Discovering the Essence of Old Mandarin

December 14, 2015 10 comments Open printer friendly version of this article Print Article

Today, when most think of Mandarin, images traffic jams on San Jose Boulevard or the Buckman Bridge come to mind. Fifteen miles south of downtown, Mandarin is actually one of the area's oldest settlements.

Looking north along San Jose Boulevard at Loretto Road in 1956. Courtesy of Florida Memory.

What is now considered Mandarin was the site of a 16th century native american town called Thimagua. In 1564, it was explored by Laudonniere, the French explorer of the St. Johns. When Duval County's southernmost community's first post office opened in 1765, it was called St. Anthony. When Florida was returned to Spain in 1783, it was renamed San Antonio. Finally in 1830, Calvin Reed, a prominent resident in the area, renamed the community after the Mandarin orange, which was introduced from China and was a major crop in the immediate area.

Mandarin was officially incorporated as a municipality in 1841, during the midst of the Second Seminole War between Native Americans and African Americans in Florida and the United States Army. Combined, the three Seminole Wars (1816 to 1858) were the largest conflicts in the country between the War of 1812 and the Civil War. A frontier town at the time, Mandarin did not escape these conflicts unblemished. On December 20, 1841, four residents were murdered when Seminole bands led by chiefs Powis-fixico (Short Grass) and Halleck-Tustenugee raided the village and set many structures on fire.

The Mandarin boardwalk during the early 1900s. Courtesy of Florida Memory.

Mandarin also suffered during the Civil War with Union troops taking the community's produce and livestock. In 1864, a Confederate mine hit and sank the Union steamboat, the Maple Leaf, right off the banks of Mandarin Point during the Civil War. On October 12, 1994, this shipwreck site was designated a National Historic Landmark.

After the war, Mandarin flourished, developing into a small farming village that shipped oranges, grapefruit, lemons and other fruits and vegetables to Jacksonville via steamships traveling on the St. Johns River. At its peak, at least eleven different steamboats shipped agricultural products from Mandarin's wharves.

Harriet Beecher Stowe and family at their Mandarin residence in the late 19th century. Courtesy of Florida Memory.

In 1868, its most famous resident, Harriet Beecher Stowe, the author of Uncle Tom's Cabin, acquired a 30-acre riverfront site in the community. During her time in Mandarin, which she referred to as "a tropical paradise", she became the state's most important publicist. During her 17 winters in Mandarin, she was known for welcoming tourists' debarking from steamers and charging them $0.75 cents to meet her and admire her surroundings.

By 1881, situated primarily between modern day Brady Road and Scott Mill Road, Mandarin's population had swelled to 1,200. Mandarin also was home to a Catholic church and convent, post office and a couple of stores. While there were no hotels, travelers were accommodated at boarding-houses.

A 1917 United States Geological Survey map of Mandarin.

The late 19th century expansion of railroads throughout the state and several freezes resulted in Mandarin's citrus production and economy falling into decline. By the start of World War II, the population had fallen to 645. After the war, the outward growth of Jacksonville and the 1971 opening of the Buckman Bridge led to the Mandarin most recognize today. Despite being engulfed by an endless amount of fast food restaurants, tract homes, gas stations and strip malls, a turn off the beaten path will reveal that the Mandarin Harriet Beecher Stowe once called home still retains much of its 19th century rural charm.

To highlight the essence of Old Mandarin, here's a look some of the sites along Mandarin Road:

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