FAIRBANKS FOLLY

A historical marker denoting FAIRBANK’S HOME stands in front of a seven-bedroom house at 227 South Seventh Street in Fernandina Beach, Florida. If you count the cupola, the house has four stories. George Rainsford Fairbanks had the house built in 1885 as a surprise for his wife and it did not go over well, resulting in the structure’s alliterative nickname, Fairbanks Folly. An earlier marker said as much, and the newer marker is not nearly as entertaining. George Fairbanks was an educator, a Major in the Confederate Army, a Florida state senator, Clerk of the Circuit Court, editor of The Florida Mirror, a lawyer, President of the Florida Fruit Growers Association and the Florida Fruit Exchange. He authored books on Florida history and was founder and president of the Florida Historical Society. Along with others, he is credited with establishing the University of the South in Suwannee, Tennessee, and was instrumental in establishing Florida’s citrus industry.

fairbanks

Fairbank’s imposing Italianate house was later owned and occupied by my husband’s grandparents, Tom and Sally Haile. They had five daughters, the youngest of whom was to become my mother-in-law. Her name was Agnes. She was tiny and affectionately known by all of us as Agie.

My initial experience with this house was in the fall of 1951 as I was beginning my second year teaching first grade children of military personnel at Eglin Air Force Base in the Florida Panhandle. A pilot that I was dating, “Mac” or Capt. Harold Haile Macurdy, invited me to go with him from Eglin to Fernandina Beach to meet his Grandmother Sally. I had no idea what I was getting into, and I definitely was not vying to pass muster as his potential bride. At the most, in my mind, it was something different to do for the weekend.

We left early in the morning. This was before I-Highways, and in spite of Mac’s tendency to speed, it was well past midday when we finally arrived at the grand old house in Fernandina Beach. “Grandma Sally” and “Aunt Reba”, a mother and daughter team, both looked ancient to me. I was 21. Perhaps Mac had not warned them we were coming. I’m not sure, but the two elderly ladies soon set about preparing a noon meal for us. I was starving and thought they would never get it ready. At last the food was on the table, but then they further delayed by going into the yard to cut a bouquet of fresh flowers for the table. Having “Haile” and his new girlfriend there was a really special occasion for them. At last, we were invited to take our seats. While getting situated in my chair, Grandma Sally looked me squarely in the eye and strongly suggested that I should ask the blessing. I had never said grace in my life. I didn’t even grow up in a family where grace was said. I had heard a few Methodist preachers say grace at “all day singings and dinners on the ground” in rural Tennessee, and that was about it.

I did, however, have a year’s experience teaching two first grade classes per day, thirty-three first graders in the morning session and a different thirty-three first graders in the afternoon. That totals sixty-six lunch boxes to say grace over. At each lunch break, before opening their lunch boxes at their desks, the little children had been taught to chant with hands in prayer position:

“Thank you for the world so sweet.
Thank you for the food we eat.
Thank you for the birds that sing.
Thank you, God, for everything.”

Rather than refuse the formidable Grandma Sally’s invitation to say grace, I dutifully did what she said to do. With the speed of light, I turned that little singsongy children’s ditty into something as adult as I could make it sound, and ended it with “Amen”, just like a praying pro. Mac was speechless, and deeply Baptist Grandma Sally was convinced on the spot that I would make her grandson, “Haile”, a good wife. But wait, Grandma Sally, that wasn’t my goal!  By then, I had forgotten my hunger and was wondering what the heck just happened!

Mac and I spent the night there. We each had one of the home’s seven large bedrooms, each with its own fireplace, massive bed, and elegantly cushioned seat in a bay window. There were fireplaces in the parlor, study, and dining room as well. A curved staircase led upstairs from the wide central hallway. There was a dumbwaiter for bringing food up from the kitchen below, near where the servants’ quarters used to be. Through the years, I was to become very familiar with this house as I did indeed become part of the family.

In June of 1973, the Fairbanks house was added to the National Registry of Historic Places. It has since become the Fairbanks House Bed and Breakfast. Beautifully refurbished and with an added swimming pool, it can be easily researched via the Internet at fairbankshouse.com.

William Thomas (Tom) Haile’s ancestry has been traced back to Ferguson Haile born 1764 in Essex, VA, which confirms that Agie’s father was a cousin of Thomas Evans Haile who migrated down from Camden, South Carolina traveling by horse drawn wagons to establish the Haile Homestead cotton plantation, now a historical site in Gainesville, FL.

In my living room in Gainesville, I have the platform rocker used by Agie’s father, Thomas Haile. Agie told me that in his later years, with poor circulation in his feet and legs, her Dad would pull that chair so close to the fireplace they were afraid the wooden rocker would catch fire. His study was the first room on the right after entering the front door of the big house, and that is where he sat in this rocker. Thomas made a name for himself buying and selling real estate. His most infamous purchase, along with two other Fernandina businessmen, was Fort Clinch. Their plan to dismantle the fort and sell the bricks did not work out as, too late, they discovered it was impossible to take the bricks apart without destroying them. There is a framed newspaper article on this event hanging in the Ft. Clinch State Park Visitors Center. Eventually the fort was sold back to the state at considerable loss, just to relieve the hapless owners of having to pay property tax on it.

Years later, my young boys, Eric and Casey, played hide and seek in the fort. Then, as teenagers, they spent happy times there with their Kansas cousins, Haile (Chippy) and Jamie Macurdy, and some local teenage girls. Later I was there with Eric’s children Andrew and Stephen. More recently, I was there with my daughter, Clea, and her teenage daughter, Anna Rose. Our family will always feel close ties with Fort Clinch.

Grandma Sally had her own reputation by being dominant and intimidating. Agie told me her mother was once seen on the roof of the house patching leaks with tar. My husband’s middle name was Haile, and that is how he was always called by his family members. His parents, who lived in Great Bend, Kansas, welcomed the idea of having Haile, their unruly teenage son, spend the summer in Florida with his strict Grandma Sally. Grandma Sally welcomed a chance to work her Baptist magic on him. She humored him by allowing him to use the fourth floor cupola as a bedroom for that summer when he was sixteen. Already being a wannabee connoisseur of anything with wheels and a motor, Haile made some deal with his Grandma about financing the purchase of a motorcycle if he would promise not to smoke.

One of Tom and Sally Haile’s daughters, Agie’s sister Edith, was an artist. Some examples of her work, such as a painting of a cracked open coconut, hang in my house in Gainesville. Also her hand painted china, dated from 1904 to 1912, is in my china closet. The monogram on the china is a graceful ELH in gold leaf. The L represents her marriage to the Fernandina dentist, Dr. Lynn. Edith died young, maybe around 1918. I have a book of poems by John Greenleaf Whittier with her father W. T. Haile’s name on the front page in his handwriting. There are pressed flowers between the pages marking a passage that reminded him of his beloved deceased daughter.

As if the Fairbanks house wasn’t impressive enough, Tom and Sally Haile also owned an old two story house on the Amelia River about eight miles to the south. Once when we were staying there, I watched from an upstairs bedroom window as a hawk picked apart and ate a snake on a large tree limb about ten feet away from me. From the dock in front of that house, I saw a pod of twenty to thirty dolphins swimming in unison out the mouth of the river headed toward the Atlantic Ocean. Fiddler crabs sunned themselves on the wet sand beneath the dock. I thought they looked like they were practicing yoga. Nearby to this old house was a popular restaurant, The Sandbar, where we drank and ate many seafood dinners.

A third house in Fernandina Beach was important to us. In the 1970’s, Mac’s parents, Harold and Agie Macurdy, moved from Kansas and bought a house facing the ocean at 1269 S. Fletcher. (The numbers have changed and it is now 1279 S. Fletcher.) We visited them there often, and had many good times in that house and on the beach. For family dinners it was customary to cover the table with newspapers and set a large bowl of hot boiled shrimp in the center. Each person peeled their own shrimp and Harold liked to sneak his empty shells onto someone else’s pile, so it would appear he ate fewer shrimp. Each person had their own little dish of seafood cocktail sauce for dipping, and there were raw vegetables and crackers available. One special part of this event was doing the math with Harold to calculate how many pounds of shrimp were needed, and then going with him to a place under the bridge where he bought the fresh caught shrimp.

Harold and Agie attracted young people to their house for cocktail hour. We had some good times with their neighbors, Vicki and Don. Harold liked to garden and had a sizeable vegetable garden behind his house. On one occasion, Agie and I were sitting on stools at the kitchen bar wishing for Harold to come in from the garden so we could all have lunch and martinis together. Agie got so impatient I said “Well, I know where the vodka bottle is and I can make us a martini”. By the time Harold came in, proudly holding a fistful of fresh carrots, Agie and I were tipsy and giggling out of control. She told Harold she didn’t want those carrots because they had dirt on them. Harold was furious with both of us, and rightly so. On a different occasion I made it up to him by retracing his steps on the “Mosquito Road” behind their house and finding his eye glasses where he had fallen and left them behind.

Harold had a trap for catching raccoons in his garden. Almost daily, he would load the trap containing a captured raccoon into his car and drive up past the entry gate into Ft. Clinch State Park where he would stop the car and release the raccoon. Guards at the gate knew him and just waved him through with no charge, then waved to him again as he drove out. I was with him on some of these raccoon-release trips.

Walking the beach was a daily thing. Once I walked at low tide from Harold’s and Agie’s house to Ft. Clinch. Only at lowest tide was there any beach exposed at the north end of the island. I was all the way up there, approaching Ft. Clinch, nobody but bare-footed me and the little swift-footed sandpipers enjoying the gently lapping water. Suddenly, I became aware of a gigantic, sinister, black submarine right beside me, slipping silently through the narrow pass into Kings Bay Naval Submarine Base at St. Mary’s, Georgia. I gasped and stared in awe. The massive nuclear powered submarine never made a sound.

My last dealings with the Fairbanks House came when Agie’s family decided to sell it and somebody needed to go through everything left inside. There had already been an auction and there wasn’t much left. Agie and I took a week and went room by room, making sure there was nothing left of value or interest. From the parlor in that house, Agie gave me the French provincial roll top desk which is now proudly displayed in my guest bedroom.

Agie was quite old and frail at the time. On one of our last trips down those vast stairs into the hallway, Agie fell, thinking she had finished the last step when she still had one more to go. I cringe just thinking about it. Being elderly myself now, I can relate. It was dark in there. I should have watched out for her, but didn’t know then what I know now about being old and unsteady on your feet. Tiny Agie was badly shaken but dealt with it like the trooper that she was.

Tom and Sally Haile and some other family members are buried in the city cemetery just north of Fernandina. Mac’s parents’ ashes were scattered one morning at sunrise over the Atlantic in front of their house at 1279 S. Fletcher Av. Mac flew a small rented aircraft. His brother, Jim, sat behind Mac and let go Agie’s ashes on first fly-by, then Harold’s ashes on the second fly-by. Jim and his children were there from Kansas. We were all on the beach at the time, then spent the day remembering Harold and Agie, and celebrating with a dinner of boiled shrimp on newspaper.

I still enjoy a trip to Fernandina Beach now and then. Perhaps someday I will rent a room at the elegant Bed and Breakfast and once again sleep, eat, and say grace at Fairbanks Folly.

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