St. John’s River Locations

“Directly across the St. John’s River from Fairfield was a territory rich in locations easily reached by boat. The scattered homes were on the riverbank a mile or so apart and beyond them lay real wilderness.

Strawberry Creek, several hundred yards broad and spanned by a primitive old plank bridge, played many parts in the old Kalem pictures. Fierce battles were fought on it; it was burned (with smoke-pots); many a chase was staged over its uneven boards, and horses jumped from it twenty feet to the water.

Strawberry Creek and its tributaries presented a true picture of tropical Florida, with its swamps, bayous made impenetrable by water hyacinths, banks lined with live oaks whose beards of Spanish moss hung in silver festoons to delight the heart of the photographer, and with tangled masses of palmetto whose only drawback was that they were the abode of diamond-back rattlers, some of them six feet in length, and poisonous copperheads. The waters were also infested with water moccasins and the swamps with vipers. We always carried a medicine kit and whisky for snake bites, but although we saw many snakes we never had occasion to use the cure.

From the edge of the Roseland grounds a long pier ran out at least a thousand feet into the river. It was so ramshackle that it looked like a crawling snake. The supports were rotting and in some places had given way dropping the planks to an angle of fifteen degrees. Across these treacherous spots the girls must be carefully handed. The pier was not repaired the entire season. The Southerners were too tired and we were too busy and careless to do it.

We rented a motor boat, the Bonnie Bess, capable of carrying some twenty people. It was semi-enclosed and its engine was not always reliable but sometimes left us stranded across the river with night coming on. Worse still it would go dead in the middle of the channel when we were on the way to location. There we would fume and fret with the sun mounting higher while the more mechanical-minded of the boys would “prime it” and tinker with it until it started again. But it was a famous little boat, its flat bottom enabling it to navigate shallow streams, and it was as much a part of the “Kalem bunch” as any of the actors.

Within a few hours of our home were quaint negro villages, their unpainted huts set on stilts above the shifting sands. There were wonderful stretches of sand at Pablo and Manhattan Beach, facing the open sea, uninhabited and desolate, with their scrubby palmettos, which served as setting for many desert island scenes. There were fishing villages, primitive as even a picture company could wish, quaint old-time Florida houses with their “galleries” of white Colonial columns, orange and grapefruit groves, pear and peach orchards which gave forth lovely scents when in full bloom; formal gardens and Spanish patios; the gorgeous Ponce de Leon hotel and gardens, and the picturesque old fort at St. Augustine.

Plenty of good riding horses were available and even old-fashioned carts drawn by eight yoke of oxen; two wood-burning engines of 1860, and a Mississippi River steamboat. Add to all this the glorious sun and warmth, the soft breezes in the palm trees, the rich luxuriance of vegetation, the courtesy and cooperation of these gentle southern folks, the crowds of manageable, friendly darkies, the villages of Spanish and Mexicans, and you will see that we had discovered a moving-picture paradise.”  Gene Gauntier

Film Story Tellers was created by Third Act Films, who produce video biography and commissioned documentary productions.

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