Historic City Memories: The big freeze

A Tree Remembered

Part I of a two-part series.

By Geoff Dobson

At one time, Davis Shores with its Australian pines, when viewed from Bay Street, had a tropical appearance much like a small island in the Bahamas or one of the keys in Florida.

The Australian pine is not, of course, really a pine tree but a tropical tree sometimes called a “casuarina.” The trees gave the island an appearance of elevation disguising the fact that Davis Shores was a pumped up mudflat.

The trees had been planted by J.D. Thompson. The trees were disliked by some, not the least of which was the St. Augustine City Commission which made the planting of Australian pines illegal in most of the city. The tree roots have a tendency to attack sewers.

Additionally, the variety of Australian pines planted in Davis Shores had a proclivity of suckering. The trees have been declared by environmentalists as “invasive.”

In coastal areas of Florida in the days before modern mosquito control, the shade of the Australian pines also provided harbor for great swarms of mosquitoes. During the day, it was possible to go out into the sun, but forget going into the shade. One would be devoured. Today with mosquito control, we tend to forget what real salt water mosquitoes were like in the summer. In the summer in Florida, it was unthinkable to go outside in shorts or with short sleeved shirts. One could literally wipe the mosquitoes off an arm or one’s forehead.

Nevertheless, the Australian pine has proven to be useful. It was commonly used for windbreaks to protect citrus groves and other agricultural crops against the occasional cold of winter. In addition to providing a tropical appearance the wind blowing through the tree makes a beautiful whispering sound.

Years ago most houses in Florida lacked air conditioning. Indeed, the writer’s present house is the first one he ever lived in that had air conditioning. Some time back, the writer lived in a concrete block house. The only cooling was from a giant fan in the central hallway which took the air in the house and blew it out through the attic. The temperature in the various rooms was controlled by opening windows and opening and closing doors. The bedroom was on the southwest side of the house. In the summer, the heat of the afternoon sun would be absorbed by the concrete block walls which would then radiate the heat out at night so the room would never cool.

The solution was to plant an Australian pine outside the bedroom which would shade the southwest corner of the house. Thus the walls would not heat up and radiate heat at night. The windows on that side could be opened and the large fan would then suck cool night time air into the bedroom. At the same time, the writer could be lulled to sleep by the soft tropical sound of the breeze whispering though the pine.

In newer houses, because of various governmental codes, one can no longer enjoy the sounds of whispering Australian pines or the sounds of distant surf. The government has decreed that modern houses have heat to meet requirements of habitability. Many old timers in Florida grew up in houses that were heated with a simple kerosene fueled Coleman stove located in a central hall. If it got cold, one simply put on an additional sweater and an extra blanket or comforter on the bed.

The government does not require air conditioning, but the government has decreed that the house must meet certain energy efficiency standards. This requires that the walls and the “fenestrations” of the house meet specified “R” values. Leave it to governmental bureaucrats to use words such as “fenestrations” rather than a simpler term that old cowboys can understand such as “windows.” The effect of the “R” values and the decrees relating to double pane windows is to eliminate old-fashioned cross ventilation and require that the house be air conditioned.

The writer had an office in a typical St. Augustine house that had been built in 1882. When the building was renovated, it was required to meet the current codes. To meet the “R” values all of the windows had to be sealed shut. The only way of getting outside air was through the doors. The effect was to require that the building be heated and air conditioned year round.

In January 1977, a devastating freeze hit Florida. In Pensacola, it got down to nine degrees, ice formed along the shore of Pensacola Bay, it snowed, and the writer’s water pipes froze and burst within the walls of the house. But the writer was able to build a snowman in the front yard. It snowed in West Palm Beach, the first time in recorded history.

On Davis Shores, the Australian pines froze. Australian pine is a hardwood, extremely dense. It is expensive to remove a dead Australian pine. For days the sound of chain saws filled the air.

Along salt run there was mangrove. The mangrove froze. In the center courtyard of the Lightner Building there were beautiful scarlet bougainvillea espaliered against some of the walls. They froze as did the ones in front of Flagler College.

Robellini Palms which have a cold tolerance to 20 degrees F. froze. Reclinata palms which have a cold tolerance to 22 degrees F. froze.

On Davis Shores some of the Australian pines began to come back from the roots as did the bougainvillea.

In 1989 another freeze hit St. Augustine. Ice closed all the bridges across the St. Johns River north of Palatka. The Bridge of Lions was closed due to ice until sand was spread on the bridge. Interstate highways I-10 and I-75 became scenes of many accidents caused by cars skidding on “black ice.”

At the Elks Lodge, a Christmas Party was given for the children. Santa had to walk across the Bridge of Lions and hitchhike to the lodge. It took the writer eight hours to drive to Tallahassee from St. Augustine.

The Australian pines of Davis Shores are now gone. The freezes, however, were not the worst to hit St. Augustine.

Next week: The death of the citrus industry in Northeast Florida.

Geoff Dobson, a St Augustine resident for the past 32 years, is a western and Florida history writer. He is a former president of the St. Augustine Historical Society and a regular contributor of nostalgic memories to Historic City News. Before his parents moved to Florida, his father was a Black Angus cattleman. Geoff has written extensively on Wyoming history (“Wyoming Tales and Trails”). When Geoff was in high school, his family lived in the cattle country of eastern Sarasota County. The family spread, which his parents called “Wild Cat Slough,” was reachable only by a pair of ruts over the sand hills and through a snake and gator infested slough. Now, it is an area of four-lane roads, expensive subdivisions, shopping centers, and office parks. . His undergraduate degree is in history. Geoff received his post-graduate degree from the University of Florida. He may be reached at horse.creek.cowboy@gmail.com

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