Love & War

It’s said that absence makes the heart grow fonder. The experience of Floridian Confederate soldier Albert Symington Chalker and his sweetheart Martha Bardin certainly illustrates the point well. Albert and Martha (or “Mattie”) were from Middleburg in Clay County. Either before or during the Civil War, they became acquainted, and the long-distance courtship that followed produced one of the most heart-warming series of letters held by the State Archives of Florida.

Albert Chalker to Martha Bardin, May 8, 1864. This is the earliest letter in the Chalker Collection held by the Archives (Collection M72-11).

Albert Chalker to Martha Bardin, May 8, 1864. This is the earliest letter in the Chalker Collection held by the Archives (Collection M72-11).

In his first letter to Bardin (that we have), Chalker describes what it was like to arrive at Camp Finegan near present-day Lake City, and how the soldiers went about setting up their tents and equipment with an air of joviality. Chalker, however, was missing his dear sweetheart:

“I am sitting here alone thinking how hapy I might be if I was with my dear Mattie. Yes, if I was with you this evening I would be hapy. I did not know what it was to love, or how much I loved you untill now. I will quit writeing in this tone for I fear I am getting two sentimental, and you will think I am crazy.”

Chalker continued to write letters to Mattie through the end of the war, almost always saying he had no interesting news to share, although he does indeed provide some interesting tidbits about the everyday life of a Confederate soldier in Florida. He often ended his letters with bits of poetry. Some of the verses appear to come from established poets of the day, such as Bayard Taylor and Edward Everett. The origins of some of the poems are unknown. Either way, Chalker attempted to make up for his absence by writing the most loving bits of verse he could find into his messages. Here’s one poem that appears to have been taken from the text of a Valentine’s Day card from 1840:

Excerpt of Albert Chalker's letter to Martha Bardin, November 20, 1864 (Collection M72-11, State Archives of Florida).

Excerpt of Albert Chalker’s letter to Martha Bardin, November 20, 1864 (Collection M72-11, State Archives of Florida).

Fondly love my heart is beating
With affection warm and true to thee;
And timely I would send this greeting
Where I fain would wish to be.

 

Martha did her share of writing as well. In one letter, she chides Albert for not writing as much as he should:

Martha Bardin to Albert Chalker, January 18, 1865 (Collection M72-11, State Archives of Florida).

“I have written to you before nearly two weeks since, and have not heard a word from you yet. Now for your scolding. I want to know why it is you have not written. Have I offended you in any way? If so let me know and not keep me in suspense as I am. I sometimes think you have gone home sick or to the hospital or that I said something in my last letter you did not like, and sometimes I think like the Dutch man’s boy.”

We can be sure this was quite gentle criticism, because this Florida love story has a very happy ending. Albert Chalker was honorably paroled on May 17, 1865 after Florida’s Confederate forces formally surrendered to General Edward M. McCook of the United States. He returned to Clay County and married Martha Ann Bardin in December 1865. Martha’s father, William Sims Bardin, gave his Middleburg residence to the couple as a wedding gift. Albert and Martha Chalker settled and remained there for the rest of their lives. Albert Chalker served for 17 years as Middleburg’s postmaster, and as tax collector for Clay County from 1881 to 1885. He was also a prominent businessman, and operated both a private ferry on the south prong of Black Creek and a general store in Middleburg.

The historic Clark-Chalker House at 3891 Main Street in Middleburg, Clay County (circa 1988).

The historic Clark-Chalker House at 3891 Main Street in Middleburg, Clay County (circa 1988).

Don’t forget to check out the rest of the letters from this romantic exchange in the Albert S. Chalker Papers.

J.C. Penney Had a Farm

If you ever find yourself in Northeast Florida looking for a pleasant route for driving, we recommend State Road 16 between Green Cove Springs and Starke. There’s not much traffic, the scenery is nice, and you’ll pass through a remarkable relic of Florida history called Penney Farms. At first glance, the town bears the usual hallmarks of a North Florida village – large shade trees, wood-frame houses, and a historical marker here and there. Read one of those markers, however, and you’ll learn that Penney Farms was a planned community, developed from scratch in the 1920s by the department store tycoon J.C. Penney himself.
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It’ll Cure What Ails Ya!

These days, most of Florida’s visitors come because they want to relax, see some beautiful scenery, or just have fun. In the 19th and early 20th centuries, however, a number of tourists arrived with more pressing business. Many came not on a whim, but with a prescription. That’s right – mosquitoes, heat, and hurricanes notwithstanding, Florida was widely believed to be an excellent place for folks up north to recuperate from a wide range of medical problems.

A warm climate helped give Florida this reputation for healthfulness, but the state was much more than just a sunny spot at the southern tip of the country. It was also home to a number of mineral springs whose cold, clear, and often strongly scented waters were thought to have medicinal properties. As a result, part of the state’s fledgling tourist industry developed around providing facilities for enjoying these springs while living in the lap of luxury. Today we’ll take a look at three North Florida resorts that enjoyed high popularity in the heyday of the mineral spring cure.

Map showing the locations of several mineral spring resorts in North Florida.

Map showing the locations of several mineral spring resorts in North Florida.

Green Cove Springs

Green Cove Springs was one of the first mineral springs to catch on as a vacation destination for the wealthy but unwell. In 1853 a superintendent from a New York asylum for the mentally ill, Dr. Nathan Benedict, moved to Florida and established a hotel at nearby Magnolia Springs. The water emerging from underground at this location smelled strongly of sulfur, which had been infused into the water during its time beneath the surface. The odor might have been a bit strong, but Dr. Benedict advertised the springs as one of the healthiest places in Florida for invalids to regain their vitality.

Stereograph of the original hotel at Magnolia Springs, near Green Cove Springs (circa 1870s).

Stereograph of the original hotel at Magnolia Springs, near Green Cove Springs (circa 1870s).

The Civil War put a damper on Benedict’s business, and he decided to sell the place shortly after the war’s end. The new owners expanded the hotel in 1872 and began building cottages along the St. Johns River. Several more hotels, including the Union, St. Clair, and Clarendon hotels, opened to visitors. Guests at these resorts enjoyed fine dining and lavishly decorated rooms, in addition to the waters of the nearby springs. Brochures recommended taking the water by mouth and by bathing for “Neuralgia, Nervous Prostration, Rheumatism, Liver and Kidney Complaints.”

Bathing pool at Green Cove Springs (circa 1870s).

Bathing pool at Green Cove Springs (circa 1870s).

The Clarendon Hotel, Green Cove Springs (circa 1890s).

The Clarendon Hotel, Green Cove Springs (circa 1890s).

Panacea Mineral Springs

A similar enterprise emerged in the 1890s off to the west near the Ochlockonee River Bay. In 1895, a man named W.C. Tully founded a town called Panacea, named for the supposed curative powers of the small mineral springs located in the area. Tully built a post office and several cottages, and then a hotel.

Panacea Mineral Springs Hotel (circa 1929).

Panacea Mineral Springs Hotel (circa 1929).

While not as large or as prosperous as the resorts at Green Cove Springs, the mineral springs at Panacea had their share of visitors in the early 1900s. In 1901, local entrepreneurs completed a mule-drawn tram line to carry visitors between Sopchoppy and Panacea. The tram was crude and often jumped its tracks, but it remained in service until World War I.

Panacea-Sopchoppy tram car (circa 1900s).

Panacea-Sopchoppy tram car (circa 1900s).

The proprietors began bottling water from the springs and selling it locally and by mail order. One advertisement for Panacea Mineral Springs offered the water at 50 cents per 5-gallon bottle.

One of the springs at Panacea is channeled through a wooden stump to create a fountain (circa 1930).

One of the springs at Panacea is channeled through a wooden stump to create a fountain (circa 1930).

Hampton Springs

One of the longest-lasting mineral spring resorts was located at Hampton Springs in Taylor County, Florida. The property, once known as “Rocky Creek Mineral Springs,” was sold to the Hampton family in 1857, just as Taylor was emerging as an independent county. As with Green Cove Springs, the Civil War and the economic malaise of the ensuing years prevented any immediate development of the site. In 1900, however, the Hamptons formed a corporation with local shareholders, and by 1908 a hotel and bath house were in place.

The Live Oak, Perry & Gulf Railroad ran east and west near the hotel, but this did little to attract visitors from points farther north. J.W. Oglesby, a railroad magnate from Adel, Georgia, recognized the problem and offered to take on Hampton Springs as an investment. In 1915, he and the original shareholders reorganized the springs’ corporation, and Oglesby extended his South Georgia Railroad down into nearby Perry to facilitate better access to the hotel, which he also expanded. By 1920, the Hampton Springs Hotel was one of the finest hotels in the vicinity, with indoor baths, manicured lawns, a golf course, and elaborate facilities for enjoying the waters of the mineral spring.

Front of the Hampton Springs Hotel (circa 1916).

Front of the Hampton Springs Hotel (circa 1916).

As with the Panacea Mineral Springs, the Hampton Springs proprietors sold their water in bottles by mail order. An advertisement from the 1920s offered cases of 12 half-gallon bottles for six dollars, or 5-gallon demijohns for four dollars. Buyers who returned the empty bottles to the springs received a rebate.

An early bath house at Hampton Springs, built in 1906 (photo circa 1916).

An early bath house at Hampton Springs, built in 1906 (photo circa 1916).

Whereas a number of Florida’s mineral spring resorts had faded by the end of the 1920s, Hampton Springs survived until it burned in 1954. Part of its longevity rested on the owners’ willingness to change with the times. As medical experts began discarding “water cures” in favor of more modern methods and prescription drugs, mineral spring resorts as such were not nearly as popular. The facilities, however, were still as luxurious as ever. The trick was to renovate them into something people would want to use.

Toward this end, the owners of Hampton Springs focused on building up their popularity as a golf resort, hunting and fishing lodge, and a wilderness retreat. Promoters referred to Taylor County and the surrounding area as Florida’s “last frontier,” with Hampton Springs as an island of luxury in the middle. This business model extended the life of the resort, which became more like a club in its later years.

The old-style mineral spring resorts are gone now, but the springs they once made available to health-seeking visitors are still around for the most part. They remind us of Florida’s historic reputation as a place of rejuvenation. Sometimes, it seems, a little Florida sunshine (and mineral water) is just what the doctor ordered!