by Liza Mitchell
It was a humble beginning, as beginnings go. The auspicious sweep of land nestled along the dunes of Jacksonville Beach held the city’s future within the dense, oak scrub. It was difficult to imagine that one day folks from all over would flock to the shores and that unassuming stretch of land would evolve into a flourishing entertainment mecca.
The first settlers of Jacksonville Beach, known originally as Ruby Beach and later Pablo Beach, created the template for a thriving metropolis within the 10 blocks between Beach Boulevard to 6th Avenue North. Over the years, the area blossomed from a bustling, seaside, railroad community to a booming, tourist destination, worthy of its captures on vintage postcards.
It was still a fledgling city in the late 40s and early 50s, when tourism provided a significant boon to the economy. When one impresario would fall victim to the times, another would be there to grab the baton and sprint ahead. In the spirit of Dickens, it was the best of times that eventually collapsed under the weight of its own prosperity. But for a young man named Fred “Frenchy” Le Grand, the boardwalk offered the chance for a brand new life. Le Grand was just 15 when he left his home in Detroit, Michigan. When he headed south for the Atlantic coast, he found a new family in the traveling amusement workers whose nomadic existence proved enticing to the hardscrabble teen. The kaleidoscopic atmosphere of the carnival world also offered its own brand of comfort to the boy, said by family to have been run out of the house by his own father.
“I never did get the skinny on that,” says his son, Ron Le Grand. Nicknamed Frenchy, the runaway teen quickly took to the rigors of carnival life, working his way through the ropes until he was finally able to acquire one, and then another, and then another ride, until he amassed his own amusement park along the boardwalk. Families, tourists and the sailors docked in Mayport flocked to the area for the panoramic views of the ocean from atop the Ferris wheel, the thrills of roaring around the roller coaster’s peaks and valleys and taking a spin on the merry-go-round. Frenchy Le Grand owned and operated most of the rides and games throughout the 50s and 60s, when Hurricane Dora washed ashore and swept away a chunk of the boardwalk’s businesses. Le Grand did what he always did and started over.
The elder Le Grand was a boardwalk fixture for those in need of a listening ear, as well as for those seeking entertainment. Ron Le Grand recalls city dignitaries gathering down at the boardwalk to shoot the breeze. One particular official spent a great deal of time airing out his problems to Frenchy, whose unsolicited silence signaled an unspoken pinkie swear of discretion. Ron Le Grand was about 12 and remembers sitting between his father and the mayor at the time. “The mayor said ‘thanks for helping me solve my problems’, and my dad didn’t even say a word,” Ron Le Grand says. “He was a great listener.”
Ron eventually became a restaurateur, owning and operating Le Grand’s Steakhouse, an establishment festooned with photographs and carnival memorabilia paying tribute to his family’s amusement heritage, but in his youth he worked the games with his father, sometimes up to 14 hours a day, seven days a week. He earned a modest paycheck of $20 a week for his efforts, but he came away rich with the experience that only growing up a Carny Brat can bring. The younger Le Grand was in charge of sweeping up under the rides like the Bullet that flipped the riders upside down. “It shook all the money out of their pockets,” he says. “Every night was pay day. It was like printing money, as I recall.”
Not everyone was a fan of the boardwalk’s carnival atmosphere. A devastating fire claimed a sizable portion of the boardwalk in the mid 60s. Ron Le Grand says that to his dying day his father believed it was set deliberately by someone who wanted to develop the oceanfront property for other ventures. Despite his close ties to many of them, city officials did not allow him to rebuild, thus closing a memorable chapter in the city’s history. Ron Le Grand fondly recalls his memories of Jacksonville Beach when families, sailors and tourists alike would be stacked “elbow to elbow like a football game.” He looks back to the Opening of the Beaches Parade, sitting atop a carousel horse on his father’s parade float as the Lone Ranger. They took home first prize. “I remember it like it was yesterday, but when it changed it went quick,” Ron says.
The city closed the beach to automobiles, which, according to the Le Grand family, prompted a downward turn in the city’s economy. “Back when you could drive on the beach, that’s what brought the people to the beach,” Ron Le Grand says. “With the amusement rides down, that’s when the transformation happened from a vital, entertainment community to what it is now. At least they can’t ever take the ocean away.”
Frenchy Le Grand stayed true to his roots, working at various amusement parks throughout the Greater Jacksonville area. “This was what he did all of his life,” says his son. “I never saw him take a vacation.” The elder Le Grand remained an active member of the community of carnival workers up until his death at the age of 82, on August 22, 1993.
The face of Jacksonville Beach is nearly unrecognizable from its early days. After the carnival atmosphere dimmed, and the rides disappeared one by one, the tone of the boardwalk shifted, making way for hotels, restaurants and tacky tourist fare. Gone were the bumper cars and boardwalk arcades, but the legacy of Frenchy Le Grand lives forever in the annals of Jacksonville Beach history.