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County’s passport to history includes intriguing stops, stories, sites

By Lee Wardlaw lee@claytodayonline.com
Posted 6/15/23

CLAY COUNTY – If you want to get outside for some family fun this summer, look no further than Clay County’s History Passport Program.

The program, a partnership between the county, the Clerk …

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County’s passport to history includes intriguing stops, stories, sites


Posted

CLAY COUNTY – If you want to get outside for some family fun this summer, look no further than Clay County’s History Passport Program.

The program, a partnership between the county, the Clerk of Courts and the School District, was created in 2022 with a particular focus on May, Clay County’s History Month.

Clay Today spent a day visiting seven of the 27 sites on the list – the 1847 Middleburg Methodist Church and Cemetery, Bayard Conservation Area, Camp Chowenwaw Park, County Historical Museum and Railroad Depot, Middleburg Main Street Boardwalk and Boat Ramp, Mike Roess Gold Branch State Park and the Old Jail and 1890 Historic Courthouse.

We spoke with a site representative at the Methodist Church, who told old tales of the church and grave site. He showed us the gravestone of Otis Dewey “Slim” Whitman, a country music singer-songwriter and guitarist who sold more than 70 million records and is buried alongside his wife, Jerry.

People have traveled from as far as Europe to see Slim’s burial site. Whitman toured with Elvis Presley as an opening act in the 1950s.

The church in front of the cemetery also holds U.S. Navy Seal Andrew Kenneth Baker (1960-1997).

The church has a unique and compelling history of its own.

Originally opened on July 27, 1828, by Issac Boring as the Black Creek Methodist Church, the structure represents the oldest Methodist church in Florida.

Dubious facts were discovered inside the Old Jail in Green Cove Springs.

Sheriffs Josephus Peeler, Charles Wilson and Theodore Cherry were each shot and killed in the line of duty in 1894, 1906 and 1913, respectively. Peeler died in an argument between two men at a train station; Wilson in an arrest attempt of a suspect aboard a train; and Cherry when speaking with a suspect during an investigative interview.

“The late 1800s and early 1900s were turbulent times in this part of Florida. The sheriff was often the lone lawman, facing daily threats and every kind of danger. During this time period, three Clay County Sheriffs were killed in the line of the duty,” a marker reads.

But that’s just the beginning of what residents can discover through the program, which Director of Tourism and Film Development Kimberly Morgan said the county revamped this year and will continue to make it an annual goal to unveil historical assets in Clay.

“My favorite fact that I love to ask people is, ‘What does Clay County have in common with New York City?’ The same company that built the Empire State Building built Camp Blanding in 90 days. You would never tie Clay and New York City together, but that was built to train soldiers to go to battle in World War II,” she said.

There’s also J.C Penney, Penney Farms and the scenic highway to brag about.

“The story of the retail mogul that was looking for a place to help his parents live when they retired. They were missionaries. That story is being told (by) national historic registries and buildings in Penney Farms. And the scenic highway is just a beautiful place to drive,” Morgan said.

She believes that the program has been highly successful.

“It’s really created a lot of new excitement about the history around the county. I think that so often, we (as residents) forget the stories that make the community what it really is. As destination marketers on the tourism side, we want to tell the rest of the world those stories,” she said.

The Passport Program provides the opportunity to do just that, with benefits included in the details.

“It makes it easy for people to check into each location, and they feel a sense of accomplishment when they visit a site. We’re also offering prizes,” Morgan said.

Those prizes include earning five historical postcards when visiting five sites and a waterproof phone carrier case when completing 10 visits.

It’s also a great sales pitch for local tourism.

“We are so excited. It’s a great experience for the visitor. So many of these stories we tell are generational. People who swam with their grandparents at Keystone Beach can grow up and swim with their grandchildren. Generations of Girl Scouts continue to go to Camp Chowenwaw and rekindle friendships. That makes people want to visit because they want that experience,” Morgan said.