Coffee and online at amazon.com.

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