ONLY MOMENTS AFTER squeezing out of the church we were back in the car, climbing the steep hill toward the 3 large, red brick buildings. As we came to a stop in front them I took a look around. Gone were the easy, worn grassy pathways that had made it easy to walk right up to each entrance just 2 months earlier. In their place was thick, invasive Kudzu. Anyone from the South is familiar with Kudzu. Green & leafy, it spreads like wild fire, smothering EVERYTHING in its path. NOTHING was safe from its wrath. The brick walls of the dorms & the little cottage, that I now believed to be the dining facility for the North Campus, weren’t any exception.
OUT OF THE three, the middle building seemed like the best one to start with. I stood at the edge dreading the thought of having to take even one step into that green abyss!
I RAN MY really awesome, extendable hot dog roaster through some of it just to see if anything jumped out & even though nothing attacked me, I still wasn’t convinced that imminent death wasn’t waiting underneath, so I did something even dumber…”Hey Google, Do Snakes Live In Kudzu?” I wasn’t ready for the answer I got!
WELL ”F” YOU Google…You Shame Me! I stood there scowling, trying to work up the balls to just go. I even attempted to figure out how many times I would actually have to put either foot on the ground. If I just ran super fast I…E passed by me & was nearly to the front patio area by the time I even realized she was gone! I mean she almost danced through the crap…Show off! Well, here goes nothing! I booked it, not stopping for anything OR anyone & it went pretty good…Until the front of both feet connected with something solid, almost sending me sprawling flat on my face into the thick vines! Thank God I was able to catch my balance before I had a chance to hit the ground! WTF??? I stepped up on the invisible killer & looked down. A freaking tree trunk…REALLY? Where were you on that one my little Dancing Queen?? I was at least able to avoid having to step back into the death trap by jumping from my new platform to the concrete slab at the entrance.
SO WE MADE it inside…ALIVE…FINALLY! I was already wishing we had more time but I knew the clock was ticking. The main area of the dorm building was exactly as I remembered it, dark, decayed & littered with the metal bunk beds & other furniture everywhere. The floor was wet & some of the beds were now flipped over on there sides. We didn’t have the early spring, late afternoon light giving the room the glow that it had back in that 1st weekend in March; The weather wasn’t going to grant us that. We would have to rely on our flashlights to light the way. At least they were decent flashlights!
THE STAIRS TO NOWHERE
WE DID OUR usual routine without either of us having to even tell the other. I went one direction while E went another, every once in awhile one of us would call out “Hey, look at this!” OR “Did you see that?” but we mostly wandered around silently, with the sound of the water dripping onto the concrete floor, echoing through the room eerily. At one point I noticed E climbing a steep staircase on the opposite side of the room. WTH was that? I know it’s not saying much but I hadn’t noticed it the last time. I wandered over & looked up as she climbed to the top. And then I saw the whole picture. The steps were wedged between the outer brick wall of the dorm & an inner wall separating it from the room. As you looked up that inner wall, you could see 2 rectangular openings with rusted gratings in each. There was also a heavy metal door with a lock & another similar rusty grated “window” toward the top. E turned around & yelled from the top “There’s another room up here but you can’t get to it!” She came back down & headed out of the room, disappearing down the back hallway. Instead of following I made my way to the other side of the room & found a matching stairway. I had made it about half way up when she came back & her voice echoed through the room as she said “Do NOT try to go into that room!” I rolled my eyes at the fact that she knows me that well. I swear that she heard me because as I listened to her exiting the room again I heard her say “DON’T!” “It never crossed my mind” I mumbled. Well it didn’t…OK, it did but ONLY for a minute!
WHAT I DID do was climb the steps to the top & pushed open the door, that was already ajar. Then kneeling on the stone steps, I leaned in as far as I could & snapped a few pics. Funny, I never really looked at them until I started writing this post. I also gave the room a good look just to see if there was even the slightest possibility of being able to get in there. It was just as messed up as everywhere else we’ve been! Maybe if I crawled & didn’t put my full body weight I could…Nope, NOT gonna try it! The last thing I needed was to fall through a rotting ceiling & land on the nasty concrete floor OR worse, having a metal bunk bed break my fall & impale me! I don’t know what would have been worse…Dying in that place due to stupidity OR having the Bestie stand over my bleeding body telling me what an idiot l am! I decided to forgo either scenario & turned to go back down the steps. And I don’t really care what was carved into that door at the top of the steps…Being up their & trying to climb back down those steep steps certainly did NOT kick ass!
IT WAS ON the way back down that I looked out one of those rusty, grated windows & immediately regretted doing so. In my mind I saw a brief flash & instantly knew what they were. The Dozier guards would shut the heavy metal doors at the foot of the stairs & could stand at the top OR midway down, checking to make sure the boys were in bed without having to actually enter the room. In theory it makes perfect sense. Unfortunately, knowing what I know, that’s NOT the picture that I got in my mind. The flash I got as I snapped a pic, was of a wolf looking down on a flock of sheep, deciding which one he would prey upon. It made me nauseous & for the 1st time EVER I felt the need to get out of that stairway…FAST! How many boys had been snatched in the night by one of the wolves? How many were still out there, buried in an unmarked graves on Dozier land, waiting to be found…Waiting to go home.
DURING THIS TRIP I had NO idea exactly how many boys were unaccounted for. Today as I write this I can say that there are close to 200…At least the ones tnat I know about! I’m not saying that this means every one of them are buried here BUT given the history I’ll leave everyone to draw their own conclusions.
BUT WHERE ARE THE HEADSTONES?
WE LEFT THE 1st dorm but held off on going into the 2nd just to take a breather for a few minutes. We walked the dirt path, now entirely taken over by Kudzu, turning between the dorms & the dining hall. The woods were very thick in this area, so the possibility of hiking through would be slim to none, especially this late in the day. As we walked to where the path dead ended at yet another chain link fence, I looked to my left & said “If my research is accurate, Boothill Cemetery would be on the other side of those woods.” I was pretty sure of this BUT if Boothill sits inside of those woods, where did the grave markers go?
THIS WOULD BE yet another question that I worried about never really having a complete answer to. Though I’d eventually find a partial answer 6 months later….
MIRROR, MIRROR ON THE…WAIT, IS THAT A BOY?
IT WAS STARTING to drizzle again & it was getting darker, so if we were going to get into that last dorm, we had to do it soon. We walked back & basically went through the same routine (minus the Google search!) & were soon standing inside. The set up was similar, although it had way less furniture. There were more beds, some flipped over on their sides. I started looking at the overturned beds & noticed several things about them…1) They each had a metal footlocker at the bottom & 2) There were numbered tags on each.
THE TAGS WERE filthy, ripped & most were peeling off the metal around the edges. Almost all of them were legible, making it easy to snag a few. It took a minute to carefully pull each off but when I finally got each one, I held it flat in my hand. They felt the same way a wet sticker felt after you take it off your shirt & the adhesive side gets dirty. They were also extremely brittle, literally disintegrating in my hands! I quickly & gently placed them inside of a plastic bag, sealed it & put it inside of my backpack. I still have them, in their bag, to this day. I then went through the back door into a narrow hallway to search for the Bestie. It didn’t take long to find her; She was standing at one end of the hall looking into what I assumed was a closet. She quickly pointed out that it definitely was NOT just a closet. I walked over to see & it was clear why she was disturbed…The little “closet” was more like a solitary confinement room! Although it would barely be big enough for more than 1 person, it had a light fixture hanging from the ceiling & its most disturbing feature was that the “closet” had a lock on it…And it locked from the outside.
THERE WAS NO end to the horror show that this place had to offer. There also seemed to be NO end to the building itself. Everywhere we turned, there was another room, hallway OR “closet” to look at. After heading around a corner, I landed myself inside of the dorm bathroom. Like the rest of the building, the walls of this area were brick. The floor was also filled with, thick, muddy water due to the roof that had collapsed in several areas. Thank God for rain boots because the sludge was almost ankle deep in spots! The 1st thing I saw were the filthy porcelain sinks. They were screwed into the brick wall, lined up in a row. I stood & faced them & then headed to my right where a brick wall divided the sinks from a row of toilets that were full of water & leaves. Above them the roof was gone with wood beams hanging.
ON EITHER SIDE of the sinks were small brick enclosures with openings at the front. I stepped in not knowing what they were. Looking around there wasn’t anything really to look at. Other than the walls, there was nothing inside. I was stepping out & happened to glance up to check out the condition of the ceiling…that’s when I saw it; I should say “them” as there was more than one. They were shower heads coming out of the ceiling. Apparently I was standing inside of one of the group showers.
I STEPPED OVER the lip of the shower & looking across the room I saw something that stood out as being oddly placed. It was a blue framed mirror attached to the wall but its positioning felt off. I stood in front of it & as I stared at my reflection I swear I felt movement behind me, it felt like a whisper but when I turned, I didn’t see anything. I decided to take a couple of pics of it & then turned to leave the area. But I couldn’t shake this nagging feeling that there was something about that mirror….
I WOULDN’T KNOW What that nagging feeling was until after we were home…As I took that pick of the mirror, apparently I was being watched by something that appeared to be a small boy. peaking out from around the brick shower wall. It was jarring to say the least.
WHAT I CAPTURED in that photo would be confirmed on a late summer day. You see, when comparing the boy from my pic to dozens of archive photos of the boys at Dozier, the general look of the boy I saw possibly matched the look of the boys serving sentences in the 50’s & 60’s. There are several names that came to mind but I’ll never be sure.
NOW HIS MESSAGE is a different story. I wholeheartedly believe that he was there to offer confirmation that there are still boys buried at the school but I think he was saying more than that; Just look at the position of the mirror in that bathroom & what you can easily see in its reflection…
NEWER DOES NOT EQUAL BETTER
OBVIOUSLY I HAD no idea of what I had caught on film at the time, so I decided to use the few remaining minutes we had to see what was further back in the building. On my way, I met up with E who was starting to feel uneasy. To be honest, she had made it very clear from our 1st step inside that she didn’t like this building. Now that twilight Was upon us, she just wanted to get the Hell out of there. I told her that I was heading toward the back of the building to look at the last of the rooms. She, however, would NOT be going with me & said as much as she started back toward the front. It was really dark & of course my phone was dying rapidly. It only took me a minute to reach the final room (At least that I know of!) & in that minute it became cave like….Dark, damp & musty. The door to the room was missing from the frame, propped up against a wall inside the room. The only sound that could be heard was the constant dripping of water echoing throughout the dorm. The room looked like another sleeping area as there were a number of beds crowding the space. Up against the far wall I could see what looked like lockers OR storage for personal items.
THE ODD THING was that even though the room itself was utter chaos, a majority of the stuff in it was in decent shape. Maybe being tucked away in the back of the building had offered enough protection from the elements but seeing the posters for more “current” bands like Metallica made it just as likely that this particular area hadn’t been used for as long as the others. Either way it didn’t really matter as it still had the markings of the children who had once been there.
IN THE END there was just way too much stuff strewn around the room for me to go inside, especially with it being so dark. Before heading back to the front, I stood in the doorway & used what little battery power to snap a few pics.
I WASN’T ABLE to use the flash so while you can make out a majority of the items inside, the quality isn’t great. I’m not too disappointed though because at least I got something!
IT AIN’T A PARTY TIL SOMEONE FREAKS OUT!!
FEELING MORE ACCOMPLISHED than I had ever imagined I would, I made my way to where we had started from & E was still inside looking around although she was definitely looking more & more unsettled by the minute. Since we had pretty much reached the end of the road for this trip, I was lingering, trying to take everything I could in & make sure that I didn’t miss ANYTHING! It was then that I realized how quiet it had gotten. Even the dripping had ceased. I had just turned to ask E if she noticed the sudden lack of sound & that’s when it happened…3 loud banging noises, almost like knocks, echoed through the building! It was so loud that I swear you could feel the floor vibrate & see the walls shake! Before the banging stop we both looked at each other & I just yelled one word…”GO!!!” We both took off running, not caring about having to get through the Kudzu & NOT taking even a millisecond to look back. We didn’t glance at the building we’d just hauled ass out of until we were back at the car. We were out of breath & unfortunately out of time…But E did manage to hang on to another school brick during our escape!
I WASN’T SURE what E thought the banging was from but I had actually thought the building was coming down…That’s how loud it was! When we did give the dorm another look, it appeared in one piece, standing silently in the evening light. I was sad & didn’t want to say goodbye again…With every visit, I had to prepare myself for the reality that it could be the last time I’d be able to stand on the campus, explore its buildings & still find evidence of what had been preserved inside the crumbling walls.
AS WE PULLED away that Sunday, at the end of May, I had NO idea what was to come & NO clue just how close we’d be to losing everything….
☆ IF YOU OR SOMEONE YOU KNOW WERE HOUSED AT “THE FLORIDA INDUSTRIAL SCHOOL FOR BOYS” AKA “THE ARTHUR G DOZIER SCHOOL FOR BOYS” OR THE OKEECHOBEE SCHOOL FOR BOYS, PLEASE REACH OUT VIA HERE AT findingflorida.blog OR ANY OF THE CONTACT INFO LISTED BELOW!!☆
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