Take a Detour Through History at Heritage Park Village

By: Denise Maloof

ADD TO FAVORITES

The town of Macclenny in Northeast Florida may live only as a road sign to most travelers on Interstate 10, which funnels traffic east and west across Baker County.

But suppose you stop at Exit 335 and head north on 6th Street (also State Road 121), and then turn left at West Lowder Street. You’ll travel back 152 years to Heritage Park Village, a cluster of 20 small museums that form a tangible repository of Baker County history.

It’s easy to imagine ghosts peeping over its brick walls and iron entry gate. Staff member Michelle Hodges, a lively Macclenny native, will guide you instead.

Formalized in 1861, Baker County sprang from a 1850s settlement named Darbyville, then McClenny, after two founding families. At some point, a postmaster is said to have altered “McClenny” to “Macclenny.” But Heritage Park Village’s original exhibit — a circa-1924 brick building with dark green trim — bears the original spelling.

“It all started with that train depot,” Hodges said of the community activism that spared the McClenny Train Depot from a 1980s demolition.

Moved to city property that eventually became Heritage Park Village, the Depot began acquiring neighbors in 2000, an effort led by executive director Lavice Smallwood Moser. Reconstructions of iconic Baker County businesses and institutions sprang up near it, filled with donated memorabilia.

“The drugstore was around when I grew up,” Hodges said of the Paul’s Rexal Drugs exhibit.

Recently tasked to energize Heritage Park’s outreach, Hodges’ wish list includes I-10 signage, more period furnishings and better protection for each museum’s contents, so that visitors can tour the park unaided. A bright red caboose that accompanies the Depot is a candidate for future interior restoration.

A Baker County Schools museum preserves photographs, majorette uniforms, yearbooks and wooden paddles wielded by former principals. Antique desks span decades.

“Sometimes when people come in, you’ll see some of the older folks tear up or get emotional, even if they’re not from here, because there are so many memories,” Hodges said.

Each museum is stocked with treasures like antique barber chairs and the wooden bench and coat rack from Lautice Duggar’s barber shop, the red Coca-Cola cooler from the Blue Haven Restaurant, Baker County’s first drive-in, and old general-store merchandise from the circa-1933 Gilbert’s Trading Post.

The Moonshine Museum and Garage houses an authentic still — and a horse-drawn buggy and mule cart donated by Baker County families. Photographs and storyboards describe how many Baker County residents survived via the illegal brew, and the hard times that fanned their economic dependence on it.

“That was a huge part of our county’s history,” Hodges said, noting that moonshine-era cars occasionally occupy the garage’s oil-stained floor.

Heritage Park’s truest gem is its oldest – the circa-1837 Burnsed Blockhouse, Florida’s only surviving example of such frontier architecture. A hand-hewn structure built to withstand Seminole Indian raids, it’s surrounded by rose bushes, a detached kitchen and a front porch filled with rocking chairs. A restored windmill creaks nearby.

Pioneer James Burnside (or Burnsed) is credited with its construction, the mandate of which came from Florida’s then-territorial governor, Andrew Jackson.

“It was like a package that the government would give you,” Hodges said of an exterior coating reputed to repel flaming arrows. “It has holes where the people on the inside would insert their rifles.”

The Blockhouse, donated by Dr. Jean Dowling and moved from the community of Sanderson, is furnished with items from Heritage Park’s inventory. Plastic shields reveal the corn-shuck mattresses on two iron beds.

Children are especially fascinated by the building.

“They’ll say, ‘Oh, I could live here,’” Hodges said, pointing to a tin privy pot and another tin container of corn cobs. “And I’ll say, ‘You see the bathroom? There’s the bathroom and there’s the toilet paper,’ and they go, ‘I’m not touching that!’”

Once gorged on history, do as Hodges advises — stop at Ice Castle for ice cream.  It’s tucked in a gas station on Macclenny Avenue (U.S. 90), and the ice cream is a major brand dished up in Styrofoam cups and sugar cones. It may not be homemade but myriad flavors (hint: Red Velvet) and having a creamy treat on a hot day make it worth a stop. And remember, you’ve just savored some cool homemade history.

More By denise maloof

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