Errol Country. Part II

20 Mar

Dear Errol Fans,

          I apologize for being away for so long. I have been doing research work for a group of families that, curiously enough, have a link to Errol and are almost as fascinating. The group in question is the Mitchell / Tiffany / Bingham family. They are the descendants of the family that built and lived in the Folly Mansion in Port Antonio some 100 years ago.

         I myself came to Port Antonio in 1978 to see the Folly house as I had read about it in Nat. Geo. Magazine as a boy and laid awake at night trying to imagine what it was like in real life. I confess I didn't know much about Errol then. (That came later) I was instantly transfixed and vowed to find out as much as I could because the place was so incredible. That vow was put to the test when I simply could not find much of anything about the place except for a few fables and photos. I was stymied, and I hate that.

      Fast foreword 3 decades: I, quite by chance, stumbled upon a book; 'The Tiffany Fortune' and hit pay dirt. I contacted the Mitchell family in CT. and made fast friends with Alfreda (Alfie) Mitchell, who sent 2 DVDs with photo's that quite simply were not available anywhere. (They were scanned from a photo album and all were over 100 years old.) I will include some in this posting as I got permission from the family.

      Alfred Mitchell, from Salem, CT was a rich traveler who had been just about everywhere when he happened upon Port Antonio. He and his wife, Annie Tiffany Mitchell stayed at the then booming Titchfield Hotel and while there, fell in love with the area. Alfred decided to build a winter home on what was known as 'Folly Point'.(across the bay from Port Antonio) He purchased the land and set about building a Greek-Roman style villa in the winter of 1904-1905. It was a huge undertaking and cost a fortune, but Mr. Mitchell was happy with the outcome and built Horse stables, a 'Grotto' and Greek Cupola on the point to watch the breakers, and a large tropical garden on the property. It was a grand thing indeed. The house even had a steam-powered electrical generator in the basement and electric lights, which at the time, were the very latest luxury indeed. The mansion even had running water and a walk-in sauna bath on the lower level that measured 8' by 10' and 5' deep. Mr. Mitchell even had the first automobile in Jamaica, brought over by ship.(A huge Rolls-Royce touring car) Things were good indeed for the Mitchells. Their son-in-law; Hiram Bingham III was a notable South American explorer who discovered Macchu Picchu in 1912 and many other lost cities in the continent. In fact, the famous film-maker George Lucas was so inspired by Hiram that he used him as the inspiration for Indiana Jones in 'Raiders of the Lost Ark'(!)

        Not to be outdone, Hiram's Great-grandfather Hiram Bingham I was the main Missionary to settle the Hawaiian Islands in the 1820's and wrote a book;' A Residence of Twenty-one Years in the Sandwich Islands' which inspired the famous author James Michener to pen 'Hawaii' and pattern his character, Abner Hale after Hiram! I don't know about you readers, but to me, that is plenty impressive.

       Alas, nothing lasts forever, and in the spring of 1911, Alfred died at the ripe old age of 80. Annie stayed in the mansion for two more winters and sold the home and land to one of  Lorenzo Dow Bakers son's who kept it for 4 years before abandoning the property. The JA gov. took over the place eventually and it fell into ruin. There are rumors of the builders mixing salt water into the concrete and that being the reason for the roof falling in around 1935, but that rumor, like so many others, is completely false. First, N.Y. construction firm, James Wilkerson & Co. was a tried and true professional outfit that, because of the remoteness of the location, brought everything with them by sailing ship to construct the house.(including the water) Also the second floor was made from wooden beams. The concrete portion has held up remarkably well considering the location and the 100 years that have passed. Also the local people raided the house shortly after it was abandoned and ripped out the second floor columns which supported the roof, and generally took whatever was not nailed down.

      Errol was also fascinated by the mansion and planned to refurbish it and turn it into a resort. Nora refers to Folly house in her book 'Errol and Me' by saying her and Errol visited the 'old fort' at lighthouse point. I suppose it does look like a fort in some ways. Patrice Wymore Flynn told me at Errol's centennial birthday that her and Errol tried to buy the property but the JA gov. would only lease it to them, so they had the lease for a number of years.

       The old place is rapidly declining now and is fenced off from the public. That little bother didn't stop yours truly from scaling the 10 ft. tall fence and almost breaking my neck to get some photos. I took some 'before and after' photos using some of the old photos provided by the family and taking the 'after' shot from the same position. I tried to get the very same camera angle as the Daguerreotype camera that was used in 1910 but things like aperture size and focal plane are tough to duplicate exactly with my digital camera. I did my best though. What good luck that Alfred Mitchell was a camera buff  and took over 800 photos of the house and surrounding property!

       In closing: When I go there, I feel, or imagine I feel the traces of what it was like all those years ago, and how I am walking the same path as Errol did way back when. It sounds a little silly when you think about it but it makes me feel just a little closer to our hero. I'll leave it at that. 

            P.S. Note on photo 016. bmp Hiram III (standing) posed with the Mitchell family on the seaside porch of Folly only days before Alfred Mitchell's (on the left) death.


— john


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  1. Anonymous

    March 20, 2010 at 7:13 pm

    John! This is just fascinating! Thanks for a well researched story and the photos are just amazing… it's a bit eery seeing the people in these photos and then the same place a century later! I imagine you standing there looking at the picture in your hand and then the same location at your own feet. Just a few feet away stood the human being in the photo, and in a moment, 100 years has passed by as you look away from the photo. What a feeling, especially standing alone in the same place. What an adventure of the mind for you and us. Thanks so much!

  2. Anonymous

    March 20, 2010 at 7:25 pm

    Great work, John!

  3. Anonymous

    March 21, 2010 at 12:17 pm

    David, It is VERY eerie when you are standing there. I did not see any ghosts, Ha, Ha, (and thank goodness for that.) I have over two dozen of these 'before and after' photos that I am planning to send to the family and they are equally as disturbing. But, that is history, eh? Thanks for the nice compliment. P.S. You are right, I had the old prints in my hand and the camera in the other while trying to line up the shot! JOHN

  4. Anonymous

    March 21, 2010 at 8:19 pm

    Mr. Robzak, Thank you. This means very much to me, coming from you. After all, you are the stickler for facts, and I love that. Spirited debate is good for all. I have just touched on the fringes of the story, but this is a blog for Errol after all, not an obscure family in CT. It is just some of the rich history of the little backwater town in JA. There is more to come. Thank You again, JOHN

  5. Anonymous

    March 22, 2010 at 1:44 am

    Hi John;
    I am badly under the weather, but I am getting over it!
    I love your story and Port Antonio sure has a rich history, but it is very sad that it was neglected and became a ruin, what a great pity for such a wonderful building, what a waste of a national treasure, efforts and money – sheer heartbreaking!
    I look forward to your next one. I wonder what the building looked like 50 years ago, I should say 60 years ago – if Errol could have saved the building in those days.
    I posted today a sort of follow-up on one of your Titchfield articles, which I saw last night by the sheerest coincident. Have a look you may like it, but you should see the movie it is great!
    Take care!

  6. Anonymous

    March 23, 2010 at 5:26 am

    John! I am sure Robert knows the same feeling you experienced doing this work since he has done so much wonderful work with his Before and Now series in MANY varied kinds of places over a long period of time. It must be strange to hold up an old photo and drop it to view the present scene in the next second and realise you are standing on the same ground as Errol Flynn stood and still stands in so many wonderful screen performances. But no matter the subject matter of the photo, to stand there and realise how much time as passed and how much things have or haven't changed, is a revelation that can give you goose bumps!
    Especially if you in an isolated place. It's easy for ghosts to rise under those conditions! Ha!
    Glad you didn't come across any!