A Brief History of Clay County

 

 

Clay County, Florida, is rich in natural beauty and history. It is a water wonderland, where lakes and rivers are in abundance, and its entire eastern boundary is defined by the north-flowing St. Johns River. Once a part of Duval County (Jacksonville), Clay County was not created until 1858. It consists of four incorporated municipalities: Orange Park, Green Cove Springs, Penney Farms, and Keystone Heights, as well as one unincorporated municipality, Middleburg.

Both regional and national wars greatly impacted life in Clay County.

Seminole War

When the Seminole War broke out in 1835, Garey’s Ferry (the site of present-day Middleburg) was a supply depot for the U.S Army on Florida’s east coast. In 1836, Ft. Heileman was founded on the site. Gary’s Ferry was one of the few Florida frontier towns not abandoned during the Seminole War.

Civil War

The Civil War was nearing its end before Clay County saw its first battle. In mid-1864, union forces established a fort at a place called Magnolia Springs, which was on the St. Johns River. Capt. J.J. Dickinson, leading the 2nd Florida Calvary, engaged the union forces in battle. Casualties were heavy on the union side, but there were no casualties among the confederate troops.

Hotel Era

After the Civil War, tourism became a vital part of Clay County life. Northerners were drawn to natural springs that promised healing and warm temperatures that offered respite from frigid northern winters. The tourists were delighted by the exotic wildlife and vegetation. Dozens of Hotels were built to accommodate the visitors who came by steamboat, including the St. Elmo, the Magnolia, the Clarendon, and the Oakland Hotels. Families along the St. Johns River, such as the Flemings, opened their plantation homes to northern visitors. Among the visitors to Clay County were such famous people as Ulysses S. Grant, President Grover Cleveland (who had spring water shipped to the White House), Buffalo Bill, and Sitting Bull. The height of tourism in Clay County spanned three decades, from the 1870‘s to the early 1900’s. Tourism in Clay County went into decline when Henry Flagler’s railroad reached Miami, and south Florida was easily accessible.

WW II

The military has had a very strong presence in Clay County, particularly since WWII. In 1939, 28,000 acres on Kingsley Lake in central Clay County were purchased by the Florida National Guard as a new training site. In heavy use during WWII, Camp Blanding was not deemed a viable permanent post after the war. It is now a training site for the Florida National Guard with over 70,000 acres, and the museum there is the largest in Clay County. During  WWII Lee Field, in Green Cove Springs, was a flight-training center. One of the flight instructors at Lee Field during this time was Ed McMann of the Tonight Show/Star Search fame. At the end of the war, the Navy converted Lee Field into a headquarters for the mothball fleet. Clay County residents have contributed greatly to war efforts throughout the nation’s history, and the list of those who fought for their country, on both foreign and domestic soil, is indeed long.

Notable Residents

There have been several nationally-known Clay County native born residents. Nixon Smiley  was a renowned journalist, naturalist, and the author of 15 books. General Roy S. Geiger, USMC, was a famous WWII general. Augusta Savage, an African-American, was an internationally-known sculptor who was part of the “Harlem Renaissance” in Paris during the 1920’s and 1930’s. Charles Merrill was the founder of Merrill Lynch.

Museums

There are many museums in Clay County that are wonderful sources of historic information.

The Clay County Historical and Railroad Museum, located at 915 Walnut Street in Green Cove Springs, is open on Sundays from 2:00-5:00 pm. The phone number is (904) 284-9644.

The Middleburg Historical Museum is located at 3912 Section Street in Middleburg. Office hours are Sundays, 2:00 to 4:00 pm, and the phone number is  (904) 282-5357 or (904) 282-5343.

The Black Heritage Museum, located on Longmire Avenue at Hunter-Douglas Park in Middleburg, is open by appointment. Please call Maude Jackson at (904) 282-4168, Mamie Oliver at (904) 282-5223, or Sarah Weeks at (904) 282-5205 for information.

Camp Blanding Museum and Memorial Park, located at Camp Blanding on State Road 16 at Kingsley Lake, is open Tuesday through Friday from 9:00 am to 4:00 pm and on Saturday and Sunday from 1:00 pm to 5:00 pm. The phone number is (904) 533-3100, extension 3196.

Books

A wonderful source of Clay County history are the books, “Images of America: Clay County”, by Kevin S. Hooper of Middleburg (2004, ISBN 0-7385-1635-X, Arcadia Publishing), “The Early History of Clay County-A Wilderness that Could be Tamed”, by Kevin Hooper (2006, ISBN 1.59629.063.3, Published by The History Press), and “Parade of Memories”, by Arch Fredric Blakey.