By Gerry Claire
First published on November 08, 2013
Editor’s note: Gerry Clare was one of the first volunteer reporters for the Fernandina Observer. She retired as a real estate agent and started freelance writing for fun, and published a book about fun real estate experiments. Gerry took us to important events in our community, introduced us to new restaurants and businesses, and even reported on an airship that made the Fernandina Beach Municipal Airport a temporary home. Her husband Tom was usually at her side, serving as a photographer. Gerry now lives a happy life in Cypress Village, where she continues to write. Thank you, Gerry, for all the support you have given us over the years.
When you first meet George Geiger, you know there must be a story behind the farmer’s hat, jeans and suspenders, and handlebar mustache. And here. He is still something of a farmer, he says, and his parents, as far back as his great-great-grandfather, were from the Hilliard-the Kings Ferry area. There they were loggers and farmers and owned a lot of land. Many are buried there at Buford Bay Baptist Church.
His dad was the youngest of six, and when they sold the land he moved his family to Fernandina, to work in the factory (Kraft, later Container), but ended up in the Navy for a hitch. He followed construction work and even took a job in Iceland after service, but eventually retired from the factory.
George’s 3 younger brothers were born in Fernandina, but George, the eldest, was born in Folkston. George remembers Fernandina’s early days, as they lived on South 7th Street. He went to school at St. Joseph’s Academy from kindergarten through third grade. Center Street was very wide and paved with bricks, so when it rained it was slippery. O’Kanes was the city’s first Ford dealership (he later moved to Gum and 8th Street). The Fudge Shop was the Hardee Brothers Hardware store. City Hall was a Coca-Cola bottling plant. Next to the Marina restaurant, George remembers a huge bike rack. You can ride the cart to the beach where families roller skate, dance, bowl and enjoy the beach. He fondly remembers the shrimp salad at the Bower restaurant. At the other end of town, at the end of Bonnieview, was a dairy farm. And at the southern end of the island, he remembers seeing Indian mounds and picking up arrowheads.
However, the family moved to O’Neal (Nassauville area) and purchased 8 acres of land to cultivate. They grew peas, corn, tomatoes and okra and sold and canned them over the years. He remembers when he ate with his fishing friends, they had a lot of seafood and those families got a lot of good farm food in return. There were chickens, pigs and an occasional cow to keep the four boys busy.
The land they farmed was part of a Spanish land grant that included Piney Island and extended to Springhill Baptist Church. When A1A was expanded, his family actually purchased land farther from the new road leading to the farm. George graduated from Yulee High School and started working in construction. After a 4-year snag in the military and a construction job in Vietnam, he returned home and did construction work again. The other boys also left the farm for their careers.
In the meantime, George had met Vivian, “the town girl from Jacksonville”, and married her. They moved between the Jacksonville and Fernandina area and eventually settled here. George remembered his grandfather’s advice about “buying land near rivers that can be blocked off as a watershed, because Florida is going to have water problems.” And he eventually bought 40 acres on Lofton Creek, where to this day he still maintains a small farm with peas, watermelons, cantelopes, corn and sugarcane.
His career finally settled with the Carpenter’s Union. He worked for the Union in Jacksonville as an assistant business agent, became a union organizer, and retired as executive secretary of local unions. He proudly recalls that “when he retired, the Union Pension Fund was fully funded.” He was also active in politics and chairman of the Nassau County Democratic Executive Committee. He took photos of his meeting with Governor Lawton Chiles and Vice President Al Gore. Today, he enjoys life in Yulee and the families of his three daughters, including 3 grandchildren and 2 great-grandchildren.
George and Vivian are still involved with their church and, I found out, mules. Elum, their 21-year-old mule, gave me a ride around the area while George told me about how he used to train and break quarter horses and mules. He used mules (and still does) to plow because they are easier to train, when you train them correctly the first time. He and his brother Charles also participated in the Nassau County Sheriff’s Mounted Patrol and Mounted Detachment Program under Sheriff Ellis. Coincidentally, this program is currently being revived under the current sheriff.
George’s carpentry skills also extended to some fine carpentry projects around the farm and included most of Elum’s bridles and some leatherwork which he displayed when we returned home. I was very impressed with this mule, as I thought it looked more like an elegant horse than what I would consider a mule work animal.
George also mentioned that he and Vivian built their cozy home 50 years ago. It seems that his family heritage, his love of the land and mules (they used mules to haul logs in western Nassau County) stayed with him and guided his life. In fact, his father helped build the addition to First Presbyterian Church on North 6th Street and George is still involved in it, teaching Sunday School for adults.
Oh, and in case you were wondering about the brand’s mustache…all the Geiger brothers wear one. Pictured in an old photo dated March 2005 are (left to right)
Gerry was a longtime member of our local American Businesswomen, a volunteer cancer conductor, and a church deacon who enjoys reading, traveling, and meeting interesting people. She now resides in Cypress Village.
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