My memories are somewhat fuzzy, but a recent visit to Clay County, Fla., courtesy of ExploreClay.com made them come flooding back. Seeing Green Cove Springs, Doctors Inlet, Orange Park and Middleburg forced me to remember that nothing ever stays the same. And there’s really nothing wrong with that.
My mother and her people populated the area from the early 1900s. The third daughter of eight children of Frank and Edith Huntley, she literally flew the coop by becoming a flight attendant in 1947 after graduating from Florida State College for Women. She met my “Yankee” father while flying the Eastern Airlines route from Miami to New York, and they returned to nearby Putnam County to live.
Doctors Inlet, now fashionably called Fleming Island, was our summer and holiday destination. Most of mom’s brothers and sisters and their families settled within 30 miles of the family farm, so my sister Bambie and I got to know our 24 cousins pretty well.
Other Huntley brothers of my grandfather lived close by. We’d go to Great Uncle John and Great Aunt Sarah’s farm in Middleburg to pick pears and figs; we’d visit Great Aunt Eleanor and Great Uncle Louis for home-baked cookies, cobblers and canned goods.
Trips for entertainment included movies at the Historic Clay Theater for movies, visits to Price’s store and cement swimming pool, and wading in the once-famous Green Cove Springs natural spring-fed swimming pool less than 100 yards from the St. Johns River.
A potato and cabbage farmer who also raised beef, Granddad installed four massive silos on the farm in the early 1960s; they became a Doctors Inlet landmark. Then, about eight years later, Granddad moved my Grandma to the city, building her a brick home in Orange Park.
I even graduated from St. Johns Country Day School in Orange Park in 1970, but regular visits to the family farm and Clay County became irregular.
Fast forward to vibrant Clay County
The invitation from ExploreClay.com gave me a chance to go home again, so I thought. What I found was a vibrant, growing area in Northeast Florida with charming bed-and-breakfasts and new hotels, plus a cultural mix of eateries including Just a Pinch, specializing in Hawaiian foods and a special coconut syrup, Grumpy’s extensive breakfast menu and G’s Slow-Smoked Barbecue’s award-winning house-made sauces plus Palermo Puerto Rican kitchen.
The former Girl Scout Camp Chowenwaw is now a county park where people can stay in the historic bunk-in cabins or sleep in open-air treehouses. The cabin I stayed in for two weeks when I was 10 is still there, available to rent, and the massive log-cabin lodge, now called Big Cabin, is open for special events.
Camp Chowenwaw hosts the first of five new self-service paddleboard rental stations in Clay County. Created by Miami-based PADL, the automated digital service offers hourly rentals and memberships; they will be soon adding kayak rentals as well.
“Our goal is to give easy access to water sports for people who don’t want to purchase, store and haul around their own equipment,” said Andres Avello, one of three partners in the business that has locations throughout Florida. “People can download our app and check out paddleboards or kayaks for a few hours of fun on the water.”
Three locations in Clay County opened in July; another two are opening this month. The firm plans to open locations in North Carolina and Virginia in the coming months.
The old swimming pool in downtown Green Cove Springs has been modernized but continues to be spring-fed by a constant 77-degree flow of 1,346 gallons per minute. You can walk along the spring run past wildlife to the St. Johns River. A nearby pier often serves as a fishing spot for locals.
The Clay Theater still stands with its large marquee. Now it’s an elegant event facility that offers a courtyard garden, updated with art deco styling reminiscent of its original construction date of 1937.
Whitey’s Fish Camp on Swimming Pen Creek in what used to be Doctors Inlet still serves up fresh-caught seafood, catfish, shrimp and other Florida-cracker delights. Inside, autographed guitars, concert posters and gold albums remind visitors that they’re near “Hell House,” the secluded hangout for local musicians done good: members of the Lynyrd Skynyrd band. Two of the Van Zant brothers still live nearby. The Clay County Archives holds the only remaining piece of Hell House – a cinderblock chunk from the foundation. Rock music fans often stop by the Archives and Old County Jail building to see it.
Granddad’s silos are gone, except for one that’s in its original location, now blocked by a strip shopping center and gas station. Coincidentally, the shopping center is called The Silos. Some impressions never leave you, and I was quickly able to find the path, now a paved road, that had led to the back barns on the farm.
Middleburg is no longer open farmland and pastures. It’s booming with development, a new hotel, the second location of Grumpy’s Restaurant that features an extensive breakfast, brunch and lunch menu and house-made ginormous glazed cinnamon rolls.
My host, Kimberly Morgan, director of Tourism, Parks & Recreation for Clay County, shared that parts of the county are attracting industry because of the availability of land, the easy access to Jacksonville International Airport via I-285, and the area’s planned development and controlled growth.
Clay County is also attracting major sporting events, including National Paddling competitions, regional and national soccer and baseball tournaments and other activities.
People also come to Clay County for the extensive access to nature at Mike Roess Gold Head State Park in Keystone Heights or to explore the 15 different biological communities at Jennings State Forest.
Clay County is also home to Camp Blanding, key in training soldiers for World War II and for the Florida National Guard. A museum on site tells its story.
While my old stomping grounds had changed mightily, I learned that change is a good thing, not to be dismissed. Through my visit, I made new memories while enjoying my own reflections of days gone by.
For more information about visiting Northeast Florida and Clay County, visit exploreclay.com.