It would be easy to say there was a curse. Too many things had gone wrong, too many things continue to go wrong, but at some point you need to take a step back and realize when you try to carve a new world out of a swamp or maintain a European lifestyle in a world of people who are strangers, heartbreaking moments are bound to happen. When we look at a location and see tragedy after tragedy the first instinct might be to rank it as tainted somehow and call in the Warrens. When something within that location is recognizable, say a tree that seems out of place and dwarfs everything else around it, a villain arises and takes the brunt of the blame when stories start to be told.
The Fairchild Oak in Ormond Beach is right out of Central Casting. It’s overwhelming size and twisted branches, mixed with a story here and there about spooky happenings, and it’s no wonder it has become one of the more popular legends in the area and a have-to-go spot for those examining the weird in Florida. Imagine two points connected by a road. On one end lies local folk figure Tomokie and on the other a tree famous for inspiring such feelings of sadness you might not make it out alive.
The history of the area is a mixed bag of success and failure, which makes sense all things considered. In 1804, James Ormond was granted a stretch of land near New Smyrna Beach on the east coast of Florida in gratitude for his hard work on the seas. Tensions between settlers and the Timucua were already strained by that time, but there doesn’t seem to be too much drama between them and the plantation, which he named Damietta. He appears to have enjoyed moderate success. In what would be the first blow for the family in the New World, he was killed by a slave in 1817 on his property.
In 1924, his son James Ormond II who had left to go back to his native Scotland moved to what would eventually be named Ormond Beach and established his own plantation. He had an even better relationship with the Native Americans still in the area, said to be friends with some of the most influential players in the Seminole War and Florida history. While no one is entirely sure the exact circumstances of his death, James II was found dead underneath an oak tree on the property in 1829. The death, whatever happened, was gruesome enough for his son to comment on it for years afterwards. The story now is that it was a suicide, although there is nothing to justify that story except what has been told about the tree in the years since. His son buried him on the property at what is known today as Ormond Tomb Park.
Over the years the grave has been site of vandalism and ghostly activity, some of which might be sparked by fact his son chose to place his father on top of an existing Timucuan burial mound. This might be a case of the sins of the father falling upon the son. While there is deep history of mound disturbances leading to paranormal activity, this doesn’t seem to fit Ormond’s personality. All that is written about him conveys a sense of harmony with the native population, so it seems odd that he would have disturbed mounds to create his plantation or that his son did not have permission to bury him where he did. The location of the tomb, however, fits with the folklore of restless spirits.
Property shifted hands over the next few decades until it was purchased by Norman Harwood in 1880. By all accounts, Harwood was a nasty character. He was a large, imposing man who was said to lack social graces and social connections. He had come to the area on the heels of some failed business ventures in Minnesota and continued his streak of bad luck in Florida. The man has since become a thing of legend in the area, with equal stories being told of how he tried to swindle the locals and how he was swindled by them. Five years after arriving in Florida he was also found dead on the property. Again, there is some confusion about how that was done. Some said he hung himself from the same tree Ormond had while others say he shot himself under it. Alice Strickland’s “Ormond on the Halifax,” which features first-hand accounts, said he died in his bed. Not to be derailed by a bump in the folklore, some reports combine the two and say he asked his bed to be moved under the tree and then killed himself. His death made national papers and is said to have warranted a 200,000 insurance payout.
The lore of the oak was solidified and was given a nickname by locals. Dubbed the Harwood Oak or the Haunt Oak, it had a reputation for dark figures running around the grounds and ghostly bodies swinging from the branches. Perhaps the more disturbing stories involved not phantoms by psychology and made it a popular spot for legend trippers. It was said if you sit under the tree voices in your head will begin to whisper to you, encouraging you to kill yourself. Like the Assonet Ledge in Freetown, people who come to the park to this day are said to have their sunny dispositions damped by coming into contact with it or resting in its shade. It is said that since Harwood’s death dozens of people have killed themselves at the tree or took their lives after spending the day near it. Of course, none of these are confirmed, but people still refer to it as the Suicide Tree. It was this reputation, already firm in the mind of the people in the area, which led to parks advocate Eileen Butts strategically changing the name to the Fairchild Oak after a famous botanist who has visited it and insisted it be saved.
On December 11, 1955 it was renamed with a ceremony and a few months later that part of the old plantation was dedicated Bulow Creek State Park. A rose by any other name would still smell as sweet, or in this case a tree by any other name would still inspire darkness.
I had spent considerable time at the Assonet Ledge, explored the hanging trees at Dudley Road, and braved the Devil’s Tree in Port Saint Lucie, so I felt confident these stories were more legend than reality. Natalie, always with a positive outlook, and I would be safe from hard. We decided then to trip the tree with another urban legend known for its deaths; the famous Gloomy Sunday song. Written in 1933 by Hungarian songwriter Rezső Seress under the name “Vége a világnak” or The “World is Ending” the song is rumored to be the most deadly tune ever written.
While the lyrics were changed a while later by László Jávor, and again for the American recording, people on both sides of the Atlantic have been said to be thrown into unexplained grief and sorrow when listening to it, with reports of between 19 and 36 suicides being directly connected to it. Seress is said to have committed suicide years after the release, although this might be due to the growing legend his legacy had on people and the horrible conditions of his country. The most famous American recording of the song by Billie Holiday was said to have cursed her, or been a reflection of deal she had made with the Devil, and led to her fame and contributed to the tragic circumstances of her death. Since its publication and release, different versions of the song have been banned by radio stations and governments looking to protect the public from the Hungarian Suicide Song.
When you enter Bulow Creek State Park, you are immediately hit by the enormity of the Fairchild Oak. There have been Timucuan artifacts found there dating back 2,000 years which some say place the tree at that age, but the more realistic estimate is somewhere between 250-300 years old. In that time the tree has snaked its way into the sky and branched out dozens of yards in each direction, with its limbs twisting back to the earth, creating overlooks and hiding places. A thick copper wire connected to a rod adorns the top and assures the frequent Florida lightening will not hit it. The rest of the park consists of smaller trees and nature trails, but people come for the Oak.
It was a busy Sunday. The park was filled with bikers from Canada who we continued to see down up and down the Old Dixie Highway when we travelled to Tomoka State Park later in the day. The loud revving of their motors made it hard to concentrate on any voices inside our heads, and the general sunny day and the positive vibes of the people surrounding us made it nearly impossible for us to be depressed, even as we stood under it and played Gloomy Sunday. We asked a few people in the park if they knew the reputation of the park they were exploring, but none did.
Two unexplained moments did happen while we were there. As soon as we entered the shade I began experiencing a headache that lasted until I was back in the car. This has happened at several different locations to me before, and I never know just how much weight to put into it, but it was worse at Bulow Creek than it ever has been before. Similarly, Natalie was having issues. During the Gloomy Sunday part of the trip when we were playing the song and listening for suicidal suggestions, her back began to hurt from the way she was sitting near the tree. She placed her head on it and was hit with a searing pain when she made contact. It went away when she moved her head back away from it.
The second odd experience occurred while we were making the Facebook Live video of the song. After playing for a little bit, the feed went out completely. Once the song was done, it came back instantly. We kept track of the reception the entire time we were there, and everything not involving Gloomy Sunday went through. It was just those moments.
Later when we talked to a Ranger at Tomoka State Park, he said he knew nothing about those legends. He did however say that people had spoken lately about hearing tree rapping and whispers about Skunk Ape roaming the trails around the tree like in Myakka River State Park.
Sometimes people need a focus for their grief. In the 20th Century people in Eastern Europe turned to a song, an extreme example of becoming sad by listening to sad music you searched out because you were sad. It becomes a cycle and the focus becomes the scapegoat. For over two hundred years people have been mystified by what might be living at Ormond Beach. It’s a seductive location with dreams of success but too many obstacles and mysteries. The oddness might go further back, as evidence by the Native American folklore born there and the disasters they documented. The scapegoat there takes several forms, like a giant statue or ghost lights down the road. The most intimidating, the one that seems to stay rooted no matter what catastrophes happen around it, is a large tree, standing like a guardian watching it all.
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Scary. I’m not superstitious but I would not go there. Maybe I’m a little superstitious. 🙂