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The abandoned motel, souvenir shop, and liquor store that can leave you with a sinking feeling if you don't watch your step.

The Riverside Motel & St. Mary's Liquors

The Riverside Motel sign and motel in the background | Photo © 2020 Sugarbomb​

Sitting just yards from the Florida/Georgia state line and across the street from a forest and the logging truck from the beginning scene of Final Destination 2 is the remains of the Riverside Motel and St. Mary's Liquor Store. The motel was made up of only about a dozen rooms in two buildings that are situated in an L-shape and now nearly hidden behind the overgrown mess of weeds and tall grass. Despite its relatively close proximity to Jacksonville, it's clear that this place is pretty far away from anyone's regular route since it seems to have remained undisturbed, save for a lone piece of hair weave hanging from one of the metal columns in front of a door swaying gently in the breeze.

Upon entering the first room, I was greeted by a totem of television sets from many decades ago. The stacked TVs of yesteryear were sort of like the one my grandma would watch her soaps on every afternoon when I was a toddler, though it was considered outdated even then. Despite being technological fossils, they remain miraculously intact.

The Riverside Motel & St. Mary's Liquors

The stack of old television sets in one of the motel rooms | Photo © 2018 Sugarbomb​

The rooms remind me of an apocalypse type scenario – like one day everyone just picked up and left. Some of the beds are still on their frames, pillows still in tattered pillowcases, and threadbare curtains still hang on rods over the windows. On the twin mattress of one room, clothing on hangers is laid out across the bed, like someone had been trying to pick out which outfit they liked best. The initial dystopian vibes exuded by the aforementioned scene notwithstanding, the rooms are otherwise typical of a simple, unassuming roadside motel, consisting of a bedroom with a small alcove closet and an attached bathroom.

The room rates for the motel are still visible on the backs of the rotten wooden doors. $9 a day for a single person, $12 daily for "two in one bed," $14 for "two in two beds," and another two dollars for an "extra person."

The Riverside Motel & St. Mary's Liquors

Holy Sinkhole, Batman! One of the motel rooms with parts of the floor missing. | Photo © 2018 Sugarbomb​

There's some sparse graffiti here and there in the rooms, but the majority of the vandalism in these buildings has been perpetrated by nature itself. In the outside hallway of the building that sits perpendicular to the road, I was trying to get a good shot of the overgrowth and vines along the walkway and asked Flowerbomb to step into a room real quick.

" not possible," she responded. When I looked through the doorway of the room she was standing in front of I could see why; much of the floor was gone. Parts of the floor in several of the motel rooms have collapsed, the linoleum-tiled floors have given way to the earth below. The walls are still standing, even though the floor beneath many parts of them is gone, taking mattresses and anything else nearby with them. The sinking feeling that this discovery gave us led to the nickname we bestowed upon the motel: The Sinkhole Hell Motel.

Next to the Sinkhole Suites was another building whose fading paint announced 'souvenirs' and 'films' in bold white letters from behind the overgrown branches and vines creeping up the walls. I was pretty sure the only souvenirs we'd find in that place would be ticks and death-by-sinkhole, but I pushed through the foliage and ducked through the broken front door anyway.

There wasn't much more than a crumbling counter and an old Emerson record/tape player sitting on the end of it, covered in cobwebs but otherwise untouched. The back room behind the bar that sported ripped, moss-stained curtains was disconcertingly reminiscent of a scene straight out of a Wrong Turn movie. We're a long way from anything out here, but if we were about to meet any insane mutants, I was comforted knowing that Kaine would likely be the one to meet them first, since he'd wandered off behind the motel into the woods.

The Riverside Motel & St. Mary's Liquors

The old combination record/tape player still sitting on the crumbling counter in the souvenir shop next to the Riverside Motel | Photo © 2018 Sugarbomb​

Next to the souvenir shop is the St. Mary's Liquor Store, named for the nearby river that marks the state line. The remains of the wooden counters lay crumbling across the floor, most likely victims to time and humidity rather than random vandals. Despite the promise of 'WHISKEY' written across the front of the building in large letters, there is no whiskey to be had in this place, and it looks like that's been the case for quite a few decades.

The Riverside Motel and accompanying liquor store and souvenir shop were opened in 1954 and operated by married couple Knud and Nellie Olfort. Not much info can be found about this place, as is the case with most locations you have to find by traversing roads via street view in Google Earth. Judging by the aesthetic of the clothing, the curtains, and the TV's, my best guess would be that it hosted its last guests in the early 90s. Not even the few local residents can pinpoint exactly when this little motel met its demise.

The Riverside Motel & St. Mary's Liquors

Whiskey makes you frisky, they say. The outside of the St. Mary's Liquor Store | Photo © 2018 Sugarbomb​

You know what they say: it's all about location, location, location! And in its heyday, the St. Mary's Liquor Store was in a prime location. Georgia was a dry state on Sundays, prohibiting the sale of alcohol except in the rare special circumstance where the local government held local referendums to decide on the issue and overruled it. This instance was infrequent at best though, so if you wanted to drink in Georgia on the lord's day, you'd have to get creative – or just get in your car and drive over the state line to buy your booze. This put St. Mary's Liquor Store and the neighboring souvenir shop in a convenient spot for all those wayward Georgia residents looking for their fix.

Just as no one quite knows exactly when the motel/shop/liquor store was abandoned and left to rot, the reasons as to why are equally mysterious. It was more than likely a combination of unfortunate circumstances, similar to what happened to the old roadside shops on US-27; highways were built and became the quicker, more convenient method of travel, leaving these once ideal business locations in the dust.

The Riverside Motel & St. Mary's Liquors

Get ripped at the Riverside. One of the mattresses remaining in a motel room | Photo © 2018 Sugarbomb​

Or perhaps it could have been the Flesh Rippers of Jacksonville. Rumored to "make you see red" and torture the mind of anyone who crosses their path, the spirits of the Flesh Rippers roam the country looking for places of bloodshed and when they find it they settle in and attack anyone who encounters them there. The story goes on to say that these Flesh Rippers were originally residents in an asylum. One night, all of them went mad – or more mad, since they were in an asylum to begin with – and turned on the other patients, medical staff, and eventually each other, leaving the walls and floors covered in blood.

"I feel like a survivor," says Ed, an explorer that claims to have had an encounter with the Flesh Rippers when exploring the Riverside Motel on a dare with his friend, Stephen. According to Ed, as soon as he and his friend stepped into one of the rooms, Stephen suddenly fell to his knees and when he turned around his eyes were red. Stephen grabbed Ed's wrist and Ed said he then saw red everywhere – on the walls, floor, the beds, even dripping from the windows. Every surface dripped with red, the metallic tang of blood filled the air, and the sound of a storm rumbling outside filled his ears even though he could see the sun shining outside through the windows.

The Riverside Motel & St. Mary's Liquors

The doorway to a room at the Riverside Motel | Photo © 2018 Sugarbomb​

Stephen then pulled him to the ground, red eyes looking right through him and that is when he says he knew that something had taken over and it wasn't his friend anymore. He reached blindly for an object and hit his friend with it, causing him to slump to the ground and ending the ordeal. Ed dragged his friend outside and roused him, only to find that when he came to, he had no memory of what had just transpired. Similar encounters with these supernatural Flesh Rippers may have led to the abandonment of the motel…

…Or it might have something to do with the giant sinkhole gobbling up the buildings from the ground up.

The Riverside Motel & St. Mary's Liquors

St. Mary's souvenir shop located next to the liquor store | Photo © 2018 Sugarbomb​

The decline of the motel can in large part be traced to the construction of I-95, which diverted many travelers away from the old route on which the motel, liquor store, and souvenir shop were located. Unlike the demise of the Riverside Motel, the fate of Nellie Vanzant Olfort was much more difficult to discern.

Nellie Vanzant was born in 1918 in Nassau County, just north of Jacksonville, Florida, where she would spend her whole life. Census records list Nellie’s childhood address as “the second dwelling” on “the middle road” in Nassau County. She would be Knud Olfort's third wife.

Knud Howard Olfort was born in Denmark on October 29, 1903, and immigrated to Chicago with his parents around the age of 6 or 7. Knud would marry his first wife, Genevieve Piotrowski, in September 1927 in Wisconsin. Eventually making his way south to Florida, Knud filed for divorce in Nassau County in 1939. Genevieve is not mentioned on the record again until the 1940 Census in Florida. Knud had her committed to the Florida State Hospital in Chattahoochee, and the 1945 Census lists her as a "housewife" at the “Fla. State Hospital.” Genevieve passed away in 1987 in Jacksonville, and as her body was never claimed, her ashes were buried in the Hillside Cemetery Potter’s Field.

The Riverside Motel & St. Mary's Liquors

A room at the Riverside | Photo © 2018 Sugarbomb​

Not long after divorcing his first wife, Knud married Johnnie Mae Richards on August 9, 1939, in Altha, Florida. This second marriage lasted less than three years and Johnnie filed for divorce in West Palm Beach in 1942, citing "desertion and extreme cruelty." Knud contested the divorce, but it was granted anyway.

Nellie and Knud married in Nassau County on March 17, 1943. Third time's the charm, right? Well, that remains to be seen.

The Riverside Motel on Highway 17 just yards from the Florida/Georgia state line, opened for business in 1954. For decades the two-building motel and neighboring liquor store, lounge, and souvenir shop was operated by Knud Howard Olfort and his wife Nellie Vanzant Olfort. On "dry days" in the Peach State, a quick trip over the St. Mary's River could allow Georgians to drink to their heart's content, scoring some of that "whiskey" proudly emblazoned on the building's facade, or any other variety of spirits available at the shop. (Ironic considering now it's the Floridians – typically college students – that will pop over the state line to score themselves a 40. According to Fla. Stat. § 563.06(6) individual beer and malt liquor bottles over 32oz cannot be sold in the state. The more you know.) A sticker advertising Champale, a beer resembling champagne in taste, is still visible on the smashed remains of the back bar mirror.

The Riverside Motel & St. Mary's Liquors

What remains of the liquor store | Photo © 2018 Sugarbomb​

In 1993, Nellie Olfort went missing. When law enforcement officers came to the motel to question Knud and search his property for clues about his missing wife’s whereabouts, he refused. His unwillingness to help in the search for his wife led many to believe that Knud had something to do with her disappearance but without his cooperation and lacking any other leads, the case went cold.

The old motel fell into increasing disrepair in the years following Nellie's disappearance. Few cars traveled the old route less than two miles from the sprawling freeway of I-95.

Knud would receive many offers from people looking to buy his property, including a movie studio that even offered to pay for the renovations to fix up the buildings in exchange for allowing them to shoot some scenes there. Despite the many lucrative offers that came his way, Knud remained firm and refused them all right up until his death in June 1997.

The Riverside Motel & St. Mary's Liquors

Someone must have had a very hot night in this room at the Riverside Motel...literally | Photo © 2018 Sugarbomb​

On September 11, 1999, the Camden County Sheriff's Office was performing a routine search using their newly acquired side-scan sonar when they discovered Nellie’s car at the bottom of the river with her remains still inside.

"I was standing on the Georgia side of the St. Mary's River by the blue bridge on U.S. 17 when they pulled the car out of the river and found Nellie inside," recounts Jill Helton, publisher and editor of The Tribune & Georgian newspaper based in Camden County, Georgia. She distinctly remembers the car being pulled from the river on its side and then seeing a "dark mass" flop over inside the car when they righted the vehicle on the boat ramp as water and mud poured out of it. This dark mass was the skeletal remains of Nellie Olfort.

The Camden County Sheriff's Office handled the recovery of the submerged car and subsequent investigation, though there wasn't much to be found. Deputy Chris Sears recalled that Nellie's remains were spread "between the front and back seats," making it difficult to determine where she was seated when the car had gone into the river. Years in the blackwater of the St. Mary's River had washed away any forensic evidence.

The Riverside Motel & St. Mary's Liquors

Across the St. Mary's River from the Riverside Motel is the boat ramp where Nellie Olfort's car was pulled from the water six years after her disappearance | Photo © 2018 Sugarbomb​

It’s impossible to know how long Nellie had been in the water – her headstone lists the date her body was discovered rather than an actual death date – and without anything more than bones to examine it’s equally impossible to determine her exact cause of death and whether or not she was alive when her car sank into the murky depths of the St. Mary’s River. Nellie’s car and remains were found less than half a mile from the motel she had operated with her husband for nearly four decades.

Some claimed that Nellie had dementia and had driven her car into the river, though others suspected foul play. There are many people that speculate that Knud had something to do with Nellie’s disappearance due to his refusal to cooperate with the authorities and obdurate unwillingness to allow anyone on his property, but if he did, he took that secret to his grave.

For decades the faded sign on the mostly forgotten highway pointed passersby to the abandoned structures of the Riverside Motel and accompanying liquor and souvenir store – if one could see past the overgrown weeds and unkempt grass. In early 2020, the property that the motel and shops were located on, which included the large parcel of land located back behind the buildings, was sold to a new owner. While the world seemed to stop in its tracks during the coronavirus pandemic in 2020, the sign was removed, and old buildings were razed to the ground – there one minute and gone the next. I passed through that way in mid-February 2020 and stopped for a while to wander the old motel rooms. It all looked as it had when I first visited the location almost two years earlier. By 2021, all that remained of the Riverside Motel and St. Mary's Liquors was a patch of grassy land and trees – driving down Highway 17 now, one would never know the place had ever existed.

The Riverside Motel & St. Mary's Liquors

Panoramic photo of one of the motel rooms at the Riverside Motel | Photo © 2020 Sugarbomb​

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