Historical Markers in Clay County
Ft. St. Francis de Pupa
Clay County Historical Commission SR 16 at Shands Bridge
Pupo is first mentioned in 1716 as the place where the trail from the Franciscan Indian Missions in Apalachee (present-day Tallahassee) to St. Augustine crossed the river. The Spanish government built the fort on the St. Johns River sometime before 1737. Pupo teamed with Fort Picolata on the Eastern Shore, these forts protected the river crossing and blocked ships from continuing upstream. In 1738 after an attack by the British-allied Yuchi Indians, the fort was enlarged to a 30-by-16 blockhouse, surrounded by a rampart of timber and earth. During General James Oglethorpe’s 1739-40 advance on St. Augustine, Lt. George Dunbar unsuccessfully attacked Pupo on the night of December 28th. On January 7th and 8th, Oglethorpe himself took two days to capture the Spanish blockhouses. Oglethorpe reinforced the fort with a trench, which is still visible. Upon the British retreat from Florida, Fort San Fransisco de Pupo was destroyed. Though the fort was never rebuilt, the site remained a strategically important ferry crossing. In the 1820s, Florida’s first federally built road, the Bellamy Road, used the river crossing on the route between St. Augustine and Pensacola.
1890 Clay County Courthouse
When Clay County was created in 1858 by the Florida Legislature, Middleburg was named as temporary county seat. As a result of an 1859 election, Whitesville (Webster) became the official county court site. Clay County’s first courthouse was located there. In 1871, Green Cove Springs was chosen as the new county seat. Courts met there in 1872, but it was 1874 before a two-story frame courthouse was completed. In 1889, a new, large two-story brick building was ready for use. The Old Clay County Courthouse served as the seat of county government until 1973. This structure was placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1975.
Middleburg Methodist Church
On the church grounds on Main Street
Founded on or before July 27, 1828, by Isaac Boring, a Methodist Circuit Riding Preacher, this church was first known as Black Creek Methodist Church. This frontier Methodist society met in homes until the present church was built in 1847. In continuous use since that date, the structure represents the oldest Methodist meeting place in Florida. Built mostly by slave labor from native lumber and hand wrought nails from local blacksmiths, the church features heart of pine exterior with clapboard square edge siding, a design unique to this period. The windows and mahogany pews were brought from overseas ports. The bell was cast in New York in 1852 and shipped here prior to 1860 by George Branning. It was tolled for the first time for the funeral of his son on February 29, 1860, who died during a swamp fever epidemic. The wide aisle was left down the center to segregate the men and women. The back pews were reserved for slaves. The pews were put together with wooden pegs and hand drawn. The marks of the draw-knife can still be seen. During the mid 1800’s the cemetery was used to bury the town Protestants. The Catholic Cemetery was located 120 feet north. In recent years, the cemetery became the burial ground for the community in general.
Corner of Wharf Street and Main Street
Middleburg developed in the early 1800’s as a transportation center linking the St. Johns River with the peninsular interior. Originally settled in the 1820’s as Clark’s Ferry, a crossing on Black Creek, it became a major military depot during the Second Seminole war (1835-1842) with establishment of Ft. Heileman. The Clark-Chalker House dates from that era, when the population reached 800. Served by roads and riverboats, Middleburg gained its name in the 1840’s, thrived on the surrounding timber, citrus, and farm economy, and became the first Clay County seat of government in 1858. The United Methodist Church was built in 1847. The 4th Massachusetts Cavalry burned much of the town in 1864. Prosperity returned in the 1870’s as river traffic and the citrus industry burgeoned. The population numbered 700 in 1890, before a devastating freeze (1895) and decline of the river trade undermined the local economy. Many houses in the unincorporated town date from the Victorian Era and are found in a historic district listed in the National Register of Historic Places (1990).
Green Cove Springs
City of Green Cove Springs 229 Walnut Street at Spring Park
High ground along the river and a flowing mineral spring drew the first inhabitants to this area some 7,000 years ago, but historic development dates from 1816 when George I. F. Clarke erected a sawmill in this vicinity under a Spanish land grant. The first settlement, called White Sulfur Springs, was established in 1854, with a wharf, a store, and several houses clustered around a public square. During the Civil War, Federal troops frequently skirmished with Confederate forces in the vicinity and finally occupied the town in 1864. Renamed in 1866, Green Cove Springs became the seat of Clay County government in 1871.
Tourism flourished, surpassing citrus culture and lumbering as the area’s economic base. River steamers brought visitors to the “Saratoga of the South”, noted for the healthful qualities of its famous spring and for hotels and boarding houses said to rival the finest to be found in northern resorts. By the 1890’s, the population reached more than 1,500. But, an expanding railroad system carried tourists southward and a great freeze in 1895 destroyed the surrounding citrus groves.
The city’s tourist industry declined sharply. The advent of the automobile age and the creation of a state highway system provided the basis for economic recovery in the 1920’s, when the city shared in the general prosperity of the Florida Land Boom. But the collapse of the boom and the depression of the 1930’s marked the end of the early development of the city. Between 1940 and 1945, the city experienced renewed development.
The population increased from 1,752 to 3,026 as a result of the wartime construction of Benjamin Lee Field, a 1,500 acre air auxiliary complex, by the U.S. Navy. By the end of World War II, thirteen piers were constructed by the Navy and the Green Cove base became home port to a “mothball fleet” of some 600 ships. With its share of returning war veterans, the community’s population grew through the 1950’s to a total of 4,233 in 1960. In 1961, the Navy decommissioned its base and the reserve fleet was transferred to another facility. In 1984, the city annexed the former naval base into its corporate limits, tying this part of its heritage to its future growth and development.
S.R. 21 (Blanding Boulevard, Middleburg)
Fort Heileman, named after Brevet Lieutenant Colonel Julius F. Heileman, was built in the mid 1830’s at the spot where the north and south forks of Black Creek join. It was a temporary wooden stockade used during the First Seminole War as a quartermaster work shop and storage depot. Clustered around the stockade were the log huts of the small village of Garey’s Ferry. When the Indian Wars ended the fort was abandoned.
Clay County Historical Commission US17 at Bellamy Rd
The Old Bellamy Road intersects Highway 17 near this point. In 1824, the First Session of the 18th United States Congress appropriated $20,000 to develop a public road in the Territory of Florida between Pensacola and St. Augustine. It was to follow as nearly as possible on the pre-existing Old Mission Trail. The St. Augustine to Tallahassee segment was contracted to John Bellamy. He completed this in 1826, using Native American guides and his own slaves. Remnants of the old sand road are used today and part of the Bellamy Road forms the county line between northwest Putnam and Southwest Clay County.
Town of Penney Farms
Town of Penney Farms
James Cash Penney (1876-1971), philanthropist and founder of J.C. Penney Department Stores, purchased 120,000 acres in Clay County and invited farmers to claim 40-acre tracts by clearing the land, building houses, growing crops and raising livestock. In 1922, Penney and associates formed the Florida Farms and Industries Company that planned, plated and registered 10,000 acres as Long Branch City, whose population rose to 825 in 1930 and is 654 in 2002. In 1926, Penney built the Memorial Home Community to honor his parents. In 1927, the Florida State Legislature chartered the city as the Town of Penney Farms and in 1937 the town limits were reduced to 1,500 acres. The community consisted of a church building and twenty-two cottages based on French Norman architecture. Modest wood frame dwellings occupied by farmers contrasted with stately Norman-styled buildings. The Great Depression (1929) caused Penney to sell his holdings except 200 acres, which he deeded to the Memorial Home Community. He turned over its operation to the Christian Herald Foundation. In 1971, it became the self-sustaining Penney Retirement Community, Inc., and in 1999 was listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
Village Improvement Association
On February 20, 1883, the Village Improvement Association (V.I.A.) of Green Cove Springs was organized. Meetings were held in members’ homes. Money was raised to beautify the town, most of which was used for boardwalks, and seventy feet of clay pavement was laid. In 1888, the V.I.A. formed a children’s auxiliary known as the Star Branch, and ran the first public library until December 1961 when the Clay County Public Library was formed. A kindergarten was maintained from 1900 to 1904 in the public school building with the V.I.A. assuming most of the expenses. In 1889, the V.I.A. was incorporated. In 1895, a member of the Borden Milk Company family, Penelope Borden Hamilton, gave the V.I.A. its first permanent home and the lot where the present building stands. That same year, the V.I.A. became a charter member of the Florida Federation of Woman’s Clubs and acquired membership in the General Federation in 1898. The present building, designed by Architect Mellen C. Greeley (1880-1981) of Jacksonville, was built in 1915 at a cost of $4,589 and formally dedicated on February 18, 1915. The V.I.A. continues as an important part of the community, devoted to social, educational, and beautification projects.