A Place Called Spuds

When we think of potatoes, we often think of Idaho. Years of good marketing have helped us make that connection in our minds. But would you believe that Florida also has a long history of potato farming? It’s true! Potatoes have been an especially popular crop in northeastern Florida around Palatka and Hastings. One community in St. Johns County was so enthusiastic about growing the tasty tuber that it adopted a very potato-ish name, Spuds.

Excerpt of a tourist map of St. Johns County showing Spuds and other communities between the Florida East Coast Railway and the St. Johns River (ca. 1940). Click or tap the image to view the complete map.

Excerpt of a tourist map of St. Johns County showing Spuds and other communities between the Florida East Coast Railway and the St. Johns River (ca. 1940). Click or tap the image to view the complete map.

The community was originally called Holy Branch and populated by several families of Minorcans, descendants of workers brought to Florida in the 1700s by a Scotsman, Dr. Andrew Turnbull, to work on his plantation at New Smyrna (details on that here). A post office was first established at Holy Branch in 1886, with Albert I. Rogers as postmaster.

Excerpt from an 1892 map by Rand, McNally & Company showing Holy Branch, later known as Spuds, in St. Johns County. Click or tap the image to view the complete map.

Excerpt from an 1892 map by Rand, McNally & Company showing Holy Branch, later known as Spuds, in St. Johns County. Click or tap the image to view the complete map.

In the 1880s, a railroad line opened between East Palatka and St. Augustine, which helped open up the region for industry and large-scale agriculture. By the early 20th century, truck farming – especially potato farming – was a major industry in the area, and the population had ticked up to about 120. Joseph Minton, who came from one of the more prominent local potato-farming families, applied for a new post office in 1911, and decided to give the community a new name – Spuds.

Group of men grading potatoes (1920s).

Group of men grading potatoes for marketing (1920s).

But potatoes weren’t the only product in town – far from it. While lots of acreage around Spuds had been cleared for truck farming, there was still plenty of virgin yellow pine forest in the area, which made it perfect for the timber and turpentine industries. In fact, there was even a “Spuds Turpentine Company” that operated throughout the 1920s and 1930s. Small aluminum coins the company paid to its employees in lieu of cash (called “scrip”) still pop up in auctions from time to time.

A worker collects sap drained from a pine tree to distill into spirits of turpentine (ca. 1900).

A worker collects sap drained from a pine tree to distill into spirits of turpentine (ca. 1900).

These days, the community of Spuds is little more than a wide spot in the road on State Road 207. A few crumbling remains of the old turpentine operation can still be found out in the woods, as well as fragments of old buildings belonging to some of the early inhabitants. The post office is long gone; residents either get their mail from Hastings or Elkton. Perhaps the one thing that hasn’t changed is the potatoes – there are still several large farms in the area.

Susan Deen, Florida Potato Queen in 1962, poses in a field in Hastings, just down the road from Spuds, with a sack of Florida potatoes (photo 1962).

Susan Deen, Florida Potato Queen in 1962, poses in a field in Hastings, just down the road from Spuds, with a sack of Florida potatoes.

What kinds of crops are grown in your corner of Florida, and how has that industry shaped the local history? Give us your thoughts in the comments section below, and share this post with friends and family on social media.