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Tara S. Gree, Clerk of Court and Comptroller of Clay County, FL
Clerk of Court and Comptroller of Clay County, FL Clerk of Court and Comptroller of Clay County, FL
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Magnolia Springs

Magnolia Springs was just north of Governor’s Creek in Green Cove Springs. More than four hundred pages of source material is available at the Archives, including Bonnie Deaton’s “Magnolia Unionists” thesis.

Magnolia Springs & The Hotel Era

St. Augustine, Florida may be the “Prince of the Peninsula” but Magnolia Springs was” faithful in her duty as the “Princess of Florida”.  No place in Florida – not Jacksonville, or Miami, or Tampa – has had an uninterrupted 250-year reign, surviving both Charles II of Spain and Britain’s King George III.  Magnolia Springs was the patroness of many endeavors – inspiring artists, supporting free blacks, providing respite to captains of industry, garrisoning warriors, attracting the attentions of sportsmen and providing a final resting place to the infirm.

“The Hotel” at Magnolia Springs instantly comes to the minds of local historians, and no ordinary hotel was she, but the first true resort in Florida.  Hedonism and braggadocio walked hand-in-hand as the wealthy and well traveled guests landed at dusk.  They arrived either by steamboat at the palatial pagoda on the wharf, or by steam rail at the unusually decoratively designed and delightful depot.  Either way, the timing was impeccable.  Once welcomed to the melodious sounds of the house band, a whimsical mule-drawn tram transported them to the hotel – no ambulation required.  Along the way they passed the “best golf course in the South” designed by the father of American golf. They marveled at fountains of pure artesian mineral water.  And most wonderful of all was the vision of the grounds and hotel ahead, all lit by curious “electrics lights”, the first they had every laid eyes on.

In awe, the guests arrived at the hotel.  The new experiences continued as they quietly ascended to the first floor in the technologically advanced hydraulic elevator.  They were then whisked to the parlor, where the manager personally greeted them with fresh jus d’orange from his own trees.  As they became acquainted with the other guests, who might be spending two or three months at the hotel, they couldn’t help but notice the largest carpet they, or the world, had ever seen.

After sending telegrams and postcards to friends up North, stewards escorted the difficult to impress, but duly impressed guests to their rooms.  The two-day southward trip had been uncomfortable, and their overnight accommodations in Jacksonville hideous, but their rooms here did not disappoint as they took in the marble fireplaces and bathrooms, and the dazzling vista of the St. Johns River.

Dressed for dinner, they found their way to the dining room, replete with gastronomic anomalies of Northern fare mixed with Southern flavors, all served by white-gloved waiters with Boston accents.  Then an evening constitutional along Lover’s Lane might be in order, doubling back to the theater afterward to hear America’s best violin virtuoso, or a sopranic prima donna, or perhaps an authentic minstrel show.

Awakened in the morning by a cacophonic chorus of mocking birds, the guests might charter the owner’s private steam launch, the Anemone, for an expedition up Governor’s Creek to spot the prehistoric looking alligator and majestic bald eagle.  Or they could buy bouquets of orange blossoms and palmetto hats and cute green lizards in Green Cove Springs.  Or perhaps a side trips to Hibernia or Palatka might be the outing of the day or a guided exploration of Civil War trenches.  For those who wanted to stay put, there was always the opportunity to win at tennis or clock golf, followed by a luxurious swim in the indoor pool.  For those who would rather observe than participate, there was always the opportunity to watch the great painters William Morris Hunt and Alexander Wyant as they applied their oils and charcoals.

Has the tongue of any living person ever uttered the word “salubrious”, or did pamphleteers and promoters reserve it for their own private descriptions of Magnolia Spring’s appealing temperate climate?  She did her best to live up to the sobriquet, but who can blame her for the unexpected Nicaraguan volcanic eruption of 1835 which froze the St. Johns or the hurricanes of 1830, 1843 and 1893 which tore the Spanish moss from the majestic oaks.  And then there was the yellow fever and influenza quarantines which prevented the well heeled travelers from reaching her healthful waters.

Lying on the frontier without reliable transportation and few finished goods, Magnolian’s required a self-reliance and creativity which over the years accrued an impressive portfolio of what today is called intellectual property.  As early as the 1760’s a unique stump-pulling machine cleared oaks and pines for indigo cultivation.  Her rich mineral waters were analyzed by none other than the father of American chemistry, and were patented, trademarked, and won a silver medal at the St. Louis Exhibition.  “Earth closet” toilets were installed in the cottages after the Civil War – no more two-holers.

Magnolia Spring’s was always on the leading edge of technology.  Electric lights were installed even before those in St. Augustine – and were personally tested by Thomas Edison.  A photographic darkroom was made available for the pleasure of amateurs.  The steam launch burned naptha (mothballs).  The telegraph was installed as soon as available to receive reservations and to transmit missives to Northern newspapers with glimpses into what America’ elite were piling on their silver luncheon forks.

When the post was preferable, Magnolia Spring’s happened to have her own post office and the only transportable postal cancelling machine.  She boasted the first American commercial vegetable dehydration system and an 8-ton ice and refrigeration system.  Even the cottages were on the edge of design – designed by none other than the father of the American Institute of Architects.

A stream of sojourners beheld her beauty as they steamed up the St. Johns enroute to Picolata.  Before the St Augustine sand bar had been dredged and before Flagler had spent his silk purse on the sow’s ear of Americas first city the passengers would stop on their return journey.  Magnolia Spring’s was a welcome stop over.

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Early History

While bon vivants enjoyed the good life at Magnolia Springs for more than fifty years, interludes of melancholy had interrupted its “salubrious” skies earlier in it’s history.   Patrick Tonyn, later the British governor, was forced to destroy his own plantation before Americans could capture it.  Seminoles burned the William Travers mill and homestead. Joseph Finegan, later CSA General in charge of Florida, planted at Magnolia Springs for a time. Fear snaked through the area and the scars of rifle pits testified to the brutality of the Civil War. Nathan Benedict, a “water cure” doctor at Magnolia Springs, was forced to flee to St. Augustine during conflict. Seth Rogers, who ran a hotel, watched it burn in 1881. Yet tinctures and ointments resuscitated Magnolia Springs and a pleasant St. Johns breeze blew in a stream of enthusiastic new owners, each with an intriguing scheme to exploit her resources and advantageous location.

When the British left Florida, Thomas Travers remained and served the Spanish government as the Royal Doctor. He was rewarded with a land grant at Magnolia Springs, which he called Santo Thomaso. His friend, Matthew Solana, received a simiar grant, which he called Santa Matteo. Is it just a happy coincidence that they “sainted” their own names?

After a period of dormancy, Daniel O’Hara received a 1,000 acre Spanish land grant at Magnolia Springs. O’Hara, a vehemently pro-slavery British subject, may have left England in 1808 when slavery was abolished. He had first made some attempts at livelihood in South Carolina, where court records show he was a cruel owner. He received a mortgage from Thomas Travers’ son William, who foreclosed and got the family homestead back. William called the plantation “Constancia” (or Constantia) after his daughter, Maria Constancia.

William Travers operated a sugar plantation, and also a sawmill with his father’s friend Matthew Solana (Solano). For a time, it appeared that this part of the St. John’s would thrive, especially after steamboat service began in 1834 from Savannah to Picolata. But, Indians and settlers were constantly at each other, until the Travers plantation was burned by Seminoles in 1840. This was the same year that inhabitants from all over the area became so fearful of hostilities that they retreated to Ft. Heileman (Middleburg boat ramp) and so began the saga of the “suffering inhabitants” there.

William’s wife, Rebecca Travers, inherited the property. She married again to Joseph Finegan, who at time was a young upstart. Finegan had grand designs, far beyond the back waters of the St. Johns. He convinced his friend David Yulee to get him a place in the army during the Mexican-American war. This launched his military career, in which he eventually became the CSA general in command of Florida.

The Finegans eventually rebuilt and remained at Magnolia Springs into the 1850s, when they removed to Fernandina. Rebecca was the sister of Mary Martha Reid, the wife of the first territorial governor of Florida. Mary wrote a brief family history, a copy of which is available at the Archives. She describes with tender affection the sweet relationship Rebecca had with William Travers; and her hatred for Joseph Finegan is equally clear.

The Finegans sold to Joseph Summerlin. The Summerlins had run the CSA cattle business for Finegan during the war. Summerline built the first hotel, but quickly sold it to Nathan Benedict. Benedict ran the New York State Insane Asylum. He was not a healthy man, and came to St. Augustine to recuperate. He would have passed Magnolia Springs on his way to Picolata before taking an overland mule cart to St. Augustine. Benedict bought the property and operated the hotel until the Civil War forced him to St. Augustine.

During the war, both Confederate and Union troops used the hotel as a local headquarters. In 1864 the 102d U. S. Regiment of Colored Infantry built Camp Magnolia in ten days, including a set of trenches along the west side. These trenches became golf bunkers during the hotel era. A few skirmishes occured there. The base was uses to prepare for the Union attack on the railroads at Baldwin.

After the war, the Freedmen’s Bureau used the property for an orphanage (which they called an asylum) for black children from Jacksonville and surrounding areas.Perhaps it is not too much of a stretch to theorize that the Northern victors were poking a stick in Finegan’s eye by using his old property to comfort those that he had oppressed. The first black “patients” arrived on the Darlington steamer in 1866 and the bureau closed in 1867.

Seth Rogers bought the hotel from Nathan Benedict in 1869. Rogers was the physician for the colored troops in Florida and surely the two had met in St. Augustine. At any rate, Rogers operates the second hotel. Once again the area begins to flourish. Seth was married, but may have been seeing a young black neighbor of his who was also stationed in Florida. Both of their sets of letters survive and are available at the Archives.

Martha Hendricks, owning an adjoining property deeds two acres for the Magnolia Springs Cemetery in 1869. Clarence B. Moore used the hotel to stage his archaeological expeditions up the St. Johns in 1873.

John Murray Forbes, the railroad barn owned a cottage at Magnolia Springs. He had inherited a fortune passed down from his grandfather who had been a partner in the Panton, Leslie & Co. Indian trading firm. Later he earned a second fortune as a “supercargo” on ships trading with China. A third fortune came and a shrewd investment with Standard Oil. A fourth, by building the railroad from New York to Chicago. Later he took an interest in stopping slavery, and funded the printing of the emancipation proclamation.

Joseph Story Fay (and his partner Isaac Cruft) bought the hotel from Rogers in 1881 and built the third hotel. This was Magnolia Spring’s thirty-year heyday. O. D. Seavey ran the hotel and publicized it widely.

In 1884, electric lights were installed at the hotel, the second building to have lights in North Florida, after the St. James in Jacksonville. Thomas Edison personally examined the installation, and his letters are available at the Archives.

It didn’t take Henry Flagler too long to lure Seavey away to help him build his chain of hotels, beginning in St. Augustine. Seavey remained there until Cruft died in 1898, by which time Flagler’s son had inserted himself in place of Seavey. So Seavey bought the hotel and remained with it for the rest of his life.

The first improvement he made was to hire Alexander Findley, some say the father of American golf, to design 9 holes of golf. Then came concrete tennis courts, and a hotel addition for a little opera house and indoor pool, and on and on came the improvements.

Events conspired to slowly erode Magnolia Springs attractiveness. The wooden structure didn’t improve with age. The steamboat era was coming to an end as railroads hauled tourists to Miama and Tampa. The car had been invented and Clay County had no paved roads. Yet Seavey continued to try various ways to attract tourists, until World War I conspired to completely shut down his trade.

The hotel remained vacant for a couple of years until Seavey rented it out to Col. Hulvey, who moved the Florida Military Academy there. The school was well run by Hulvey and his wife until the hotel burned in 1923. Eugene Permenter, one of the cadets remembers the FMA and the fire in an oral interview. For a brief period the school operated in three cottages that stood on the property, but eventually found it’s way to a high-rise hotel that had succumbed to the Great Depression — now home to the Bowles School. Eventually the FMA was sold and moved to the campus of what is now Stetson University.

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A description of Magnolia’s majestic character would not be complete without expressing how she recoiled from her association with indigo and sugar slavery, and instead after some fits and starts, poked a finger in the eye of the Joseph Finegan plantation by using his own bedrooms as a refuge for free blacks. The County’s first black family, the Forrsters, thrived there – establishing a school and becoming surprising integrated into local civil affairs. Slave owner’s attitudes towards blacks progressed steadily from Tonyn’s and Travers’ exploitation, to Benedict’s ambivalence, to Roger’s abolitional commitment as the surgeon to the U. S. Colored Troops. And in a quirk of fate, she welcomed four Bostonians, who had fought for twenty years or more against secession and eventually for emancipation, and they settled into winter cottages where they rested on their laurels.
Knitting this story together has been, admittedly, difficult. No rich repositories of manuscripts or account books exist. Most of the hotel records burned in 1923. Early public records were destroyed by the Great Fire of Jacksonville, or were summarily dumped into Black Creek by an irate county clerk, or so the story goes. Even the headstones in the cemetery have been carted off, and depending on the rumor-monger one entrusts the most, many can be found shoring up local foundations. Instead snippets and fragments from archives in three countries and six states, articles in hundreds of newspapers, pamphlets, and medical journals have been weaved together with stories from diaries, travelogues, and oral histories to reveal Magnolia’s true and rightful title as the Princess of Florida.

While much of her story has been stipulated as true, the role of jurist is reserved for you at several points along the way. Why did Tonyn, later governor, choose Magnolia for his plantation when several locations closer to St. Augustine were available? Did archaeologists find seven foot Indians or was the mound of sand left over from an early swimming pool? Was the hotel’s fire a result of its furnace’s advancing years, or was some more nefarious motive at play? How can an entire two-story railroad depot disappear overnight? Did John Murray Forbes, one of the cottage owners, fight so earnestly against slavery because of the guilt of knowing his grandfather had been one of the largest slave traders in Florida? Is Frederick Winston, founder of Chicago’s Winston & Strawn buried here? Could the Great Fire of Boston have been seen from the wharf?
Consumption lurked at Magnolia Springs since Benedict opened a convalescent house and Rogers wrapped patients in wet sheets. After a remission of fifty years, Magnolia’s hotel era entered its declining years with bouts of fits and coughs. While she had survived the passing of the steamboat era, she struggled against the combined forces of its owner’s declining exuberance, the shadow cast on America’s taste for opulence by WW I, and the severe impact the influenza epidemic of 1918 had on her Bostonian guests. In the end, after a few years as a military academy, the grande dame that had been Magnolia Spring’s ensured its place in local lore by succumbing to a colossal fire which took the extravagant hotel, elegant cottages, and what remained of the reigning era of the St. John’s River Resort.

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Memorial Day Closure Notice

Our offices will be closed on Monday, May 27th, in observance of Memorial Day.