CLAY COUNTY – There was a greater reason to celebrate New Year’s Eve in 1958 than ushering in a new year.Residents along the Black Creek District toasted their independence from Duval …
CLAY COUNTY – There was a greater reason to celebrate New Year’s Eve in 1958 than ushering in a new year.
Residents along the Black Creek District toasted their independence from Duval County hours before the struck midnight, signaling the creation of Clay County.
With Black Creek driving the local economy with steamships filled with timber and turpentine, as well as an accessible way to import and export other goods, local residents didn’t like making the long trip, especially the 50-mile journey for those who lived on the southern end of the creek, to Jacksonville to conduct county business. So, they created their own county by carving away a 644-square-mile chunk of southwest Duval.
Efforts to break away from Duval started months earlier. Petitions were passed along the creek, around Kingsley’s Pond and after church. Once it had 170 signatures – all white men – local Florida representative John G. Smith took it to Tallahassee on Nov. 26, 1858. It came out of committee on Dec. 3 and it eventually was passed 26-0 in the House. The Senate approved the new county, 35-0, on Dec. 27 and Gov. Maddison Perry signed the bill on New Year’s Eve.
The name Clay came from statesman Henry Clay. Although he was from Kentucky and had no known ties to the area, locals were so impressed with his political stances – he helped found the Whig and Republican parties – they put his name at the county courthouse.
The original county seat was Webster, which originally was known as Whitesville and now is the village of Middleburg. The railroad lines bypassed Webster, and northern visitors flocked to the warm springs and aristocratic hotels in Green Cove Springs, so residents voted to move the county seat to Green Cove Springs. In its heyday, Green Cove Springs was so popular, President Grover Cleveland had bottles of the local spring water shipped to the White House.
And since the bulk of the county’s money was in Green Cove Springs, it made since to move the county seat there as well.
Barney McRae was forced moved the county’s business away from Webster. McRae was voted out of office in 1971 and replaced by William B. White. When White opened a store in Green Cove Springs and decided to live there, residents from the northern part of the county – which now comprises of Middleburg and Orange Park – gave up on moving the county seat back.
Green Cove Springs has remained the county seat since, any many of the county’s documents from McRae’s tenure remain missing – presumably as a reaction to Middleburg losing the county seat.
Today it is a bustling county with nearly 220,000 residents. Most residents now live in the central and northeastern part of the county where large, sprawling suburban communities have been built. According to World Population Review, Fleming Island has the largest population in the county with 27,126 residents, while Middleburg has 13,316 and Orange Park has 8,558. Green Cove Springs now has 7,345 residents.
Clay remains a popular destination, especially for young families. Growth has been so rampant, the Clay County School District already is considering the construction of two new schools, the Clay County Utility Authority is ready to open an expanded wastewater treatment plant in Green Cove Springs that will increase daily capacity by 850,000 gallons and the First Coast Expressway is currently under construction that will link Duval, Clay and St. Johns counties, including a multi-lane, limited access road that will run through Green Cove Springs, Argyle Forest and Middleburg from Interstates 10 to 95. Part of the expressway includes widening the Shands Bridge from two lanes to four.
The Clay Today will celebrate Clay County History Month with stories and tales throughout May.