Sitting about twenty-five miles southwest of Jacksonville, the small city of Green Cove Springs has served as the county seat for Clay County since 1871.
The city’s land has been inhabited for thousands of years, owing to its natural mineral spring which its Native populations used for sustenance. But the first attempt at a modern development on the land came in the 1850s, when two prominent landowners, David Palmer and Sarah Ferris, formed a small community known as White Sulfur Springs. The community renamed itself Green Cove Springs when its post office was established in 1866.
The town was incorporated in 1874, three years after it became the seat of Clay County. It grew around its spring, which became a popular tourist destination for both northerners and those in nearby Jacksonville. Because of the Natives’ previous use of the spring for sustenance and healing, some believed it to be – and many marketed it as – something of a “fountain of youth.”
Two famous former residents were born in GCS during the late 1800s: Augusta Savage, the Black sculptor who went on to be part of the Harlem Renaissance movement, and Charles E. Merrill who founded Merrill Lynch.
In the 1890s, Clay County built a new courthouse and county jail – both still stand today and were featured in an episode of SyFy’s Ghost Hunters.
As the 1900s began, the development of railroad lines to hotter tourist destinations such as Miami severely shrunk the town’s tourism industry. The community instead settled into its role as an agricultural and industrial town. Frank and Agnes Gustafson opened a small dairy farm in GCS in 1908 which grew into one of the largest dairy providers in the Southeast.
The construction of the original Alvin G. Shands Bridge, which opened in 1928, connected the town to northern St. Johns County.
The U.S. Navy opened a flight training facility, Benjamin Lee Field, in Green Cove Springs just prior to World War II. It later became Naval Air Station Green Cove Springs and operated until being decommissioned in 1960. The land was purchased by the city and sold to J. Louis Reynolds Corporation, which redeveloped it into an industrial park.
Around the same time, a new Shands Bridge opened, replacing the original wooden stretch.
In the 1980s, the city annexed around 2,500 acres of surrounding land, including part of the Reynolds Industrial Park.
Recent developments include a new city hall building in 2004 and a redevelopment of the city’s municipal pool, which pumps in water from the adjacent spring, to add a two-story pavilion to the surrounding deck.
Green Cove Springs is poised for major growth in the near future with the pending development of the First Coast Expressway, which will run past the city and connect it with the Westside of Jacksonville as well as expanding the Shands Bridge span to four lanes.
But for now, the town of around 8,500 retains its “small town” charm from within the Jacksonville metropolitan area.