Dear Call Box: Years ago there was a fish camp called Shady Rest in Oceanway. Tell me about it.
D.E., Murray Hill
Dear D.E.: Shady Rest was one of those rustic camps with stately oak trees that you reached via a long unpaved road. There wasn’t much along Starratt Road then, just a home here and there. And lots of woods and wildlife. Sightings of bobcats and Florida panthers weren’t unusual in the 1940s.
There was no electricity in the area, said Cookie Faling Davis, whose father bought the camp that was situated near the creeks that dotted the area. He had a huge diesel generator that supplied power to the camp’s store, their house and cabins.
Where you had fish camps, you had cats, Davis said. At one point, there were 24 of them, including domesticated bobcats.
“We had one kitten who was cross-eyed, and one who I think was mentally challenged,” she said. “H20 would see you at the end of the dock, walk down the embankment, swim out, climb the ladder, visit with you and walk back to shore on the dock.”
Gypsies set up camp there in the years just after World War II. Later there were peacocks that greeted visitors, said Prissy Lee, while Grace Huskey recalled being baptized in the creek.
Davis doesn’t know who established the camp or when it opened. Her father, Robert Faling, was an accountant “who really wanted to be on the land.” He commuted to Jacksonville while her mother, Edith Copeland-Faling, and her grandmother, Henrietta Anderson-Copeland, ran the camp during the week.
“My dad and uncles, who came to stay for a while, got the place fixed up, and it looked like a park,” Davis said. “They built boat ramps, bathrooms, picnic tables, live bait wells and a cattle crossing, since there was no fence law and the cows would come and eat Daddy’s flowers and plants.”
There was a store with a jukebox and a kitchen, an old farm house with a screened-in front porch and three or four cabins that her father rented out. Her family ate in the restaurant where she recalls a picture, “really an advertisement,” for Budweiser beer called “Custer’s Last Stand.”
As Shady Rest became a popular place for family outings, her grandmother became famous for her deviled crabs (Davis has the recipe), and people would come on weekends to feast on them. On Sundays regular visitors would put down their nets, pick up their fiddles, gather in the store and fiddle away the afternoon, Davis said.
When duck-hunting season opened, she said, people would show up in the middle of the night. Fishermen could rent boats to snare trout, sheepshead, drum, flounder and bottom fish. There was no charge to go on the dock.
The bait well, built on the tideline, was 6 to 8 feet across, 10 to 12 feet long and probably 5 feet deep.
“When the tide came in, the small fish and shrimp came in through the opening in the deep end of the well, then the gates were closed and we had bait to sell to customers,” Davis said. “The whole thing was covered by a roof-screened enclosure. These nice river shrimp sold for about a quarter a pound for bait.”
A swimming pool was built about the same time as the bait well and was about the same size though not as deep, she said.
“First they poured a concrete slab, and then they laid blocks about 3½ feet high and made steps up in and out,” Davis said. “Grandma kept saying the blocks weren’t going to hold. After what seemed eons to my sister and me, the sealer dried and hoses were put inside to fill the pool.”
When it was about three-fourths full, the unbraced blocks burst and gallons upon gallons of water gushed out. Her grandmother closed the screen door and said, “Should have braced it.”
The property also contained 15 or 16 picnic tables, and her tow-headed, blue-eyed sister, Christina — “a tiny little thing” — visited all of them.
“She was really cute, and people just couldn’t resist feeding her so every Sunday night she’d be sick,” Davis said. “This continued until Mama hung a sign on her that said, ‘Please Do Not Feed This Child.’ “
Every year a family of gypsies camped there.
“Daddy had a talk with the head of the group, and there was never any trouble,” said Davis, an artist who does clay sculptures and acrylic paintings.
She and Christina, would sneak down at night to enjoy the exotic music and dancing. The gypsies traveled by wooden caravans pulled by trucks or trailers that looked like old movie props. Several of the men had horses, and a lot had dogs.
There was a laundry line in the camp where they could dry their colorful loose skirts, “gypsy” blouses, long shirts and dark pants. Davis recalled there was always a fire going, possibly for cooking and for ambiance. At times they spoke in their native language. Her father would sell them soft drinks but not beer, which was part of the deal they made to avoid potential problems, Davis said. After a week or so, they moved on.
Lyle E Shiferdek Jr. was one of several people who frequently went to Shady Rest with his parents when he was a young child. He recalled idyllic times playing outside, swimming, fishing, flounder gigging, picking up oysters and camping on Broward Island and other places.
Davis said her uncle, Alexander Burrell Copeland, tramped through the woods a lot when he wasn’t fishing. He’d gather orphaned baby bobcats, flying squirrels and raccoons that her mother and grandmother fed and then returned to the wild. The family even had a “pet” alligator in their pool who was released when he reached 3 feet.
During their first northeaster, her father had battened down the property and figured it would be a slow weekend. When he heard the rumble of cars and honking horns at 4 a.m., he grabbed his gun and headed for the front door. The guy in the first car called out, “Where’s the coffee?”
Her father yelled, “What’s happening?”
“First day of duck-hunting season,” the man replied.
Everyone put on their robes and headed for the store to brew coffee and collect boat rentals. By 5:30 a.m. the hunters were on the water.
“That was the only time I saw my grandmother with her hair down in public,” Davis said. “Every year we knew with the northeasters that the camp would make money.”
Her father sold the camp around 1949 because her mother was tired of running it and wanted to live at the beach. Davis doesn’t know how many times it was sold after that or when it was converted into private homes with an accompanying “No Trespassing” sign.
Shiferdek said he still misses it.
If you have a question about Jacksonville’s history, call (904) 359-4622 or mail to Call Box, P.O. Box 1949, Jacksonville, FL 32231. Please include contact information. Photos are also welcome.
Sandy Strickland: (904) 359-4128