An expedition into Florida’s northeastern woods reveals a Clay County gem.
Looming from forest and S.R.16 asphalt, the Camp Blanding Museum and Memorial Park nestles outside the main gate of Camp Blanding, a historic Florida National Guard installation that remains active and alive, filled with troops and their accoutrements.
One of the base’s 1940s-era guest barracks houses the museum, a two-story structure surrounded by massive World War II armament and sobering memorials.
Flowery hanging baskets swing from its entry porch, belying the seriousness within, and without.
But enter, admission-free, and re-appreciate freedom. You may be greeted by Joe Schiffer, a Brooklyn, N.Y., native and retired Navy veteran (1951-1979) from the museum’s volunteer corps. He mans the front desk this day, reciting statistics; among them, that Camp Blanding masqueraded as Florida’s fourth largest city during its World War II training height.
“I’m back where I started,” Schiffer said of launching his career at a Jacksonville naval base.
He provides other facts — Camp Blanding’s 1939 establishment as a Florida National Guard training site, carved from Clay County’s piney landscape around Lake Kingsley, a 10,000-year-old sinkhole, per assistant curator Jim Hughes.
Then trek through a trove of artifacts, photographs, weaponry and uniforms. A battlefield Jeep hulks in one display. Newspaper clippings describe German prisoners of war held here, including one ex-POW who journeyed back decades later, for a visit.
Most artifacts arrive via private citizens or service people with Camp Blanding ties. Eighty percent of the treasure overflowing upstairs storage came from civilians, Hughes says. But, not everything carries exterior provenance. Given Camp Blanding’s age, a recent cleanup of a base building prompted a phone call.
“In a back corner was an old World War II teletype machine,” Hughes said of the caller’s impetus. “‘Do you want it?’ And we said yes.”
Initially not excited — the museum has a teletype machine — he was shocked when the donation arrived. It required several men to haul it inside; a metal monstrosity.
“It was a dog-tag machine and we don’t have one of those,” Hughes said. “That was a find.”
On this afternoon, he cleaned other fresh donations arrayed on a conference table — an U.S. Air Force survival blade, a cut-down World War I bayonet from 1918, a British Army bayonet and old leather covers and scabbards. A Vietnam-era bayonet looked longer, blacker and evil.
“Sometimes it’s pretty quiet,” Hughes said of his and curator Greg Parson’s duty hours. “Then it rains and here they come.”
“They” are retired or active military families visiting Camp Blanding’s recreation area. Boy Scout and Cub Scout troops also camp on the base.
“They come in and the adults have this ‘help me,’ look on their faces,” said Hughes, laughing at circumstance.
He has the antidote. After negotiating the museum, head outside to gawk at tanks, armored troop carriers, field ambulances and airplanes. Pause at memorials honoring Camp Blanding alumni, then head east on S.R.16 toward Penney Farms, conceived in 1926 by department-store baron J. C. Penney as a retirement haven. It appears vital still, with residents zipping along oak-shaded lanes in golf carts.
The real jewel is Valentino’s, a tiny jewelry and antique shop tucked beside S.R. 16 on Penney Farms’ western flank. Furniture sits under an old gas-station portico. Inside are china, art and a canine greeter, jeweler Peter Nestler’s dog. Nestler’s work gleams from glass cases — gold-clad, leaf-shaped drusy quartz earrings, a pink and black tourmaline bead necklace draped over a brass monkey.
Tear yourself away and follow S.R. 16 east, to Green Cove Springs, Clay County’s easternmost jewel; a town that sprang from fresh-water springs and late 19th- and early 20th-century tourism along the St. John’s River. Here, the massive inland waterway forces S.R. 16 south. But first drive by the 1889 county courthouse and neighboring 1890s jail, so kids can see the mannequin in jailhouse stripes escaping an upstairs jail window.
Your last Clay County stop is Spring Park Coffee, where S.R. 16 meets Ferris Street. Expect fresh-roasted barista treats and home-baked choices from glass cake stands. Old Victorian sofas and chairs provide generous seating. Better, burn those calories and caffeine on a hike to the St. Johns, a couple blocks away.
Then enjoy the view.
If you go…
Camp Blanding Museum and Memorial Park
5629 S.R. 16 West
Starke, Fla. 32091-9703
Directions from Interstate 10: Take Exit 343 south to Starke. Turn left on S.R. 16 and head east for approximately eight miles. The Camp Blanding Museum will be on your right, outside the main gate.
3495 Hoffman Street
Penney Farms, Fla. 32079
Valentino’s Fine Art Jewelry
3533 S.R 16 West
Green Cove Springs, Fla. 32043
(Located in Penney Farms, Fla.)
Spring Park Coffee
328 Ferris Street
Green Cove Springs, Fla. 32043