Green Cove Springs is a city located along the west bank of the historic St. Johns River and since 1871 has served as the County Seat of Government for Clay County, Florida. The current population estimate is 8,313 as of July 2018 based on information from the United States Census Bureau.
The city’s name originates from the three physical characteristics. “Green” refers to the perennially green vegetation characterized by its treescape and foliage. “Cove” refers to a bend in the St. Johns River creating a safe area for mooring of boats during inclement weather periods. “Springs” refers to the natural spring (one of 600 in Florida), originating from the “Floridan Aquifer” with an estimated flow rate of approximately 2,200 gallons per minute. The spring water flows into the west side of the municipal swimming pool and then flows out the east side forming a stream eventually emptying into the St. Johns River.
The first inhabitants of this region some 5,000 years ago were natives referred to as aboriginals, who were attracted to the area because of the warm mineral spring. The spring (also referred to as “The Boil”) was a source of sustenance and curative qualities for a variety of sicknesses. The medicinal qualities of the spring and its location along the St. Johns River served as major contributors to the community’s development as a prominent attraction and destination for tourists during the 19th Century.
The first development of the area to become Green Cove Springs was by George I. F. Clarke in 1816 from land he received from a Spanish Land Grant. Mr. Clark used the land for construction and operation of a lumber or sawmill for harvesting of Live Oak trees.
In 1854, “White Sulfur Springs” was the name of the first development attempted by David Palmer and Sarah Ferris. In 1866 it was renamed “Green Cove Springs,” including establishment of the first Post Office, and later became the County Seat of Clay County in 1871. On November 2, 1874, the Town of Green Cove Springs officially incorporated. Live Oak harvesting was the major industry during this period.
During the late 1880’s, the town experienced great prosperity as evidenced by the large number and quality of hotels constructed near the spring and surrounding area. The medicinal qualities of the spring and tropical climate of the area during the winter months made Green Cove Springs a popular vacation destination. Because of its prominence, it earned recognition as “The Saratoga of the South,” “The Parlor City,” and “Watering Hole for the Rich”. Tourists and visitors journeyed along the St. Johns River from Jacksonville by riverboats bearing names like “The Florence,” “The Magnolia,” “The Manatee,” and “The May Garner.” Northern visitors enjoyed the warm climate of the community and the medicinal qualities of the spring during the winter months, staying at several hotels like “The Cherokee,” “The Clarendon,” “The Magnolia Springs Hotel,” “The Morganza,” “The Mohawk,” “The Qui-si-Sana,” “The Oakland,” and “The St. Elmo.” The accommodations of these hotels were comparable to famous hotels in cities like Chicago, New York, and Philadelphia.
Green Cove Springs had the first “trolley system” in the state providing transportation for commodities, residents and visitors with their luggage from the riverbank piers to the various lodging accommodations in the city. The prominence of the community as a winter-style resort changed when Henry Flagler constructed his railroad, allowing northern visitors to vacation in destinations further south in more tropical areas like Palm Beach and Miami. The onset of the new railroad system also led to the decline of riverboat use for transporting tourists to the hotels and thus ended the community’s prominence as a destination for northern visitors during the winter season.
During the community’s distinction as a tourist resort, it was also the home of “Gustafson's Farm,” owned and operated by Frank and Agnes Gustafson. Their family dairy operation began in 1908 within the city and earned recognition as “Mama and Papa Gus.” They started delivery of milk products to the local hotels supplied from one cow named "Buttercup." The dairy operations moved to a 10,000-acre location just south of the city and continued to grow, earning it recognition as one of the largest privately owned dairies in the Southeastern part of the United States. The packaging of the dairy’s products still features “Mama and Papa Gus” as the original owners of the famous dairy. In addition to the dairy, Mr. Gustafson was the owner and operator of the first Ford dealership in the State and was purported to have had the first Model T vehicle delivered.
In 1883 the Ladies Village Improvement Association of Green Cove Springs incorporated to promote beautification efforts within the city and later evolved into becoming the first Federated Women’s Club of Florida and is a current member of the General Federation of Women’s Clubs. Today, the Village Improvement Association (VIA) still exists and operates from the building dedicated in 1915 and housed the first Public Library in the community for many years. The Village Improvement Association continues its concerted efforts for social, educational work and beautification projects to benefit the unique quality of life enjoyed by present and future generations of Green Cove Springs.
In the 1930’s, the town began a slow recovery following the years after the “Great Depression” receiving funding from the "Works Progress Administration” (WPA) for construction of a new high school, the recreational building adjacent to the spring / swimming pool area, and other community improvement projects.
Green Cove Springs also experienced further recovery in the mid to late 1930’s from the federal government’s decision to commence construction of two (2) military installations in the area. One was “Benjamin Lee Field” in Green Cove Springs and the other one was “Camp Blanding,” a National Guard Training facility approximately 18 to 22 miles west of the city on State Road 16.
The United States Department of the Navy officially opened a flight training facility named after Ensign Benjamin Lee, a pilot, a Navy Cross recipient, and a casualty of WWI. Benjamin Lee Field was a Naval Air Training Field designed to train pilots for landing operations on aircraft carriers during WWII. The facility consisted of four (4) 5,000-foot runways, aircraft maintenance and support services, and housing for military personnel. The facility was later renamed Naval Air Station Green Cove Springs and later re-designated or downgraded as a Naval Auxiliary Station, associated with the NAS Jacksonville complex. During this period, the government expanded the complex with construction of thirteen (13) concrete piers extending approximately 1,500 feet into the St. Johns River, serving as the berthing place for over 600 ships placed in reserve status and referred to as the world’s largest “Mothball Fleet."
The community’s vibrancy increased once again and sustained through 1960 when the federal government decommissioned NAAS Green Cove Springs, reassigning personnel, equipment, and ships to other installations. Some of the reserve vessels were transferred to foreign governments and the remaining ships relocated to other US Fleet Reserve installations. The City of Green Cove Springs purchased this facility from the federal government during the early 1960’s in the hope of developing the property into a center for industrial development. However, they later sold the property to the J. Louis Reynolds Corporation for development of a premier Industrial Park for Northeast Florida.
In the early 1980’s the City experienced numerous changes that have affected its present day characteristics and size. The first of these changes involved going from a Commission – Manager Form of government to a City Council – Manager form of government. The City also increased in area through annexations of the Reynolds Industrial Park, aka, Clay County Port, Incorporated (the former NAAS complex consisting of approximately 1,500 acres), in 1982 followed in 1985 by another annexation of land known as the Magnolia Point Golf and Country Club (consisting of approximately 950 acres). There have been other annexations resulting in the increase of the City’s land area to approximately 7.2 square miles. The City of Green Cove Springs is a full service local government providing full municipal services (electric, sanitation, stormwater, water, and wastewater utilities) for industrial, commercial, and residential customers.
In 1988, the City’s economic growth and development received recognition from the Jacksonville Business Journal of two Green Cove Springs “Home Grown Businesses.” The two companies receiving this prestigious designation as two of the “First Coast Fifty” businesses were Gustafson’s Dairy and Taylor Precast, Incorporated. Each business received this honored recognition, as two of the areas’ most successful sources of economic growth and development. Both companies were honored as significant employers of area residents and had significant contributions to economic growth and development of the City during this era.
In late 1989, a Cultural Resource Survey of Green Cove Springs was conducted to determine the existence of historically significant characteristics of properties and sites with the community. The completion of this survey found approximately 198 structures of historical significance contributing to the community’s early development. A consequence of the Cultural Resource Survey was the establishment of two (2) National Register District Designations containing approximately 70 to 75 contributing historical structures. The major sites recognized in the National Register Districts are the former historic Clay County Courthouse, County Jail, Spring Park complex, St. Mary’s Episcopal Church and Village Improvement Association. The Historical Triangle is home base for the former Historical Clay County Courthouse, County Jail (presently serves as the Clay County Archives and Research Center), the Clay County Historical Society’s History, and Railroad Museums. The remaining buildings within the two districts consist of commercial and residential structures attributable to the early development of Green Cove Springs. The current River Park Inn Bed and Breakfast reflects the last remaining connection to the many grand hotels of Green Cove Springs’ past era as a popular tourist destination. The current River Park Inn Bed and Breakfast building was formerly the Guest Cottage of the former Clarendon Hotel.
In July 1998, President William Jefferson Clinton signed legislation designating the Historic St. Johns River as an “American Heritage River.” This historic river was and remains a desirable focal point for growth of the community and serves as a major component for recreational amenities and transportation opportunities related to commercial, industrial, and residential developments.
In April of 2004, the City relocated its operations from 229 Walnut Street, the former City Hall, adjacent to the municipal swimming pool and moved into a new two-story stucco structure situated on the site of the former “Clarendon” and “Qui-si-Sana” hotels. The present day City Hall complex emulates the “Mediterranean” architectural style of the former Qui-si-Sana hotel to preserve a historical link to the community’s past heritage and history.
The City continues actively pursuing future growth and development opportunities and programs designed to encourage and perpetuate economic benefits for commercial, industrial, and residential developments while preserving its unique quality of life for present and future residents.
The City’s future appears bright and promising due to several projected developments in and around its geographical area. These planned activities and projects are considered as potential elements for sustaining future economic growth and development. One of the anticipated projects is the construction of the First Coast Expressway, a multi-lane toll expressway spanning from I-10 in Duval County to I-95 in St. Johns County with several exits throughout Clay County. Construction began in 2018, with the last leg of construction anticipated to start in 2023.
The First Coast Expressway will immediately circle Green Cove Springs, with entrances and exits just outside of city limits. The proximity of the expressway to the city provides opportunities in both residential and business growth. The City is currently preparing for that growth by updating its electric, water, and wastewater systems to handle increased use, as well as reviewing zoning and development standards to assist in better growth management.
In 2005, the City Council of Green Cove Springs adopted a plan for its future and referenced it as “Tomorrow’s Vision,” consisting of a Mission Statement devoted to “Create a plan that will define our unique identity, assure quality of life and make Green Cove Springs a premier 21st century city that reflects our traditional values, natural features and historic characteristics.” The City took that mission statement and goals and created “2012 Vision Implementation Measures.” This document breaks down the goals from the 2005 “Tomorrow’s Vision” into several projects and a year to begin each project or group of projects. Those goals were further updated and refined in 2018 to create a “Vision 2025.” The City held a Community Visioning workshop in March 2018 and identified seven priorities when it comes to future development in Green Cove Springs: Appearance/beautification, quality of life, economic development, development/redevelopment, education, government services/operations, and infrastructure. The City Council further condensed these priorities to development, government services, quality of life, and education, with emphasis on downtown redevelopment, property beautification, and clean up in projects under the “Vision 2025” plan. Further information about this document is available for review on the City’s website at greencovesprings.com/visioning.
The City is also experiencing a rebirth or resurgence of tourism opportunities since the reconstruction of the City Pool in 2016. The $2.4 million project included reconstructing the 135,000 gallon spring-fed pool, building a new two-story pavilion with new bathrooms and a concession area on the first floor in place of the demolished old city hall building, a splash pad, new walkways and wheelchair accessible ramps, and new railing and signage around the spring. Since its completion in 2017, the pool has become the City’s top attraction for visitors—serving as a centerpiece for City and City-sponsored events—as well as convinced several new businesses to call Green Cove Springs home.
Green Cove Springs is the birthplace of several notable persons and influenced by several prominent and successful individuals. Augusta Christine Fells Savage grew up in Green Cove Springs and became an accomplished African American sculptor during the Harlem Renaissance period. Mrs. Savage was posthumously honored in 2008 by induction into the Florida Artist Hall of Fame. Mrs. Savage’s family also donated the land for construction of the former Paul H. Dunbar High School, which now bears her name as the Augusta Savage Arts and Community Center. Charles E. Merrill is also a native of Green Cove Springs. He is the son of Dr. C. M. Merrill, a local physician during the late 1880’s. Charles E. Merrill moved to New York and became co-founder of the successful and internationally renowned Merrill Lynch & Company Investment firm.
Several other prominent persons are recognized purveyors to development of the community such as Mr. James Cash Penney, owner of the J. C. Penney Retail Stores and developer of Penney Retirement Community, located eight miles west of Green Cove Springs (Penney Farms). Mr. A. G. Shands is the constructor of the Shands Bridge, believed to be the longest wooden bridge in Florida spanning approximately 2.5 miles across the St. Johns River. Colonel Ed McMahon, who served in the U.S. Marine Corps Reserve, served as a flight-training instructor at Benjamin Lee Field during WWII and is best known for his association with the famous Johnny Carson show.
We invite you to further tour our website for information and associated links to local business, civic and governmental websites including the City’s Facebook page and to learn more about Historic Green Cove Springs.
For further information on what was known as the "Hotel Era", please follow this link to the Clay County Archives: Hotel Era