By Carol Antman for The Island Connection
On one of the ubiquitous ghost tours in this historic city, my fellow journalists are imagining that their photos reveal evidence of dead dogs lurking by woodstoves, phantasmal children wandering in the dark park. I see Henry Flagler.
It’s not hard to imagine he’s still here in St. Augustine, Florida since the entire city is full of his accomplishments.
Nothing stood in the way of his vision. When he admired a building, he either bought it or imitated its architecture. He built jails and churches so he could dictate their location. In his grandiosity he built a Venetian Renaissance church in the memory of a deceased daughter, a magnificent hotel to honor his wife. He also spawned a legacy of entrepreneurism that still fuels this city.
Flagler invited industrialists to enjoy St. Augustine’s warm climate, and built a railroad to get them there. People like John D. Rockefeller, with whom Flagler started Standard Oil, broke bread with railroad tycoons, church and elected leaders. I can imagine him hosting a lavish celebration today in the newly remodeled Treasury on the Plaza, an event space made from a 1928 bank.
The grandeur of the building is reminiscent of the Casa Monica Hotel and Flagler College architecture. The host might tell the story of building the world’s largest swimming pool.
“I was worth $8 million when I got here. I wanted a swimming pool. But no one would use it because it smelled like sulfur.
So I invited a bunch of Northern doctors down. Gave them free vacations. Just swim everyday I said. Then everyone swam.”
The deep end of that same pool is now Café Alcazar. Joseph Finnegan, the innkeeper at the nearby St. Francis Inn is also a problem solver. Opened in 1791, his bed and breakfast is the oldest continually used inn in America’s oldest city. Its unique rooms, courtyard, swimming pool and dining room are charming and exceedingly well appointed.
But it didn’t have a beach so the owners developed some property on the coast nearby and now guests can enjoy both when they stay at either: breakfast or parking in town, beach chairs and towels at the beach.
Flagler might go on to tell about his divorce from his second wife. She was in a mental institution but divorcing her was illegal in Florida. So he worked to change the law, much like that of another of Flagler’s likely guests, Philip McDaniel who started St. Augustine Distillery.
He worked two years to change the law that prohibited them from having their distillery, shop and Ice House Restaurant in proximity. “There were a lot of hurdles but we were committed because of our love of the town.”
A true farm-to-table enterprise, they work with local farmers to preserve agricultural history by growing everything from sugar cane to heirloom corn and citrus for their emerging line of liquors. One farmer, Mr. Arroyo, sums it up: “People get excited about vegetables but they get more excited about booze.”
Sharing Flagler’s love of the area’s natural beauty would be Captain Ben Evans and Zach McKenna of St. Augustine Eco Tours. Their passion for protecting the environment is obvious in their excursions which combine nature and history. They tell stories from the wake of shrimp boats as dolphins frolic. The iconic Castillo de San Marcos is surrounded by walls made from coquina shells. It’s never been conquered. Captain Ryan explained, “If you think of throwing an M&M into a jar of peanut butter, that’s how the cannonballs fired into the fort got stuck in the walls.”
The Spanish actually dug the cannonballs out, wrote hate notes on them and fired them back becoming the “first white people to recycle”.
On the table would be delights from the city’s best chefs: the deconstructed caprese salad from Chef Jean-Stephane Poinard of Bistro de Leon with its beautiful peeled love apple stuffed with mozzarella mousse, datil pepper sauces from Hot Shot bakery, pasta from Nona’s Trattoria, exotic olive oils from The Ancient Olive and desserts from French chocolatier at Claude’s Chocolates. The guests might plan a further exploration of the city’s culinary delights on The Tasting Tour where Flagler would feel right at home climbing into the horse and buggy to discover hidden dining gems.
Flagler and his guests would proudly toast each other’s accomplishments. St. Augustine is now one of the country’s most popular wedding destinations, girl’s get-aways and one of the top 5 places in the world for Christmas lights according to National Geographic Magazine. I imagine the party winding down, the guests ambling over cobblestone streets past their host’s magnificent namesake Flagler College, back to the St. Francis Inn.
They’d cap off the evening with one of Chef Janice Leary’s nightly treats, a bit of sherry and revel in the enduring virtues of St. Augustine.
Roadtrips Charleston! is a feature of Lucky Dog Publishing. Each month the column presents adventurous, interesting destinations within a few hours drive of Charleston. Carol Antman’s passion for outdoor and artistic experiences has led her to exotic and nearby destinations far and wide. For more photos, links or to make comments or suggestions, please see peaksandpotholes.blogspot.com.