Metro Jacksonville's Major Stephenson interviews Jacksonville's Dr. Tim Gilmore. Dr. Gilmore has taken it upon himself to learn the deep, rich history Jacksonville has loosely buried and in return shares it through his created website (www.jaxpsychogeo.com/) and published work such as, In Search of Eartha White: Storehouse for the People, The Ocean Highway at Night, and Stalking Ottis Toole: A Southern Gothic.
Jacksonville is home to ghosts unkown to its present day inhabitants. As I would love to believe in the paranormal, haunting definition of said ghosts, it is rather the historical type of ghost that haunts this city. Yet, citizens of this city might be quite unaware of the depth of how deep this city goes back. Simultaneously, there are a few natives to Jacksonville who has taken upon themselves to uncover the rich history the county of Duval has witnessed.
In 2011, at the age of 23, I moved into a house built in the 1920’s located in Riverside on College Street, right across the block from Bold Bean Coffee. I ended upstairs with a window view of John Gorrie Condominiums and the colorful pedestrians that paint Riverside into the vibrant section of town it is. Before my chosen bedroom became bombarded with random knickknacks, I took a moment and enjoyed the emptiness of the bedroom. Since the house was built in the twenties, I thought of how many other footsteps have walked across the polished, hardwood floors; who else have looked out these windows; how this house holds so much history and continues to hold secrets of it’s constantly changing tenants. That provacative thought of "If walls could talk" passed along with time. As I was becoming a part of it, it was quite easy to leave behind the thought of the house's history. Yet, for some it is a harder feeling to shake when bent on the thought of geographical history.
Dr. Tim Gilmore is one man who has found it hard to shake the feeling of understanding the history of a place. A professor at FSCJ and native to Jacksonville, Gilmore has taken it upon himself to learn the deep, rich history Jacksonville has loosely buried and in return shares it through his created website (http://jaxpsychogeo.com/) and published work such as, In Search of Eartha White: Storehouse for the People, The Ocean Highway at Night, and Stalking Ottis Toole: A Southern Gothic. “I've always loved to explore,” says Gilmore, “so I started Jax-psycho-geo, the psychology of geography.” The “psychology of geography” is a term that Gilmore gives credit to UNF’s professor, Alexander Menocal, for the introduction: “He introduced me to the term psychogeography, the psychology of geography which is the psychology of place. So I started looking around and exploring different places that I thought were interesting around town. That’s the basis of the website. You start digging and you find a lot more than what you are digging for. It centers on place and I love that.”
It is through his search and constant digging how he came across two figures in Jacksonville’s history, Eartha White and Ottis Toole, that gave inspiration to two of his books. From these two figures, Gilmore maps out the dualism of Jacksonville’s history, the good versus the bad.
Eartha White's Clara White Mission during the late 1980s. Courtesy of City of Jacksonville Historic Preservation Office.
With Eartha White, a Jacksonville-born humanitarian, Gilmore expresses how “she had done so much in this town.” The Lavilla mission she started that housed numerous people almost disappeared in the early nineties, but thankfully still exists today. “She stayed there and the place was full of the people she was helping. She didn't go home, but stayed right there with the others. They have her bedroom just like it was when she was alive. To stand there in that room is pretty chilling. You’re standing in a sacred place.”
On the other hand, Ottis Toole, a pyromaniac, took it upon himself to destroy around thirty or so homes by fire in the Springfield area, burning his memory into the history of Jacksonville. One story of Toole’s burning history stems from a house on East 2nd street that used to be a boarding house: “Early 1980’s Ottis Toole set the house on fire and an old man named George Sonnenberg died in the house. I talked to this woman who was in the house that George Sonnenberg died in,” says Gilmore. “She was fifteen years old at the time. She and her teenaged husband were staying at the house during the time Toole set it on fire. They jumped from the second floor window and she broke her back. There are so many stories that are around that haven’t been told. There are people willing to talk about them. It’s pretty fascinating.”
These stories are fascinating enough to Dr. Gilmore that he becomes obsessed with them, his reasoning for writing the books: “As soon as I’m done with one I have other ideas to start.” Which includes a book to be released next fall titled Mad Atlas of Virginia King, an eccentric woman of Jacksonville who lived in about twenty different places in Riverside.
Dr. Gilmore says it is his obsession for discovering these vivid characters of Jacksonville’s history that drives the motivating force to write his novels, but I believe it is due to the responsibility he speaks of for Jacksonville to know it’s own history: “I think one of Jacksonville’s main problems is that it really doesn’t know itself. It’s a town that long has had an inferiority complex. It’s also a town that doesn’t like to look in the mirror.” Gilmore calls upon artists, especially writers to help change that: “Writers have a real responsibility to try to be some kind of or present some kind of consciousness. This town needs to get to know itself. I’d love to help it do that.” Gilmore in part is helping along with other writers of Jacksonville to help change the view of this city. Through this group of writers, Jax by Jax, Gilmore “hopes it is changing.” As long as Gilmore continues to obsess over Jacksonville’s history and accompanied by other native writers, then this city shall finally face itself and learn from its past in hopes for a better city tomorrow.
Dr. Tim Gilmore
Jax by Jax is a literary festival focused on "Jacksonville Writers Writing Jacksonville". The first event featured 15 writers in nine venues and brought out about 500 people.
Article by Major Stephenson