Macclenny, Atop The Florida Crown Crossroads

"Atop The Florida Crown Crossroads"
By John Paul Jones

"North Florida Living/November 1985"

On a beautiful tree-shaded street in Macclenny, Florida there's a house with a small sign just above the steps leading to a wide porch that reads "Suits Us"

That sign might well be the town's slogan because everyone you talk to in this North Florida, "Old South" community is friendly--and they like life in Macclenny.

Actually, the slogan for the area is "The small county with big ideas...atop the Florida Crown crossroads".

It's a good slogan because Macclenny has a lot going for it. For example, not many communities with a population of about 4,500 have an arts foundations with art lessons, galleries and programs that run from drama, music, the arts, etc. and space for civic activities. This is the Gene Barber Arts Foundation, a non-profit corporation that serves North Florida and South Georgia residents. In addition Gene Barber is the "dean" of historians in the area--and more about him later.

In Macclenny, the old county courthouse, a truly picturesque ediface, now houses the Emily Taber Public Library, a marvelous place to browse in and soak up history from old vaults that now serve as "western" literature rooms or "romance" rooms.

The 24 year old library has traveled a tough road since it was founded by Emily Taber in a spare room of the St. James Episcopal Church. Then it moved to a downtown store and finally to the old courthouse. First it occupied the upper floor where the courtroom had been and to keep from running up and down stairs they used a "cherry picker" to hoist the books in through an upstairs window!

Now the library has a real home, in a building that has its own character, like the characters in the many books that line the walls.

Head librarian is Peggy McCollum. In the schools they call her the "Library Lady" because they don't know her name and she comes to the schools every week to tell them stories that fire their imaginations--and, Peggy McCollum hopes will cause them to use the library in later years.

Macclenny is preserving its history by putting it in jail!

The old county jail, built in 1911, is next door to the old courthouse and is used today by the Baker County Historical Society as a museum and genealogical library. It's open only once a week, however, on Tuesdays from 2 p.m. until 7 p.m. and people come from miles around to study the genealogical collection.

Unique County History

The area that is now Baker County was once part of five counties until February 8, 1881 when the Florida Legislature passed a bill that brought the present county into existence. The name "Baker" for the new county was chosen to honor James McNair Baker, a former judge of the Fourth Judicial District of Florida and a man who was one of two senators from Florida in the Confederate Congress at Richmond.

A man by the name of D.C. Prescott was named to set up the tax rolls and collect the taxes. He had no experience at the job as indicated by this letter he sent his superiors:
"Sir, I have made the assessments of taxes of Baker County the best that I could and as quick as possible and have made up by Books and forward on to you according to instructions I never don such a thing before and had no one to tele me how to fix up the Books to and the different laws referred to in the instructions I could not git them is no use to write to Villepege to attend to any business as it appears that he has become very caries in doing anything anymore if I was to write to him to send me the Books now perhaps I might git them about next christmas but I have done the best that I know how and I hope it will all be right you will pleas send instructions back as early as convenant as I want to commence collecting as early as possible as I may be called out in the Service this fall and I would like to close up this business before I go or come as near as possible."

The job wasn't easy because the law was set up to charge each white male over 21 and under 50, "except paupers, idiotic and insane persons," fifty cents each. There were 112 of them. Real estate was assessed at one sixth of one per cent of the value of land and the same for improvements. Slaves were assessed the same rate and there was 212 of them. Pleasure carriages, stage coaches, wagons, carts and drays cost the taxpayer one sixth of one per cent of value. The same charge was made for all horses, asses, mules, meat cattle, swine and sheep. Horses, asses and mules numbered 208; there were 4,859 cattle and 5,504 sheep and swine. Also assessed was all furniture, including gold and silver plates and musical instruments.

Mr. Prescott must have spent hours, days and weeks getting an inventory of all that.

The first county seat was at Sanderson but on February 22, 1886, it was decided by a vote of 243 to 220 to move it to Macclenny. Macclenny had several other names, including Darbyville, before it became Macclenny--and Macclenny had several spellings.

The name "Darbyville" came from the fact that a great deal of the land around what is now Macclenny was owned by the Darby family, cotton and corn farmers. Along came a timber salesman by the name of Carr Bowers McClenny who married a daughter named Ada of the original Darby family and bought land from the family.

They say that after "old man Darby" died the name of the town was changed from Darbyville to McClenny. At least Eppinger and Russell timber maps in 1890 used the spelling "McClenny" for the name of the town. Later the spelling was changed to "Macclenny", the present spelling.

There are a number of interesting stories that tell why the spelling was changed but the most plausible has to do with post office regulations that forbade the use of a capital letter in the middle of the name of a town, as in "McClenny", so the spelling became "Macclenny", according to Gene Barber.

The Sycamores

There were settlers in the Macclenny area as early as 1829 but most of the early arrivals came after the Indian wars and after the Civil War. Like settlers in other parts of the nation, they liked to take something with them that reminded them of home.

The Macclenny settlers brought crepe myrtle trees and sycamores. The latter trees they called "plane trees". Gene Barber says C.B. McClenny had "plane trees" planted all up and down the main streets of the new town that later bore his name. These trees remained until the 1950s and gradually disappeared but as a visitor to the town today, you will still see many large and beautiful sycamore trees in both Sanderson and Macclenny.

In one of his columns for the Baker County Press Gene Barber told about the early postmasters of Macclenny. He said the first post office was established in 1890 and between 1890 and 1896 there were two postmasters, J.D. Merritt, "a corpulent man using words sparingly with a set face and a shake of the head "No". The second was Mrs. Mamie Snowdan, wife of the Rev. Snowdan, builder of the Episcopal Academy. A short, sandy-haired, pleasant woman, who always asked, "Something wanted?".

Gene explains that the next postmaster went to Macclenny with C.B. McClenny. He was Walter Turner, a Republican who was known as a man "you could set your watch by", because he was so punctual in opening and closing the post office.

Old Courthouse

The old courthouse you'll see in downtown Macclenny today, now a library, was built in 1908. The jail next door was built in 1911 and had some additions in the 1930s.[now home of the Historical Society]

Courthouse under contruction, 1908

The oldest public building in the county was one of the first buildings to use reinforced concrete construction. Four corner tower like appendages are attached to the main square base in the center making this building unique. The eaves are patterned rolled, galvanized sheet metal. The brick has colored mortar and corner joints are angled.

Gene Barber says of the courthouse: "Gubernatorial candidate Fuller Warren told his notorious bedbug tale on its steps (the bedbugs were so thick at a place he once stayed that they lifted him off the bed)."

"Governor Sidney Catts told the locals gathered in its yard that they had three friends--Jesus Christ, Sears-Roebuck, and Sidney J. Catts. Governor Fred Cone suggested while gossiping in the hall that maybe giving the vote to women would not be such a bad idea if things could be balanced off by taking votes away from black males."

"Sheriff Joe Jones sat on a bench in the hallway and sent word to those for whom he had an arrest warrant to drop by. They always did. Soft spoken Sheriff Jones never wore a gun."

"Sheriff Shannon Green was tragically gunned down at the old building's front door and tried to drag himself toward his wife and family as his last breath failed."

"Murder trials and their sordid testimonies rang in the upstairs courtroom. Folks dropped off mustard greens for the officials' wives. Unusually large or strangely shaped fruits and vegetables were often displayed in the voter registration office."

Gene wrote that when votes were counted at election time, "Observers stood around with pistols bulging under their belts, while the counters droned, "Tally".

He said that when he was three-years-old his grandmother fell down the front steps of the old courthouse and landed on top of him. He said, "His grandmother could be described as hefty--rest her beautiful sole--and it took the efforts of Judge Hardware Brown and a half dozen other gentlemen to lift her from her squooshed grandson as she laughed heartily all the while".

In conclusion he said the courthouse chimes could be heard a couple of miles away. If you get the idea that Macclenny had an interesting, exciting, vigorous, Old West type background, you're correct. Gene can tell you about this corner and that spot where someone was gunned down. And there was the yellow fever epidemic that wiped out Darbyville and nearly finished off Macclenny.

The fever began in Jacksonville and spread to Macclenny. The first victim of "Yellow Jack" was the Rev. C.S. Snowdan. He had founded the first school in Macclenny, a girls' school built in 1885. That was the St. James Academy for Girls. Everyone thought the Reverend Snowdan was immune to the disease. They wouldn't even let the Tallahassee to Baldwin train stop in Macclenny. It slowed enough to throw off supplies for the stricken town. The epidemic forced the academy to close, never to re-open, and records at the Episcopal Church indicated that more than 90 percent of the congregation was wiped out by Yellow Fever.

New Courthouse under construction 1946 - U.S. 90 looking west

Quality of Life

My own contacts with Macclenny date from the early 1950s when Tate Powell, Jr. and his wife, Lois, owned and operated the Baker County Press.

When they sold the newspaper in 1974, I was on hand to buy their hand-set type, a job press and other printing equipment that I could set up and operate in my garage in Gainesville just to preserve the old way of printing. I still have all the equipment and at one time completely hand-set a book of poems and printed it on the small job press.

As a result I feel I have a bit of the history of Macclenny preserved in Gainesville. During my visits with the Powells since 1952, I have been most impressed about the quality of life that has been preserved in this small community and the contributions this rural area has made to Florida and the nation.

For example, at the time I was visiting Macclenny it was known as the horticultural capital of Florida. That title went back many years to the time George L. Taber moved to the small community of Glen Saint Mary, just west of Macclenny, and bought some property on the St. Mary's river. He began raising peaches and in time was selling budded stock to his neighbors. From that practice he developed a private nursery that in 1907 became incorporated as the Glen St. Mary Nursery, a name that became a by-word throughout Florida.

Through the years this nursery discovered or developed many new horticultural products. It was responsible for the standardization of orange varieties.

Today, Macclenny is still a great horticultural center with wholesale nurseries west and south of town. The Glen Saint Mary Nursery is still around, as well as Southern States Nursery, another oldie, and Blair Nurseries.

The new kid on the block is Ray's Nursery, Inc. at Sanderson, which was presented an award recently by Florida's Lt. Governor Wayne Mixon and Jacksonville's Mayor Jake Godbold "Because of the nursery's increase in economic impact over the past 18 months due to a large increase in employees and payroll."

There are two kinds of wholesale nurseries in the Macclenny area: container and field nurseries. Ray's operation is a container variety. The corporation has 180 acres of cans that contain azaleas, junipers, and broadleaf ornamentals, as well as other plants. Trucks from the corporation move out all over the southeast delivering their products to landscapers, garden centers and chain stores. Between 250 and 300 persons are employed by the company, which is in the process of expanding with the addition of another 100 acres of containers.

These Macclenny nurseries are not fly-by-night, small operations but multi-million dollar operations. For example, in cold weather like we've had the past two winters it is possible to spend 50 to 75 thousand dollars for plastic cloth to protect containers that hold five or six million dollars worth of plants.

During the Great Depression, the nurseries sort of held the economy together in Baker County--but not altogether.

There was also moonshine. At one time Macclenny was known as the moonshine capital of the south.

Gene Barber says the reason there weren't many moonshiners in Macclenny around 1900 was because there weren't many people in the area then.

At any rate, the moonshining began to dwindle in the 1950s and has been held to a minimum in recent years. Someone has said that Macclenny has become a kind of "bedroom community" for Jacksonville but this is not true because even though the town is considered a rural area it has many of the features and opportunities offered in larger urban areas. It has a well-equipped hospital and Rescue Service, a shopping center, many small home-owned businesses, along with good schools and churches.

There are lots of shaded, uncrowded streets, playgrounds, and plenty of good water. It appears to be a good place to live and bring up the family.

Let's go back to that sign, "Suits Us". There's a story about it. It's on the "T.M. Dorman House". Mr. Doman had this rambling Queen Anne house built for his wife, according to her plans, in 1910.

Neighbors didn't like the plans because the house had so many small rooms. They couldn't figure out why Mrs. Dorman wanted so many small rooms--and they told her so quite frequently.

As a result, she became tired of saying she liked the house just the way it was so she had the sign made and put it up--and it is still there, even though the house is owned toady by Mr. and Mrs. R.I. Lambright, no relatives of the Dormans.

There's one other thing I almost forgot to mention.

It's the hospitality. Frequently in my travels about North Florida I've heard people say, "If you really want some outstanding North Florida hospitality go to Macclenny." They know what they're talking about.

Emily Taber Public Library

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