This historic courthouse was constructed from 1890 to 1893. Both the 1890 Courthouse and the original Clay County Jail were originally red brick (painted white or covered in stucco several decades ago).
The Borden Family
The 1890 Historic Courthouse and Old County Jail, as we refer to these buildings now, are located on land donated to the county by the Gail & Marion Borden Family, of Borden Condensed Milk product fame. The Bordens were winter visitors in the 1870’s – early 1900’s to Green Cove Springs. They owned thousands of acres in Clay County and operated a dairy near Penny Farms.
The land was donated on the condition that a courthouse and jail be built on the property. Penelope Borden’s house is the wooden Clay County School District building on Walnut Street, now just steps away from the courthouse land her family endowed. We now refer to the triangle-shaped grounds as the Historic Triangle. It includes the 1890 Historic Courthouse, Old County Jail, Clay Archives Center, Old Railroad Depot, Clay County History Museum and the TAPS Military Monument. Then and now, a beautiful, oak-filled, shaded lawn connects these buildings.
Examples of Court Cases/Trials Held in the 1890 Historic Courthouse
The Orange Park Normal School Case
In 1896, The American Missionary Society operated a school for African American children in Orange Park. It was a very good school with wonderful curriculum. So good, that some local white parents gladly sent their own children to the school. The “problem” was that teaching white and black students together was against the law at that time.
Complaints were sworn and the teachers and the principal were arrested and held in the Clay County Jail.
Their lawyers bailed them out and filed motions to quash the indictments on grounds that the law was unconstitutionally vague (6th amendment violation; void for vagueness), the law violated their 1st Amendment rights of freedom of association and religion, and the law violated their rights to run their business as they chose, i.e., without government interference. Judge Rhydon Call, whose picture is now displayed on the courthouse’s second floor, ruled on the motions by simply writing “granted” on the motion.
With that, the Court agreed with all the reasons stated in the motion and the case against the school’s staff was dismissed. Judge Call was a forward-thinker, opposed to the Jim Crow laws on the books. Judge Call became a respected federal judge.
The Trial of Rufus Chesser
The Sweetheart Slayer (as the press called him): Rufus was only 17 years old in 1925 when he shot and killed Sally Boyles and Thomas Dillaberry, his own brother in law. Young Rufus was under the delusion that Sally was his sweetheart (she was not) and that she and Thomas were having an affair.
One night on a lonely road from Green Cove Springs to Middleburg, he came upon Sally, Thomas, Thomas’s sister and Thomas’s infant son in their car.
He pulled out his shotgun and shot Thomas and chased Sally down into a nearby ditch where she was shot as well.
Chesser faced a trial for his life and was convicted. Several court appeals were heard, but finally he was put to death in Florida State Prison’s death chamber at Raiford. On March 23, 1927, this 19-year-old was just the twelfth person electrocuted in “Old Sparky”, Florida’s electric chair. The baby in the car, Thomas Dillaberry, Jr., was unharmed and lived to be 100 years old.
Still a Working Courthouse
The 1890 Historic Courthouse is still a real working courthouse, used daily by the Clerk of Court and Comptroller’s Office award-winning, state champion Teen Court Program. The building is also used regularly for many public events and is available through the county for rent. Tour groups are welcomed by appointment. Call 904-371-0027.