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The Neff House | Photo © 2018 Bullet, www.abandonedfl.com

The Neff House

Location Class:
Built: 1926 | Abandoned: N/A
Status: Abandoned
Photojournalist: David Bulit

The Neff Family

Nestled in the woods on Fort George Island, the Neff House was constructed by local architect Mellen Clark Greeley, once considered to be the “Dean of Jacksonville Architects”. Greeley was hired by Chicago businessman Nettleton Neff, to design his winter home located on the side of Mount Cornelia, the highest point in Duval County. Designed in the Tudor-Revival style, Greeley considered it his “most unique home” but not his favorite. The home’s most notable feature is the circular entry tower with its semi-circular wrought iron balcony above the front door. Unfortunately, Neff never saw the completion of his “castle-like” home due to a series of unfortunate events.

In August 1926, six months into the construction of the house, his wife Kathleen Katherine Scudder Neff died in a fire that destroyed their summer home in Roaring Brook, Michigan. The fire was believed to have been started when a gas stove within the home exploded. Nearly two years later, Neff’s 21-year-old son William Wayne Neff went missing from Harvard University. His body was found two weeks later having hung himself from an apple tree outside of Stonington, Connecticut.

On April 7, 1931, Nettleton Neff committed suicide after locking himself in his office in the Railway Exchange building in Chicago, having shot himself in his right temple with a .45 caliber revolver. His house in Duval County sat vacant for many years following his death until Kenneth Merrill, of Merrill Stevens Ship Building Co., the St. Johns River Shipbuilding Co., and the Merrill Dynamite Co., purchased the home as a holiday retreat for the Merrill family. The Merrills owned the home until 1967 when they sold it to the Betz family.

Neff House, early 1970s, photo courtesy Jacksonville Historical Society
Neff House, early-1970s. Jacksonville Historical Society

The Betz Sphere

The Betz family was the first to occupy the home year-round. Antoine Betz, a marine biologist, and Gerri Betz, the president of a real estate and land development company, resided here with two of their six children. They added a kitchen wing, a garage, and a swimming pool, and had the house rewired.

On March 27, 1974, Antoine, Gerri, and their 21-year-old son Terry were inspecting the damage done by a small brush fire near their property when they stumbled upon a shiny metal ball with a small triangle imprinted on its surface sitting in the grass. Thinking it was an old cannonball, the Betz took it back to their home. Shortly after, Terry was playing his guitar one day when the family reported that the ball began resonating with the music, like a tuning fork. According to an article in the Jacksonville Journal by Sandy Stricklen, one could hear “organ music in the seven-level, 21-room mansion, but no organ was found in the house; mysterious phone call… voices and banging doors were heard in the house; glass from closed cupboards would sometimes crash onto the floor”.

The Betz family came to the conclusion that this all stemmed from the ball and contacted the newspapers seeking help in identifying the strange artifact. The Jacksonville Journal sent photographer Lou Egner to the home. Once there, he reported that Mrs. Betz told him to put the sphere on the floor where it proceeded to roll away and then stop. It turned on its own and rolled to the right four feet away from where it stopped. Then it turned again and rolled to the left about eight feet, made a big arc, and came back at his feet.

Antoine and Gerri Betz with the Betz Sphere, 1975
Antoine and Gerri Betz with the sphere, 1975

The story became international news. Everyone, from astronomers to conspiracy quacks, wanted to examine what was dubbed the “Betz Sphere” or the “Betz Mystery Sphere”. One of these people was Carl Willson from the Omega Minus One Institute in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. Willson spent six hours examining the sphere and reported that not only did it have a magnetic field, but it was also transmitting a radio signal. Dr. James Harder, a professor of fluid mechanics engineering at the University of California in Berkeley, examined the ball and reported that the shell was made of an iron-chromium alloy and that x-rays showed that the center of the ball was made of uranium, if not an element with a higher atomic number. He concluded all things considering, that it was a small UFO.

Others had different, more mundane results after examining it. The United States Navy was asked to examine it by Mrs. Betz. After performing a metallurgy test and an x-ray, they found that the sphere was made of stainless steel, which meant that it was manmade and that it was hollow inside. The sphere was measured at 8 inches in diameter and weighed just over 21 pounds. The Navy’s spokesman Chris Berninger stated, “I believe it’s because of the construction of the house… It’s old and has uneven stone floors. The ball is almost perfectly balanced, and it takes just a little indentation to make it move or change direction.

Dr. J. Allen Hynek, a UFOlogist and astronomer at Northwestern University in Chicago, contacted the Betz family and asked to examine the ball. Hyken was due to be in New Orleans for a meeting with the National Enquirer, who was offering a $50,000 prize for any definitive proof of extraterrestrials. Terry Betz and his sister drove out from Florida to show him the ball only to receive some disappointing results. Hynek and a panel of scientists concluded that there was nothing unusual about the ball, noting that the only thing slightly out of the ordinary was that it rattled when it was shaken.

Terry Betz showcasing the sphere to J. Allen Hynek and a panel of scientists, 1974

A Jacksonville equipment supply company produced a sphere having the same dimensions and weight as the Betz sphere which is used as a floating stopper in valves that operated paper pump mill machines. The company guessed that the sphere was discarded by a local paper mill and washed up on the Betz property. Soon after the story began circulating across the country, according to author Brian Dunning of Skeptoid, a Coca-Cola deliveryman found similar-looking spheres in a sculpture outside a hotel managed by artist James Durling-Jones in Taos, New Mexico.

Apparently, Jones had several sculptures made using them. Durling-Jones claimed that a few years before then, he was driving around in his Volkswagen Bus collecting scrap metal to use in his sculptures when he obtained a number of those balls from a friend. Having no room inside the bus, he put the balls on a luggage rack on top. While passing through the Jacksonville area around Easter of 1971, a few of the balls rolled off the luggage rack and were lost. Brian Dunning concluded that this was the Betz sphere’s origin. Durling-Jones also explained the rattling observed by Dr. J. Allen Hynek, explaining that “The rattle comes from trying to patch the sphere… the company drills the spheres and rewelds them before machining them again. Sometimes some of the milling or drilling chips drop inside.

The Betz sphere has never been seen since. Many claim the Betz family entrusted the sphere with the Navy who in turn lost track of it. Others say the Betz family hid it away themselves, either because they grew tired of all the phone calls or because they came to the realization that they were in possession of nothing more than a metal ball. The Betz family moved out of the Neff house in 1985 having sold the home to Fairfield Communities which used it as housing during archaeological projects.

The Florida Park Service bought the property in 1989 and used the Neff House as office space for Park staff and a ranger residence. The wing added on by the Betz family was torn down in 2002 due to structural problems and the house was sealed shut. Antoine Betz died on December 16, 1987. Gerri Betz remarried in 1989 and currently runs a website where she shares her artwork as well as stories about her life, although she refrains from talking about the sphere.

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David Bulit is a photographer, author, and historian from Miami, Florida. He has published a number of books on abandoned and forgotten locales throughout the United States and continues to advocate for preserving these historic landmarks. His work has been featured throughout the world in news outlets such as the Miami New Times, the Florida Times-Union, the Orlando Sentinel, NPR, Yahoo News, MSN, the Daily Mail, UK Sun, and many others. You can find more of his work at davidbulit.com as well as amazon.com/author/davidbulit.

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