Middleburg, Florida, USA Content from the guide to life, the universe and everything

Middleburg, Florida, USA

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A sleepy town located about 40km (25 miles) south-west of Jacksonville1, Florida in what is known as Clay County, Middleburg is what some may consider a classic representation of 'rural' America.

A Short History

Middleburg, one of the oldest towns in Florida, developed in the early 1800s as a link between the St Johns River and the rest of Florida, and was settled in the main by Irish and German immigrants. The 1820s saw the first settlement of the well-used crossing point over the tranquil Black Creek. In 1836, the growing community became a major military depot for the US Army during the Second Seminole (or 'Indian') War (1835 - 1842), with the establishment of Fort Heilman2. This was a temporary wooden stockade used as a quartermaster workshop and storage depot at the spot where the north and south forks of Black Creek joined, and became the centrepoint for a cluster of log huts known as Garey's Ferry.

With the conclusion of the Seminole Wars, Garey's Ferry prospered, becoming Middleburg in the 1840s. The fledgling community thrived on trading along St. Johns River by selling timber, citrus fruits and crops from farmland. The Black Creek Methodist Church had been founded on or before 27 July, 1828 by Isaac Boring, a Methodist Circuit Riding Preacher, but the frontier Methodist society met in their own homes until the United Methodist Church was built in 1847. The growing and successful town became the first Clay County seat of government in 1858.

The Civil War and Later Years

During the American Civil War, Middleburg was the scene of fierce fighting. On 23 October, 1864 the Confederate 4th Massachusetts Cavalry, led by Capt. JJ Dickinson, raided Middleburg. Casualties were heavy on the defending Union side, but there were no losses among the Confederate troops. The next day the 4th set fire to a number of buildings, three large warehouses and a hotel in the town, and the occupying Union Forces retreated to nearby Magnolia Springs.

Prosperity returned to Middleburg in the 1870s as river traffic and the citrus industry grew. The population numbered around 700 in 1890, before the disastrous winter freeze of 1895 which destroyed crops and thinned out the community. However, tourism was to become the town's saviour, with many drawn to nearby Green Cove Springs. With such famous visitors as Ulysses S Grant and President Grover Cleveland (who had spring water shipped to the White House), the popularity of the region spanned three decades, from the 1870s to the early 1900s. It was not to last, however, as in the early 20th Century the railroad reached Miami and south Florida became more accessible.

It was the military that then provided for the people of Middleburg. In 1939, 28,000 acres on Kingsley Lake in central Clay County were purchased by the Florida National Guard as a new training site, and thus Middleburg was a popular choice of residence for military personnel and their families stationed nearby. For nearly fifty years the US Army, Navy and Air Force provided for the town. This all changed when Cecil Naval Air Field in nearby Jacksonville was closed in 1999. The service families were all shipped to different locations, and the population faced a decline. However, an overwhelming amount of houses and property for sale brought families from all over the country to raise their children in a rural 'small town' environment. Even when the houses were all sold, prior woodlands were clear-cut and housing developments put into place.

A Developing Town

In order to cater for the influx of people, roads were widened and businesses built at the heart of Middleburg, which could before only be determined by one grocery store and a strip-mall3 with a hardware store, tyre-shops and even a few eateries. The people from the city thought this was great, while others thought that it was getting too crowded. Either way, the only noticeable difference was a little more traffic4.

With the increase in population came a corresponding increase in the number of children, and it seems only a select few thought of where these children were actually going to attend school. Even the local High School, built for 800 pupils, had to deal with an unprecedented 1800 new students. Not so affected were the elementary schools as these had been planned for years and crews worked hard to get them built. Clay County school system became the fastest growing system in the country, and continues to develop. As does Middleburg, attracting many 'city folk' who desire a slower pace of life.

Local Attractions

For its size Middleburg seems to have little visitor value, but the surrounding area has much to offer if you look for it. The Black Creek Ravines Conservation Area is about 1.5km (a mile) to the east of Middleburg on Black Creek (which runs through the town), and Jennings State Forest is located to the north, nearer Jacksonville. While they appear to be little more than a few dirt tracks through woodland, both offer camping, swimming, bicycling, hiking, bird watching, wildlife viewing, picnicking, fishing, canoeing and other outdoor activities. Middleburg also has what is touted as 'Florida's Only Mountain Golf Course' at The Ravines Inn & Golf Club on Ravines Road. There is also a BMX Bicycle Racing Track for those who like a bit more action than golf. In the town itself there are many representative Victorian Era homes to marvel at, but the oldest building in Middleburg must be seen.

The United Methodist Church

Arguably the oldest Methodist meeting place in Florida, the church was built mostly by slave labour, using native lumber and hand-wrought nails from local blacksmiths. The heart of pine exterior is of clapboard square edge siding, a design unique to the period. The windows and mahogany wood for the pews were brought from overseas and the church bell was cast in New York in 1852, and then shipped to Middleburg by Mr George Branning5. The wide aisle down the centre of the church was designed to segregate men and women, while the back pews were reserved for slaves. The pews themselves were put together with wooden pegs and hand-drawn - the marks of the draw-knife can still be seen. During the mid 1800s the church cemetery was used to bury the town's Protestants, with a Catholic cemetery located in the north.

For more in the way of historical culture try the Middleburg Historical Museum Inc on Section Street which offers artefacts from Fort Heilman and many photographs and displays of the early turpentine6 and timber industries in Middleburg. The Hilltop Heritage Museum in the town also delves into the past of Middleburg, with information on the local indigenous people and the Seminole and Civil Wars, while the Black Heritage Museum on Longmire Avenue at the Hunter-Douglas Park gives a fascinating insight into the lives of African-American slaves in the area during the 1800s.

Hints and Tips

If you happen to visit Middleburg on a Sunday, avoid the section of Blanding Boulevard7 adjacent to the Baptist church. Traffic is stopped while the congregation is let out and as a large proportion of 'Middleburgians' attend, if you do find yourself waiting it could be for quite some time.

With a past that encouraged self-reliance it is interesting to note that with an increase in population, nothing much is grown in Middleburg. 'Moonshine8', despite the 'big-city' influences, remains the only apparent local commodity. If you fancy your chances, then give it a try.

There is also a pool hall in the strip mall and a Wings & Oyster Bar that is devoted to serving the locals liquor every Friday and Saturday night. The pool is cheap and the food at the Oyster Bar isn't bad either. Other places to eat include the Cedar River Seafood Restaurant and the numerous eateries in the mall which offer a nice selection of foods.

Beneath the Surface

Middleburg has a very quiet and laid-back feel. There is little to no crime9 and the community often looks to nearby Jacksonville and even Miami for further entertainment. However, by delving a little deeper you can find something for all tastes.

Middleburg Swingers

Behind an otherwise quiet exterior lies the heart of Middleburg. Not a local band that plays hits by Benny Goodman and Glen Miller, the Middleburg Swingers are a collection of consenting adults that like to swap car-keys10.

The Middleburg Meteor

Early in 1888, a colourful green meteor appeared in the night sky over Middleburg. Several witnesses watched it hit the ground in an old cultivated farm field south of town. Approaching the smoking crater, they found what looked like a 200-pound block of limestone.

A few months later, the meteorite was exhibited at the Sub-Tropical Exposition and then went on display in nearby Jacksonville. The stone was examined by a Dr Hahn, who claimed to have found miniature fossils in the rock. Dr Hahn photographed these 'microfossils' and then wrote an article which was published in Popular Science. Dr Hahn was roundly condemned by the scientific community for such heresy and Dr. Lawrence Smith wrote of him;

Doctor Hahn is a kind of half-insane man, whose imagination has run away with him.
Dr Smith, who never actually examined the meteor, advanced the opinion that the fossils were 'crystals of enstatite'. Not long afterwards the entire meteorite went missing, and it is not known whether it was broken up or shipped somewhere else to be investigated.

Local UFO enthusiasts and a few would-be astronomers and geologists still search for the meteorite, hoping to find that elusive proof of life on other planets...

Further Information

For more on what to do in and around Middleburg why not visit Clay County Tourism.

1Home of rock group Limp Bizkit.2Named after Brevet Lieutenant Colonel Julius F Heilman.3A series of shops all in a row, unlike a normal mall, or shopping centre, which is all in one building.4It is pleasing to note that a total of only one fatal motor vehicle accident occurred in Middleburg between the years of 2001 and 2003.5The bell was tolled for the first time on 29 February, 1860, at the funeral of his son who died during a swamp-fever epidemic.6Which possibly helped encourage the local 'Moonshiners'.7The main road travelling through Middleburg.8A harsh home-made and highly illegal rum-styled alcohol.9Occasionally a car gets stolen, either by visitors or local youths joy-riding, and there is sometimes a little cyber-crime.10That is, swingers are couples (often married) who exchange sexual partners.

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