The Way We Were: Roxie Horne Merrill

The Way We Were: Roxie Horne Merrill
Roxie and Jabbo Merrill with their children

Somewhere in Ortega there is an old tree that may still have the initials “R.H. + R. H.” carved into its trunk. “We were just 12 years old,” recalled Roxie Horne Merrill, “when Rogers “Tiger” Holmes and I had a crush on each other.” Today, both Roxie Merrill and Tiger Holmes are well-known, highly respected nonagenarians, having raised their families and lived productive lives in their hometown of Jacksonville…and still, Roxie’s eyes twinkle with mischief as she recalls those distant memories of childhood.

The first daughter of Chalmers Duke Horne and his wife, Eleanor, Roxie was born in 1921 in Bryan, Texas. “Dad was a captain in the U.S. Cavalry, and they actually rode on horses back then,” said Roxie, adding that her father, a native of Jacksonville, met her mother in San Francisco, married her, took her to Texas, then to Panama and then home to Florida. “She was a debutante and Jacksonville was a culture shock for her. When they got here in the 1920s, Park Street wasn’t even paved!”

The Horne sisters: Bobby Arnold, Roxie Merrill, Pat Barnes and Molly Toombs

The Horne sisters: Bobby Arnold, Roxie Merrill,
Pat Barnes and Molly Toombs

Roxie’s three sisters, Barbara (Bobby Arnold), Patricia (Barnes – deceased), and Molly (Toombs – deceased) were born in Jacksonville. “Our father believed in the beaches,” recalled Roxie. “He bought land and never worked for anyone else. Dad left us land when he died – about 13 blocks in Neptune Beach, and more – we’ve sold it piece by piece over the years.” 

Growing up in Riverside, Roxie attended West Riverside Elementary, John Gorrie Junior High and Landon High School. Always a bit of a rebel with an independent spirit, Roxie sought higher education after graduating in 1939. She first attended Shorter University in Rome, Georgia – a women’s college where she studied history, and later studied at the Kingsmith School of Interior Design in Washington, D.C. “Even at that young age, I resented the fact that women generally didn’t work,” she said, “and I became a successful entrepreneur as a young married woman, but I’m getting ahead of myself. First, I must tell you about my beloved husband, Jabbo.” 

Roxie met her future husband, James C. “Jabbo” Merrill, Jr., on a blind date. Four years older than Roxie, Jabbo had graduated from Georgia Institute of Technology in 1939 with a degree in industrial management and come home to work in the family business, Jacksonville Shipyards and Merrill-Stevens Shipyards. “Jabbo desperately tried to enlist and was turned down because of his terrible vision,” said Roxie, “but what they did at the shipyard, repairing ships and building Liberty ships, turned out to be vital work for the war effort.”

In fact, the Merrill-Stevens Shipyards had built blockade runners for the Spanish-American War, barges for construction of the Panama Canal, merchant ships during World War I, and then in World War II, the company built 82 Liberty ships and 12 tankers. Roxie helped launch several of these vessels with bottles of champagne, and the Liberty ships were named after many local luminaries such as Alfred I. DuPont, David L. Yulee, Telfair Stockton, Henry B. Plant, II, Isaac Mayer Wise, Robert Mills, Anna Dickinson, Negley D. Cochran and others.

Roxie Horne and Jabbo Merrill were married October 7, 1942 at the St. Johns Cathedral in downtown Jacksonville, with a grand reception at the Windsor Hotel. They took the train to New York City for their honeymoon and then came back home to do whatever they could for their country. Roxie remembers Jacksonville at that time as a town “full of bright young men in uniform…the war was on and everyone was doing their part.” Many years later, Roxie and her granddaughter, Maltby Fowler, traveled to France and stood in silent reverence at the site of the U.S. Military Cemetery in Normandy. “There were white crosses as far as the eye can see,” said Roxie. “I told Maltby, ‘This was my generation.’”

Roxie Merrill with Jacques Cousteau

Roxie Merrill with Jacques Cousteau

The couple moved into their home on Ortega Boulevard right away and added on to it over the years. There they raised their three children, Roxanna, Jimmy (James, III), and Eleanor “Winky.” The Merrills retained ownership of the Ortega house even when, in 1975, they took a 20-year hiatus, moving to Coral Gables, Florida, where Jabbo became chief executive officer of Merrill-Stevens Dry Dock Company in Miami. “I loved Miami!” declared Roxie, remembering that they attended St. Stevens Episcopal Church in Coral Gables, enjoyed an active social and civic life, and had season tickets to the Coconut Grove Playhouse. 

One special event that happened in Miami was when Jacques Cousteau came to town.  “Mr. Cousteau was having his boat repaired at Merrill-Stevens Shipyard so we have a big party for him,” recalled Roxie. “I had the privilege of squiring him around and making sure he met everyone, and everyone met him. He and his crew spoke beautiful French and charmed everyone. He was a precious man!”

Soon after Jabbo and Roxie moved back to Jacksonville in 1995, Jabbo passed away as the result of a lung disease. Roxie still lives in the Ortega home to which her husband brought her as a bride back in 1942.

And, speaking of homes, Roxie is quite proud of helping to preserve the old Merrill House, a stately Queen Anne home built by James E. Merrill (Jabbo’s grandfather) in 1879 and expanded in 1886. It was designated a local historic landmark in 2000. Roxie watched, in 2002, as the historic home was moved to its final resting place next to old St. Andrews Church, where the Jacksonville Historical Society headquarters are located.

The 12-room house, featuring rough-cut shingles that resemble fish-scales, a square tower, and an imposing gable, was one of the few Jacksonville residences that survived the Great Fire of 1901. After being restored to resemble its original splendor, with many of the furnishings and accessories donated by the Merrill family, the Merrill House was dedicated by the Jacksonville Historical Society as a museum in November 2005, and is open to the public for tours through the Jacksonville Historical Society.

Always an entrepreneur at heart, Roxie partnered with Barbara Hoffman and Mariah Bisselle in 1959 to open a gift shop, “The Added Touch,” in Ortega. “We went to New York and stayed on Park Avenue with Mavis Powell’s aunt. It was a real adventure! We had $1,000 to spend on gifts for the shop and that was a lot of money back then.” 

Jabbo Merrill holding grandson Nick, Roxie seated, daughter Roxanna Seely on the ground, son Jimmy and daughter Winky

Jabbo Merrill holding grandson Nick, Roxie seated, daughter Roxanna Seely on the ground, son Jimmy and daughter Winky

Roxie remembers that Mariah was the conservative owner of the trio, wanting to save money, and that Barbara was all about spending…and Roxie was somewhere in the middle. At one point, they carried Pappagallo Shoes, an exclusive brand that was wildly popular in the fashion industry in the ‘50s and ‘60s. The ladies’ shoes were manufactured and distributed in New York City, sold only to private gift shops, and were uniquely designed for boutique clientele. “Those Pappagallo shoes were a roaring success for us,” recalled Roxie. The Added Touch gift shop was a triumph of entrepreneurism for Roxie and her partners until Barbara’s husband became ill and the Merrills moved to Miami. Amazingly, the shop remains open today, under new ownership.

During their 53 years of marriage, Roxie and Jabbo did an immense amount of traveling the world. “Jabbo was a wonderful husband!” declared Roxie. “He took houses in France and Italy and we took trips nearly everywhere.” They also engaged in playing tennis and golf together, joining other couples at the Timuquana Country Club for golf twosomes. Often, they would dance the night away with their many friends at local nightclubs. Roxie and Jabbo Merrill were a fun couple who worked hard and played hard.

Today, at age 97, Roxie continues to travel, if only to North Carolina. “Daddy bought a motel in Hendersonville,” she said. “My parents would go up and come back on overnight trains – no sleepers back then.” 

Roxie travels by car, driven by her companion, Isis, and still enjoys the Carolina mountain breezes. She still goes to Bible study regularly, keeping her mind and spirit active, and Roxie also keeps in good physical shape by taking Pilates classes twice a week with her old friend, Helen Lane, and others in the Ortega area.

Ortega has changed a great deal since she first moved there in 1942. “When we first moved here, there were woods across the street and rabbits would run over and eat everything we planted,” she recalled. “Now, living on the river and looking out on this great city…well, it’s special. This house wraps its arms around me and so does God. He’s done so much for me. I’ve had a wonderful life!”


By Susan D. Brandenburg
Resident Community News

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