A Blast Into The Beaches Past

July 21, 2011 4 comments Open printer friendly version of this article Print Article

You don't have to go far to delve into the past of the First Coast's beach communities. The Beaches Museum and History Center opened its doors to the public just five years ago, with a mission to preserve and share who and what once was. Here, a look inside and what's to come.

The Beaches Museum and History Center is more than a museum with replica items and infobit rolling film. They house an indoor art gallery, public archives library, and an outdoor display of several original historical structures. Metro Jacksonville visits and tours the museum for an inside peek, and talks with Director Maarten van de Guchte about the exciting future plans.

The Museum
The museum part of the center consists of a roundabout walkway, guiding visitors through each community of the beach. Each has its own area, with glass showcase boxes, extensive information, and artifacts distinct to them. There is also a reading discussion and viewing room at the forefront.

Ponte Vedra

Ponte Vedra has enjoyed a rich 400-year history, with a different flare than the other Beach communities. Since the establishment of St. Augustine by the Spanish in 1565, and the founding of Fort Caroline by the French to the north, soldiers have traveled the sands of Ponte Vedra vying for a foothold in Northeast Florida.

This area has been rich in rattlesnakes, alligators, mosquitoes, and minerals. The National Lead Company mined for minerals in the sand for years, and at that time there were as many mules as people in Mineral City.

When it became less profitable to extract minerals from the sand, the National Lead Company brought in the Telfair Stockton Company to begin a real estate development of the site. Since the area was being developed for an affluent clientele, one of the first tasks was to change the name from Mineral City to something with a little more widespread appeal. An article on Ponte Vedra, Spain, and its claim to being the birthplace of Christopher Columbus (inaccurate), swayed the decision. The name Ponte Vedra was chosen. The last vestiges of the mining past were obliterated, the slate cleaned, and Ponte Vedra was on its way!

The remoteness of the Beaches was still a problem. The developers offered initial buyers deep discounts to encourage development and a small, existing golf course was greatly improved. As residential development increased, the State of Florida completed the road from Jacksonville Beach south to St. Augustine, opening the last segment of the East Coast Scenic Highway. Ponte Vedra Beach was in the conceptual stage in 1928 when the owners of the land actually set up plans for serious development of the area as a resort.

By 1942, National Lead Company sold its interest in Ponte Vedra to the locally driven Ponte Vedra Corporation. The community rapidly developed into a year-round resort community with a substantial permanent population. Today, Ponte Vedra Beach is considered one of the most luxurious recreational and residential locations in the country, offering over 153 holes of golf, 60 tennis courts and miles of fabulous and famous white sand beaches.

Palm Valley
Long before the first Spanish settlers arrived, there was an Indian village in what we call Palm Valley today. Several Indian mounds have been uncovered revealing points, pottery and human skeletons. Early Franciscan missionaries constructed a mission in the area called The Nativity of Our Lady of Tolomato.

By 1703, Don Diego Espinoza had settled in what is today the Palm Valley area. His vast ranch and the surrounding territory was known as Diego Plains. In the 1730s, the ranch was fortified to protect its inhabitants from Indian attack. By 1739, Great Britain and Spain were at war and trouble was brewing for the Diego Plains settlers. British General James Oglethorpe was commissioned to harass the Spanish settlements south of the colony of Georgia so the Spanish governor fortified the Diego farmhouse which was already being called Fort San Diego. After Oglethorpe’s failure to capture St. Augustine, the Spanish military abandoned Fort San Diego, but other inhabitants moved into the area, living off the land and the cattle.

In 1908, a canal was dug through Diego Plains connecting the San Pablo River to the north with the Tolomato River near St. Augustine to the south. This intracoastal canal made access to the valley much easier for the residents that had settled in this area. In addition to raising cattle, they farmed, logged, and sold palm fronds to religious groups. The many palm trees growing in the region led some of the settlers to decide on the name Palm Valley for their community.

Prohibition turned some of the valley residents to another source of income – moonshine. The abundant water supply and deep woods areas in the valley were ideal for the concealment of illegal whiskey distilling. The moonshine industry thrived even after the Volstead Act was repealed in 1933, but the rising price of sugar finally brought the illegal whiskey industry to an end.

Palm Valley remained a quiet area of the Beaches, between A1A and U.S. 1. There were many farms where produce and livestock were raised. The development of the Beaches has also affected Palm Valley. Today most farms in the valley have disappeared, opening the land for luxurious residences overlooking the Intracoastal Waterway.

Jacksonville Beach
Ruby, Pablo Beach, or Jacksonville Beach – no matter what it has been called, this special place has been the hub of Beaches life since the early days of the 1880s. This was the beach for fun and festivities, of the railroad, and the beach that set the tone for the development of the other beaches. This is the Famous Beach.

In true Florida style, Jacksonville Beach began here with the dream of development: to turn this "oak scrub beach" into the tourist and entertainment hub of the Atlantic Coast. Beginning as a tent city for a few hardy souls, Jacksonville Beach has become a business, resort and residential community able to thrive on change and recognize adversity as an opportunity.

In 1884, William and Eleanor Scull set up their tent home at the beach to help survey the area for the coming railroad. Eleanor opened the first general store and post office on the beach, thereby bestowing the name Ruby on the area. The little community grew. In 1899, Henry Flagler purchased the faltering Jacksonville & Atlantic Railroad, converting it to regular gauge and spearheading the development of the area. Some 20 years later, the boardwalk had become a major attraction and the Beaches population grew. Racing, aviation, dancing, eating and frolicking in the waves became hallmarks of Jacksonville Beach!

Today, the sense of community is very strong here as Jacksonville Beach experiences growing pains. The city is growing vertically with old landmarks being replaced by modern cement "sand castles" and an influx of new residents. The atmosphere is still warm and friendly as a small town would be. The Jacksonville Beach welcome is still strong after some 110 years. Old friend or new friend, we are glad you are here.

Neptune Beach
Neptune Beach lies between Atlantic Beach to the north and Jacksonville Beach, its parent tract, to the south. Eugene F. Gilbert bought the 180 acre parcel which became Neptune Beach from the State of Florida for the sum of $1.25 an acre in 1884. The first subdivision map was filed one year later.

As with all the Beaches communities, the development of the railroad is integral to its history. Legend has it that Dan Wheeler had a cottage near the shore, however he worked in Jacksonville. Mr. Wheeler rode the train back and forth to work, but since the train would not stop at his house, he rode all the way to Mayport and had to walk back home. He learned that the train would have to stop if there were a station so, determined to end his daily walks, he built one, and the station was named Neptune.

In the early 1930s, the area of Neptune Beach was still a remote and sparsely populated section of Jacksonville Beach. Residents of the area felt they were not receiving adequate return of services for their taxes and they voted to secede from Jacksonville Beach and create the separate community of Neptune Beach. On August 11, 1931 this determination made Neptune Beach a separate political entity.

Neptune Beach is a quiet residential community that does not encourage commercial development or industry, neither has it adopted the commercial entertainment enterprises. The community is resident focused, whose seaside location is mainly for the enjoyment of its own citizens. It boasts the largest park at the Beaches. Important to its traditions, Neptune Beach is proud that many of its homes have stayed in the same family for generations.

Atlantic Beach
Although intimately associated with rail magnate Henry M. Flagler’s Continental Hotel, Atlantic Beach has a long history of its own. It is believed by many scholars that the first permanent, year-round Native American settlement in North America was located at what is today Atlantic Beach near the mouth of the St. Johns River in 3,570 B.C.E. The abundance of food and the benign climate encouraged successive native cultures such as the Timucua to settle in the area as well.

While the tourist industry in Atlantic Beach remained the focus for the area during the early 1900s, the completion of Atlantic Boulevard in 1910, connecting Atlantic Beach with south Jacksonville, allowed for a prosperous residential community to grow. The citizenry eventually changed from a seasonal population to full-time residents creating a year-round town peppered with architecturally significant homes.

The Town of Atlantic Beach incorporated in 1926 with the governor appointing Harcourt Bull as the first mayor. The hotel business continued to bolster Atlantic Beach. Tourism provided employment and supplied essential infrastructure such as electricity, which was provided to the community by the Atlantic Beach Hotel, successor to Flagler’s Continental Hotel until 1938.

Under the city charter of 1957, the city has grown and expanded to a community of diverse neighborhoods with a common emphasis on the residential character of the city. Today, many residents of Atlantic Beach work in Jacksonville, but their heart and home is at the Beaches.

Mayport is French by birth, Spanish by upbringing, but decidedly American with the United States Naval Station Mayport dominating the present day community.

On May 1, 1562, French Admiral Jean Ribault sailed into the Rivere de Mai, later named the St. Johns River, claiming all before him for his motherland, France. From that day forward, Mayport and environs saw several hundred years of power struggle with control alternately being held by France, Spain, England, Spain again and, finally, the United States.

By 1827, with governmental intervention relating to river pilots on the treacherous St. Johns River, the population of the existing fishing community increased, and a lighthouse was constructed. Called Hazard on early maps and documents, the settlement became known as Mayport Mills, homage to the French naming the river after the month of May.

The following year, the United States acknowledged the land grant awarded by Spain to the Dewees family. In 1841, part of the Dewees Land Grant was sold to David Palmer and Darius Ferris who laid out the plat for modern Mayport. In those days, lumber was king in Mayport Mills and the ‘white gold’ was brought by boat, cart or raft to the mills.

As railroads pushed deeper into the South, the importance of Northeast Florida was recognized. The extension of the Florida East Coast Railway to Mayport in 1900 spurred the growth and economy of the town. Coal powered trains were able to load coal directly from the docks; the old hazardous mouth of the St. Johns River had been tamed by jetties, built by the government, reaching miles into the Atlantic Ocean. Mayport was a two way traveling town: lumber and naval stores were carried away by schooner while settlers, tourists and health seekers were carried in by steamboat.

In 1913 Elizabeth Starke bought a 375-acre estate she called Wonderwood. The estate was later acquired by the federal government to establish a naval station on its site.

When the trains stopped running in 1932, Mayport returned to its roots, fishing and shrimping. The community continues to coexist with US Naval Station Mayport, a military base established prior to World War II and one of the largest and most sophisticated military bases in the world. Today, what was once an historic, picturesque fishing village is giving way to modern development like all the other communities at the beach.

History info courtesy of http://www.beachesareahistoricalsociety.com/index.html

About BMHC

The center is located in Jacksonville Beach on Pablo Ave. (about 3rd Ave. N.) off Beach Boulevard.

The Beaches Historical Society operates the museum and center.

The Mission of the Beaches Area Historical Society
To nurture civic pride for the distinct history of the Beaches, while providing education, information and entertainment for those who live, work and vacation in our communities.

Founded in 1978 by a group of longtime local residents, the Beaches Area Historical Society (BAHS) is the only organization dedicated solely to preserving the history and heritage of Florida's First Coast beach communities including Mayport, Atlantic Beach, Neptune Beach, Jacksonville Beach, Ponte Vedra Beach and historic Palm Valley.

The Society opened first as a research facility and repository for historic photographs, but soon like-minded local citizens began bringing in their cherished family pieces, and a small museum was born. By 1996 the society had accepted, relocated, and restored the FEC Section Foreman's House, the Mayport Depot, an early Pablo Beach Post Office, and a 28-ton 1911 steam locomotive.

In 2001, initiated by strong public interest, the BAHS Board of Directors began a capital campaign to raise funds for the construction of a new museum and archives facility. On March 7, 2006, the Beaches Museum & History Center, operated by the Beaches Area Historical Society, opened its doors to residents, tourists, and school children.


* The museum offers memberships, package deals, and corporate memberships and sponsorships, for year-round all-inclusive access to the museum galleries, exhibits and special events, as well as activity discounts and a subscription to the museum's newsletter.
* The museum conducts educational programs and tours for school-age children, and even those at the preschool level.
* They also host summer camp groups and run their own week-long summer camps, varying history themes each day.
* On the second story of the center is an archives library, available to the public by appointment.
* Art exhibits are featured on rotation, showcasing local artists' work and holding opening receptions. The current is exhibit is Diana Patterson's "Home", a collection of acrylic paintings and old photos, running through July 30.
* A reading and discussion event,"Whistle Talks", takes place each Friday, dubbed "history happy hour." The program brings in local authors, personalities, and other creatives to share their stories, discuss their work, and answer questions for the community.
* Ruby's Emporium gift shop inside the main center sells memorabilia, cards, housewares, books, and other trinkets.
*The center has hosted a variety of special events such as the Fletcher Class Reunion, THE PLAYERS' "Birdies for Charity" program, and birthday parties.
* A 'Model Trains Railroad Club catered to the beaches area meets every Saturday. An impressive model train is set up all day, and the local railroad club shows off their work.

The entrance foyer.

Gift shop.

Art Gallery.

Archives library.

Preserved Buildings
A few steps across the street from the main building are a handful of preexisting buildings with interior access as part of the paid tour. A small courtyard dresses the open area for seating, with scattered post signs of historical significance.

Post Office

Pablo Station
Inside, a 28-ton steam engine sits open for looking, climbing, and bell-ringing.

Florida East Coast House

Mayport Depot

Pablo Historical Park
The area of land the museum and its showcase buildings sits on is known as the Pablo Historical Park.

Future Plans

The center is working hard to implement several projects in 2012. They include a fashion show, a lifeguard exhibit next September in honor of the 100th anniversary of the Jax Beach Volunteer Life Saving Corps, a women's surf exhibit "Mermaids of the Sea", and a Jean Ribault event to honor his landing near the St. Johns River 450 years ago.

The bigger, more culturally and historically centered events are to expand the museum's efforts in commemorating local history and influential people, as well as involve the community and promote appreciation of the beaches.

Article by Sarah Gojekian.