When it comes to throwing a big birthday
bash, nobody tops Saint Augustine. Then, no other city in the
country has been around for 450 years. For the big 450
Celebration they pulled out all the stops. When the planning
started they asked all the usual questions. Bands? Let’s get
some of the best names. Stage?
How about five? Weekend festival? No let’s carry it over
for four days from the Friday of Labor Day Weekend until
Tuesday, September 8, the actual birthday.
|St. Augustine's City Gates now
welcome visitors instead of repelling them
Not just the city but all the local
businesses pulled together to make this the best and biggest
birthday bash I have ever seen. Sightseeing trolleys provided
free shuttles to move the expected 30,000 visitors. The news
reported that there were not the predicted 30,000 people
attending the Saturday main stage concert with Emmylou Harris
and Rodney Crowell, Instead the numbers were about 50,000
filling A1A across the entire intersection and beyond and all
the way back to the top of the Bridge of Lions with about 15,000
more spread around enjoying the other city entertainment.
|St. Augustine's Royal Family
pose on the Mission grounds before Menendez's landing
The city was packed with entertainers of
all kinds. From head liner bands like Emmylou Harris and Rodney
Crowell, Aaron Neville, Mavis Staples, Justin Townes Earle, JJ
Grey & Mofro and others along with well liked locals like Sam
Pacetti and his acoustical guitar and Billy Buchanan doing the
best Ray Charles impersonation I have ever seen.
|One of the many small stages
around the Ancient City
Incidentally, Ray Charles is part of the
fabric of St. Augustine. He attended the School for the Deaf and
Blind there as a child. The School for the Deaf and Blind also
was part of the entertainment with their Dance Troup that
preformed on Saturday.
|Billy Buchanan doing his Ray
My first stop was the Visitors Center where
a detailed cultural exhibit, Tapestry, portrays the interweaving
of the three main cultures that began the fusion into the United
States culture as we know it today. As Dana Ste.
of the St. Augustine 450th
Commemoration, stated, “The cultural diversity is what we are
celebrating. When Menendez landed in 1565, he had with him
Spanish; Africans, both free and enslaved; and they merged with
the Native Americans. That was the very genesis of American
Culture. We celebrate that very rich spirit of
|Timucuan Village at the Fountain
Many other historical events also were
front and center on one of the stages. A little known segment of
African American history was presented in Flight to Freedom
which told the rich history of Fort Mose, the first African
American colony of freed slaves.For more about St. Augustine's
African American history, click
The Spanish Quarter which is a great
attraction all year got a boost this time with some real
Andalucían Cattle, Descendants of the cattle Menendez and later
explorers brought from Spain to Florida. Today they are known as
Cracker Cattle and were a big food source of the Confederates
during the Civil War.
|The Andalucían cattle on display
Three bands from Aviles Spain, St.
Augustine’s sister city, performed and EMMA (Emil Maestre Music
Association) offered a Fiesta of Spanish dance at the
No way could I attend every event but here
are some of the highlights of the entertainers that I did see.
Mavis Staples kept the audience captivated as she quibbled with
us. “St. Augustine, I love you. Why haven’t I been here before?
I’m going to move here.” For me the high point was when she
broke out with “Wade in the Water.” It’s an old song used by
escaping slaves on the Underground Railroad as a secret message.
I used it in my book, “Under a Black Flag” and it never fails to
send chills down my backbone.
|Mavis Staples singing "Wade in
Aaron Neville made me homesick for New
Orleans when he sang “Congo Square” and got most of us on our
feet and bouncing around when he did his version of “Fever.” At
this point we’re talking about 15,000 people dancing in the
|Aaron Neville brings the
Crescent City to the Ancient City
If Friday night was huge, Saturday night
blew out all the stops with about 50,000 happy birthday
attendees in front of that huge stage. I arrived while JJ Grey &
Mofro were hammering out their unique blend of Southern rock,
soul, rhythm and blues and their own Florida style. Naturally
when they did “Lochloosa,” that perennial favorite about the
natural beauty of their home state, Florida, the crowd went
wild. Gotta agree
with them, “All we need is one more damn developer tearing her
heart out. All we need is one more Mickey Mouse. Another golf
course. Another country club. Another gated community.”
|Emmylou Harris and Rodney
Emmylou Harris and Rodney Crowell brought
their own blend of musical harmony to the stage next. Everyone
welcomed the country/folk sound they have made famous in the
many years they preformed together. Emmylou informed us the
reason for the successful pairing was “We never got married.”
Whatever the reason, they are a perfect
blending of voices. Some of my favorites for their show were
“Bring it on Home to Memphis,” “Leaving Louisiana in Broad
Daylight” and Emmylou’s soulful rendition of “Even Cowgirls get
the Blues.” What a show!
The weekend wasn’t over yet. The fireworks
literally spelled out 450, Florida, and USA.
I I made it home just
|Fireworks at the 450 Celebration
Sunday and Monday saw the Cake Cutting and
many more entertainers. Just imagine serving thousands of folks
cake. Overall, 80 separate acts provided over 60 hours of
entertainment that appealed to a diverse cultural crowd.
Tuesday was the actual birthday. Hard to
imagine a Spanish explorer after months onboard a ship with the
nucleus of a small colony finally setting foot on land right
here in St Augustine near what is now Mission of Nombre De Dios.
HeHe set foot on land and kissed the cross offered him by
Father Lopez. Menendez claimed the land for Spain and named his
new colony St Augustine after which Father Lopez offered a
thanksgiving mass. Menendez placed a small cross in the soft
earth near the marsh. That cross was long ago replaced by a
stainless steel one that rises two hundred and eight feet above
the marshes of the Matanzas River.
|Stainless steel cross rises 208
feet above the marshes marks the approximate spot of the
It was like taking a giant step back in
time when Menendez once more got out of that small boat and
proceed once again to establish his colony. After the ceremony
at the Mission, Menendez and his procession composed of
reenactors, city and church officials in horse drawn carriages, and any who wished to
follow, proceeded to a the Cathedral downtown for a solemn mass
celebrated by Archbishop Sean O’Malley of Boston sent as the
Pope’s emissary. A group of disgruntled protestors attempted to
sabotage the festivities with chants of “No honor, No Pride,
Menendez committed genocide” but hardly ruffled any feathers.
A few who invaded
private property were led away by police. It’s history, folks.
It happened and a city grew out of it so get over it.
|Pedro Menendez marching to the
Even after the party’s over there is much
to do and see here. There are attractions here when you can
trace the entire history of the city and have a lot of fun doing
it. I do agree the
Native Americans suffered at the hands of Europeans but in St.
Augustine they are recognized and commemorated.
Best ways to get
around the city is to ride the tour trolleys. You get a great
history commentary and save your feet a lot of wear and tear.
|Visitors love St. George Street
A good place to start is at the Fountain of
Youth. pan style="mso-spacerun: yes"> You can drink the
rejuvenating water and you may become cooler but not younger.
What you will get is entertainment and education. Kids as well
as adults will be enthralled. The Fountain of Youth adjourns the
place where Menendez landed and is the site of an ongoing
archeological dig by Dr. Kathleen Deegan. There is a planetarium
which explains how ancient sailors navigated unknown seas.
SoSome of the exhibits you
will encounter are the Spring House, site of the supposed
magical water, replicas of the Timucuan Village of Seloy, the
Mission of Nombre De Dios, a far cry from the present day church
just a short distance away, Menendez Settlement complete with a
Spanish Watchtower and several boats of the day, both Spanish
and Native American.
|Timucuan reenactor at the
Fountain of Youth
Children will be fascinated with the
reenactors in period costume who demonstrate the way of life of
the natives and early settlers. I spoke with a man portraying
one of the Timucuans. He demonstrated use of the native weapons
like bows and arrows and other parts of native life. Since it
was still early September and quite hot in St. Augustine, I
noted the fire that was going in the center of his encampment.
He explained that since it was difficult to start a fire using
primitive methods, “Timucuans had a group of people responsible
for keeping a fire lit at all times. Usually a tribal elder was
the Fire Keeper but he would have some helpers. When he saw a
young man who was interested he would teach him the skills and
reasons for the ongoing fire.”
Firing the ancient Spanish weapons is
another demonstration kids love. The canon which guards the
bayfront is a two-man operation. One demonstrator explained to
us how the gun was usually loaded. “At that time, soldiers would
put three pounds of gunpowder to fire the round cannon ball.
That’s equivalent to three sticks of dynamite. We only use a few
|Reenactor firing the cannon at
the Fountain of Youth
Before his partner touched off the cannon,
he told us, “Best way to get a good picture is to get it framed
then hold your finger over the shoot button. When it goes off,
you’ll flinch and shoot.” He was right. That was a really loud
The reenactor who demonstrated the black
powder loading rifle is so authentic. He demonstrated each step
of the process and then fires off a round. Of course neither
cannon nor rifle use a real bullet for safety reasons. The
little boys especially love this demonstration.
|Reenactor demonstrates a black
Another attraction little boys especially
love is the Pirate and Treasure Museum. Adults,
would-be-pirates, and history buffs love it too. St. Augustine’s
early history was plagued with pirates. This museum will cover
that bloody history and even show how it led to the building of
St. Augustine’s most iconic landmarks, Castillo San Marcos and
the City Gates.
|Captain William Mayhem shows us
the only authentic pirate chest
Our tour was led by fearless Captain
William Mayhem. He did a fantastic job of leading us to the only
pirate chest known to be in existence now and to a visit with
|Captain William Mayhem explains
about pirate attacks in St. Augustine
The museum is filled with great effects and
true artifacts. It's the real McCoy not the Hollywood version.
Wish I had had more time to spend there.
|Flagler College magnificent hall
Move forward in time to the era of Henry
Morrison Flagler. A tour of Flagler College, once Flagler’s
showcase hotel, the Ponce de Leon, showcases how a wealthy
traveler lived in the late 19th century.
Just across the street,
the Lightner Museum was once another Flagler hotel, Hotel
Alcazar, built to provide nighttime activities such as a casino,
indoor swimming pool, Turkish and Russian baths, a gymnasium and
a grand ball room as well as other amenities the super rich
would appreciate. Today, it’s filled with fantastic treasures
from glassware to a huge stuffed lion.
Flanking the Lightner are two exquisite
buildings created by a contemporary and sometimes partner of
Flagler, Franklin Smith, The Casa Monica Hotel and Villa
|Lobby at the Casa Monica
The Casa Monica has a varied history.
Today it’s a luxurious hotel. Prior to that, it was the city
hall and city facilities for St. Augustine. Smith built it to
compete with Flagler for his share of the northern money coming
to winter in St. Augustine but it failed to produce the first
year and Flagler bought it from Smith for pennies on the dollar.
The failure might have something to do with the fact that much
of the furnishings for the hotel were mysteriously lost while
being shipped on a railroad owned by Flagler and never got to
the hotel in time for the opening.
The other architectural gem was Smith’s
winter home. He modeled it after the Alhambra in Spain. Inside
and out it is filled with treasures. Since it only had one other
owner after Smith, most of the treasures are original to the
home. Imagine what a man with good taste could do with unlimited
money and you get an idea of the scope of Villa Zorayda.
There was one important thing Flagler
failed to notice when he built his hotels; the city jail was
right across the street. Now Flagler was a good PR man back
before the term was coined. He knew it was not good publicity to
have a jail right in the face of all those wealthy tourists. How
he handled that bit of bad publicity was something I learned at
my next stop, the Old Jail.
The Old Jail. Sheriff's home
was to the right with jail in rear
At the old Jail, I was “taken into custody”
along with my fellow visitors by the very competent Deputy
Clyde. He set us straight about why the jail was a mile out of
town and painted pink with a cute Victorian porch. “This heah
jail used to be down town across from Mr. Henry Flagler’s hotel.
He didn’t want it there and went to the city council to ask them
to move it. They explained to Mr. Flagler, ’We don’t have the
money to do that.’" Mr. Flagler promptly wrote them out a check for $10,000 and said
‘Will this help?’ They replied ‘Sure, Mr. Flagler. Where do you
want it and how do you want it to look.’”
|Deputy Clyde explains life in
the Old Jail
Deputy Clyde led us inside and showed us
our cells. He explained that us women had it light as we only
would work in the kitchen about 12 to 14 hours a day while the
men would work on chain gangs for about 12 to 16 hours.
I would never have relapsed had I had to serve a day in
The Sheriff’s home in the front section of
the jail was a huge contrast to the cells. It was furnished in
the height of style for 1891.
|Original Sheriff Perry
overlooking his domain
The Old Jail is located just north of
Ripley’s Believe it or Not Museum, the first one ever opened.
There is so much more to see and do in the Ancient City but I
was partied out. I’ll have to come back another day and do
another story. I’m not sure if the words to that old Country
song, “You can never have too much fun,” are true.
St. Augustine mayor, Nancy Shaver, speaking
at the initial press conference said, “This is a seminal event
for us… Our 450 celebration is like throwing a stone in a pond
and the ripples from this will go on for a long time. Cover this
well and tell the story over and over because we need to knock
the chip off our shoulder about Jamestown.”
The mayor is right. Jamestown, as well as
other larger and more prosperous cities have cause to be jealous
of St. Augustine. Not only does it hold the honor of being the
first continually occupied European colony in the country, it also throws the best