With this much to say, it’s best to have a nice, slow horse. That’s the philosophy of former St. Augustine carriage driver, Phil King. It also explains why Thorton, now on a pasture in horse-heaven, was the perfect match for the loquacious historian, as the pair presented history to thousands of tourists and locals alike, one story and leisurely clip clop at a time.
In King’s book, “Saint Augustine Carriage Tour,” he recalls his experiences as a part of a long line and grand tradition of carriage drivers in St. Augustine. Not a memoir, this book reads rather like a guide book to more than 70 sites and historic stories. His folksy style comes through on the page as well as it does when he is in storyteller mode.
In the introduction, King gives a simple but all-encompassing reason why the area’s history is his passion. “St. Augustine is where it all began.”
King’s interest in St. Augustine began 10 years ago when he moved here from West Virginia. While living on a fixer-upper houseboat, he’d watch the horse and carriage drivers pass by on their way back to the stables and think, “That looks like a good job.”
King had to reinvent himself a bit for this gig. A former Air Force photographer, then a postal worker, his experience with horses was limited to recreational riding and a summer’s stint at a dude ranch. But he liked to talk and was good with people and the horses seemed to sense that. He was hired by the St. Augustine Transfer Company in fall 2004.
The carriage company began in 1879 as a taxi service. It had the claim to fame of transporting tourists who arrived on the railroad from the depot to their hotel in town. When automobiles became the norm, it switched gears to providing entertaining tours.
Before earning his license, King trained by riding along with more experienced drivers and learning how to handle the horses. He also learned his co-worker’s narratives.
“Each driver’s tour was a little different, reflecting the driver’s individual interests. Some talk about the restaurants and things to do; others focus more on the history of the horses. Some provide a quiet, romantic tour. Mine focused on history and people really liked it,” King said.
Aiming to be known as ‘the history guy,’ he spent countless hours donning the special white gloves that allowed him to carefully read through the pages of fragile historic archives in the Research Library on Aviles Street. He researched information on the internet and sometimes by interviewing long-time residents. He also joined the local Historical Society.
The result of his efforts was a “very in-depth historical tour,” King said. His tour covered everything from the Alcazar Hotel to the Worth Museum, with enthralling tales to accompany each site. So much to tell, so little time. That’s where his take-it-easy companion Thorton came in.
King writes that he’d tell his riders to stop and feed Thorton carrots. When doing so, if they gently touched Thorton’s cheek and said, “Give me a kiss, Thorton,” he usually would. If they were nice and he was in a good mood.
Thorton pulled a carriage in St. Augustine for 12 years before passing away in 2011 at the age of 27. He was preceded in death by Princess, the spirited horse King describes as Thorton’s girlfriend and King’s second choice for his carriage rides. Princess and Thorton had adjacent stalls and many times she kicked the bricks between their stalls so they could be together.
The tales King wove in his tour and now his book are not strictly textbook, hard-nosed history. He admits some of it is based on local folklore and much of it is told with humor. “I just like to portray it in a fun way. That’s how you get the tips, by making people laugh,” King said.
King said the tourists really enjoyed personal stories about historic figures, like Henry Flagler. “Flagler was an amazing person and responsible for so many buildings here. But what people want to hear about is his love life.”
King’s version is that Flagler and his first wife Mary Harkness came to Florida in the hopes of curing her tuberculosis. It didn’t work. The Flagler’s returned to New York, where unfortunately Mary died. Flagler then married Ida Alice Shrouds, who had been Mary’s nurse. Flagler and Ida Alice returned to St. Augustine for their honeymoon and then set to work on his hotel empire. Ida Alice liked to throw big parties “like she was the Queen of St. Augustine,” causing a rift between Flagler and his son Harry.
Things didn’t end well for Ida Alice, however. It was said she threatened Flagler’s life and was locked up in her room on the third floor of the old Ponce De Leon Hotel (now Flagler College). When Flagler later divorced her she spent the rest of her life in a New York asylum supported by Flagler.
Flagler’s third wife, Mary Lilly Keenan inherited $113 million when he died in 1913, making her one of the wealthiest women in the world. She didn’t have much time to bask in her riches, though. She remarried and then soon died of arsenic poisoning. Good thing she had a prenuptial agreement.
Ida Alice’s sad tale led to another kind of story the tourists liked — ghost stories. “Some say that red haired Ida Alice still stalks around at night dressed in a white gown, carrying a candle, and scaring a few students,” King said.
After he stopped driving a carriage in 2007, King wrote a series of articles published on monthly basis for Old City Life Magazine in 2008. The articles were popular and he was encouraged to compile them into a book. He was happy to oblige.
“Doing the carriage rides and writing about it made me feel like a part of the town. Part of its history,” King said. Now retired, he and his wife Bonnie spend Wednesdays and Saturdays at the local Farmer’s Markets selling books and photography, and talking history. He just does it now without a horse.
“Saint Augustine Carriage Tour,” is available locally at the “Second Read,” and Ponce de Leon’s Fountain of Youth Archaeological Park and the Alligator Farm and Zoological Park.