On February 4th, 1939, Rose Shepherd, a writer with the Federal Writer’s Project (an economic recovery program that paid writers to record oral histories during the Great Depression), sat down with Mrs. Thomas Ellington, a kindergarten teacher whose “considerable personal inheritance” had enabled her to purchase one of Jacksonville’s oldest residences, the Red Bank Plantation.
Today, Red Bank is one of a handful of pre-Civil War residences still standing in Jacksonville. The property is part of what was formerly a Spanish land grant first surveyed in 1793. From the 1820s until after the Civil War, the property was owned consecutively by three of Jacksonville’s most prominent men: Isaiah D. Hart; Isaac Hendricks, pioneer settler of South Jacksonville, for whom Hendricks Avenue is named; and Albert Gallatin Philips, Duval County’s sheriff from 1833-1839. (His son, Judge Henry B. Philips, is the namesake of today’s Philips Highway.) Philips built the imposing house in 1854 and operated a plantation on the 450-acre site.
Shepherd’s graceful writing and and Mrs. Ellington’s detailed reminiscences of Red Bank’s history paint a vivid picture of a time when “the principals of the Old South” were still very much a part of Jacksonville life. We’ve excerpted the first few pages here, and invite readers to review the full, richly detailed interview in the Library of Congress’s American Memory website.
On the last street within the corporate limits of South Jacksonville stands “Red Bank” — an old plantation manor house formerly centering a land grant with a seven-mile frontage on the St. Johns River and a history of continuous ownership of over one hundred years by the Philips family, long identified with Duval County history and civic affairs.
The demand for estates with homes along the river, resulted in sales of parcels of land comprising the old grant from time to time, and finally an enterprising real estate company secured title to a large acreage nearest the city limits, developing it as a high class residential section under the name of “Colonial Manor” — a gesture of recognition of the importance of the old house in the picture.
Profiting by the experience acquired in marketing another development on the south side, the real estate company brought in dredging machinery, sand and silt was pumped up from the river bed, and the property line frontage was extended some hundred or more feet. So “Red Bank” which, in the early days, was only a stone’s throw from the mighty St. Johns, is now six blocks from the river bank.
“Colonial Manor” was popular from the beginning with those wishing to establish themselves as far as possible from the “madding crowd” and yet secure the city facilities of running water, electric light, and convenient access to local schools. A distance which in the old days was a three-hour journey from Jacksonville is now covered by bus or auto in twenty minutes.
New homes sprang up throughout the section, but nobody wanted the old house, until Mrs. T. H. Ellington three years ago realized its possibilities. Having spent her childhood in just such a home on a plantation near Dalton, Georgia, she longed to again live in a house with twelve foot ceilings, deep fireplaces, and spacious rooms, so the purchase was made, the deed recorded, and restoration commenced.
The old house has not had its “face lifted.” However, the modern platting of lots and streets necessitated making the west side the front entrance, with the number 1230 Greenridge Road. There is a new door with an old fashioned brass knocker, and new sash in the twelve-light windows which “four-square” the front, with narrow green shutters framing the sides.
A double track cement driveway leads to the east entrance and on into a two-car garage. This was formerly the front of the house which faced the sand trail of the private lane leading through the plantation from the main country road. Remnants of the old hitching post remained here until a few years ago, and weathered old liveoaks in the yard could tell many interesting tales of the plantation owners, their families and distinguished guests who in early days passed through this wide colonial door with its framing of small sections of glass to admit light into the spacious hall which marked the entrance to this hospitable southern home. . . .
“Judge H. B. Philips’ grandfather was the owner of the original grant,” said Mrs. Ellington, “which he received direct from the Spanish King in recognition of some meritorious service to the Crown, as was then the custom. He was a retired sea captain from Red Bank, New Jersey, hence he named his new possession “Red Bank” which designation continues to the present day. Judge Phillips’ widow in Large Place has the original deed to the land, written entirely in Spanish.
“The place was in such a wilderness, with the country then roamed far and wide by Indians, that Captain Philips was not much interested in his new property, and he never lived here. However, his son, who was Judge Philips’ father came down, and when he saw the place so beautifully located along the mighty St. Johns River, he built a log cabin right on the crest of the hill here, where he lived for some years. He acquired a large number of slaves, valued at $100,000, so I have been told. Large sections of the land were cleared and planted in cotton, sugarcane, corn, peas, and garden crops. . . .
“There was no road to San Jose, as is now, between here and the river. The main road came over Hendricks Avenue from the ferry, and the private lane to the house here led off from this road, and came past the house between the two big liveoaks to the east.
“On account of its spaciousness, the old house was always famous as a gathering place for social affairs, particularly dances. But it was such a journey to get here, that when there were evening parties and dances, the guests had to be accommodated over night. This was no trouble, however, the rooms were so big — extra beds were set up, and the girls were taken care of in one wing of the house, the boys in the other.
“In its heyday there were many different kinds of fruit raised on the place, but the only reminders now are two scrubby plum trees in the side yard and a few of the old orange trees in the back. There is also a crepe myrtle tree in the south yard, and the stump of a very large one where the tree was cut down nearby to make room for a new house.
“All of the old gardens and flowers have long since disappeared. Mrs. Tyler has cuttings from some of the old rosebushes and I am in hopes of getting some of these to bring back and start growing again in the home of their ancestors. . . .”
As the lengthy interview concludes, Mrs. Ellington confesses to seeking “comfort from the old classics of song and story.” “Gone with the wind?” queried Mrs. Irvington to me – “No, I do not believe so. The principles of the old South are still with us, and the new Southerners of the old South have a heritage which will never die. You can acquire polish, poise, prosperity – but what is inherited is bred in the bone!”
Today, Red Bank remains a private residence.