By Gary McKechnie
Although relatively few travelers know about Clay County, located in north Central Florida about 30 miles west of St. Augustine, nearly everyone is familiar with three of its most famous sons.
Born and raised in Green Cove Springs, Charles Merrill left Clay County and later teamed up with Edmund Lynch to start the famed (and doomed) financial firm of Merrill-Lynch. In 1928 renowned retailer James Cash Penney (of J.C. Penney fame) purchased 120,000 acres east of Green Cove Springs to create Penney Farms, a village for future farmers. Then there was Slim Whitman, the yodeling cowboy who, legend has it, sold more records than the Beatles. More about them later.
For now, you should learn about several sights that comprise Clay County’s intriguing blend of natural beauty, outdoor recreation, and history that dates back 5,000 years to aboriginal Indians who lived on the banks of the St. Johns River.
As with most off the beaten path tours, it’s easiest to start at the county seat…
Green Cove Springs
What’s in a name? In this town, green for the grass and trees, springs for the clear waters streaming through the heart of town, and cove for the natural shelter boaters find on the west bank of the St. Johns River.
In tandem with the town’s logging industry, a tourist industry was also going strong in the late 1800s. The warm spring promising medicinal cures, the river making it easy for vacationers to reach the town via steamboats, and grand hotels like The Cherokee and The Qui-si-Sana catering to wealthy northerners.
While it’s a far different world today, for a small town Green Cove Springs (pop. 7,109) still has a lot of pretty scenes. For most visitors, the highlight is found in the heart of town on the banks of the St. Johns River. On a typical day at Spring Park, you’ll see families setting up picnics in the pavilions, couples strolling across a small bridge, and kids edging down to the banks of the crystal clear spring that flows beneath it.
From here the St. Johns looks like it’s a mile wide (it likely is) and its grandeur certainly plays a role in attracting the anglers staking claims on the long pier for an hour or two of more of quality freshwater fishing. From the end of the pier you can look back to the shore and, seen just a few blocks north on St. Johns Street you can just make out the steeple of a nearby church. It’s the 1879 St. Mary’s Episcopal Church. Go there.
One of the prettiest sights in Florida, the house of worship sits at an angle to the river; as if it’s posing for a picture. The scene is further accented by tall palms trees and moss-draped oaks that frame the church to create one of the most tranquil scenes imaginable.
To learn more about the fascinating history of the town and surrounding Clay County, the must-see destination is the Historical Triangle on SR 16 at Gratio Place. Call ahead for hours (904/371-0027) and time your visit to see the Historical Clay County Courthouse, the Clay County Historical Society’s History and Railroad Museum, and the third part of the Triangle: The Old County Jail (it’s haunted, they say). The jail, one of the oldest in Florida, is also home of the county archives and research center. You’ll recognize it by the mannequin in prison stripes clinging to the bars of a second floor window.
One of the most unusual communities in Florida (and one few people know about), this village on SR 16 just eight miles west of Green Cove Springs has an interesting background.
In 1928 James Cash Penney, founder of the retail chain JC Penney, purchased 120,000 acres to use as a training ground (literally) for fledgling farmers to learn how to start, grow, and run their own farms. While his intentions were good, his timing was bad. The following year when the Great Depression hit, Penney lost his fortune and his vision had to be modified to the new economy. For decades this was a retirement community for ministers (Penney’s father was a preacher), until laypeople who shared a spirit of caring and volunteerism were invited to the community in the 1970s.
Today, about 500 people live at the Penney Retirement Community in classic 1920s-era bungalows reminiscent of silent screen era Hollywood. Called “neighbors” rather than residents, it’s nearly like a commune for seniors who come here “to rewire, not retire.” It’s estimated that just 250 of the neighbors contributed 130,000 volunteer man-hours to assist in projects around Clay County, and their generosity extends to each other. If someone needs a computer fixed, a golf cart repaired, or a watch battery changed, someone, it seems, knows how to do it and the service is performed for free or at a greatly reduced cost.
You can drop by Penney Farm anytime; maybe the best time is Sunday morning when you can meet and mingle with the neighbors at church.
Located in the northwest corner of the county, strip malls and businesses along Highway 21 make Middleburg look like any other city. But when you find Main Street and drive into the historic district, authentic neighborhoods reveal a place more like the drowsing towns of the Old South.
One of my favorite Main Street stops was the Middleburg United Methodist Church. By sheer coincidence, on my Discover Real Florida Facebook page I had written some posts about Slim Whitman, the yodeling cowboy who was born in Tampa, became a huge celebrity in England, and retired to Middleburg where he passed on in 2013 at the age of 90. People of a certain age remember the TV pitch for the Slim’s album that claimed “He’s sold more records than the Beatles!” It turns out that fans, especially from England, will come to the church cemetery where Slim is at eternal rest with Jerry, his wife of 68 years. You can’t miss the highly polished black granite marker emblazoned with picture of Slim and Jerry (it’s located in Section 7, Lot 159).
Down the road, past some wonderful Old Florida vignettes near the banks of Black Creek you’ll see Msgt. John E. Hayes Park, named in honor of a local resident who died in Afghanistan in 2009. The park adjoins Black Creek, a busy place with boaters arriving, kids jumping off a wooden dock, and pontoon boats and jet skis skimming by on the tannin-rich waters.
Taking Highway 21 south, the land is nearly empty thanks to sprawling Camp Blanding, home of the Florida National Guard and the Camp Blanding Museum, which features memorabilia that tells the story of this crucial military installation.
Originally built as a National Guard training center, during WWII it was adapted as a major training facility for the U.S. Army. Expanded during the war, it was large enough to house two complete infantry divisions, a 2,800-bed hospital, and a compound for German prisoners of war.
Hundreds of thousands of troops trained here between 1943-1945 and today the museum tells this story with a refurbished World War II barracks, photo exhibits, and other artifacts. Monuments here pay tribute to recipients of the Medal of Honor, Purple Heart, former Prisoners of War, and the nine Army Infantry Divisions and the 508th Parachute Infantry Regiment who trained at Camp Blanding.
Miles after the base appears on your right, look to your left for the entrance to Mike Roess Gold Head Branch State Park. One of the Florida’s first state parks, the 2,000-acre park was created by the CCC during the Great Depression. A deep ravine is the centerpiece of the park, and a long and winding road leads for miles in to the forest. Two parking areas and sets of stairs reveal the location of the deep ravine, and should you have the stamina it’s a perfect chance to embark on a short voyage of discovery to the ravine floor.
Further down the road, 16 vacation cabins overlook Little Lake Johnson. There are 74 campsites 74 as well, and if you wanted to get away from it all, this seems like the perfect place to do it.
In fact, that sounds about right for all of Clay County.
If you go…
Photos by Gary McKechnie for VISIT FLORIDA