Long before Jacksonville became a hub for logistics, the financial sector, and entrepreneurship, the city and its surrounding areas once thrived in an entirely different industry: dairy.
The First Coast’s dairy farming legacy began with a name that will likely be familiar to grocery shoppers. Gustafson’s Farms, founded in 1908 by Frank and Agnes Gustafson, began on a large patch of land in Green Cove Springs, FL about an hour outside of Jacksonville. The farm grew to occupy around 10,000 acres, and was one of the largest private dairy farms in the southeastern United States.
In addition to its main farm, it accumulated a number of packaging plants throughout the state of Florida to accommodate the high demand. The brand’s packaging featured a black-and-white depiction of founders Frank and Agnes.
It became one of the most popular milk brands in the southeast, rivaling fellow Florida-based distributor T.G. Lee. Initially distributing their product in the days of door-to-door milk salesmen, the farm later survived the switch to grocer-based distribution.
Another major player in the local dairy-farming game was also backed by a familiar name.
Skinner Dairy was founded by the Skinner family, best known nowadays for their real estate ventures — specifically, the family owned much of the land in Jacksonville’s Southside area, selling it off to allow projects such as the St. Johns Town Center to come about.
The Skinners’ farm was located on a portion of their land off of Bowden Rd., in the area where Southpoint’s many business parks now stand. They took a different approach to distribution than the Gustafsons; rather than distributing to grocers or delivering door-to-door, they opened several tiny huts in neighborhoods throughout the city to sell their products. At the peak of the farm’s success, it operated over 20 of these mini-stores in the Jacksonville and St. Augustine areas.
The huts have taken on a legacy of their own, having been lauded as important architectural figures. They were designed by well-respected local architect Taylor Hardwick in the late 1950s.
Many of these huts can still be found around Jacksonville, with some having been converted for different uses. Liberty Bakery now occupies the hut closest to the farm on Bowden Rd.
Skinner Dairy survived into the late ’90s before being sold off to Velda Farms, which is now a subsidiary of Mexican dairy company Grupo Lala.
Likewise, the Gustafson brand was sold off to Southeast Milk, Inc., based in Belleview, FL just south of Ocala. In 2013, the farm in Green Cove Springs ceased operations permanently. The brand, however, lives on in name only under the control of Southeast Milk. The original, iconic packaging has since been redesigned.
To this day, several much smaller dairy farms operate in the Jacksonville area. Many of those farms distribute milk and other goods at the Riverside Arts Market or at local grocers.
However, with little space for giant farming operations available and the city’s economic shift toward more modern interests, it’s unlikely that Jacksonville will ever regain its place in the dairy industry.