There is a little house south of St. Augustine that was built to last generations. Once a grand, two-story home with a matched pair of balconies and a ballroom, she was the sole sign of development amidst 600 acres stretching from the Atlantic Ocean to the Matanzas River. Nestled in wilderness, access was by boat or by traversing ten miles of uninhabited beach.
Decades passed. A new family moved in. Roads were built and the grand two-story house was dismantled and divided into three buildings. One little house remained on the original foundation perched over the coquina basement, watching the Butler Beach community grow around it.
Above photo: The original part of Susan Mills and Tom Arnold’s bungalow, located in historic Butler Beach just off of the Matanzas River, was built in 1917.
Orange groves disappeared and stables were torn down. Acres sold. Then lots divided. Now, the little house is a last bastion of what was “old Florida” in Butler Beach. Yet her gracious porch still holds rocking chairs and a breeze continues to blow off the Matanzas River cooling the fifth family to call the bungalow home. Aside from long docks and a new house constructed in view of the river, the vista remains the same as it did for the Mickler family 100 years ago.
Betty Mickler Shoals, granddaughter of the family who built it, remembers the Mickler estate in all its glory. “It was a big two-story home. It had a huge attic,” she says. “There were National Geographic Magazines everywhere up there, but I wasn’t interested in that, you know. At six or seven years old, I was just interested in exploring.”
The space that most captivated her in the grand old house was the ballroom. “I remember there was nothing in there but an RCA Victrola, the one with the dog [on it].” Betty doesn’t remember the record player or ballroom in use. The children spent most of their time outside, but that only added to the space’s mystique. Few images of the home remain etched in her childhood memories; most are of her grandparents, Vincent and Nellie Mickler.
Vincent and Nellie homesteaded in 1917 in Butler Beach, but Nellie grew up on Marine Street in what is now historic St. Augustine. The couple had eleven children but most did not reach adulthood. “She buried eight of them,” Betty says. “Some in the family plot in San Lorenzo Cemetery, the others are probably out here. One fell off the roof of the stables when he was twelve … he’s buried over there.”
Susan Mills and Tom Arnold now call the Mickler Bungalow home and had heard stories of the stable accident, but this is the first time they’ve heard details about the family who built their home. “I think we have little friendlies here,” Tom says referring to friendly ghosts.
Susan Mills holds a framed photo from 1927 when the original house was still two stories.
The kitchen of Tom Arnold and Susan Mills’ bungalow.
Betty Mickler Shoals (L) and Patty Williams Harding, (R) descendants of the Micklers, visit with Susan Mills in the living room which was part of the original house.
Tom and Susan have pieced together much of the home’s original look through the restoration process, but firsthand accounts are invaluable. The new stewards take Betty and her cousin Patty Williams Harding on a tour of this little house that is home to so many memories from their childhood.
“This is the original brick fireplace,” Susan says, “and that was an exterior door. Was the house green?” She asks the women.
As Betty & Patty sit in the living room, memories flow between the cousins and Tom and Susan solve some mysteries about their home. “There were stairs there,” Betty muses looking around. “Back here was a huge orange grove. I never knew there was anything for dessert but ambrosia,” she says.
Every Sunday in the 1930s, family gathered in the big house to share dinner and listen to the radio. Today, Tom and Susan carry on the tradition of entertaining regularly. They host friends in the little house and Susan uses the basement as a “speakeasy” getaway with girlfriends. Susan, a second generation, self-proclaimed, die-hard Floridian, fills their guest room with all things Floridiana.
Roads are paved and small oaks are now giants but just like the river in front of it, family and hospitality continues to flow in the little house.
MIKE-ler or Mickler?
There is an age-old dispute amongst one of the First Coast’s founding families, the Micklers. One branch pronounces their last name Mickler, as in rhymes with tickler. Betty Mickler Shoals and Patty Williams Harding belong to the side of the family that pronounces it MIKE-ler. We have heard it pronounced both ways in reference to Mickler Beach, and thus both ways are correct. It just depends on who you are asking.
Ambrosia was known as the fruit of the gods in ancient Greek culture, and serves as an iconic desert in the South originating in the 1800s. A blend of coconut, citrus and other fruits, along with marshmallow and a good dose of sugar, it was often served as a holiday tradition. For a recipe for Ambrosia Salad visit simplystaugustine.com.