Bringing hermit of Goat Island back to life
By MATT SOERGEL
Aug. 19, 2018
JACKSONVILLE, Fla. (AP) — Writer Tim Gilmore likes to poke around in the stranger corners of Jacksonville's history, so it was almost inevitable that he would one day make it to the Goat Man.
That would be Rollians Christopher, a squatter and hermit who made national news in the 1950s as the state tried, in the name of progress, to kick him off a sandy, muddy island in the St. Johns River known as Goat Island.
The name was appropriate: Christopher was a goatherd who raised hundreds of goats on that island, which he'd sell to hungry people with a hankering for the meat.
Newspaper stories said he'd been there more than two decades, that he claimed ancestry from the Apaches and that he had a violent streak that left him in trouble with the law more than a few times. Photos from the 1950s show him unsmiling, his lean face deeply tanned, with thick black hair held back by a white headband — posing with a goat or steering a small boat, smoking a cigarette or, rather inexplicably, holding a white rabbit up by its ears.
He's the subject of Gilmore's new book, "Goat Island Hermit," from which he will read on Aug. 23 at 6:30 p.m. at the Jacksonville Historical Society.
Christopher's old Goat Island is no more: Authorities did take it over, got rid of the goats, renamed it Blount Island and turned it into Jacksonville's shipping port, seen by motorists every day from the Dames Point bridge.
Gilmore found Rollians Christopher in the roundabout way that is common to these old stories: He was interested in another river island that's taken over the Goat Island name, found old newspaper articles about the original island and then dug into the tale of the state vs. the squatter.
"I'm interested in people who live their lives differently from our lives and rules," Gilmore said. "I'm interested in hermits, I'm interested in vagabonds. What's really interesting is that there ended up being so much of a record of him, yet so many contradictions within the records."
Christopher was an enigmatic character, and though Gilmore talked with numerous old-timers who lived near Goat Island in what was then the fishing village of New Berlin, stories about him went in many directions.
That's fine with him, he said over coffee in Riverside. "I'm comfortable, without wrapping myself in knots too much, with the discomfort of ambiguity. It's necessary. Everything doesn't get tied up neatly. In a sense, no story ever ends — it trails off into all sorts of side stories."
Gilmore is an English professor at Florida State College at Jacksonville's South Campus. His website, jaxpsychogeo.com, has links to the things he's written about the people and places in Jacksonville, many largely forgotten, that have caught his attention.
One thing leads to another: For example, while researching Christopher, he came across stories of another man in that area who, after losing his legs to a train, had fashioned new legs out of wooden stumps and car tires. His name was Fred, and he lived on Fred's Island — just one of a number of people who took up residence on the river's low islands, back when you could do such things.
"You can't verify a lot of these stories," Gilmore said, "but you can say 'These are stories people told me.' "
Goat Island and New Berlin, the closest settlement to it, were remote back then, a good representation, he says, of old swamp culture. People told him that few had much of anything, and that much of your time was spent trying to figure what to eat, which could include squirrels and turtles and baby crane. You didn't want to look too closely at what you were eating, one old-timer told him.
That was the world of Rollians Christopher, a mysterious figure. Some said he was black, or Indian, or both. There were rumors of an Indian reservation in Oklahoma. And some in the Christopher family, one of the area's oldest clans, thought he was one of them. Gilmore did digging in census reports, and thinks a Daytona origin is likely.
Again, there's that ambiguity — even though Gilmore had numerous newspaper articles to draw on, written as the state tried to kick out the squatter and his goats (the number of goats varied, depending on the newspaper reports, though 700 seems to the number that was settled on). Through the second half of the 1950s, his plight was a frequent topic in papers, both in Jacksonville and across the country.
At first the land was wanted as part of the Cross Florida Barge Canal, but once that project was ditched, Goat Island seemed a fine place for a shipping port. And it clearly wouldn't do to have Christopher and his goats in the way.
The battle for Goat Island is told in Gilmore's book, which also delves into the shadowier sides of Christopher's life. There were rumors he had killed somebody, though Gilmore doesn't think he did. He did come close though, and he attacked at least two women.
"He's not somebody that I can completely romanticize," Gilmore said. "You never know what you're going to find when you go tracking someone down."
As for Christopher's ultimate fate?
"His penchant for losing his temper finally caught up with him; he did find himself behind bars for a couple of years," Gilmore said. "When he was released, he came back to New Berlin. The Associated Press, UPI, all the reporters, basically forgot about this story, it wasn't current anymore. But in interviewing people who grew up back in there I ended up finding exactly where he lived his very last days, in this community on the other side of the Dames Point peninsula called the Bay."
And parents who lived around there used to warn their children to stay clear of the strange man who'd once raised goats on that muddy island in the river.
Gilmore grew up in Jacksonville and remembers hearing young people complain that it was most boring place ever. He disagrees, especially after digging into the more eccentric elements of its history.
"It definitely has its own weirdness," he said. "There are tons of stories that haven't been touched. I do think it's a much stranger town than it's been credited, for good or for ill."
Information from: The (Jacksonville) Florida Times-Union, http://www.jacksonville.com