St. Augustine is a magical place all year, but I find the winter(ish) holidays especially delightful. I LOVE experiencing our tiny town twinkling aglow! And yes, the slow-moving trolleys, horse and carriages, and endless onslaught of pedestrian tours can be annoying at times. I’ve lived in the heart of it for years and find it downright bizarre when folks complain about it. However, I urge you to brave the crowds and take a stroll or driving crawl through the old town.
Walking through my neighborhood adjacent to the Castillo de San Marcos (aka The Fort), unique in character with homes and buildings dating back centuries, I often wonder what life was like for people here throughout different eras.
One of the homes I lived in MANY years ago was on the Garden Club of St. Augustine Tour of Homes, an annual fundraising event throughout different neighborhoods in St. Augustine. The 50th anniversary of this event will happen on Sunday, December 8th, 2019. Tickets are already on sale and they sell out fast. Occasionally, if the event is sold out, tickets become available around the day of the event. For only $30, you can be transported through time while exploring some spectacularly seasonally decorated historic homes. I highly recommend checking it out if you enjoy history, or just need some inspirational holiday decorating ideas.
The Garden Club is committed to the beautification of our historic city while raising funds for educational workshops for children and adults, stipends for teachers of horticultural programs, and even college scholarships for those pursuing a career in Horticulture or Earth Sciences and Conservation.
Somehow I was talked into opening my home to the public and reluctantly agreed to a group of eagerly talented garden club members invading my small home over the course of a couple of weeks. I had just moved in and found this particularly challenging as they insisted I keep “modern” items out of site to stay true to the 1800s period theme.
My house was a “territorial house” — one of only a handful of homes to survive fires and sieges throughout the years. The house was noted on a particular map when Florida was sold to the U.S. by Spain in 1821, thus becoming a U.S. Territory.
Later, the area would become known as the Abbott Tract, named for Lucy Abbott. As a single woman in her 20s, Ms. Abbott relocated to St. Augustine from the Charleston area and began to acquire land. She is regarded as the first female land developer, architect, and contractor in the United States, which is pretty amazing since women of her time by law were not allowed to buy or sell properties. Instead, women themselves were considered the property of their husbands. Maybe that’s why she never married.
Can you imagine coming to a foreign swampland as a 20 something chic and transforming it into an actual neighborhood that people still love to live in almost 200 years later? To this day there is much debate about the exact address of the “Abbott Mansion” which she resided, but the truth is, she oversaw many homes constructed, and perhaps lived in all of them at some point. Wouldn’t you?
Finally, the day of the tour arrived. I didn’t know what to expect because I literally did nothing but provide a location for these folks to joyously create an unforgettable experience. From the real deal evergreen Christmas tree, adorned with seashells and hand-crocheted ribbons, to the fanciful found cedar limbs and leaves wrapped around the spiral staircase and driftwood candle holders, my house was adorbs! It smelled great, it looked great, and oh my goodness, there were suddenly a whole bunch of strangers in my house!
About halfway through the day, one woman in her late 80s came up to me and expressed how excited she was to hear that her childhood home would be on the tour. “Which house is it?” I asked since there are always several on the tour. “This one, of course!” she replied with a smile. Her vibrant nature compelled me to ask more questions while ignoring anyone else around. Thrilled by our introduction, I welcomed her to tour the rest of the 1300 square foot home. As we stood in my bedroom, I awkwardly pointed out the crack across the ceiling noting I had trouble repairing it. “Yes, that is because this room was once two rooms and this is where the wall and doorway were. When I was six, my mother gave birth to my brother in this room.”
She shared with me that it was not unusual for the mothers, sisters, and grandmothers of the neighborhood to equally take part in cooking and caring for one another and their children throughout the years without a second thought. Many of the men were gone much of the time — whether to war, death, or worst of all — another woman.
We spoke for quite a while before I was beckoned to socialize with the other guests. Graciously thanking me for taking the time to show her around, I walked her out and told her she could stop by any time. As I asked how we could keep in touch, I was interrupted by another curious soul asking about the repair work on the tin roof, and she disappeared through the crowd. I never saw her again.
It has been years since this happened, and I am still in awe of the candid tales of life here in a different era. Though I no longer live in that particular house, I pass it often and think of her and the many women who supported one another, and how much more challenging their lives had to be than my own, and feel so very grateful.