Clay County memories: Women band together to clean up the town

Mary Jo McTammany
Posted 3/14/18

In the early 1880s, the town of Green Cove Springs bounced between two distinctly different personalities. In the late spring and summer, the town wore the trappings of a rural, rambunctious frontier …

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Clay County memories: Women band together to clean up the town

Posted

In the early 1880s, the town of Green Cove Springs bounced between two distinctly different personalities. In the late spring and summer, the town wore the trappings of a rural, rambunctious frontier settlement.

Then, come late September and early October, a vast wave of Northeastern and international tourists began to arrive at the local resort hotels and boarding houses and the town tried to don a fancy mantle of civilization at least in the area adjacent to the sulfur spring where the grand Clarendon and other large hotels clustered.

Conditions in the Northeast were not much better, just different. But the middle class and wealthy tourists were more easily able to avoid the heavy industrial gaging air pollution and appalling sanitary conditions in the tenement areas of their big cities.

In Green Cove Springs, it was a clash of cultures in the dusty, dirty streets and the women of the Village Improvement Association waded right into the fray, cleaned up the town and organized women across the state into a force to be reckoned with.

The conditions a block or two away from the spring were truly daunting. Hogs snoozed in the streets waking only to break down fences and root through gardens. Cattle wandered at will occasionally dragging some hapless housewife’s clothesline and wet wash behind.

Many residents and merchants simply dumped trash and garbage in the street or nearby vacant lots. When the pile got too high, they’d set a match to it. Some swore the scent could curl nose hairs.

All this was accompanied by a symphony of aromas from rotting vegetation in trash heaps, poorly kept chicken coops and the mine field of cow patties and horse dung dotting the streets. Eau de human waste hung in the air from poorly maintained privies.

Weekends were worse. Come Saturday afternoon, rowdy cowhands and timber workers with slicked down hair and cash in their pockets rode into town ready to party. Most straggled home before daylight but some passed out in the street which tended to frighten the horses and scandalize ladies on the way to Sunday church.

An alliance of ladies, winter residents and full-time residents, formed the Village Improvement Association in 1883. With the proceeds from a fund-raising ball, they installed board sidewalks on popular routes, arranged for clay surfacing on some of the main streets and fenced the cemetery to keep out livestock.

After a lull of several years, they reorganized in 1888 and were in full swing by 1889 when the club officially incorporated and John Borden, the condensed milk heir, offered them the use of a cottage. The group established Green Cove Springs’ first library and a reading room complete with engraved stationary and hired a servant to serve refreshments.

In February of 1895, Borden’s daughter, Penelope, donated a house and lot at the corner of Palmer and Palmetto Streets which served as the clubhouse until 1914 when a new building was built and remains home to the VIA.

They expanded the cultural offerings of the community with concerts, teas and receptions. The ladies creatively raised funds with popular moonlight cruises on the St. Johns River on board the steamship, Manatee.

Proceeds allowed them to launch a beautification campaign including cleverly painted and strategically placed trash barrels. They were so successful that Northern journalists christened Green Cove Springs “The Parlor City of the South.” The Tropical Paradise publication waxed poetically, “The Goddess of Cleanliness seems to have taken possession and holds undisputed sway.”

Not resting on their laurels, the group invited delegates from five other Florida women’s clubs to Green Cove Springs in 1895. In a matter of days, they wrote and passed a Constitution and bylaws and elected Penelope Borden president of The Florida State Federation of Women’s Clubs.

They were just getting started.

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