Orange Park: The First Coast's Overlooked Historic City

August 20, 2014 16 comments Open printer friendly version of this article Print Article

When one hears the name "Orange Park," congested Blanding Boulevard and post-WWII suburbia immediately enters the mind of many. However, a short trip off the beaten path of gridlocked arterials, Blanding and Park Avenue, reveals a scenic and peaceful community that dates back to the late 19th century.

The largest Sign in America, at 200' long x 15' high, during 1890s. Courtesy of the State Archives of Florida, Florida Memory,

In 1877, the Florida Winter Home and Improvement Company acquired the "McIntosh" plantation at Laurel Grove, which had fallen on hard times after the Civil War. The name "Laurel Grove" was that of a plantation once owned by Zephaniah Kingsley, who developed it into a "model farming operation" after acquiring it from Sarah and William Pengree in 1803. In 1813, it was burned to the ground by Anna Madgigine Jai Kingsley, wife of Zephaniah, to keep it out of the hands of patriots seeking to bring Spanish Florida under the control of a young United States.

Kingsley Avenue during the 1880s. The road was named for planter Zephaniah Kingsley, who owned large amount of property in Orange Park in the early 1800s. Courtesy of the State Archives of Florida, Florida Memory,

Soon, the Florida Winter Home and Improvement Company, whose owners and trustees were predominatly from Boston, subdivided the former plantation into a new farming town called Orange Park. To enhance buyers, many lots were planted with Orange trees. To attract tourists, the Hotel Marion was constructed at the foot of Kingsley Avenue, featuring a 1,200' pier into the St. Johns River.

In 1922, Hotel Marion was acquired by Moosehart. Illinois-based Moosehart, "the Child City," dedicated it as a home for aging Moose members known as "Moosehaven." The original concept of Moosehaven was to "organize residents so that they might hlp each other and help themselves, and provide from their own energy the major part of the cost of their keep."  During the course of the 20th century, Moosehaven's 72-acre campus has evolved from a working farm and dairy to a Continuing Care Retirement Community, exclusively for members of The Loyal Order of Moose and Women of the Moose.

Residents of Moosehaven retirement community on July 2, 1961. Moosehaven, "City of Contentment," was a retirement community created and operated by the Loyal Order of Moose, a fraternal society created in 1888 in Indiana. It was located at 1700 River Road in Orange Park. In 1922, the order purchased 22 acres to create an elderly home for its retired members (many of which were living at Mooseheart Children's Home in Chicago). That fall, its first 20 residents arrived. It later was expanded to 63 acres and over 400 residents.

In 1923, a year after the Hotel Marion was sold, Caleb Johnson, heir to the Palmolive Soap Company, completed his winter palazzo, Mira Rio. The Wisconsin-based family found their way to Orange Park as a result of B.J. Johnson, founder of the Palmolive Soap Company, looking for a place to escape harsh winters during the late 1800s. In 1966, Jon Massee, Caleb Johnson's grandson, converted the waterfront residence into a private club. Today, the 700 member Club Continental is managed by Jon's daughter, Karrie Massee. Palmolive Soap is now known as the billion-dollar Colgate-Palmolive Company.

Caleb Johnson's Mira Rio. Image courtesy of

Prior to 1970, to cross the river to Mandarin required a drive north to downtown Jacksonville or south to Green Cove Springs. Total roundtrip for the downtown route averaged one hour, while the Green Cove Springs route was a little longer.  This mobility problem was resolved with the opening of the 3.1-mile Buckman Bridge on May 1, 1970.  Also known as I-295 West Beltway, the bridge was named after Henry Holland Buckman, a prominent 19th century Duval County attorney legislator who was instrumental in establishing the Florida state road system. Buckman was also the author of the Buckman Act, a 1905 law that reorganized higher education in Florida into three institutions based on race and gender: Florida Agricultural and Mechanical University for African Americans, Florida State University for Caucasian women, and University of Florida for Caucasian men.

After the opening of the Buckman Bridge in 1970 and the Orange Park Mall in 1975, rural lands on the outskirts of Orange Park gave way to suburban sprawl fueled by former Duval County residents seeking better schools and a change of pace from the urban center to the north. Now a bedroom community to Jacksonville, Orange Park isn't known as a major employment, logistics, or industrial center. However, it is home to an interesting rail-based outfit called First Coast Rail, Inc.  First Coast Rail, Inc. is a small company that makes passenger car repairs just off Kingsley Avenue. First Coast Rail's Georgia 300 carried President Barack Obama and his family to the President's inauguration in Washington, DC in 2009. The Pullman Company built the Georgia 300 in 1930 as the 10-section lounge General Polk. In 1954, it was converted into a business car by the Georgia Railroad.

Blanding Boulevard through a rear view mirror.

Despite massive gridlock centered around its two main thoroughfares, the actual Town of Orange Park is much smaller than most imagine.  According to the 2010 Census, the incorporated city is 3.6 square miles with a population of 8,412. For anyone looking to get a feel of the old community, the River Road Historic District is a great place to start. Designated as a U.S. historic district on July 15, 1998, it is situated around the junction of River Road and Stiles Avenue, overlooking the St. Johns River.

Early Orange Park

Ulysses S. Grant visiting Orange Park in January, 1880. Courtesy of the State Archives of Florida, Florida Memory,

An Orange Park street scene in 1929. Included in the picture are George Shumeyer, George Austead, (?) Elmore. Courtesy of the State Archives of Florida, Florida Memory,

F.W. Truex and his horse, Red Eagle. Courtesy of the State Archives of Florida, Florida Memory,

1884 map of Orange Park and Ridgewood

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