Spain occupied most of Florida in the mid 1700’s. Later, the British fought and won possession of the area. The Spanish again had occupation in the early 1800’s and many of the grants of land from the British were renewed by the Spanish during their occupation.
In settling around the North Florida area, the head of a family could claim 100 acres as his right plus 50 acres for each family member, if a family could cultivate more land than their numbers entitled them to, another tract of 1,000 acres could be granted from the British. Grants of 20,000 acres or more had to be issued from the King and his council. Prior to 1776, few settlers came to Clay County except for the plantations of William Pengree, Christopher Neely, and Patrick Tonyn.
All of the settlers fought the natural elements, humid air; however, the toughest battle was the constant fighting and burning by the Indians. Much of the land was claimed, traded, and sold within this small circle of landowners around the mid 1800’s. Much of arable land was owned by the Fleming Family, hence the name “Fleming Island” which was applied to the entire area except the south portion which is still called “Hibernia” (Latin for Ireland) after the Fleming family’s cotton plantation. The northern tip was owned by the heirs of Andrew Plynes (Plyme) and John Creighton according to survey claims during the1820’s and 1830’s. Also, at this time, several claims on the river north of Fleming property bore the names of William Harvey and Susan Cashen, heir of James Cashen. During this same time Florida became the 27th state in the union in 1845. Clay County began organizing in 1858 to become the 38thCounty of Florida in April 1859.
The first post office came to Hibernia from Magnolia Point in 1853 and was located at the end of the present Hibernia Road. Due to the Seminole War, the steamboat traffic increased on the St. Johns River, which brought more visitors and settlers to the land. The May Garner steamboat seems to have been the most popular. The steamboats continued to run on the river until the late 1920’s.
On lazy Sunday afternoons, Harriett Beacher Stowe used to come to Pace Island to visit and enjoy the sweet oranges.
The iron bridge that crossed Doctors Lake was opened and closed with a metal crank. Visitors to the area had to help the bridge tenders push the metal crank to open and close the bridge. Years later, even the Pace children helped open and close the bridge. The Paces owned several peacocks that would make their way onto the bridge. This brought traffic to a stop and travelers would get out of their vehicles to run the strutting peacocks off the bridge.
~A Glimpse into the Pace Family History – Origin of Pace Island~
In 1949, John and Gussie Pace came by boat to Romeo Point, a swampy land filled with cypress trees seeking to buy some land. Dr. Marcus Berg just two days prior purchased the property for his family, thus sending the Paces on to investigate the next point of land, listed on the map as Geiger’s Point. On it were an abundance of wax myrtles, wild persimmon trees and seven grown orange trees with the sweetest fruit. It had been the site of a saw mill that was abandoned in 1890. A few remaining posts from the loading dock were still visible in the water.
Oak trees lined the river banks and the palmettos were so high and thick that the occasional fishermen’s shacks along the banks were visible only from the water. Pine trees were thick in a small area you could guess once to have been someone’s potato patch.
The land, which was virtually wasteland, had been burned over every year for spring grass to feed the unfenced roaming cattle. A corduroy logging road [made of logs laid crosswise] in the middle of the swamp was the only access.
In 1923 a sign stood on the land: “For Sale” by Stockton, Whatley & Davin. George Sims was the agent for Stockton, Whatley & Davin. The original deed was in two pieces. S. Telfair Stockton acquired the land in 1923 in the anticipation that Jacksonville would grow all the way to Green Cove Springs. Mickey Murray’s daddy was going to acquire it but the Naval Store Factory House considered $2 an acre excessive! Florida land could be acquired throughout the southeast at $1 an acre. Mrs. Hankins acquired the land from the county through a tax sale. The land stood vacant.
Mickey Murray’s granddaddy, before the bridge was built across Doctors Lake, would go by boat to socialize with the locals where Whitey’s Fish Camp stands today. Several moonshine stills were built on Pace Island throughout the years, since it was such an isolated spot. When prohibition started, so the rumor has it, “the young blades from the surrounding areas acquired companionship from ladies of the evening on Bay Street and would accompany them to Pace Island.” The presence of moonshine produced raucous gaiety that was readily heard clear across Doctors Lake. The last still was found on lot 10, unit 5. The present occupants contend it has been shut down.
Pirate’s gold was supposedly hidden along the point and many groups tried to find it with metal detectors. Over a period of one year, five groups came; so there could be some truth in the pirate’s gold. Could it be that it is still there?
A $1,000 deposit was placed on the land. A family friend, J. Henry Blount, a Duval County Attorney, concluded the purchase for the Paces. Gray Well Drilling Company from McClenney was engaged to drill an eight-foot artesian well pending the purchase. The two well drillers hauled all of their heavy equipment and pipes by the corduroy road, obtained suitable set up, and low and behold a dandy hurricane washed away the corduroy road. Thereafter, they rented rowboats, much to their consternation, and came daily to finish their hand-shake agreement to drill a well and furnish the pipe for $1,000.
The well was 1,000 feet deep and capable of flowing at the rate of 1,000 gallons per minute. This was dug next to the only pine tree and largest oak at the point (Bob and Mary Miller’s lot).
Looking for a home site, John and Gussie parked the car by the highway and waded across the marsh with water up to their armpits. They walked for two miles trying to find the best place for a house. It was selected at the old sawmill site (Bob and Mary Miller’s lot).
It was decided the most suitable place to make a road was at the top of the hill (across from the “Big Ape” [WAPE] radio station). To map the road, Gussie walked through palmettos so John, who was driving the car, would avoid stumps. Finally, on the marsh, the couple stood on a fallen wax myrtle, with the heavy ratty smell of moccasins filling the air, they decided the road should aim to the left of the old
pine tree. They were told that the name “Moccasin Slough” on the map meant moccasins were so big they had to back up to turn around on the island.
Wood-Hopkins Dragline Company was contacted to build a road across the swampy area. John Pace, at the great cost of $2,800 engaged the company of Satchmill & Joseph Electrical Engineers to install a mile and half of electrical line that had to be built to JEA standards. George Durham Lumber Company built a two-bedroom house for John’s long time associate and employer, the Right Reverend Gilly Swinson and his Afro-Seminole wife Ella. A barn with horse stalls and a small herd of 150 cattle were installed. Bobby Gordon from Callahan brought his palmetto chopper and cleared the land for pasture. Pensacola bahia grass seed was brought in by car from Pensacola, was sowed and fertilized. Some trees were cut and Elwood Geiger (Dunn Avenue in Jacksonville) converted the trees into boards and timber lumber.
A large “L” shaped pond was dug in order to have clay to build a house. Since this was the only pond, fed by artesian well in the community, it became the most popular place for children and neighbors. The Navy used the well fountain as a guide, and 60 children from the Children’s Museum could fit in it easily.
Due to an electrical fault, the first seven bed room, five-bath house was burned. The fire department made the mistake of throwing their hose too close to the shore of the pond and into clay, resulting in inactivity. However, many from Orange Park and neighboring towns helped save the children’s clothes. The fire was so hot it bent steel beams and melted the crabapple stone floor. The neighbors helped the family move the animals out of the barn and the family in. Mr. Ball from AT&T came and installed a telephone the same day as the fire.
The animals resented being ousted and stood at the gate voicing their resentment. They soon learned to come when called even if they were two miles away.
The Paces acquired 10,000 pine trees from the paper company and forestry service, plus 1,000 cedar trees from Cumberland, Tennessee. Tree planting was an annual tradition for the Paces. John had started planting with a shovel even before the land was paid for. He was asked why, when he hadn’t even gotten the title? John’s reply was “I have high hopes.”
A half million trees were planted on this cut-over burned-out land. A tree planting tool, jointly owned by Charlie Smith of Middleburg, and Elbeit Saunders of Doctors Inlet, was hauled behind John Pace’s car one night and tree planting became easier. Gussie, seven months pregnant, sat on the planter helping her 12 year old son plant trees for his 4-H project. Christmas vacations became tree planting time for the Paces and never the customary Christmas vacation again.
It took a long time to make the clay road passable without getting stuck in wet weather. Clay is tough stuff to handle. We had to keep the tractor handy and even a 6 year old learned how to use chains and the tractor.
Before the bus route came, the Pace children walked to the highway to catch the school bus. In summer they would count the logger grasshoppers they stomped on. Iris was planted in ditches. Turtles were so large they could not go through the drainage pipes.
This road became a favorite place for alligators to sun and otters and muskrats to slide. When the school bus came to pick up the children, the bus had to stop, sometimes five times on one trip, and the children would chase the alligators off the road. The other children wanted to go to the Pace’s first so they could enjoy this excitement.
John decided they needed to dig a canal and show the children what should be done with the marsh. He had just built fractionating columns to make Beta Pinene, Vitamin A, and perfumed flavors and essences from gum turpentine, so he engaged the builder, L.E. Oliver from Atlanta to build a dredge in the ditch (present Jim Warren bridge). This vessel was called “Dredge Vessel Leo” for Mr. Oliver. The Pace’s daughter, Anne, christened it with a big bottle of Pepsi Cola.
With John III standing on his shoulders so he could see the road, John waded through the marsh, marking with bamboo poles where the canal should go.
Months went by dredging the canal. At one point, John Pace threw money away like water and had them dredge down to 56 feet to see how deep they could dig. Big fossilized clam conch shell and beach sand soon filled the marsh indicating the marsh was once a beach. Alligator bones were sent to the unit, but the age could not be determined. The Pace children had a wonderful time sliding in the mud and getting completely black from head to toe. Fish were brought in and put into the canal.
The workers fed the fish day-old bread and soon the catfish weighed in at 10 lbs. The fish would actually allow the children to slide up into your hands as they gulped a whole roll at one time. Money ran out so the canal stopped before joining Doctors Lake. Trespassers were finding their way in and washing away the banks.
Every type of tree was planted along the canal and nature trails planned for the use of humans immediately became highways for the native animal population. Animals instantly used every road or path made.
The canal also served as a means for creating well-drained pastureland. It also served to drain Highway 17, keeping the road free of flooding during high tides and heavy rains.
The pasture next to Doctors Lake (the Park) was used for goats. The eagles were so mean that when a goat dropped its kid and walked off, Gussie had to shoo the eagles off until the children had chased the goats back to the baby. The eagles would snatch up the yearling peacocks while they were only four feet from Gussie. As soon as the wood ducks brought their babies out of hiding, the eagles ate them, too.
One Sunday, while the children were at church, trespassers came by boat and killed over 50 of the goats, leaving their hides in the ditch, easily seen, and carrying the meat out by boat. That ended the goat business. Neighbor dogs killed the five sheep. Joe, the pelican was killed as a “strange looking turkey” by a fisherman. Thirty-five wild turkeys raised at the house bit the dust. Gossip at the barber shop was “Mr. Pace, you have wild turkeys and killed five with one shot.”
Three wild turkeys that were too heavy to fly into trees, but roosted on a table at the house, were killed by wildcats. Gussie rescued one not fully eaten and it dressed out at 55 lbs. Wildcats enjoyed the Pace house roof as an observation tower at night. One wild cat would sit under Chris’ window until Chris
opened the screen and edged out his gun barrel; but when the safety clicked, the cat slid into darkness. Their kittens played in the road like domestic cats. Only one black panther was ever seen and he leaped a field fence as if it was not there. Never saw it again.
Eight ponds were dug and stocked with fish in honor of each of the Pace children. The deep pond, “Lake Anne” was built in 1950 (the Gardens/Salt Myrtle). This pond was dug in exchange for a bulldozer. John hated to give up his favorite toy, but he was too busy running his companies. “Lake Worth” (Silver Bell Lane) had an island in the middle with a bridge to watch the flying squirrels and an artesian well feeding it. These ponds acted as drainage ponds and aquifers.
The roads and ponds that were built were all used in Pace Island and the engineering John did prevents Pace Island from retaining damaging water in heavy rains. When Mandarin is underwater, Pace Island doesn’t even have a puddle.
When the Florida Department of Transportation decided to enlarge Highway 17, they confiscated 35 acres of pastureland plus fencing. Rather than establishing more pastureland elsewhere, John Pace gave the cattle to the Rodehaver Boys Ranch and allowed the remaining acres to go back to wilderness for tree farming and environmental study. In 1964, these forestlands were certified as a tree farm by the American Tree Farms system. Forestry agents declared them to be the best in Florida.
The Boy Scouts had a bear that had outgrown being a pet. Bo Bo, the bear, was the beginning of small zoo for the Pace children. A friend in Fargo, Georgia, rescued a small deer that had wandered into his yard past a row of sleeping dogs, and he became Fargo, our household pet slipping and sliding on the terrazo tile as he followed John into the swimming pool each morning. Little Fargo allowed his master like a puppy and loved swimming. The Game Warden helped us get nine more deer for Marty’s Park, Marty being one of three nieces and nephews acquired when John’s sister died. The pace family welcomed hundreds of members of the garden clubs, Boy Scouts, 4-H clubs, Children’s Museum, science clubs, and Navy naturalists. When we wanted to build a permanent home for the Scouts, insurance restrictions made it necessary to cancel all arrangements.
Angus Rothsberg was originally engaged to create a design for a waterfront multi-use community. He designed abundant appointments such as an equestrian center, yacht club and marina, professional center, single family homesites, and condominiums to be built in the marsh along the “Real Hardy” canal, with walkways so that the beauty of the marsh could be enjoyed by all.
In 1964, the Clay County Friends of Fleming Island prepared a comprehensive land plan. The Pace family attended every meeting to prevent their land from being designated as preservation. Susan Pace worked diligently from the maps for two years to protect the family’s property rights.
The Clay County Friends of Fleming Island felt the unusual scenic qualities the Pace family had developed and the fishery and wildlife habitat that was provided by the Moccasin Slough marsh, was increasingly important and should be protected for the benefit of present and future humans. The Committee also felt that Fleming Island was too populated on the river side and Moccasin Slough should be kept as preservation, thus not ever allowing the Pace grandchildren to build on it in the future. The plan was revised again in 1971. In June of 1979, Clay County adopted its first Comprehensive Plan. Two ten-acre parcels of the Pace property were designated for commercial use.
In 1984, Josephine Leigh inquired about purchasing Moccasin Slough. John Pace said “ten million and you can take it.” Mrs. Leigh sparked the interest of a group of local developers and a deal was struck. Charlie Towers, Leland Burpee, and Buddy James, doing business as the Florida Title Group, formed a partnership with John Pace called Moccasin Slough, Ltd., to develop and market an upscale residential community. The Florida Title Group was the general partner and John Pace was the limited partner contributing land on an as-needed basis. The name Moccasin Slough did not appeal to the partners so they changed the name to Pace Island. During this same time frame, Florida-Title Group was also developing the Plantation at Ponte Vedra.
Pace Island was the first community in Florida to receive the “Florida Quality Development” designation for its efforts in preserving wetlands and protecting wildlife. The State of Florida presents this award for excellence in community environmental planning. It demands larger than legally mandated preserves of wetlands, upland and
open space. Today, Pace Island shares this designation with eight other developments and is the only one located in northeast Florida. The natural state can never be violated.
Aggressive development commenced in 1987, and the first Pace Island resident moved into the community just before Christmas 1989. Shortly thereafter, the economy began to slow, as did real estate sales. The Florida Title Group began to feel the economic strain of both developments. Expenditures for Pace Island exceeded $10,000,000. One can only assume the costs associated with the Plantation far exceeded Pace Island’s. The Florida Title Group met with John Pace and informed him they could not continue to fund both developments and Pace Island should be given to the lender as satisfaction of the outstanding debt.
Bankruptcy is not befitting to the Pace name. John Pace agonized over the position he was placed in. He could not allow the property that he had owned since 1950 to simply be taken away to satisfy a debt owned by another. John sold his life savings, paid down the debt and assumed the job of developing Pace Island into the community it is today. This road has not been easy for the Paces. While many look at this development and believe he made millions hand over fist, quite to the contrary is the case. He will never see the profit that could have been recognized by maintaining his retirement plan.
For years, John and Gussie Pace have cooperated with Agricultural Soil and Water Conservation Agencies. Today, they continue to husband their land according to good conservation practices. Along with the native flora, they garden extensively, growing food gardens and all kinds of fruiting trees.
Moccasin Slough today is a vital and valuable tract filled with life. It is the nesting ground for tens of thousands of birds. Alligators, Florida panthers, bobcats, and many species of small animals find safe harbor here. At least 88 species of birds may be studied here year round.
The lesson to be learned is conservation that this couple consistently supported and also influenced the lives of their children to be conservationists. Though scattered, this is still a close knit family interested in developing wastelands into spots of beauty and productivity. Two of the boys are developing land for farming in South Africa, two are living in the Hawaii farming and planting the land. One of their daughters is a professional naturalist photographer. Most have herbariums of wildflowers at their respective homes.
It is clear that John and Gussie Pace are true conservationists, believing that our natural resources must be protected but also used wisely and beneficially. Gussie Pace has written, “Nature needs helping hands as it would take a million years for nature alone to accomplish what we can do together in our lifetime.”
P.S. John Pace passed away while visiting Hawaii in 2010.