Stories



SANCTUARY ROAD AND SPANISH JOE

Picture of Sanctuary Road
Drawing by Hazel and Richard Brough
from the book “Food, Fun, and Fable.”

     The public road between Meme’s Restaurant and the old store at Swift's Landing on the shore of the Bon Secour River, with a centuries old live oak at its terminus, is sometimes called the King's Road, or more often Sanctuary Road. The road has been there since earliest times. When the Spanish authorities made land grants, title to a piece of land thirty feet wide was retained for use by the Spanish Crown as a road giving everyone the right of free access to El Rio del Buen Socorro (the Bon Secour River), the name on old Spanish maps.

     As early as 1819 the United States announced it would honor old titles and the treaties and land grants related to the old Latin settlers, particularly under the Louisiana Purchase and the treaty by which Florida was acquired. A majority of the titles were confirmed by 1829, but the last local case, much to the relief of the neighborhood, was finally settled in March of 1840, when Augustin LaCoste gained title to 638.40 acres at Bon Secour. In a sense the road is really Spanish Crown land, at least theoretically under the invisible red and gold banner of Spain, and once long ago a man did use it for a sanctuary.

     In about the year 1857 Jesus Maria Pinar came to Bon Secour. He was medium height, slender and graceful, with the flashing black eyes of his Spanish ancestors. He had been a sailor on a Spanish lumber barque, captained by an unusually cruel man. When Jesus Pinar felt that he could stand no more, he slipped over the side of the boat near Mobile Point as the ship went out with the tide on a dark night. It was bound for Havana, but not even the prospect of that gay port could make Jesus Pinar endure his hard life one moment longer. Along the wharves and taverns of Mobile's waterfront he had heard talk of Bon Secour, where some Spanish people lived and decided to make his way there and settle down.

     It wasn't a long swim and the bay waters were warm, but the currents were rough and there was danger from sharks. His feet finally touched bottom and he gave thanks as he walked safely ashore. He was near Navy Cove or Pilot Town. This was a pretty little village nestled under a grove of huge live oaks where the Mobile Bay pilots lived with their families while waiting for ships to steer up the Bay. There was no work for a sailor on the beach, but the kindly people fed him and gave him directions. He walked the rest of the way to Bon Secour, on a hard sand beach.

     He liked Bon Secour at once for it was a sight to gladden the heart of a sailorman come ashore to live. The sea life and the land life were very close in Bon Secour. Many families of seafaring men lived in pretty homes set under big trees and surrounded by fertile acres yet close enough to the river so that the family schooners were anchored just off shore near the channel. The lower river opened into a basin which made a harbor big enough for many sailing ships, and which was, in truth, as safe a port in stormy weather as the name of the place indicated. Most of the neat saltwater farms were owned by seafaring farmers with names as Baltic as any Viking ever bore, but here and there along the river there lived old settlers left from French and Spanish times who bore proud Latin names.

     Once Jesus Maria Pinar had settled in at Bon Secour he soon became known as "Spanish Joe". The good German people who made up most of the population had too much reverence for the holy name to call any mere man "Jesus". Besides, Spanish Joe or Pedro was the name sailors gave all Spaniards, just as all the British were called Jack and all the Frenchmen were called Frenchie. Jesus did not really mind the local people changing his name; it made him feel they accepted him. Everyone seemed to have a nickname in this strange America except for the grave schooner captains.

     For a year or two Spanish Joe did very well. Sometimes he crewed for a short trip on a fishing boat and proved himself a smart sailor. He found that these were brave men who thought nothing of taking a small fishing vessel across the lonely azure waters of the great Gulf. Joe liked the people and they liked him At times he did odd jobs of carpentry; he was a jack of all trades, most men were who had served aboard sailing ships.

     In time, because he went regularly to mass when the priest came from Mobile, one of the local families of Spanish descent took an interest in him. The priest liked him too, for it turned out that Spanish Joe had served his own village priest as altar boy long before and could be relied upon to help out if the young altar boys had played hooky to go swimming or fishing This Spanish family's interest in Joe turned out to be both good and bad fortune for him. It was good because in this home he could again speak his native tongue and enjoy many of the rich, spicy dishes dear to the Spanish palate. It was here that he met and fell in love with a young neighbor who seemed as beautiful to him as any senorita of the homeland. For a while the idyll of young love ran smoothly and the priest was looking forward to saying the nuptial mass for this young couple and seeing a new home established; but this was not to be. His sweetheart contracted what was then called "galloping consumption” from some of her relatives, and in that warm, damp climate the course of the disease was quick.

     Only a few months after Joe had turned, brokenhearted, from her grave, he, too, was ill with consumption. He had been soaked and chilled on a voyage aboard a fishing vessel when it had taken every hand to work the boat and bring her safely home. It wasn't long before he came down with a bad cold and an intermittent fever and then the disease progressed rapidly.

     When Jesus Pinar realized that he would never get well, he borrowed a horse from the family who had helped him and made his way to the Weeks' home on the Bay where the priest was visiting, so that he go to confession and hear mass once more. Suddenly, he was very homesick and he told the kind priest that the one last desire of his heart was to go home to Spain and to see again the sunny village of his childhood. He said that if he could sit once more on Spanish soil and watch the sunset that he thought he could die in peace. The good father sympathized for he also was Spanish born. He told the other people of Spanish Joe's wish as he went through the countryside from house to house, saying mass and tenderly caring for his flock.

     Finally, one of the Cook family in Bon Secour heard the pitiful tale and he remembered something he had been told by his father. He looked up Spanish Joe and related the old story about the Spanish Road, which some persons felt still belonged to the King of Spain. Strange things comfort dying men. This account of the happenings of long ago comforted Joe. After that he made his slow way each day to sit under the great oak at the end of the King's Road and watch the glowing sunset downriver over the Bay. There he seemed to find his own variety of peace for he felt that he had reached sanctuary.

     The day soon came when these people, who now felt themselves to be his friends and neighbors, bore his body in its plain pine board coffin to the graveyard. There they laid him to rest beside the grave of his sweetheart. Someone had found in a ships flag locker an old Spanish pennant and had laid it atop the coffin. There is a famous poem, which says that wherever an Englishman lies buried becomes forever a bit of English ground. In the same sense there is a bit of Spanish ground in an old burial ground in Bon Secour where a homesick son of Spain lies sleeping under the red and gold colors of his homeland. The wooden cross, which marked his grave, has long since moldered into dust and he himself has become legend.

     Written in 1965 by Charley and Meme Wakeford for their book “Food, Fun, and Fable.”