Dem bones, dem bones, dem dry bones—what’s up with those bones anyway?
Between 1900 and 1918, in Lake City, Florida, what’s up was Aunt Aggie’s Boneyard. The neck bone was literally connected to a shoulder bone—or a skull, or a femur, or any other animal bone to be found. The sun-bleached bones were wired together, stacked, packed, and laid out, resulting in acres of ethereal yard art that glowed with eerie luminescence on moonlit nights. Bones were used to create trellises, archways, pergolas, walkways, and seating niches among the verdant, intermingled plantings of vines, flowers, fruits, and vegetables. It is said that flowers and vegetables grew in this lush oasis when other gardens were bare.
Agnes Jones was born into slavery in Tatnall County, Georgia, in 1835. Her husband, Charles, known as Uncle Jenks, born 1826, was also enslaved. They were brought to Columbia County, Florida, in 1844, just south of the town of Alligator (the name was changed to Lake City in 1859) as the property of Elijah Mattox. After gaining her freedom, Aggie continued to work for the Mattox family. In 1883 Aggie and Jenks purchased land and an unpainted two-story frame home in the north end of Lake City.
It was here that Aggie’s artistry with bones and her green thumb combined to establish one of the earliest interactions between the races. The Boneyard was a favorite Sunday afternoon destination for white families and courting couples. The nearby famed Blanche Hotel was the source of tourists who stopped by to marvel at the oddity and sign their names and home towns on the larger bones. One could stroll beneath the magnolias, admire the many varieties of roses, and inhale the sultry fragrance of gardenia or jasmine. Or visitors could picnic beneath the moss laden oaks with ripening tomatoes or berries at one hand, amaryllis or four o’clocks on the other hand, and discover the ivy or wisteria entwined throughout the boney trellis with perhaps a flower strategically protruding from the eye socket of a cow’s skull.
In great contrast to the standards of the day, Aunt Aggie was a bit of an attraction in her own right. She wore long flowing skirts with short loose jackets. She was quite fond of adornment, wearing numerous strands of beads, some homemade from shell or chinaberry, bracelets from wrist to elbow, and rings on every finger. Her short braids might be woven with bits of bright string and topped with a wide-brimmed straw hat. She was reputed to be highly intelligent, artistic, and deeply religious—Psalm 19:14 was her favorite Scripture: “Let the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart/Be acceptable in thy sight,/O Lord, my strength and my Redeemer.
Aggie was said to be a natural born storyteller, and, if you were favored, she would tell your fortune. She also believed magic could ensure good things. The process involved the use of a skeleton key, a glass of water, a wedding ring, and a Bible, standards in the practice of hoodoo conjuring or folk magic. She made medicines from roots and herbs from the bone garden. It is said that Aggie’s father was either Creek or Seminole Indian; she hunted and fished wearing a buckskin suit and sometimes performed “spectacular” Indian dances.
There was no entry fee, but fruits, vegetables, and flowers were for sale, and Aunt Aggie gave house and garden tours in exchange for tips. And what a house tour that was! The interior walls were lined with old newspapers used as insulation, but the hallway was centered with Aggie’s cherished marble-topped table and silver coffee pot, gifts from her former owners. Her Native American heritage was evident in the decoration of pine cones, gourds, tomahawks, bow and arrows, feathers, pottery, and Indian relics. Snakes and small reptiles were preserved in alcohol, and an alligator skeleton was accompanied by a human skeleton. Aunt Aggie was quick to assure visitors that none of the boneyard pieces were human, or “the garden would be haunted and the ghosts of the owners would come at night and carry them away.”
Aggie died in 1918, Jenks was long dead, and none of their children took over the property. It changed hands a number of times and in 1928 was purchased by the school board. The entire property was razed in 1930, ironically, by Marvin Mattox, the grandson of Aunt Aggie’s former owner, to build a new brick school for the black community. The school was closed in the early 1970’s and torn down some time later. The old gym, now used as a community center, still stands.
“Colortone” postcards are all that remain to pay tribute to one of the town’s first actual tourist attractions and most fascinating personalities—aside, of course, from the trees and shrubs and flowers and fruits and countless other green living things that were given as starts and seedlings from that weird wonderland known as Aunt Aggie’s Boneyard.