Clay County Memoirs: Group of ambitious women created camp
By MARY JO MCTAMMANY
© 2004 by Mary Jo McTammany. Used by permission
Over the centuries of recorded history, Clay County’s Black Creek area has attracted the interest and attention of a diverse crowd with a variety of motives.
In the 1930s, a group of Duval County women with a mission were bewitched by a 42-acre parcel with 1,500 feet fronting on the south bluff of the creek just west of what was called the Green Cove Springs Road.
The 1933 Chowenwaw campers quickly mastered the bow and arrow at the archery range on the shore of Black Creek. With limited funds and infectious enthusiasm, they set out to build a summer camp for Girl Scouts to be named Chowenwaw, Little Sister. It was a bold plan in the midst of the Great Depression, but they never faltered. In keeping with the frugal tenor of the times and accustomed to the prevailing attitude of the Great Depression of “make it last, wear it out or do without,” these women pinched every penny until it squealed.
They enlisted the support of the Duval County Emergency Relief Council, the overseers of federal funds to create jobs for skilled and unskilled laborers. With unflagging zeal they enticed potential contributors to visit the site and become infected with their vision.
It worked. Scores of Jacksonville muckety-mucks traipsed through the woods beside Black Creek in that January of 1933. Even Clay County movers and shakers a little leery of outsiders climbed aboard the bandwagon. On Jan. 17, the first truckload of laborers arrived on the site and work began. As many Black Creek settlers since the mid-1800s, the women took advantage of the natural bounty of the land to provide building materials and stretch their limited budget.
Trees were cut and a leased tractor-powered sawmill began cutting boards as soon as the first one hit the ground. A supply of suitable pine trees was set aside, and men commenced scraping bark and shaping them for construction of the main log cabin. Cypress shingles were hand sawed and hand whittled pegs used instead of nails. Clay mined from the site was used to chink the logs in the main cabin. In the hands of skilled carpenters, a few carefully selected magnolia trees became furniture.
The women and their project became the main subject of discussion all over the county with the “incident at the Doctors Inlet bridge” when a truck full of workers and Lem Pickett on his mule met just about dusk one night. The mule, known to be a little skittish, reared up as the truck passed and, as usually happened, dumped Lem on his duff.
The next morning when driver Louis Hemmingway crossed into Clay County he was waved down by a constable, arrested and taken to jail. He was soon bailed out and rushed home just in time to greet his firstborn, an 8-pound daughter. He was later found “not guilty” but by that time the women had made staunch converts to the cause — Clay County Sheriff John Hall, Judge T.J. Jennings, the prosecuting attorney and the mayors of Green Cove Springs and Orange Park.
When a felonious plumber attempted to extort money and threatened to tear out pipes, the women appealed to Hall. He handled it. On July 1, 1933, the camp was dedicated and the first camper arrived. For more than seven decades, Camp Chowenwaw enriched the lives of generations of young women and girls by providing them a place to master new skills and explores new talents. A new camp, to be built farther up the creek, will do the same.
Acknowledgements: Miscellaneous records of The Girl Scouts of Gateway Council; Nancy White, director of communications, and Francis Brewster, council historian; Clay County Archives — Photographic Collection.
Clay County resident Mary Jo McTammany writes a regular column for Clay County Line.