NEIGHBORHOOD: OLD ARLINGTON HISTORY REVEALEDFebruary 7, 2015 2 comments Print Article
From EU Jacksonville and written by Erin Thursby.
Film Studios & Florida Fever
The film industry began moving into North Florida in the early 1900s and the teens. In 1916, The Eagle Film Manufacturing Company took over a defunct cigar-rolling factory and built four other buildings to house their “Film City.” It was a huge operation, including offices, projection rooms, a developing room and a giant swimming pool used to film water scenes. While this caused some excitement, Eagle Film soon folded. The location was eventually bought by Richard Norman, Sr. for Norman Studios in 1922. Norman Studios made films with all-black casts. After Norman’s retirement, from the early 1950s through the mid-1970s Richard’s wife Gloria used the main building as a dance studio. The location survives to this day and is an important part of North Florida film history and black history.
In the 1920s, America caught Florida Fever. It wasn’t an illness, just an enthusiasm for the comforts of sunny Florida during leisure time. Labor reform, which resulted in more vacation days, a rising middle class, a fully realized railway and the advent of the automobile all contributed to Florida Fever. Jacksonville, as a major railway hub, became a departure point and solidified its reputation as “the gateway to Florida.” Despite the development around it, Arlington remained relatively immune to the fever, though the community was slowly growing.
It was this Florida Fever that likely prompted a neighborhood promotional booklet published in 1924 by the Arlington Community Club. It proudly extolled the healthful nature of Arlington bluffs, the mix of rural and residential, though the author, F.W. Bruce, charmingly appears a bit annoyed that most residents chose to live in Arlington and work in Jacksonville rather than take up farming locally. The pamphlet notes that a schoolhouse was built for the cost of $40,000 ($493,225 in today’s dollars) in 1921 and boasted an enrollment of over 300 pupils by 1924. Industries of the area were limited to mainly river-based companies, such as Seaboard Dredging and several boat builders, but diary farms, a mill and the J.J. Phillips turpentine still were also listed as places of commercial enterprise. Several community clubs and organizations existed then, including the Arlington Community Club, the Boosters Club of Floral Bluff, Social Club of South Arlington and the Free Library, which had a free circulation of 2,000.
The influential Arlington Community Club grew out of the Vigilance Club, formed just before World War I. Its purpose, according to the 1924 booklet, was originally “the suppression of disloyalty and lawlessness, which has been most effective.” The Vigilantes were then organized into the East Coast Guards for the “enforcement of good order, sale of War Bonds, suppression of riots and to furnish immediately a body of men of some training to fill most any gap in an emergency.” Post-war they became the Arlington Community Club. Though the tract’s author does speak of Jacksonville’s nearby amenities, it’s quite apparent that the Arlington Community Club thought of Arlington as a community apart from, and not part of Jacksonville.
Arlington Finally Joins Jacksonville
That long separation of Arlington from Jacksonville proper was finally broken in the 1950s by the hard-fought construction of the Mathews Bridge, connecting it to the city not by the circuitous route through the Southside, but directly to the heart of Downtown. The bridge was named for John E. Mathews, a judge and legislator who was instrumental in gathering the funding and social momentum to get it built. As local resident and historian Cleve Powell notes, “the Arlington Bridge…[had] been discussed as long as there were cars.” The Arlington Bridge Boosters Association circulated a petition in 1946 for a high level bridge (rather than the traffic-snarling draw bridges).
A local historian who was born in Arlington in the 1936, has been one of the driving forces behind keeping the history of Old Arlington alive. He’s seen a lot of changes, growing up in a 1920s era house (that still sits atop Tree Hill today) and was witness to the rapid changes the Mathews Bridge brought to the neighborhood.
Powell says that before the Mathews Bridge, life in Arlington continued largely as it had in the plantation era, minus the slavery, using horse-drawn plows long after the advent of the automobile. There was no doctor or real ambulance on that side of the river and a funeral home acted as an ambulance in emergencies. Those who lived and worked there either farmed, fished commercially or worked at the shipyards.
The bridge was delayed for many years until it became a sure thing. When it did, it changed everything for Arlington. “The changes started well before it opened because people started building, knowing it was going in,” says Powell. Jacksonville University, established in 1934, encouraged by the plans for the bridge, bought land in Arlington in 1948 (formerly land on which the Chesterfield Plantation stood, once owned by Anna Kingsley). Construction of the new campus began in 1950, and the bridge was finished by 1953. JU’s presence probably led to the improvement of the Chaseville Highway, now known as University Boulevard, into a six-lane road by 1961.
These changes took Arlington from a semi-rural and residential neighborhood to something more suburban and less tight-knit. By the late 1960s through the 90s, more subdivisions and apartment housing were built. 1967 brought the construction of the nearby Regency Mall. The 1969 consolidation sealed Arlington’s fate as part of Jacksonville rather than a community apart.
Vestiges of the old Arlington still remain, and in 1993 Old Arlington, Inc., a historic preservation organization was formed. “To me, Arlington is the most historical neighborhood in Jacksonville,” says Powell, who has family roots in both Arlington and Mayport. 2010 saw the dedication of historical markers in Arlington, a great way to connect with our local history. To learn more about Arlington’s history, the community, and what’s happening there today, go to myarlington.org.
Article from EU Jacksonville