A brief history of Orange Park

Despite being known for having some of Florida's longest commutes due to massive gridlock on its two main thoroughfares, the actual Town of Orange Park is much smaller and quaint than most may imagine. For anyone looking to get a feel of authentic Orange Park, a stroll down River Road is a great place to start.

Early history

The modern development of the Town of Orange Park dates back to Florida’s British Period (1763-1783), when William and Rebecca Pengree established a plantation called Laurel Grove to cultivate cotton and citrus. Operations expanded in 1786, to include the production of pine pitch and turpentine (naval stores) for the Spanish.

In 1803, Laurel Grove was acquired by Zephaniah Kingsley. Born in England in 1765 and raised in Charleston, Kingsley was a successful shipping merchant and slave trader. Kingsley became a citizen of Spanish Florida in 1803, involved in the smuggling of the enslaved into the U.S. through Amelia Island. He relocated enslaved from his family’s South Carolina plantation to cultivate orange, sea island cotton, corn, potatoes, and peas on Laurel Grove’s 2,600-acre plot of land. Here, enslaved Africans were also trained in vocational and artisan skills, which Kingsley believed increased his earning potential of future sales. At its height, over one hundred were enslaved at Laurel Grove. Like other plantations located along the coasts of South Carolina, Georgia, Florida and the St. Johns River, the descendants eventually became known as the Gullah Geechee.

Considered “one of Florida’s most flamboyant slaveholders”, Kingsley purchased and married Anna Madgigine Jai, a Wolof girl from present day Senegal in 1806. He eventually grew to depend on Anna to run Laurel Grove in his absence. In 1813, during the Patriot Rebellion, Anna Kingsley set fire to Laurel Grove to prevent her family and enslaved from being seized by Patriot raiders. Relocating to Fort George Island in 1814, Zephaniah Kingsley sold Laurel Grove to John Houstoun McIntosh in 1817.

Birth of the Town of Orange Park

1884 map of Orange Park and Ridgewood

Following the Civil War, what remained of the old plantation was sold to the Florida Winter Home and Improvement Company. This entity, predominantly led by a group of individuals from Boston, Massachusetts, established the Town of Orange Park on the property in 1877. To enhance marketing efforts, Orange trees were planted on the development’s new building lots and farm tracts. Two years later, the Town of Orange Park was officially incorporated.

To attract tourists, the Hotel Marion was constructed at the foot of Kingsley Avenue, featuring a 1,200 foot pier into the St. Johns River for steamboat access. By 1880, famed guest included Ulysses S. Grant, Buffalo Bill Cody and Chief Sitting Bull. Fueled by an economy built on farming, sawmills, tourism and naval stores, Orange Park became home to the Orange Park Normal and Industrial School in 1891. Operated by the American Missionary Association (AMA), a protestant abolitionist society, the mission of the school was to educate the children of those who were formerly enslaved. Quickly becoming a 19th century integrated school, it eventually closed in 1913 due to continued local attempts to segregate the school by race.

Orange Park in the 20th century

Early photographs of Orange Park. (State Archives of Florida and Club Continental)

In 1922, Hotel Marion was acquired by Moosehart. Illinois-based Moosehart, “the Child City,” dedicated it as a home for aging Moose members known as “Moosehaven.” The original concept of Moosehaven was to “organize residents so that they might help each other and help themselves, and provide from their own energy the major part of the cost of their keep.” During the course of the 20th century, Moosehaven’s 72-acre campus has evolved from a working farm and dairy to a Continuing Care Retirement Community, exclusively for members of The Loyal Order of Moose and Women of the Moose.

Club Continental

A year after the Hotel Marion was sold, Caleb Johnson, heir to the Palmolive Soap Company, completed his winter palazzo, Mira Rio. The Wisconsin-based family found their way to Orange Park as a result of B.J. Johnson, founder of the Palmolive Soap Company, looking for a place to escape harsh winters during the late 1800s. In 1966, Jon Massee, Caleb Johnson’s grandson, converted the waterfront residence into a private club. Today, Club Continental is managed by Jon’s daughter, Karrie Massee. Palmolive Soap is now known as the billion-dollar Colgate-Palmolive Company.

This Grace Episcopal Church chapel was built in 1880.

Prior to 1970, to cross the river to Mandarin required a drive north to downtown Jacksonville or south to Green Cove Springs. The total round trip for the downtown route averaged one hour, while the Green Cove Springs route was a little longer. This mobility problem was resolved with the opening of the 3.1-mile Buckman Bridge on May 1, 1970. Also known as I-295 West Beltway, the bridge was named after Henry Holland Buckman, a prominent 19th century Duval County attorney legislator who was instrumental in establishing the Florida state road system.

A topographic map of Orange Park in 1917. River Road is highlighted in red.

After the opening of the Buckman Bridge in 1970 and the Orange Park Mall five years later, the rural landscape surrounding Orange Park gave way to suburban sprawl. However, old Orange Park still remains for those willing to explore thoroughfares and scenic less traveled streets not named Park Avenue or Blanding Boulevard. A perfect setting for a comfortable bicycle ride, jog or leisurely stroll, River Road is an ideal street to visit. Hugging the St. Johns River for nearly two miles, this stretch of River Road once served as the main route between Orange Park and Jacksonville prior to the development of Naval Air Station Jacksonville and Roosevelt Boulevard. Completed in late 2019 at the cost of $2 million, River Road now features smooth paving and continuous riverfront sidewalks, making it the perfect place to experience a piece of old Florida on a nice sunny day.

Next page: Images of Orange Park