Love trees, a cat rug and a dinosaur egg: A look at the odd side of St. Augustine
While commonly known history draws many people to St. Augustine, visitors can find oddities tucked away across the city.
Things like ancient Egyptian artifacts, shrunken heads and unusual plant life can be seen within blocks of each other.
While oddities and their lore aren’t the main focus for drawing tourism, they make visitors’ experiences richer, local tourism and convention bureau CEO Richard Goldman said.
“The texture is generated by the little stories,” Goldman said.
And St. Augustine has plenty of stories to tell.
Housed in one of St. Augustine’s most prominent tourist attractions is a rug that’s much older than the city itself.
The Villa Zorayda Museum on King Street displays a rug made from the hairs of cats that lived near the Nile more than 2,400 years ago.
The “sacred cat rug” was passed down to museum owners, Jim and Marcia Byles’, via Marcia Byles’ grandfather A.S. Mussallem.
The story of the rug is that thieves took a jewel-encrusted foot from a mummified princess and took the cat rug as a way to conceal the foot, Jim Byles said.
“Once the thieves retrieved the jewels off of the foot, they simply threw the rug and the foot away, disregarded them as if they were trash,” he said.
Ben Yakar, who bought the rug and mummy’s foot in 1861 for a franc, trusted that Mussallem would care for it and gave him the rug in his will, Byles said.
The rug even drew interest from Robert Ripley, of Ripley's Believe It or Not!. While Ripley didn’t get the cat rug, Ripley’s has a mummified cat on display in St. Augustine.
The rug went missing for a time after Mussallem loaned the sacred cat rug and mummy’s foot to the Egyptian government.
“But when it came back, it came back with the most incredible ... three-piece set of furniture and a gaming table, which took five men nine years to create. And it was a gift from the king of Egypt thanking him for his help,” Byles said.
The rug is believed to hold a curse for anyone who walks on it, though Byles said he doesn’t know of anyone who has.
Byles said the cat rug gets a lot of attention. But the Villa Zorayda is much more than just the rug.
The building itself stands out as one of the unusual attractions in the city, with the design taking “direct inspiration from the Alhambra Palace in Spain,” according to a plaque on its exterior.
More Egyptian artifacts are a short distance away from the Villa Zorayda at the Lightner Museum on King Street.
Otto Lighter bought the building in 1947 to house his collection.
Among the pieces on display these days is an Egyptian mummy with a burial mask, a 20th-century shrunken head from Jivaro Indians of South America and a Jurassic-Period dinosaur egg from China.
Lightner’s remains are in the courtyard outside of the museum’s entrance because he wanted to be buried with his belongings, said Ray Eme, associate director of the museum.
History hidden around town
The head of Michelangelo's David can be seen peeking above tall bushes outside of the Ripley’s Believe It or Not! museum at 19 San Marco Ave.
A replica of the famed sculpture is on display at the grounds, but it’s shielded from full view by passersby, apparently to keep from offending anyone.
“That is the reason we have the 12-foot hedges around David,” said Kim Kiff, Ripley’s general manager.
Some of St. Augustine’s flora has a following.
The north end of Cordova Street is a popular destination for couples because of the “Love Tree,” a palm tree growing from an oak tree.
Locals believe that a couple that kisses underneath the tree will be together forever. Other love trees exist around the city, including one in front of the Cathedral Parish School at St. George and Bridge streets.
On St. Francis Street, one feature of of the Tovar House has gained notoriety over the years: A cannonball in one of the walls.
It’s been said that the cannonball was found in the east wall in the 1890s, according to a column in The Record by historian Susan Parker.
“To make the cannonball more obvious and visible and thus add it to the history of St. Augustine, it was attached to the exterior wall. ... perhaps someone suggested that the cannonball had lodged in the wall during Oglethorpe’s fusillades and the story stuck - just like the cannonball,” Parker wrote.
Some of St. Augustine’s history is underwater.
As the first day of the new millennium began, staffers from The Record pushed a time capsule into the Matanzas River near the Castillo de San Marcos.
The festivities included a ceremony sponsored by the paper that drew a few hundred people, former newspaper Publisher Ronnie Hughes said.
Former Opinion Page Editor Jim Sutton, who was part of the crew, said the capsule was “big enough for a casket to go in.”
“It weighed ungodly heavy,” Sutton said.
The contents included at least a newspaper, but Sutton and Hughes said they couldn’t recall its contents. The plaque says the capsule is supposed to be opened on Jan. 1, 2100.
A ‘tastefully preserved’ crocodile
Gomek was the star of the St. Augustine Alligator Farm Zoological Park.
He was about 18 feet long, weighed nearly 2,000 pounds and hailed from New Guinea, where he was known as a man eater, according to the park and Jim Darlington, curator of reptiles for the park.
Gomek is no longer living, but his remains are still at the alligator farm.
“Gomek is now tastefully preserved and surrounded by our collection of rare and beautiful hand-carved Papua New Guinea art,” according to the park.
Despite Gomek’s background, Darlington remembered him as a gentle giant.
“He had plenty of chances to eat me, and he didn’t,” Darlington said.
St. Augustine is also home to the remains of many well known humans, including Randolph Caldecott, a British illustrator.
Caldecott came to the U.S. in 1885 looking for a warmer climate. He ended up in St. Augustine after traveling south from New York and other areas. While he was just in the U.S. to visit, he ended up dying and being buried in St. Augustine at 39 years old.
His grave is at the Evergreen Cemetery in West Augustine.
Early roadside oddities
Odd attractions are nothing new in St. Augustine. They were popular in the 20th century as well.
Opened in 1946, Casper’s Ostrich and Alligator farm was about 2 miles north of downtown on U.S. 1. The attraction featured daily ostrich races where drivers were pulled on a lightweight cart.
One of the more controversial attractions in St. Augustine was The Tragedy in U.S. History Museum, which opened in the ’60s and housed a collection that included the car Jayne Mansfield died in and and a Spanish jail from the 1700s that had human skeletons inside.
When L. H. “Buddy” Hough spoke to a Florida Times-Union reporter in 1989 about opening the museum, he said: “Every human being has a morbid curiosity.”