An Act of Congress in 1850, granting Florida all of the swamp and overflowed lands owned by the U.S. Government within the state for the purpose of internal improvement, did more than any one thing to encourage construction of railroads into the interior and bring about the settlement of the State. Heretofore, most of the development had been in the coastal areas, and the interior remained largely an unknown and forbidding area, inhabited by hostile Native Americans and insects.
The Seminole Indian Wars of the 1830’s and 40’s had discouraged development of the area that is now Starke and Bradford County. A few scattered settlers, most of whom had received land grants for military service in the wars, were all that broke the monotony of the virgin pine forests in this area. Progress was also thwarted in the late1830’s by a nationwide financial panic that caused the failure of territorial banks, and saw many people leave the State because of the resulting depression.
The coming of the railroads at mid-century provided the needed breakthrough for development of this area. During the four years from 1853 to 1857, three railway lines were chartered in the
State, one of which was the historic Florida Railroad Company which carried out Senator David Yulee’s dream of a railroad connecting the Atlantic Ocean with the Gulf of Mexico, bisecting a heretofore uncharted course through Florida, teaming with potential for development.
As fate would have it, the location that is now Starke, at that time still unnamed and marked only by a few crude juts occupied by timber workers, was midway between terminal towns of the line-Fernandina on the Atlantic and Cedar Key on the Gulf. The arrival here of the rail line in 1857 brought construction workers to the area and soon the sparse settlement along the tracks grew until it warranted establishment of a post office in 1857.
George W. Cole, a land speculator and developer, attracted here by the prospects of growth following arrival of the railroad, obtained title to a 40-acre tract on both sides of the railroad for a reputed $100. This section of land is still known in legal description as “The Original Town of Starke.” Mr. Cole, whose efforts were instrumental in obtaining the post office here, was named as the first postmaster.
One legend has it that the post office was given the name of Starke in honor of Mr. Cole’s Fianc?e, whose family name was Starke. Another account has it that the town was named in honor of Madison Starke Perry, Governor of Florida from 1857 to 1861. No one actually knows which version of the naming is correct.
Starke was still the proverbial “wide spot in the road” at the time. A writer in the September 13, 1887 issue of the town’s weekly newspaper, “The Florida Telegraph” (not established until 1879), described the settlement, in the years of it’s birth, as “…a wilderness, a vast 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.”
But the infant town thrived in the next few years, spurred on by the new railroad which provided badly needed transportation for the timber, navel stores, and long staple cotton which were the main support of the area at that time. Heretofore, shipping these products meant a 25-mile haul by ox drawn wagon over narrow sand trails to reach Middleburg, where water transportation was available via the St. Johns River to the port of Jacksonville.
The census of 1860, first nose count made after the birth of Starke, showed 138 inhabitants of the tiny settlement, more than half of whom came here from Georgia and South Carolina.
This early period of peaceful progress was short lived, however, abruptly halted in 1861 when Florida seceded from the Union to fight the Civil War along with its sister southern states. Farms were left untended and business growth stagnated as many of the men joined local militia units, which were hastily organized with inadequate arms and supplies.
At the time of its birth, five years before, Starke had been part of sprawling New River County, but this area split by State Legislature in December 1861 to form two new counties. One of them was named Bradford in honor of Captain Richard Bradford, who was killed in the Battle of Santa Rosa Island, the first Florida officer to die in action.
By 1877 near the end of post-war reconstruction era, Starke’s population was nearing 400, and its citizens felt the time had come to incorporate. An election was held on April 26, 1876 with 42 male residents turning out to cast a unanimous ballot for incorporation. Dr. John Gaskins, a prominent local physician, politician, and developer, was elected the town’s first mayor.
Starke had received another boost in 1875 when it successfully petitioned the County Commission
to hold an election and won the county seat from Lake Butler, a nearby town which had been the county seat of New River County and was allowed to remain as the county seat of Bradford when it was created in 1861.
The first public school, Starke Male and Female Institute, was founded in 1877, ending a period when the only opportunity for education was in small groups gathered in private homes for tutoring.
The town’s first newspaper, “The Florida Telegraph” was born when Col. W.W. Moore, a newsman of wide experience, visited this area, liked what he saw, and deemed the town ready for a newspaper. The telegraph observed its 100th anniversary in July 1979, and has earned the title of oldest weekly newspaper in continuous publication in Florida.
A new impetus to growth and development of the town came in the early 1880’s with the arrival of several well-to-do and cultured families, mostly from Pennsylvania, remain so until a series of killing freezes in the 1890’s forced the industry farther south. The northern newcomers built fine homes and did much to spur the educational, cultural, religious, and economic development of the town.
During this period, several experimental plantings of a new (to this area) crop Strawberries-were made and found to be ideally adapted to soil and weather conditions of this area. Strawberry growers prospered, and after the orange groves were killed to the ground in the “Big Freeze” of 1895, and the destruction of the cotton industry by the boll weevil 20 years later, strawberries assumed the leading role in Bradford County agriculture. They held this predominance for half a century, but production has declined in the past decade due to scarcity and high cost of competition from Mexico, where they can be grown much cheaper. But, Bradford County strawberries still live up to their reputation of being “The Sweetest This Side of Heaven” and the growing of them here has became a tradition that will never die completely out.
Starke and Lake Butler continued to fight over location of the county seat of Bradford County from 1875 to 1900, with three or four elections held during that period, and the courthouse location alternating between the two towns several times. At last, by mutual consent one final election was held in 1898 with the stipulation that a new brick courthouse would be built in the town that was victorious. Starke won this fateful election and has been the county seat of Bradford County ever since, although due to political pressure from the Lake Butler side, the county was divided again in 1921, making Lake Butler the county seat of the western portion, which was renamed Union County.
By 1900 Starke had reached a population of 1,000 and early in the new century came bond issues to finance a power plant, the first hard surfaced link with the outside world, State Road 13, which is now the heavily traveled U.S. highway 301, which bisects the town and is one of the most heavily traveled truck and tourist routes in the state.
Climaxing in 1926, Starke and Bradford County shared with the rest of the state in the prosperity of the Florida land boom, and also in the painful experience of deflation when the bubble burst in 1929. It suffered, with the rest of the nation, through the depression years of the 1930’s from which it was just beginning to emerge in the early 1940s.
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