The Way We Were: John Allen, Sr. and John Corse

The Way We Were: John Allen, Sr. and John Corse
Original plat map for Venetia

Loon Lake and The Pier are, as the poet Lawrence Ferlinghetti wrote, “Pictures of a Gone World.” But to anyone over the age of 80 who grew up in Ortega or Venetia those terms spark happy memories of youthful fun. 

John Allen
John Allen

John Allen, Sr., 94, recalls when the Timuquana Bridge was made out of wood, the time before Roosevelt Boulevard existed and before Ortega Forest was developed, when the area in front of what is now Long Bow Road was a swamp. 

Allen’s family moved to Venetia in 1931 about one-half block from where Pirate’s Cove is presently. “That washed-out place was a river full of water,” he said. “It was so thick with hyacinths you could practically walk on them. It was a haven for snakes and alligators.” 

One of his many alligator stories involves an 8-footer that he and his brother Wallace shot – about 11 times – then dragged home. They planned to skin it and sell the hide for shoes; however, their father had other plans and carried it back to the river as a feast for the crabs.  

Around age 7, John and Wallace went to Loon Lake – the area where the gas station is presently on the corner of Roosevelt and Genoa – to shoot shotguns. “That thing blew me backwards and I cried. But when I realized I wasn’t dead I wanted to do it again,” Allen said, recalling, “You could get a box of shotgun shells back then for about 75 cents.” 

Brothers Wallace and John Allen, circa 1929
Brothers Wallace and John Allen, circa 1929

He explained that Loon Lake and Back Lake connected the Cedar River, McGirts Creek and the Ortega River. Skinny dipping in Loon Lake was also a favorite pastime and on Sundays (hopefully no skinny dipping was going on then) people would come out and sail miniature boats on the lake. 

Allen said Venetia was originally designed to be like Venice, Italy. “There was a pavilion in the middle with painted Italian poles.” The youngsters roamed freely playing and exploring, he recalled. “The whole area was just woods and there were stills all through the woods in Ortega. We went all over the place. We caught huge blue crabs, bass and shrimp in the river.”  

Allen also tells of Leon Wages – the father of Harmon Wages and husband of Nell Wages who owned Nell Wages’ Specialty Shop on Edgewood Avenue until the 1970s – making the kids sandwiches at the Pinegrove Deli. “We’d show up over there about lunch time and he’d be eating. He’d say, ‘Come on in and let me make you a sandwich.’ He wouldn’t let you pay for it,” Allen said. 

He remembers going to the Yacht Club when there were barely any houses. “If the tide was high and the wind was right, sand would blow all over Yacht Club Road and pile up. His excursions continued into Avondale and Willowbranch, where the kids used two-cell flashlights to explore and climb through storm sewers for blocks. “We’d come up a manhole and cut across some lady’s yard.” 

Imagine Ortega Forest and Westfield as bird sanctuaries, Venetia Boulevard the fairway on the golf course and DaVinci a marsh. Allen’s memories bring the past alive with descriptions of this “gone world.”

Life on the River 

John Corse, 94, meets every Wednesday with a group of men who know firsthand the changes which have taken place in the past 70 or 80 years. He jokes that they “tell a lot of lies.” 

John Corse
John Corse

Corse spent his childhood going back and forth from Ortega to Green Cove Springs. From 1930 to 1937, during the depression, his family moved in with his grandparents in Green Cove Springs. It was an idyllic childhood, he recalled, “swimming in the river, playing in the hyacinths, swimming in the Green Cove Pool. I won my first swim meet in that pool – a gift certificate for $5. I bought a varnished bamboo fishing pole.” 

The 50 acres at Grandfather Judge Doggett’s home was great except for having no electricity and no phone. “We used Coleman lanterns and had a battery-operated radio.” 

The family moved back into their home on the Point in Ortega when his mother [author Carita Doggett Corse, a graduate of Concordia School, where Friday Musicale is now, as well as Vassar and Columbia] got a job with the WPA and received “a great raise for the magnificent sum of $128.” 

Their home on Ortega Boulevard across from the historic Bettes House has been torn down for new residences, but at the time the houses had fences around them for the cows. He remembers his next-door neighbors, the Arnolds, having a cattle grate. He laughs about hiding in the bushes and jumping out to pull the control cord on the hookup for the street car which had to slow down to turn right onto McGirts Boulevard. “The driver would get so mad and we would run like hell,” he said. 

Graham’s Boatyard
Graham’s Boatyard

“Mother would buy drinks for us to sell for a nickel apiece to folks passing by the big oak tree in front of the Bettes House. When I was about six years old my brothers left me in charge, so I took the $5 we had made, pulled my red wagon over to Mr. Graham’s boatyard [now the Marina at Ortega Landing] and bought an old beat-up row boat. Mother put a 100-foot chain on it, and we’d take it out in the river. A steam wheeler pushed barges down the river to Palatka and created a rolling wake. Later on, we’d take the 12-foot outboard with a 5hp Johnson motor and have fun jumping that,” Corse said. He also said it was a fad to build caves for fun, “so we dug tunnels and covered them with boards and palmettos then would go down there and light candles.” 

Corse and his wife eventually bought and lived in the Bettes House before moving to Avondale. What does he miss most about life in old Ortega? “The shopping center in the Village – The Banner Store by Carter’s where the bank is now, and Mr. Boutwell’s Pier,” he said, noting that as well as being the social center for dances on Friday and Saturday nights Mr. Boutwell raised rabbits for people to buy for food. 

By Peggy Harrell Jennings
Resident Community News

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