Ponte Vedre Inn postcard circa 1960s.

I have reached an age I never expected to see. I seem to find myself more and more looking back over my 78 years. A friend used to say, “fill your mason jars with memories and you’ll never be lonely.”

I can divide my memories into 3 time periods: 1. Before marriage—birth in 1942 to 38 years; 2. Married —38 to 58 years old; and 3. After divorce—58 to today. There have been both wonderful and disappointing times in each. As long as my mind will allow, I intend to concentrate on the happy memories. Disappointing and disturbing memories are sure to creep in from time to time, but I have learned to deal with them. If I continue with my stories for the Kent Pilot, I will eventually introduce memories from all three time periods. To date, I have been writing mainly about my preteen years. Now I’m going to switch to a time a little later in my life–a very happy time in my early hotel career. I was barely 21 and had just received my first American Express card and purchased a 1960 TR3 on my own. A heady time for me.

My first real hotel job was at The Ponte Vedra Inn and Club–an old-line very well-respected seaside resort hotel and club in Ponte Vedra Beach, Florida, between Jacksonville Beach and St. Augustine. I had just completed a Hotel Management Training Program and was thrilled with my first job.

I would like to tell you about a part of my first job that came as a total surprise. A Mr. Courson (Tubby) hired me as Convention Manager and after going over my duties said, “additional duties will be added from time to time.” I loved my job and soon felt very comfortable performing my junior management duties. After a few months, I was handed one of those “additional duties” by the president of the company, Mr. E. B. LeMaster (Ebbie), who later became my mentor, and one of my best friends ever.

The “additional duty” was managing a 10,000-acre hunting preserve that was in transition. Mr. LeMaster had seen that my love of nature matched his and knew we could work well together and at the same time have a lot of fun.

Ponte Vedra started as a golf course development in 1928. There was not even a road from Jacksonville Beach south to the first log Inn. People traveled by car at low tide on the beach. The company owned thousands of oceanfront acres, including the 10,000-acre tract known as “The Neck”. “The Neck” was at that time true North Florida woods, swamps, marsh, and open fields–very much like the setting in “The Yearling,” only fifty years later.

The property I was to manage began at the end of a sand road with a gate, and ran south bordered on the east by the Guana River and on the west by The Intracoastal Waterway. To me it was as close to Africa as I was likely to ever get. The wildlife was abundant–deer, wild hogs, armadillo, alligators, turkey and the biggest rattlesnakes I’ve ever seen. There was great fishing in a small lake where I could catch bass and bag a duck or two at the same time. I could wade out a short distance in a marsh creek and come back with the best and freshest oysters.

Shucked oysters. Source: Unsplashed.com.

About a mile from the gate a small lodge had been built by one of the company partners, who officially ran it as a hunting lodge, but it was really for his own use. It sat on a bluff overlooking the river, but was somewhat run-down. There were kennels–but no dogs, a storage building garage–but no vehicles. A rickety dock ran a few yards out into the river, but no boats. The company had decided to no longer operate it as a hunting preserve. The new plan was to refurbish and add on to the lodge for use as an entertainment amenity for the Inn and Club. That was my job.

We redesigned and enlarged the kitchen to accommodate better and larger functions. A large outside smoker was added along with a 10-foot circular wood-burning barbecue grill we had a local construction company fabricate—perfect for cooking a lot of ribs and roasting oysters.

The Lodge and surrounding area were right up my alley. In my off-hours from the Inn, I spent every minute I could at the Lodge and riding the property to explore the miles of sand roads. We bought one of the first Ford Broncos. The first ones were more like a Jeep, with 4-wheel drive, engaged by hubs on the front wheels. The canvas top was removable as were the doors and a windshield that could be folded down on the hood. To me it was like driving a safari vehicle over the Serengeti.

At my hotel job, I wore a coat and tie and had an office; at the Lodge, I wore jeans and carried a pistol. I cut wood for the Lodge, grill, and smoker. I mowed the roads with a tractor “bush-hog.”

The Lodge became popular for cocktail parties and cookouts. It was often used by meeting and convention groups staying at the Inn.

Over time the Lodge took on a more important role. Convention guests loved it, but the most successful and fun use were the Sunday lunches Mr. LeMaster and his wife Harriet put on. I helped with the cooking and making the guests feel welcome. The lunches were by invitation and became a point of pride for Club members who made the list.

Ebbie Lemaster, Tubby Courson, Bill Minus, Ponte Vedra Lodge, 1967.

We only gave these lunches in the fall and winter after the weather had cooled off. When the twenty or so invited guests arrived, it was always fun to see how they dressed for a cookout at a lodge deep in the Florida woods. A lot of the guests were retirees from the north with little knowledge of the area other than the beach. A different and strange experience for most of the ladies–so what to wear? The fires were started early so the smell of wood smoke would already be in the air, and the coals just right for cooking ribs and roasting oysters. There would be a fire going in the Lodge fireplace as well as in the grill, where pork ribs would already be dripping their fat on the slow-burning hickory logs. The smoker, fired with wild grape vines, bay tree branches and leaves, would have freshly caught mullet slow-smoked and about ready to serve.

The bar of course was open. Along with the mullet, oysters were opened and served raw or roasted. After a Bloody Mary or a beer or two, and a look around with lots of questions, the buffet lunch would be ready.

The menu was generally hearts of palm salad, ribs, Hoppin’ John, (peas and rice), collard greens and cornbread. Sometimes there would be fried okra and even grilled quail, venison or duck breast. We had fun getting our northern newcomers to try things like pot liquor, the mullet, or the local hearts of palm. The guests left over-fed and we were exhausted.

Again, I have come to the end of a story I don’t want to end. More later. Stay tuned.