The Way We Were: Elizabeth (Betsy) Towers

The Way We Were: Elizabeth (Betsy) Towers
Betsy, Polly, Pokey and Towers at Timuquana Country Club, 2000

Real estate, construction and Avondale are the common thread throughout my life, said Avondale native Betsy Towers.

Towers is member of a longtime Avondale family perhaps best known for its connections with the law firm Rogers Towers, P.A., which was co-founded by her grandfather, Charles Daughtry Towers in 1926.

However, the Towers family has also had a major role in the building of Avondale itself.

Seven generations of Towers have lived in Florida with five generations having made Avondale their home at one time or another, said Towers, noting that growing up she lived in four Avondale houses within a three-block radius, and her current residence at Beau Rivage is within six blocks of where she spent her childhood.

Brother Billy’s wedding, 1978; Agnes, Kathy and Billy, John, Betsy

Brother Billy’s wedding, 1978; Agnes, Kathy and Billy, John, Betsy

A native of Jacksonville, Charles Daughtry Towers and his bride, Elizabeth, moved from Downtown to Avondale in the early 1920s, and joined his brother, Robert Sheffield Towers, to build houses in Avondale, Towers said. Robert Towers worked and later ran his father’s hardware store, Towers Hardware Company, which had branches throughout the city, Towers said.

“He (Charles) practiced law with William Rogers, and in their practice I believe they saw a lot of title work,” Towers said, speculating on her grandfather’s early interest in construction.

Later, her father, Bill Towers and his brother, Charlie, who were also both lawyers, banded together to form the construction firm, Hercules Builders. Together, they developed the Cedar Hills Shopping Center on Blanding Boulevard, as well as a nearby Westside subdivision comprised of 2,000 houses in the 1950s.

“The story goes that Daddy came home at 11 p.m. one night and said, ‘Pokey, I need to have the names for 50 streets by 7 a.m.’ and he went to bed,” said Towers, referring to her mother, Jean, who goes by Pokey. “At that time, my mother was reading nursery rhymes to us, so she sat down and went through our Peter Rabbit books and all our fairytale stories. That’s why those streets are named Peter Pan and Tinker Bell. The folks living on Flopsy Street, they got together later and petitioned the city to have the name changed,” she said.

The construction bug has extended to Towers and her siblings, Billy, John, and Agnes, who jointly own Florida Title Group as well as a few real estate parcels they plan to develop, and an industrial park complex. Her brothers, Billy and John, founded the residential construction firm Atlantic Builders in 1983, which was the second largest privately-owned residential construction company in Florida. After they sold the company in 1998 they built under different names until 2009, when they opened another company, New Atlantic Builders. Her nephew, Will Towers, is a general contractor, who built his own Ingleside Street home and has done a lot of construction in Avondale.

“I think my story is a story of repetition. I know it sounds boring, but it seems we’ve been carrying on in construction with the next generation in Avondale,” she said.

“One of my earliest memories is going to a job site with my father,” Towers recalled. “I must have been three years old. I remember Dad had a big truck, and it was before seat belts. Kids would stand up in the car, and I was standing next to Daddy while he was driving the truck and our dog, Queeny, the boxer, was next to me. The three of us were going out on a Saturday to check the job sites on the Westside off Park Street,” she said.

Bill, Pokey and baby Betsy in Avondale, 1951

Bill, Pokey and baby Betsy in Avondale, 1951

Born in St. Vincent’s Hospital, as was her father before her, Towers lived for two weeks at her grandparent’s home at 3500 Richmond Street before moving to a home her father had built at 3745 Riverside Avenue.

“Uncle Charlie and Aunt Beezie had built the house next door at 3750 Riverside Avenue,” Towers explained. “There were five girls in Uncle Charlie’s family and my family had four. We were really raised like brothers and sisters,” Towers said, noting her mother, who had four children within five years, hired Helen Jefferson, a housekeeper who lived in and was instrumental in raising the family. Jefferson lived with the Towers in three Avondale homes, 3745 Riverside Avenue, 1980 Greenwood Avenue and the Lane-Towers House at 3730 Richmond Street, which is the largest single-family dwelling in the Riverside-Avondale Historic District. At the family’s 1,500-acre Middleburg farm, where the Towers spent weekends and summers, Jefferson had her own suite.

“I think of her as my ‘other mother,’” said Towers, referring to Jefferson. “She was there for us through thick and thin. She was so supportive. I remember when one of the teachers at Fishweir called Momma complaining about me, and Momma was so supportive of the teacher, Helen said, ‘Teacher’s ain’t perfect, ya know.’ She was sticking up for me,” she said. “She was family,” she said.

Towers attended Fishweir Elementary School, Lake Shore Junior High and graduated from St. Johns Country Day School in 1969 when the Orange Park school “was more of a Jacksonville school.” Her cousin, Cathy Towers Hardage of Avondale, was in her class at Fishweir.

Because of her extensive family’s construction background, many of the houses in Avondale have special significance for Towers. “Either my grandparents built the house, or a relative lived in the house, or somebody I knew lived there,” she said. “There is no area of Avondale that I am not familiar with or related to in some way.”

When she was growing up, Towers said Avondale was like a small village in a big city, and as a kid she roamed the area from 5 Points to Ortega. “We never went over to the Southside, — that’s what we called it, the Southside,” she said. “When Jacksonville Episcopal School was founded I was at St. Johns (Country Day) and there was no level for me to go there (at Episcopal). But my brothers and sisters went there and that expanded our world. They were going to school with people who lived on the Southside, and those kids visited us at our house (on Richmond Street). There was even a boy named Tom Dent – Helen called him ‘Southside.’ They even had friends from the Beach. Growing up in Avondale, we never knew anybody who lived at the Beach.

“Our parents grew up together and it seemed like everyone married someone who they grew up with. It was a very insular neighborhood,” she continued, noting her mother, Pokey, grew up at 1717 Edgewood Ave. in Avondale and met Bill Towers when they both were 14 years old. After Bill Towers died in 1972, Pokey later married Dr. Jim Lyerly, a neurosurgeon who had attended grade school at West Riverside and Lee High School with her. Her Aunt Beezie grew up in the neighborhood as well.

“Back then, people married people they went to Lee High School with, but now it is more broad, which I really like. I like the expansion of the village into a neighborhood, and to live near people who have lived elsewhere but really care about Avondale.”

Because of her intimate familiarity with the neighborhood, “everywhere I look holds a memory,” Towers said. She recalled the 10-cent store where Bonne Nuit is now located in Avondale, where she and her siblings would go after they received their allowance. When she and her siblings graduated from Fishweir Elementary they were treated to hamburgers at Penney’s Drive-In, located on St. Johns Avenue where the Loop recently stood. The sandwiches were small and cost a penny.

With daughter Polly in Ortega, 1991

With daughter Polly in Ortega, 1991

Tower, who furthered her education at Bradford Junior College in Boston, Vassar College in New York, and Moore College of Art in Philadelphia, where she studied photography, said her interest in painting was ignited while she was in elementary school. She and her cousin, Morley, took art lessons from Marjorie Edwards in her Avondale studio on Saturday mornings. “She was English, and she would serve tea and cookies and I thought that was so civilized,” said Towers.

Allen’s Supermarket inhabited the area formerly inhabited by Cowford Traders. “They would deliver groceries to your house, which would come in boxes. They even would put the perishables in your refrigerator,” she recalled. “I don’t think that lifestyle is available anywhere in the world now.”

After college, Towers returned home to the Lane-Towers house, where she set up a dark room on the third floor and worked in Jacksonville as a freelance photographer. It was through an Avondale connection – Helen Lane’s son-in-law, Bill Emory – that she got a job as photo editor at the Gadsden County Times in Quincy, Florida. “When you think about it, the strain of Avondale continues,” she said. “Even my career had Avondale ties.”

Towers met her husband, Ed Mingledorff, in Quincy and was married 10 years. After her divorce, she returned to Jacksonville with her two children, Towers and Polly Mingledorff, and raised her kids at her family’s farm in Middleburg – North Fork Ranch – located at the north Fork of Black Creek, which housed cattle, horses, and 100,000 chickens, the eggs of which her father had sold in grocery stores when she was growing up.

“Daddy loved the lifestyle. He was a lawyer, cattle rancher, builder and egg man,” she said, noting her family spent most weekends and summers at the ranch when she was a child. “The egg system was all automated and the eggs would go on a conveyer belt to the processing house. Every so often the equipment would go down and we would have to wash the eggs by hand to meet the delivery deadline to the grocery stores,” she recalled.

Eventually the ranch was sold to the Gateway Council of Girl Scouts, Inc., and Towers moved with her children to Ortega for eight years before she finally settled in Beau Rivage in 2014. Since then she has earned her real estate license and works with her family as a site agent at Patriot Ridge, a new Westside community where New Atlantic Builders is constructing homes.

“I wanted to get back to Avondale where I can walk out of my condo and go three blocks to a restaurant. I want to be near my family and friends,” Towers said. “I can’t imagine living anywhere else.”

By Marcia Hodgson
Resident Community News

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