Located in Northeast Florida, Clay County lies twenty minutes southwest of Jacksonville and forty minutes west of historic St. Augustine. Encompassing Fleming Island, Green Cove Springs, Keystone Heights, Middleburg and Orange Park, Clay County can easily be reached in less than thirty minutes from the Jacksonville International Airport.
Clay County’s entire eastern border is defined by the majestic, north-flowing, St. Johns River providing a wealth of recreational opportunities for those who enjoy kayaking, canoeing, sailing or fresh-water fishing. Bring the kids and see if they can catch a glimpse of river otters frolicking along the banks of Peter’s Creek or spot a bald eagle soaring toward her nest at Camp Chowenwaw Park. Professionally designed golf courses, woodlands for hiking, horseback riding or hunting and an extensive paved trail system for walking, jogging or bicycling can also be found in Clay.
Clay County’s strong ties to the military date back to the early 1800’s. When fighting erupted with the Seminole Indians in 1835, Garey’s Ferry (the site of present-day Middleburg) was chosen as a supply depot for the U.S. Army on Florida’s east coast. The following year, Ft. Heileman was established.
Clay County saw its first battle of the Civil War as the conflict was nearing its end. In mid-1864, Union forces established a fort at Magnolia Springs on the St. Johns River where they could send troops to apply pressure to Confederate forces located within the county.
After the Civil War, tourism became a vital part of Clay County life. Had Spanish explorer, Ponce de Leon, traveled further inland during his exploration of the coastline of Florida in the 1500’s, he may have discovered his “Fountain of Youth” in Green Cove Springs.
Tales of the healing powers of the sulfur springs in the area of Green Cove Springs spread north as Union soldiers returned home following the Civil War. Travelers looking to escape the cold northern winters and those mystified by stories of the healing powers of the town’s warm, therapeutic springs made Green Cove Springs a prime tourist attraction. The sulfur springs, or the “boil” as it was called by locals, brought wealthy visitors down the St. Johns River by steamboat to vacation at grand hotels such as the Clarendon and Qui-Si-Sana. Famous visitors included Ulysses S. Grant, Buffalo Bill, P.T. Barnum and Sitting Bull. President Grover Cleveland was so impressed with the medicinal qualities of the mineral springs he had the water bottled and shipped to the White House.
Today, the same crystal clear spring is still pumping 3,000 gallons of water per hour. Visitors stopping by the spring can also tour the “Old” Courthouse, “haunted” jail, and the North Florida Military Museum.
During WWII, the landscape of Clay County was dotted with military installations. In 1939, 28,000 acres on Kingsley Lake in central Clay County were purchased by the Florida National Guard as a new training site. In heavy use during WWII, Camp Blanding was not deemed a viable permanent post after the war. It is now a training site for the Florida National Guard with over 70,000 acres and is the home of a large, WWII museum.
Also, during WWII, Lee Field in Green Cove Springs, was a flight-training center. At the end of the war, the Navy converted Lee Field into a headquarters for the Atlantic Mothball fleet.
Any time of year is a wonderful time to explore Clay County but May 2013 promises several unique events.