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From Sea to Shining…St. Johns River?

A St. Auggie girl discovering the history of northwest St. Johns County

· Kids Scavenger Hunt,Alpine Groves Park,memories

I live in Fruit Cove. Fruit Cove is about 40 minutes north of St. Augustine and 40 minutes south of downtown Jacksonville, and that is precisely why our family lives here. When my husband and I moved back to this area, before kiddos, we knew his job would be in downtown Jacksonville, so as I compromise for my homebody-self, we moved close enough for him to get to work easily, but also close enough for me to get home easily. Home for me was and always will be St. Augustine. I was born at Flagler Hospital when it was on the Bayfront, grew up less than a mile from the Intracoastal, and spent lots of time at the beach.

I never really thought about where I would end up living as an adult, but Fruit Cove has been the perfect spot. When I was growing up in St. Augustine, Fruit Cove and Julington Creek didn’t look anything like they do today. My growing up years are filled with memories of driving up SR 13, “The River Road,” to have picnics or take the “scenic ride,” into Jacksonville. St. Augustine was such a busy little city full of so much history, I never thought about what history the sleepy, riverside hamlet of Fruit Cove could hold. I was (and still am) excited to learn about the history of my new town…my new cove. While there weren’t a lot of people out here, there was a lot of history and activity.

My first brush with history up here was when I started taking my daughter, who was two at the time, to Alpine Groves Park. Alpine Groves Park, as the name suggests, is a former orange grove, turned County Park. The park naturalist at the time, Beverly Fleming, or “Granny B,” as she was called when dressing in period clothes and sharing the history of the area, educated me and so many others on this special place. She taught us about the flora, fauna, and history of our community.  She told stories of William Bartram, America’s first naturalist, and his travels through Fruit Cove, down the St. Johns in the late 1700s. She described the plants he saw and the people he encountered. It is believed that one of the people and plantations he described belonged to Francis Philip Fatio. Fatio owned thousands of acres in this area, even naming the area just to the south of Fruit Cove, “New Switzerland,” in honor of his homeland. Alpine Groves Park is a 56-acre portion of the Fatio Grant. Fatio’s plantation was large and successful. Fatio’s granddaughter, Louisa would go on to run a successful boarding house in St. Augustine, what is now known as the Ximenez-Fatio House. All of this information intrigued me and caused me to read more about the St. Johns River as a “highway” of its day, bringing goods and people up and down Florida and then east to St. Augustine.

Alpine Groves Park has three buildings still standing on a bluff overlooking the St. Johns River. The most prominent is the two-story, Bennett Farmhouse, built circa 1890. When the property was sold to the County and the park created in the early 2000s, the foundation was stabilized, and the exterior was painted, but much work remains to be done to allow visitors inside. The property was purchased in the 1930s by Mr. Harris of Jacksonville and continued to be used as a citrus grove and vacation home. The second building by the river is the Fruit Packing Shed, where citrus would have been washed, sorted and shipped. The third building is a two-story board and batten structure, a “Curio Barn,” where Mr. Harris kept souvenirs from his world travels. Children who grew up in this area remember it as the “Switzerland Smithsonian” and recall visiting with their classes and seeing the carriage, tortoise shell, hat collection and more. This area of the park also has a paved path leading to a dock on the St. Johns River, a kayak launch, a large field, a Butterfly garden, and what are affectionately referred to as “Sweetheart Swings,” overlooking the river. Back toward the front entrance of the park and accessible via paved trail or by car, you can visit the children’s playground with orange grove-themed play structures, a small barn, another Butterfly garden and more paved trails. Our family loves this park! The playground is shaded which is perfect for summer months and has a nice covered picnic area. There are always plenty of birds, animals, and plants to observe and identify and there is so much history to take in! Print out a copy of our Scavenger Hunt to take with you and enjoy a day of fun, family, history, and nature! (Keep Scrolling for Scavenger Hunt)

See you at the park!

Be sure and come on over to the Facebook Front Porch after your visit and share your photos and experiences!

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