Traveling along A1A will affirm this to travelers: Florida is weird, and at times, it can be spooky. Take Robert the Doll, for example, located at the Fort East Martello Museum in Key West (the last official museum along A1A south).
The story of the doll’s original owner, Robert Eugene Otto, nicknamed Gene, and his lifelong connection with the doll is itself bizarre; a read about Gene and Robert the Doll will reveal various examples that have many believe the doll is cursed—and has the ability to curse others.
Stories have come from those visiting Robert at the museum; by showing some form of disrespect, such as not asking Robert for permission before taking a photo of him, they have experienced strange and disturbing consequences. Many have written letters to Robert, asking for forgivemess.
Apparently, even celebrities are not immune to the curse of Robert the Doll.
Ozzy Osbourne and his son Jack, who while doing an episode for A&E Network’s Ozzy and Jack’s World Detour, visited the doll (Ozzy passes gas in the presence of Robert). Ozzy, who has experienced much misfortune since, blames Robert.
Robert the Doll, the inspiration for Chucky of the Child’s Play movie franchise, can be seen near the end of the A1A journey. However, you do not have to travel far south on A1A to experience the strange and eerie.
Welcome to Jacksonville, and greetings from the Neff House—come visit, if you dare.
The Neff House can be found within Fort George Island State Park, itself located within the Timucuan Ecological & Historical Preserve, but it is not advertised by the state park or preserve.
Driving south on A1A, you arrive at the preserve once entering Duval County, which is incorporated by the City of Jacksonville. There is nothing urban about this area, however. Fort George Island emits a sense of Old Florida, with some development hidden within maritime forests of oak, sabal palm, and saw palmetto. Tidal salt marshes also abound.
To see the house, you have to find a locked gate along the Saturiwa Trail, a four and a half mile loop around the state park, hop over wire fencing, and walk the path to the house. The path is elevated, a rarity in Florida—it sits atop Mount Cornelia, the HIGHEST point in Duval County, and according to the state park website, the HIGHEST point on the east coast south of North Carolina’s Outer Banks.
The gate is located just past the Ribault Club, an elegant structure from the gilded age that has hosted in the past, among others, Sir Winston Churchill. The club is the LARGEST wooden structure in northeast Florida.
Another feature along the Saturiwa Trail is the Kingsley Plantation, part of the National Park Service. The site focuses on Zephaniah Kingsley and the slave community that lived and worked at the plantation. The site contains the plantation home of Kingsley and the remains of 25 of the original 32 tabby slave cabins, the LARGEST collection in the country. Kingsley Plantation is part of the Florida Black Heritage Trail; a large number of sites on this trail are situated on A1A.
Fort George Island State Park is popular for its history and natural beauty; Saturiwa Trail, the Ribault Club, and Kingsley Plantation are the main attractions. Hiking and biking are also a draw for travelers, as are fishing and kayaking on the Fort George River, which fronts the plantation.
The Neff House is lesser known. In fact, when Robert, my high school buddy and partner in crime on this adventure, and I asked about the house during our visit to the Ribault Club, Marie, who was working at the club, did not know anything about the Neff House, though she enthusiastically and in great detail shared with us the history of the club and the Saturiwa Trail. She was intrigued when I explained what I knew about the Neff House
The house itself has architecturally historical value; it was built as a winter home for the Neff family in 1927 by the “Dean of Jacksonville architects” Mellen Clarke Greeley.
The Neff family, from Chicago, experienced several family tragedies leading to the deaths of the wife and three children of businessman Nettleton Neff, who himself committed suicide before construction was completed on the house.
None of the Neff family members ever stayed there.
The house was sold in 1939 to Kenneth Merrill, who owned a couple of ship-building and dynamite businesses. In 1967, the Betz family bought the house, becoming the first family to occupy the house full-time. They would make additions to the house, including a garage and a pool.
Merrill and the Betz family and service help had mentioned strange and spooky occurrences in the house. It was a discovery on March 27, 1974, however, that would bring infamy to the Neff House—the Betz Sphere. It has received much attention, including being featured on the History Channel’s Ancient Aliens. Most recently, National Public Radio’s WJCT News 89.9 has created a five-episode podcast titled Oddball, hosted by Lindsey Kilbride. Bold Bean Coffee Roasters, which provided support for the podcast, also named one of its coffee blends Oddball, one of the nicknames for the Betz Sphere.
The Betz Sphere, about the size of a bowling ball, was found by Terry Betz, son of Gerri and Antoine, while the three took a walk on Fort George Island. Terry decided to keep the sphere. A couple of weeks later, the sphere began to act up, and strange things began to happen at the house, which already had a history of spookiness. The sphere would make humming sounds and vibrate; it would also seem to move on its own, starting and stopping on its own.
Since then, the Betz Sphere, which existence is currently unknown, has been under scrutiny; while a U.S. Navy study confirmed that the sphere was manmade (though from where was not confirmed), others feel that the mysterious sphere could be an unidentified flying object—UFO.
The disputing claims on the origin of the sphere is in itself a fascinating aspect of the Betz Sphere legend.
Knowing this made our visit to the Heff House adventurous. Fort George Island, with its natural beauty, also gives off a feeling of isolation. Seeing the house in its current condition, and knowing that it is considered haunted, a trepid feeling existed.
This is what Robert had to say following our visit.
“This was a wonderful experience. It took the both us some nifty detective work to find the house. It was eerie and exciting. The swimming pool was still there, so green and swampy. The thought of that creepy sphere stayed on my mind, even as I was trying to sleep… I hope nobody messes with the house—it belongs there, empty and scary, but still also a beautiful piece of architecture.”