Clay County Archives provides unique window into the past

By Bruce Hope
Posted 1/13/21

GREEN COVE SPRINGS – The Clay County Archives offers a unique look into the past. Authors, historians, realtors, school children, tourists and even ghost-hunters, visit the old jail looking for …

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Clay County Archives provides unique window into the past

Posted

GREEN COVE SPRINGS – The Clay County Archives offers a unique look into the past. Authors, historians, realtors, school children, tourists and even ghost-hunters, visit the old jail looking for everything from information to the paranormal.

Vishi Garig is the archive specialist for the Clerk of the Circuit Court Tara Green. She runs and monitors the Historical Archives. According to the Clerk’s website, the mission of the archives is to “effectively identify, organize and preserve records and artifacts of enduring value in various formats related to Clay County.”

“I go to schools and lecture about Clay County History,” Garig said. “We put on a history festival here in May. In October, we put on a Halloween special called ‘Tales from the Clink,’ where high school kids, the drama kids, reenact true crimes. So, it’s all kinds of stuff. I work on the fair booth for the Clerk’s office, for the big fair that we have in April. And it’s always a historical, educational theme booth.”

The Clerk’s office’s display at the 2019 fair paid homage to the musical connections of Ronnie, Donnie and Johnny Van Zant made to the county. The site was so popular, Garig expanded the display and moved it to the Thrasher-Horne Center for a six-week run in Orange Park. Johnny Van Zant, the current front man for Lynyrd Skynyrd, and bassist Larry Junstrom, a founding member of Skynyrd, attended the grand opening.

The Historical Triangle also includes the Old Courthouse, which was opened in 1972, the Green Cove Springs train station and the TAPS Monument that identifies county residents who’ve died in combat – from the Civil War to current wars in the Middle East.

Among other Garig’s other tasks are to archive the county’s oldest records, which are made available to the public. The records are from the period between Clay County’s founding in 1858 until the 1970s. Records from before 1958 are unavailable online, which makes the historical archives a necessity.

Garig she used to provide tours regularly.

“COCID-19 put the squash on that,” she said. “But before, yea. We would get Girl Scout Troops, Boy Scout Troops, school tours. Last year we had a day where we ran a couple hundred kids through this building, the 1890 courthouse and the main courthouse. We just did like a shuttle bus thing, and we moved the kids through. That was a really fun day.”

Being the old jail, there are some historical artifacts present, such as the bullets from the pistol which killed Sheriff Joseph Peeler in 1894.

“We were like the Disney of our day,” Garig said of the county around the turn of the 20th Century. “Lots and lots of tourists. The first snowbirds to Florida, they came here. Because of the spring. They would come in the winter and take the medicinal cures.”

One of the most famous sights is the old jail cell block built in 1894 and was used until 1972. Prisoners up to maximum security were housed there. The jail had no heat, no air conditioning and no lights. It had men, women, juveniles and the mentally ill as there was no institution to house them at the time of construction.

Many ghost hunters come to the jail on weekends. They come in groups of five or more people, with each donating $20. They then investigate the old building between the hours of 7 p.m. and midnight. Some claimed to have found evidence of the paranormal. The television show “Ghost Hunters” toured and explored the jail in 2014 to discover whether it was haunted by inmates’ ghosts and a murdered sheriff.

“Talking to people, telling them about the history of the buildings, the history of the people who worked in here, or were locked up in here,” Garig said when asked what she loved about her job. “The jailors actually lived in my portion [her office]. Just interacting with the public; that’s like my favorite part. I love it when they come in here.”

The modern archives can be found at the current Clay County courthouse, and many records can be requested or found online.

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