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A Million Little Pieces Of My Mind

1961: The Beach House

By: Paul S. Cilwa Viewed: 4/15/2024
Occurred: 10/2/1961
Posted: 2/10/2009
Updated: 8/28/2022
Page Views: 7780
Topics: #St.AugustineBeach #Florida #Travel
Our biggest move yet, from Vermont to Florida.

In the 1920s, my Mom and her mother made several winter trips to St. Augustine, Florida (without her father, who remained in Bloomfield, New Jersey, to work his optometry practice). Mom liked it there, especially the mild winters and laid-back attitude common to many Southern towns of the period.

She spent her summers in Pawlet, Vermont. (Apparently she didn't actually live in Bloomfield all that much!) This was her favorite place; and in 1958, Mom convinced my father to leave our home in New Jersey and buy a house in Vermont. She'd fallen in love with a particular house in the township of Victory.

But the winters, which she had never experienced, proved too much for her, especially after my father's death. So in 1961 she began looking for warmer options. We tried looking in Arizona, but we had gone in July and August, the two hottest months there; and that proved to be too extreme in the other direction. By the time we returned, Mom had made up her mind to return to St. Augustine, apparently not realizing that she'd never experienced the summer there, either.

Her father and stepmother, as well as her Aunt Edna, lived near us in an apartment in St. Johnsbury, but decided to move also; in fact, we were to all live together when we moved. We kids loved our grandparents and Aunt Edna so that was all right with us.

It was early in October, 1961, that we were ready to leave. Our stuff had been packed and taken by movers, to be delivered when we had found and moved into our new home. We were to take two cars: our 1961 Chevy Corvair, and my grandparents' 1949 Plymouth. We were to travel together, not necessarily following each other, but agreeing in the morning how we would go and at what restaurant or motel we would meet. As with our Arizona trip, I was in charge of getting the route maps and I sent for two copies, one for each car.

Needing some time to make final preparations, Mom sent my sisters and me on to school via the school bus, to give us time to say goodbye to our friends. I already knew I was going to miss my teacher, Mrs. Howe, terribly. I got her address so I could write, as well as my friend Danny Hartshorn. I pretty much thought that was it as far as friends went. But when Mom showed up to get us, to my surprise Joyce Lund, the prettiest girl in the class, asked to walk me out and then burst into tears outside the classroom door! I was absolutely dumbfounded, as she had never said five words to me in the previous two years. But now I comforted her and got her address and promised to write.

This was long before the construction of I-95 so our route was somewhat scenic. We headed south on Vermont Rt. 5 to White River Junction, then headed west for Rutland, crossing over into New York State west of Poultney and stopping for the night in Granville with Mom's favorite cousin Malcolm and his wife, Mary.

The second day we after breakfast and took our time driving through the Catskills. My sisters took turns riding in one car, then the other. I mostly stayed with Mom because I enjoyed singing all our "car songs" with her: "Shine On, Harvest Moon", "On Moonlight Bay", "School Days" and so on. Mom hadn't planned to make more than about 300 miles a day because my grandfather wasn't feeling well. In fact, I learned years later, Gramma was growing quite concerned because Grampa was drifting all over the road, which was quite unlike him. Yet, he insisted nothing was wrong and seldom relinquished the wheel to Gramma. (Aunt Edna did not drive.)

Motel On The Mountain, near Suffern, New York.We stopped for the night at the Motel On The Mountain just south of Suffern, NY. This unique, Japanese-style lodge hugged the mountainside with its sixteen separate buildings connected by walkways. It was too cool that time of year to use the pool, but we asked anyway; and then found it was closed. But we kids had fun walking between the buildings until it grew too dark to see.

The next day we left the mountains behind and so made better time. We drove through Baltimore but bypassed Washington (though that would have been a very worthwhile stop for school-aged children). We spent our third night somewhere near Richmond, Virginia. As we headed southward, the October night fell later and later. (In Vermont, it had gotten dark that time of year around 6 PM; the further south we went, the closer to 7 PM sunset pushed.) Our fourth night was near Florence, South Carolina. And our fifth, final night on the road, was in Brunswick, Georgia, a motel without a pool but with a shuffleboard court, and flanked by a cemetery.

Mary Joan and Louise near Brusnwick, Georgia, October, 1961. Mary Joan near Brusnwick, Georgia, October, 1961.

Finally, at the end of five days of driving, we arrived in St. Augustine along US 1, which in town was known as Bay Street (now changed to Castillo Drive). The Si Mar Motel, circa 1961, on Anastasia Blvd. at the foot of the Bridge of Lions.That led us to the Bridge of Lions, which we crossed and pulled into the Si Mar Motel, right at the foot and to the right of the bridge. (Three years later, we would stay at the same motel to ride out Hurricane Dora.)

We spent a couple of nights at the Si Mar while Mom, Gramma, and Grampa drove around trying to find a less expensive place to stay while they went house hunting. Aunt Edna watched us. Fortunately, it was an unseasonably warm October so my sisters and I spent the days in the motel pool, having a terrific time not being in school.

Mom found a place she liked and we checked out of the Si Mar and drove the two cars further south toward St. Augustine Beach. In 1961 this was more of an actual beach than a town, though it did have a post office. Mom had rented both apartments of a two-apartment beach-front house. She, Gramma and Grampa and I took the upper apartment and that's where the group of us ate. Aunt Edna and Mary Joan and Louise took the downstairs apartment, but did not use the kitchen.

1½ 'C' Street, our first residence in St. Augustine, October, 1961.

Our first night there, as we were all unpacking, those of us upstairs heard a terrified shriek coming from downstairs. Mom, Grampa, Gramma, and I ran Florida Woods Cockroachdown the outside stairs, across to the south side and the downstairs apartment door, and in, to find Aunt Edna, Mary Joan and Louise all standing on chairs. In the middle of the room, on the floor, was an insect that seemed as big as a rabbit (though that was our imaginations enlarging what was, nevertheless, an unbelievably large cockroach). Eventually I learned Aunt Edna had discovered a Florida Woods Cockroach that had inadvertently made its way into the beach house.

Gramma walloped the bug with a shoe, and it took several whap!s to finally dispatch the poor thing. Those of us who lived upstairs, returned. Mary Joan and Louise were too afraid to sleep in their beds, lest there be more bugs; so they both piled in with Aunt Edna.

My room was in the southeast corner of the house, overlooking the beach and the ocean. There were top-hinged windows which pushed out, on two walls. The day had been hot and I opened all the windows, and went to sleep to the sounds of the crashing surf and the tangy smell of sea air. In the morning it was much cooler but not exactly cold; Mom called it "balmy" and I loved it. The morning sea breeze rushed through my room and gently stirred my blankets and tousled my hair. I resolved then and there that I would, someday, live in a place just like this when I had a house of my own.

I changed my mind when I had breakfast. Mom always made orange juice from frozen concentrate, and to do so she had, of course, used tap water. The tap water in this house came from an artesian well, and was what she called "sulfur water". She insisted it was okay to drink, and Gramma swore that when she was a girl sulfur water was bottled as a drink and she had loved it. But it was horrible. And, I soon discovered, impossible to escape. The toilet reeked of sulfur, which was a far worse smell than anything else that might come out of it. The shower filled the air with so much sulfur it was impossible to breathe. There was an outside shower, cold water only, for returning swimmers; I used it exclusively for the rest of the time we stayed there because the breeze blew the smell away for the most part.

I could not drink the orange juice and certainly not tap water. Gramma had some cans of grapefruit juice which I also hated. But I was dying of thirst and eventually found that if I stuck a drinking straw in my mouth, and poked it all the way to the back so that tastes would bypass my tongue and go straight down my throat, I could manage to inhale the grapefruit juice. But I never did manage the water.

Interestingly, the sulfur water and smells never seemed to be an issue for my sisters. Also interestingly, I now spend as much time as possible in hot springs, which very often smell strongly of sulfur. I can even drink the water.

It only took me 40 years to learn to tolerate it.


Another shock we had to overcome was something called "sandspurs", a prickly plant we'd never encountered in Vermont. They made running to and from the beach in our bare feet pretty much impossible. The seeds were coated with hooks which would grab onto clothes or skin and not let go. They didn't grow on the beach itself, but in the dunes that stood between the house and the beach proper. Another plant that grew there was sea oats. Mom used to gather them by the armful to decorate with. We found out later that they are endangered and illegal to harvest or damage.

Sea oats in the dunes at St. Augustine Beach.

When I recently revisited St. Augustine, Louise and I made a trip out to the beach to see if the old house was there. It was! And I got a picture of it; it looks better now than it ever did.

1½ C Street, St. Augustine Beach, February 2009.