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History FACTS

One of several articles from the Bradford County Telegraph

Starke Was Wilderness Before Railroad Arrived
July 26, 1979, Bradford County Telegraph, 100th Anniversary, p12, sect3
What was Starke like before the railroad reached here in January 1858?
     Not much, according to a writer in the May 7, 1887 issue of The Telegraph, who described it thus:

"...at that time this was a wilderness, a vast and unbroken pine forest where the deer, bear, wildcat, and the stealthy panther roamed at their own free will. There was not a single house worthy of the name in what is now the corporate limits, only a few little shanties occupied by railroad hands."

The building of the first rail line, connecting the Atlantic Ocean with the Gulf of Mexico (Fernandina to Cedar Key) undoubtedly supplied the tonic that spurred Starke's growth from an unnamed crossroads settlement to a village of 138 residents by the 1860 census.

The original route planned by The Florida Railroad Co. for its Atlantic-to-Gulf line was by way of Middleburg, but residents of that already thriving town, with a population of almost 1,000 at that time, objected. They already had water transportation by way of Black Creek to the St. Johns River, and doubtless considered the railroad as unwelcome competition. Consequently, the track was rerouted to the west, running through the site that was later to become Starke.

Not only was the railroad unpopular at Middleburg, but early settlers here also generally opposed "the iron horse," fearing that trains would kill their livestock and interfere with other farming operations. Drury Reddish, a young farmer from Wayne County, Georgia, and one of the first landowners in what is now Starke, had bought 40 acres from the Government and established a farm in the area now lying on both sides of U.S. Highway 301 just south of the railroad crossing. But on learning of the new development, he pulled up stakes and moved to a location farther west, outside of the "danger zone."

By 1857 Starke had grown sufficiently to warrant a post office which was established here on November 17 of that year with George W. Cole as postmaster. A former resident of Fernandina, Mr. Cole also came here in expectation of a land boom created by the railroad. In 1859 he purchased the 40 acre section, still known legally as the "Original Town of Starke, from the Government for $1.00 to $2.50 an acre! This tract included land along both sides of present Call Street, bounded on the west by property now occupied by the 1902 courthouse, and on the east by the site where the power plant now stands.

Soon after that, the first general merchandise store was established here by John Charles Richard (pronounced Reshard), a native of Georgia who had been in the lumber and cross-tie business at Middleburg and later ran a mercantile establishment in Jacksonville. He foresaw Starke as a good location because of the new railroad, and a short time later was joined by George E. Pace, another Jacksonville businessman, in forming the partnership of Richard & Pace, Starke's leading store during its early years.

According to the 1887 writer, the first residence worthy of the name erected in Starke was a large double-pen log house built by William Edwards Sr. in cooperation with John Brown. This style of construction popular in those days and still seen occasionally in rural areas consisted of a breezeway, or hall, open at both ends through the middle of the house, with rooms on either side and usually a detached kitchen at the rear reached by a covered walkway. The Edwards house stood on the northwest corner of present Madison and Thompson Streets, the current site of Badcock' s parking lot.

In the three years between arrival of the railroad in 1858 and the outbreak of the Civil War, the little crossroads settlement took on new life. Heretofore there had been no connection with the outside world. Supplies were brought down by boat from Jacksonville to Middleburg, and then relayed to Starke by mule or ox team over sandy wagon trails. Farmers likewise hauled their cotton, timber, or naval stores to Middleburg for shipment up the St. Johns River to Jacksonville.

But the new railroad changed all that. Merchants would now receive supplies direct by rail from Jacksonville. Cotton gins soon began operating here, and farmers no longer had to make the long, arduous trip to and from Middleburg. Drummers (as salesmen were called in those days) found Starke a convenient midway stop between Fernandina and Cedar Key, and the "depot," located then just south of Richard & Pace store at the railroad crossing on the south side of Call Street, became the busy hub of the town.

How Starke and Call Street got their names is now a matter of some speculation, although it was earlier believed they were named in honor of two of Florida's early political figures. Previous accounts have stated that Starke was named for Governor Madison Starke Perry, a native of South Carolina, who served from 1857 to the outbreak of the Civil War in 1861. He was sometimes called Starke Perry, Starke being the maiden name of his mother, a member of a prominent South Carolina family. After coming to Florida, Perry settled in Alachua County and became a leading planter.

There are other theories of how the name was derived, however. In a letter to The Telegraph, published in 1887, a writer said that in the early days, before the post office was established, Cole met with Richard and Pace and persuaded them to let him name the new town for his sweetheart.

Support for this version may be found in "The Story of Florida Railroads, 1834-1903" by Geo. W. Pettingill, Jr. which states that Starke was named for "a Miss Starke" at the request of George W. Call. This ties in with an apparent friendship between Call, who was treasurer of the Florida Railroad Co., and Postmaster Cole (see below).

As for Call Street, it had been generally believed that it was named for Richard Keith Call, territorial governor of Florida during the Second Seminole Indian War.

In recent years, however, a letter written in 1896 has come to light, indicating that it might have been named for State Senator George W. Call, of Fernandina, who was treasurer of The Florida Railroad Co., and apparently a friend of Cole's. The letter stated that Senator Call with the approval of David Yulee, president of the railroad company, permitted Cole to enter the 40 acres of Section 28622 (the Original Town of Starke) and to lay out the town and build close to the railroad track, with the understanding and agreement on the part of Cole that he would give the railroad company lots six and eight of Block 15 for its water tank and other purposes upon condition that the company would not demand the usual right-of-way through Cole's section of land. This is the reason that buildings adjoining the railroad crossing on Call Street were built so close to the track, without the usual setback. In view of this favor to him, Cole may have had the "main street" of the new town named for his good friend, Call.

Since there was no newspaper in Starke at the time, and legal records for that period were lost in two courthouse fires, there is no way of verifying the actual origin of the names.

The census of 1860, the first taken after establishment of the post office while Starke was still in New River County, showed only 138 persons living here at that time. According to a preface written by the census enumerator, E.R. Ives, only "free inhabitants ' (no slaves) were listed in the nosecount.

Most of the early residents here came from two nearby states, South Carolina (41 ) and Georgia (37). Of the total population, 137 were listed as white. One Negro boy, Thomas Williams, was listed with the notation that he made his home with the Pace family. Even as today, very few residents were natives of Florida. Mr. Pace being one.

Among the 1860 census names that are still familiar in the area today are: Baisden, Hodges, Thompson, Triest, Brown, Lee, McRae, Smith, Dowling, Andreu, Hollingsworth, Cox, Dees, Martin, Kersey, Gatlin, White, Winn (Wynn), and Crosby.

But the infant Starke, like all other towns in the South, received a severe setback with the outbreak of the Civil War in 1861, and many of its early settlers picked up stakes and left during this period of unrest and strife.

Capt. Richard, the early merchant, organized a company of militia, which he commanded, serving throughout the war, including the Battle of Olustee. He was wounded at the blowing of a mine near Petersburg, Va., and is said to have been present at Lee's surrender at Appomatox.

An interesting story is told that while at home on furlough, perhaps after his injury, a Union informer notified Federal forces that Capt. Richard was at Starke and, as a detachment of soldiers rode up to the front gate of his home, he jumped over the back fence and ran to Alligator Creek which bordered a portion of his pasture, following the creek to the trestle, south of town, where he hid and was supplied with food and other necessities by his wife, who was ill at the time. The Richard house, one of the oldest in Starke, is located at 126 S. Water Street, just east of the municipal light plant. It is now owned by Mr. and Mrs. Joey Bakken and used for apartments.

No major encounters took place here during the war, but the Starke area was visited by raiding parties on one or more occasions, seeking to disrupt the railroad which formed an important supply line for Confederate forces farther North.

According to the State Comptroller's report of Nov. 1, 1864, the value of all slaves owned in Bradford County was listed at $756,000.

The nearest brush with Union troops came on Aug. 15, 1864 when Col. Wm. R. Noble, commanding U.S. Forces at Magnolia, Fla. (just north of Green Cove Springs) conducted a raiding party to Baldwin and thence south along the railroad, where they tore up and burned 2-1/2 miles of track camping for the night at Trail Ridge, a site shown on early maps near the present location of Highland. The next day the raiders continued their southerly march, passing about two miles east of Starke and on to the Sand Hill Lake area (now named Lowery Lake in the Camp Blanding reservation). The next day they visited the home of "Dr. McCrae, a bitter rebel and gathered his horses and stock," returning later to burn 4,000 pounds of his cotton. The name McCrae probably should have been spelled McRae, as there were many of this name in Starke and surrounding area, and a settlement near Smith Lake is still named McRae.

According to information issued by the Civil War Centennial Committee, it was reported that on March 10, 1864 "The Federals occupied Palatka this morning without opposition... There is also a small force at Gainesville, and approximately a thousand cavalry at Starke." There is no record of hostilities here at that time, however.

After the war there was an influx of newcomers to Starke, including such well known names as N.J. Jones (father of DeWitt C. Jones), Dr. J.L. Gaskins, prominent in state and local politics; Thomas Hemingway, J.J. Sparkman, Joseph Alvarez, S.S. Weeks, and W.F. Brown.

Starke quickly recouped its loss in population and by 1872, the ''Guide to Florida," by George W. Olney, listed the population at 250, giving the following description of the young town: "There is a church in the village, and three within a distance of a mile, all Methodist. No hotel, but a good boarding house, kept by Mrs. T.B. Hoyt, who charges $1.50 per day, or $25 a month. Game is scarce, but fresh water fish abound in the lakes. This part of Florida is principally inhabited by small farmers who cultivate sea island cotton, corn, sugar cane, sweet oranges, peaches, and a wide variety of garden produce."

By 1875, the 18 year old Starke was beginning to eye the courthouse at Lake Butler, which had been the county seat of New River County and retained that honor when New River was renamed Bradford by legislative act in December, 1861 as a memorial to Capt. Richard Bradford, first Florida officer to die in action in the Civil War.

An election was called and Starke won by 46 votes, but irregularities were rife during the canvassing of returns, and some ballot boxes were stolen. Lake Butler supporters appealed to the courts and three years later the '75 election was nullified and Starke lost its prized plum. The county seat moved back to Lake Butler.

But loss of the courthouse failed to discourage a veteran newsman, Col. William W. Moore, who visited Starke, liked what he saw and decided to start a newspaper here with the help of his young son, Sterling. The Florida Telegraph was born the third Saturday in July, 1879, and the town at last had a voice to fight for needed improvements, and publicize its assets in the news and editorial columns.

By 1880 Starke was described as "a place of some importance" by Abbie M. Brooks in her travel book, "Petals Plucked from Sunny Climes," although the author complained that the early morning noises disturbed her slumbers "in these plank habitations."

After commenting that Starke contained "a lumber mill, turpentine distillery, and several stores, besides boarding houses," the author continues: "What a multitude of disagreeable sounds break upon our morning slumbers in these plant habitations! The cats, which have been vigorous in their serenading during the night, now prepare to quit the field by a final contest, which Dinah interrupts with the broom. The pigs, that lay piled in the yard so quietly during the night, are calling for their rations, while the chickens have been cackling a chorus in advance of the supplies which they will furnish for hungry visitors. Never, apparently, did dinnerpots require such a vast amount of scraping. Then the old coffeemill sounds like a ten horsepower flouring mill. These little innovations upon our morning nap are soon forgotten after we have eaten our breakfast and witnessed what a beautiful day is before us."

Others were also trekking to the sunny climes in the early 1880's, and Starke received an influx of newcomers of a different breed from the early rustic settlers from Georgia and South Carolina. Most of the new colonizers were well-to-do families from Pennsylvania, some of whom had made money in oil and wished to invest in Florida citrus groves. At that time Bradford and other North Florida counties were the main orange growing section of the state, as South Florida was still sparsely settled.

Among these cultured newcomers were the S.J. Sternburgs, the J.M. Trubys, and the E. Strongs. All three of these families built fine homes, two of them still standing today on N. Cherry Street, then called Pennsylvania Avenue.

Growth continued at a brisk pace and "Webb's Historical, Industrial and Biographical Florida" estimated the population in 1885 as between 700 and 800, saying the town was "noted for its healthfulness, excellent educational facilities, good society, and its handsome girls."

Owners of "noted orange groves" were listed as: O.M. Rising, L.A. Wynn, N.R. Hamrick. Dr. A.P. Smith Hodges & Pooser, Mrs. F.B. Hodges. H.F. Corwin, George C. Miller, James wood, George Baisden, J. Kleinschmidt, Mrs. A.E. Morgan, George Pack, Irvin Johns, J.M. Johns Morgan Bros., and others." Webb added that "Educational facilities are excellent, there being two well conducted schools here: Starke Institute. Prof. G.C. Looney, principal; and Orange Academy, Prof. G.P. Young. principal." Mrs. A.E. Morgan was postmistress.

And to further brighten prospects of the town, a promising new money crop began to make its appearance in the early 1880's — the luscious winter strawberry for which Starke and Lawtey were to become the leading shipping points in the state long before Plant City and other South and Central Florida berry markets were developed.

But in spite of its bright prospects on the agricultural front, Starke lost again in its efforts to regain the county seat. In accordance with the law which provided a county seat election could be held every 10 years, the necessary petition to the County Commission was presented and an election set for May 5, 1885. Lake Butler won again, this time by 19 votes 648 to 629.

But the worst setback was yet to come. A bird's eye view of Starke, drawn (not photographed) in 1884, showed half the area of Starke covered with neat orange groves. A Telegraph writer had once predicted that every man in the county with an orange grove would soon be wealthy, but he had reckoned without taking into account the vengeance of Jack Frost. The devastating winter of 1894-95 brought the famous "Big Freeze" to this section of the state and by mid February almost every citrus tree had been killed to the ground. Although growers were advised not to destroy their trees until spring, to give them a chance to sprout out from the root, few of them survived. A handful of determined growers replanted their groves, but it was only four years, 1899, until another disastrous freeze visited North Florida and finally convinced growers that the citrus industry should move farther south. Most of the groves were abandoned, and many of the owners returned to their former homes in the North, or pushed farther South into Central Florida. Farms and homes were advertised for sale, and the area suffered a serious economic blow.

Growers now turned more and more to that bright newcomer — the strawberry — as a cash crop, and Sea Island cotton, lumber and naval stores were still among the top money producers, of course.

Soon after the turn of the century, Starke entered a period of modernization with progressive leaders working successfully for bond issues to construct a light and water plant about 1905, a new brick school in 1913, the first sewer lines and paved streets in 1916, and other improvements. The usual ups and downs were suffered with the hardships of World War I, the ravages of the boll weevil which eliminated cotton as a money crop by 1918, the Florida land boom in the mid-1920's, and the "bust" in 1928, the Big Depression of the 1930's, another boom with World War II and the activation of Camp Blanding, seven miles east of Starke; and the decline in strawberry production when most growers quit their fields to accept profitable construction jobs at Blanding — a decline that continues today because of exorbitant costs of labor and materials, as well as competition from Mexico and California. Then the coming of the first industrial payrolls including several small plants, as well as the major E.I. duPont operation of two ilmenite mines east of Starke and Lawtey; and the movement of many businesses from the traditional "downtown" commercial district of Call Street to new shopping centers in the areas where more parking space is available. Most of these modern developments will be treated in greater detail in other sections of this 100th Anniversary issue of The Telegraph.

Suffice it to say that Starke celebrated its first Centennial in 1957 dating its birth from the establishment of the post office. Judging from its rapid rate of growth and present prosperity, we predict that Starke will be alive and kicking when its second Centennial rolls around in 2057.

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