Let us travel through time — to 1887.
Let us travel through space — to the Indian River Lagoon in Florida.
We find ourselves at Oak Lodge, a remote and rustic boarding house veiled by Spanish moss. Here naturalists while away the winter collecting wild-cats, turtle eggs, snakes, and other wetlands fauna.
Oak Lodge no longer exists. A golf course now occupies the land. But in his declining years J.W.P. Jenks knew and loved this place, and we will attempt to see it through his eyes.
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In 1886 Jenks catalogues thousands of shells in the damp basement of his museum at Brown University. He is sixty-seven years old. The university does not much appreciate his work, and his wife, who sometimes used to stay with him at the museum, is dead.
Now his feet lose sensation. He has to walk with a lurch that carries him down the street so slowly that even ladies pass him. It is embarrassing. The doctors prescribe pills and mineral water. Useless.
Jenks needs a change. His mind turns to Florida, the untamed, sunny region of his 1874 collecting mission. There he decides to board for a few months with his friends Charles and Frances (“Ma”) Latham. A spirited family of naturalists, the Lathams have established a homestead they call Oak Lodge.
Jenks rejoices to find himself in this “charming locality.”
Bear, wild-cat, panther, deer, coon, possum and such like ‘Varmint’ abounded on the first clearing of the ranch… The ornamental flowering shrubs around the house as the hibiscus and such like are in constant bloom and thus dissipate all thoughts of Winter — so unlike a Northern experience… the fauna affords me never-ceasing recreation in its wonderful variety.
After passing a few months in the salubrious environs of Oak Lodge, Jenks stares down at his paralyzed feet. He can hardly believe it, but he feels one of his toes move. Soon he recovers his accustomed gait. Where doctors have failed, the lagoon has cured him. He resolves to “hie me away with the migratory birds to the sunny clime of Indian River” every year.
These long trips to Florida separate Jenks from his collection at Brown. Ever the museum-maker, Jenks has glass exhibit cases constructed at Oak Lodge. These he fills with the creatures he hunts, traps, and mounts, including at least 120 birds, a panther, and “numerous smaller ‘Varmint.’” He knows that someday people will clear the woods and disturb this abundance of Florida wildlife. He builds the collection as an heirloom for the Lathams to pass down to their descendants. Generations to come will know the natural splendor of the old oak and palm forest.
One thing concerns Jenks: the fate of the Lathams’ souls.
My Host and Hostess at Oak Lodge are neither of them religiously inclined — he having led a soldier and sailor life till their marriage…[I]f pressed to express his views of a Higher Being, [he] becomes so blasphemous, as it appears to me, that I carefully avoid arousing him upon the subject of his soul’s interest. And as to my Hostess… I can never allude to our duties as creatures of God without having it thrown back upon me, that she wants nothing to do with such a religion as fosters such hypocrites as she has had to do with in her hard experience of life.
Jenks, a devout Baptist, spends each Sabbath alone in his room, reading the Bible. He shuns the Lathams’ worldly amusements of playing cards and dancing in the living room. He knows better than to force his beliefs on his hosts. But every single day he prays for them.
Despite these differences, Jenks spends every winter with the Lathams until he dies. Their nook of Florida brings him endless delight.
Arrived at Oak Lodge and immediately donned my ‘Cracker’ suit and packed away my broadcloth, silk-hat and linen shirts for five months bidding farewell for that length of time to all conventionalism, that I may abandon myself to a go-as-you-please, happy-go-lucky life except in wrong-doing from which may the grace of God preserve me.
Later that year Oak Lodge burns down. If any of Jenks’ mounts survive the fire, they are likely lost when Oak Lodge burns down a second time in 1910.
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Today we do have a few physical remnants of Jenks’ time at Oak Lodge. An object with Jenks’ handwritten label reading “Candlesnuffers / very old / Donor: C.F. Latham” exists in the collection of the Haffenreffer Museum of Anthropology. In the basement of Brown’s BioMedical Center, the Jenks Society found a porcupinefish which Jenks may have collected during his 1892 retreat.
One may also read Jenks’ autobiography, much of which he wrote while at Oak Lodge. These nearly 900 pages offer a glimpse into Jenks’ daily life, his mindset, and his carefree experience of natural history collecting along the Indian River so many years ago.
To learn more about the Lathams and Oak Lodge, read Ann B. Downing’s article in the Journal of the Brevard County Historical Commission (2012).