The Early Florida Village exhibit located at the Clay County Agricultural Fairgrounds was the nest egg of Sarah Lynn Boe, who nurtured it into being from humble beginnings in 1991 in a replicated cracker-style house constructed by Clay High School students. She continued with the vision for this village by obtaining other log/wood style homes donated by local families and by the second year it was evident that this educational exhibit of days gone by needed more space. Since that time other exhibits have been added, as the exhibit outgrew its original area on the actual fairgrounds. "Miss Sarah" was successfully involved in lobbying for five acres of a 10-acre tract of land where the exhibit is now located.
Besides the homes of pioneer Clay County families such as the Baxley's, Mosley's, Padgett's and Johns' the exhibit features a barn, grist mill and other typical structures of the early days in Florida. These original structures dot the landscape of the Early Florida Village with the promise of more to come. Preserving the simple lifestyle of days gone by continues through the valiant efforts of the Clay County Fair Board, making their vision a must-see adventure at the Clay County Agricultural Fair.
The Clay County Fair Board approved the building of a replica of an early church in 2003 at the end of the village walkway. With the ringing of the bell from the church tower, visitors are called to enjoy choirs, quartets and stringed instrument groups singing and playing familiar gospel tunes. From the many religious groups represented in Clay County, you will browse through books, photos and other memorabilia dating back as far as 1850.
In 2004, the latest addition to the exhibit was the garden/farming exhibit. Master Gardeners from the Clay County Extension Office have volunteered items for planting a small garden with vegetables and flowers. Some vegetables are even started from heirloom seeds. Home-grown vegetables, a variety of plants and an array of flowers are good examples of what could be found growing in the gardens of early pioneer settlers. Master Gardeners are on hand each year to discuss the exhibit or answer any questions you may have during the course of the exhibit hours and dates each year during the Clay County Agricultural Fair.
Known by visitors as “the one-room schoolhouse” from Penney Farms, dating back to the 1920s, in actuality, the barn-like structure was built in the late 1940s or early 1950s to alleviate overcrowding at the original school. The building, which did house 1st and 2nd grades, was attached to the rear of the existing school by a covered wooden walkway. The main three-room school housed nine grades, with three grades to each room. With the activation of Camp Blanding and the advent of the Naval Base in Green Cove Springs, student population in Penney Farms boomed, making the addition of the 1st and 2nd grade structure a necessity. This building was moved to the Fairgrounds from Penney Farms and is charming, as one is transported back in time to earlier days.
During the Fair, various educational exhibits are displayed inside making this historic structure a lesson in history each year at the Early Florida exhibit and a "must see" stop at the Clay County Agricultural Fair.
The old jail from Penney Farms is a mystery to most folks with its one cell and missing history. It is known that at least three people were locked up overnight in two separate incidents. Two robbers were caught and occupied one cell overnight and a teenager prankster spent the night there “to teach him a lesson.”
After months of negotiations, coordination and planning, the Maguire Timber Corporation Commissary – that was a landmark in the community of Elwood, Florida crossed the St. Johns River via the Shands Bridge in November 2007 and is now located next to the church at the Early Florida Village.
The structure, while equally tied to the history of St. Johns County, is also a historic reminder of the impact the turpentine industry had in Clay County.
In 2008, the Maguire Commissary was officially dedicated illustrating the Clay County Fair Association's efforts of highlighting the importance of the turpentine, pulpwood and timber industry was to Early Florida communities. The “tools of the trade” involved in this important industry are displayed in this original structure, with more memorabilia added each year.
Located next to the Syrup House, an all-purpose pavilion was also dedicated in 2008 in honor of June Reinhold Myers. Sit in the shade and listen to the music that provided our early pioneers with relaxation and entertainment.
In 2009, a "Honey House" was added to the Early Florida exhibit and has already won state and national awards for being the "Best New Idea" on the promotion of agriculture education at a county fair. The Honey House venture is a cooperative effort between the Clay County Fair Association, the Extension Service, and the Northeast Florida Honey Bee Keepers Association. During the fair, the Honey Bee Keepers Association staffs and educates fair guests on the importance of honey bees, displaying the tools of the trade and actually demonstrating the honey making operation – from the honey comb to the honey jar.
Also new in 2009 is the addition of an antique car exhibit. Fair visitors are treated to an educational glimpse into the transportation mode of years gone by. This new exhibit has become very popular and is growing each year under the leadership of Al Heyne.
In 2010, an existing pavilion at Early Florida was expanded and converted into a jelly making operation. This exhibit shows fairgoers how to make apple jelly from raw apples. This exhibit is manned by the Knight family – Rene and Don Knight.
Making its debut during the 2011 Fair is The “MILL HOUSE” compliments of Don Knight. Every small town or village had a central location where shelled corn could be ground into grits and corn meal. In more rural settings, a small grits mill was actually one of the pieces of power equipment located in or adjacent to the livestock barn. See a 19th century grits mill and “fanning” operation turn shelled corn into food staples found in every southern kitchen for over the past 250 years. Also, take time to look at the selection of antique hand tools on display and see if you can identify their uses.
The Crosscut Saw Exhibit was moved in 2012 in an effort to recognize the importance of the timber industry. The Florida Department of Forestry has a “hands on” Cross Cut Saw Exhibit and Forestry Museum has been relocated adjacent to the Maguire Commissary. Forest Rangers are on hand to answer questions and interact with visitors.
The crosscut saw cleared millions of acres across the United States. From felling trees of every size to cutting fence posts, these saws were instrumental in building America. Try your hand at the demonstration shed staffed by men and women from the Florida Forestry Service.
New for the 2013 Fair is a new Saw Mill Exhibit offering live demonstrations and becomes a part of Early Florida Village’s expanded timber industry exhibit.
Timber that is processed into logs during demonstrations will actually be used for building needs within the village.
Fairgoers will be pleased to know that Early Florida Village has now been made ADA accessible and much easier for those with disabilities to enjoy the displays, exhibits and demonstrations.
Please take time to visit the Early Florida Village exhibit and sample the foods, fun and labors of years gone by.
[Edited version/ February 12, 2013/by Ann Williamson based on the original authored by the late Elaine Williamson, feature writer / columnist of the Clay County Leader and Editor Emeritus of the Clay County Crescent. It was approved for first publication by Sarah Lynn Boe, Publisher of the Clay County Leader in the mid-1990s]