Absinthe, early auto racing, and John D. Rockefeller’s house

Our family loves serendipity, and today was quite full of it.

We had to drive down to Ormond Beach this morning to check out a posh place for boarding dogs. We are planning to drive down to Fort Lauderdale for the International Boat Show later this month (a weekend full of yachts!) and we can’t take our Jack Russell terrier, Sherlock, with us. In a fit of guilt, we found a puppy amusement park to put him up in.

It’s a little amazing to see what pet hotels have become. This place has private indoor-outdoor suites for dogs, with a swimming pool in the shape of a giant bone and several puppy playgrounds that look like agility courses. Some of the rooms are equipped with webcams so concerned parents can check in on their furbabies anytime they like. The suites also have air conditioning, televisions (so your dog can watch Animal Planet), grooming appointments, daily bowls of ice cream and other treats. Frankly, Sherlock might not want to come home.

The Rose Villa Restaurant in Ormond Beach

We rarely end up in Ormond Beach during the day, so we decided to check out a restaurant I have been wanting to eat at for weeks. The Rose Villa restaurant is in a Victorian house off of Granada Boulevard that was built in the 1800s. It became a bed and breakfast in 1901 and was an adjunct facility for famed industrialist Henry Flagler’s luxury hotel. Celebrity guests who wanted more privacy than Flagler’s hotel could provide stayed there.

The Rose Villa now.
The Rose Villa a century ago.

The walls of the restaurant are decorated with portraits of all of the famous Gilded Age personalities who frequented Ormond Beach, including Flagler, John D. Rockefeller, Henry Ford, Thomas Edison, Harvey Firestone, Willie Vanderbilt, Glenn Curtiss, Will Rogers, Alexander Winton, Barney Oldfield, Sir Malcolm Campbell, Harrison Olds, and Fred Marriott.

You can always tell an interior from one of Flagler’s establishments. This place has some of the same Charles Lewis Tiffany flourishes that you see at Flagler College or the Lightner Museum in St. Augustine.

One of the dining rooms of the Rose Villa.
A portrait of the great Henry Flagler.
John D. Rockefeller, Flagler’s business partner.

A Digression on the Great Industrialists of the Gilded Age and Florida History

Because the Gilded Age is my favorite period of history, I love Florida history. And I have a minor obsession with Henry Flagler.

Henry Flagler was sort of the Donald Trump of his era, with a similar affection for Florida real estate. Flagler was born into poverty and started his life off as a commodities trader (before commodities trading was cool). Along with Rockefeller, Flagler ultimately founded the Standard Oil Company, America’s first true corporation and the largest monopoly the world had ever seen. Flagler and Rockefeller were not immediately successful, as there was not yet an immense market for oil and petroleum products in the mid-19th century. Then the automobile was invented, and the two men became far and away the richest men on the planet. Rockefeller had so much money later in life that he passed out money to strangers and children he met on the street (and, of course, became a legendary philanthropist). This made him very popular with the kids in Ormond Beach. If you ran into Rockefeller or were his caddy on the golf course, you inevitably got a dime.

Nowadays, corporations have platoons of pathetically overpaid lawyers producing documents the size of phone books to manage legal concerns. Standard Oil’s articles of incorporation fit on a single sheet of paper. From this simple piece of paper, a multinational financial empire was constructed.

Standard Oil Company articles of incorporation.

Flagler literally built the State of Florida after the Civil War, linking a series of luxury hotels from St. Augustine down to the Keys with his railroad and “bridge over the sea.” Then he brought down every filthy rich friend he had from the north, and their friends, and their friends’ friends, and their staff, and their interior designers, and their architects. Without his vision, Florida would still be a tangle of jungle with some burnt-out sugar plantations. Flagler was seemingly a swell boss to have, too. He paid relatively high wages to the men willing to work on exceptionally rough construction sites – with sometimes brutal tropical weather and mosquitoes – many of them the descendants of freed slaves, and provided them with housing and food.

Every major city you see on the eastern coast of Florida exists because Flagler was able to recruit both the labor and consumers necessary to have a sustainable economy. He is truly a giant in American history.

Like Trump, Flagler was a lightning rod for controversy and jealousy, and he was a near-constant topic for the hyenas in the media (who were just as bad then as they are now) during his lifetime. Flagler threw over-the-top parties designed to make his self-righteous critics clutch their pearls. He’d make the world’s greatest industrialists dress in drag, for example. Flagler was hauled before Congress a billion times and he did not give two shits about it. The hyenas were going to hyena, but they’d go home to crappy New York apartments and he’d take his personal train to paradise. That was his attitude.

It’s actually something of a useful lesson for current events: History remembers Henry Flagler. It doesn’t remember the people who wrote about him. I’m sure Trump wakes up and reminds himself of this every day.

(Rockefeller, of course, was the diametrical opposite of Flagler, which is probably why they made great business partners. He kept notebook after notebook full of every penny he spent, how much money he gave away, every tiny little thing he did each day and how he could improve. Rockefeller was consumed with self-improvement and extremely religious. It was like he planned to audit St. Peter’s books when he reached the pearly gates. Well, my notes say…)

A Digression on Primitive Auto Racing (That Was Still Freaking Terrifying)

Unsurprisingly, the oil barons’ best friends were automobile industry tycoons. It was this fraternity who brought the sport of automobile racing to the Daytona area. They built the first generations of supercars for giggles, racing them on the packed white sands of Ormond Beach and Daytona. And the people in the town loved it.

There is a replica of Flagler’s supercar garage in the middle of a park on Ormond Beach with the first race cars in them. They pretty much look like someone attached rockets to a Barcalounger. And, boy, did they go FAST:

J.F. Hathaway, a wealthy manufacturer from Massachusetts and a frequent guest at the Ormond Hotel, came up with the idea of racing cars on the beach.

According to two Volusia County history books, A History of Volusia County and Ormond-on-the-Halifax, Hathaway attended bicycle races held on Ormond Beach between 1900 and 1902 while vacationing at the Ormond Hotel.

Hathaway, who drove a Stanley Steamer, noticed that bicycle tires did not sink into the hard sand along the beach. He suggested to John Anderson and Joseph Price, managers of the hotel, that the beach would be a good place to race cars.

From 1902 to 1935, auto industry giants such as Henry Ford, Louis Chevrolet, F.E. Stanley and Ransom E. Olds brought their cars to race down the beach.

In April 1902, two early auto pioneers met for the first race. Olds, founder of Oldsmobile, and Alexander Winton, creator of the Winton automobile, both bolted down the beach at 57 mph – well short of the existing 77 mph world speed record, set the year before by a Frenchman.

No matter. Word got out in Europe and America that Ormond Beach was an ideal speedway. In 1903, the races were sponsored by the American Automobile Association.

Several land speed records were set in those years. Because long distances were needed to set speed records, the course often was extended south to Daytona Beach.

Ormond and Daytona beaches remained a top draw for speed demons until the Bonneville Salt Flats in Utah became popular in the late 1940s.

On Jan. 23, 1904, William K. Vanderbilt set the first world record on the beach when he drove his four-cylinder Mercedes at just over 92 mph. The next year, Arthur McDonald drove a 90-horsepower Napier to 104 mph.

In 1906 a Stanley Steamer driven by Fred Marriott was clocked at 127.6 mph. Marriott later was crowned “Fastest Man on Earth” by the Florida East Coast Automobile Association.

Cigar-chomping Barney Oldfield, perhaps the most famous race-car driver in the world at the time, set a new world speed record on the Ormond-Daytona course in 1907. Driving a German-made Benz called the Blitzen, Oldfield flew down the beach at 131 mph.

From 1908 until the end of World War I, racing faded somewhat in Ormond and Daytona. The beach wasn’t in good shape and the war drew attention and resources away from racing. In the 1920s, the racing world turned its attention to the Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

But in 1927 beach racing came back in a big way when Major H.O.D. Segrave ran his Sunbeam Mystery S race car from the Daytona Beach Pier 13 miles south to Ponce Inlet. Segrave, for whom a street in Daytona is named, reached 203 mph as a crowd of 15,000 watched.

The last speed record set on the beach came on March 7, 1935, when Sir Malcolm Campbell drove his car, the Bluebird V, to a speed of 276.82 mph. The car is displayed at Daytona USA, a motorsports museum and entertainment complex under construction at the Daytona International Speedway.

In 1936 the American Automobile Association sponsored the first national stock-car race on Daytona Beach. One of the entrants was named Bill France; he later founded the National Association for Stock Car Auto Racing, or NASCAR. Several other races were held from 1936 until the start of America’s involvement in World War II in 1941.

The first stock-car race after the war was held in the spring of 1946. France was one of the drivers, and during the race his car overturned. Spectators flipped the car back on its wheels, and France finished the race. The next year, France was again involved in the race, not as a driver but as the sponsor. Then he began planning the construction of Daytona International Speedway 5 miles east of the beach; the track opened in 1958.

The first Daytona 500 was run in 1959 and was won by Lee Petty, father of Richard Petty.

Also in the 1950s, the racetrack in Sebring in south Florida became one of the world’s most famous auto racing venues for sports cars.

Most of the world’s most famous sports car manufacturers – Triumph, Austin-Healey, MG , Jaguar, Porsche, Alfa Romeo, Fiat, Maserati, Ferrari and others – competed at Sebring.

One of the first race cars in history. Like I said, someone attached rockets to a recliner.
(We’ll just call this guy the original Florida Man. He needs a bottle of bourbon and an alligator in his seat with him though.)
America’s richest men racing primitive supercars on the sand of Ormond Beach.
I’m not sure what this is, but it looks like fun.

This is Ralph DePalma, who restarted the competition for land speed records after the upper crust took a break to deal with World War I. He was also responsible for the founding of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway in 1911. DePalma broke the land speed record that year in his Packard V-12 at almost 150 mph.

Rodney did not believe me that they were building cars that could go over 270 mph before WWII. I had to show him that article on my phone in the restaurant. (Don’t underestimate the history nerd!)

The downstairs bar at Rose Villa.

Okay, So Back to the Rose Villa

I cannot recommend this restaurant highly enough. The restaurant serves haute Southern food. You can get fried green tomatoes with lobster, a croque madam, and so forth. This is combined with a menu of proper cocktails.

Since it was still brunch, we started off with deviled eggs, served with pork bellies and chow chow. Elise ordered avocado toast. I ordered a “biscuit benedict” served with freshly made lump crab cakes. Rodney had jambalaya. All magnificent.

The Green Fairy

We started off with a round of Sazeracs. Then we moved on to a round of candied bacon old fashioneds. Also all magnificent.

Then… We learned about the upstairs absinthe bar. The only thing that could improve such an awesome restaurant was a speakeasy.

The upstairs bar.

We’ve had the green fairy before at home, but without the ceremony. Rose Villa really gets into the ceremony. They pour the absinthe, dip a sugar cube in it, set it on an absinthe spoon, light the sugar on fire, and then use an absinthe fountain to drip water over the sugar until the absinthe turns a cloudy white. It is wicked fun to watch.

It cracked me up that the bartender felt the need to warn us that absinthe is a sipping drink and not a shooting drink. We explained to her that we understood that shooting 140-proof liquor is probably a bad idea. You’d be surprised, she said. She had a businessman do it once, and it made him violently ill. He barely made it to the bathroom. (This story is even more hilarious when you eventually learn that the restaurant has a traditional water closet for a bathroom, complete with a rope you have to pull to flush. It’s in a Victorian house, after all.)

For the uninitiated, absinthe is a licorice-flavored liquor that is derived from anise and various botanicals (including wormwood). The drink developed a bad reputation in the early 20th century among social conservatives and prohibitionists, who claimed that the drink was addictive and had dangerous psychoactive properties. They mostly hated the drink as it became a symbol of bohemian culture, being loved by such troublemakers as Vincent van Gogh and Ernest Hemingway. Absinthe was banned in the United States and Europe in the 1920s. Since then, the claims about its dangers have been discredited, and it became popular once more starting in the 1990s. It’s a very, very strong liquor (well, the good stuff is, anyway), but it’s pleasant when prepared properly and will leave your mouth tasting like licorice for hours.

The gardens outside Rose Villa.
I thought this was neat. This is the wall of an alley next to the restaurant. They put a series of mirrors on the wall, and let the vines take over the rest. It gives the alley a creepy fairytale vibe.

The Casements

As we were in the neighborhood, we decided to pop over to see John D. Rockefeller’s house on the Intracoastal Waterway. His house – named The Casements, a reference to its heavy, hurricane-proof storm windows – is a museum now.

The Casements
Rockefeller handing a child a dime. He loved giving his wealth away so much that he gave coins away to random people and strangers he met out in public.

After that, we decided to pop over to the beach and stick our toes in the surf. The waves have been incredible lately, but there were many locals wading in despite the red flags flying from the lifeguard stands. And many crazy surfers.

Florida child.
Nope.

All of this grew out of a trip to a dog hotel. I love living in Florida so much.

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