About Our Town

JC Penney PicturePenney Farms, just 1.4 square miles in size, sits at almost the geographical center of Clay County. With one stoplight, it seems a sleepy little town, a pass-through, stretching a few miles on State Road 16 from Paso Fino Road to Etheleen Court. But it is home to people of every imaginable profession, who have visited, lived, worked or served in every continent on Earth. And they are busy!

Eight miles west of Green Cove Springs, just before the Town boundary, is the Town cemetery, on the right. Continuing along the J. C. Penney Scenic Highway, you will find a wide entrance gate to the Penney Retirement Community (PRC) to the left of the lone traffic signal. A glance down Poling Blvd. reveals a long, green vista lined with stately palms. At the very end, like an exclamation point, stands the Penney Memorial Church.

This view leads into the retirement portion of the Town, featuring red-roofed cottages in the Norman/French style which also inspired the church’s architecture. Under sheltering oaks and magnolias are nature trails and bird sanctuaries; retention ponds; the golf course; a large apartment complex called The Quadrangle; single homes and duplexes; three Assisted Living buildings; a skilled-nursing facility; the Arts & Crafts Center; a thriving Re-Sale business; the Commons, with library, coffee shop, fitness center, game room and pool; and P.E.T. – a small factory making mobile units for the disabled.
Further west are the Post Office; the Town Hall; Kohler Park, other homes, churches and small businesses. The story of Penney Farms depends on several entities: J.C. Penney; his farming corporation (the Town); the Reinhold Corporation; the Christian Herald Foundation; the Penney Retirement Community; its Staff and Board of Directors. But the story begins prior to J.C. Penney’s arrival.

Following the Civil War, the area west of Green Cove Springs saw a gradual migration of farmers and laborers from Georgia, Alabama and the Carolinas, who came to Florida looking for new opportunities and a better life. In 1921, the Florida Farms and Industries Company established a town called Long Branch City, where a Long Branch, New Jersey canning factory had builT a plant, company store, and post office. Bordered by farms, the town had a school, the St. Johns Hotel, and its own rail system. In October of 1921, the Bordenville Dairy Farms and the Camphor Farm also offered employment. However, by 1923, for various reasons, many farmers and workers had left. The Florida Farms and Industries Company was advertised for sale, attracting the interest of J.C. Penney, whose motivation began with the parents who shaped his life with their Christian faith and practice.

James Cash Penney was born in 1875. His mother, Mary Frances, and father, also James Cash Penney, farmed in Hamilton, MO, raising a family of eleven children. The elder Penney, who faithfully pastored a Primitive Baptist Church, had never been reimbursed for his services. When, after 20 years, he presented the need for financial support to his church, also stating his view that pastors should be better educated, he was asked to leave. In those days, ministers and missionaries had few resources for retirement. This profoundly affected his son, influencing J.C. Penney’s eventual desire to create a haven for Christian ministers where, in retirement, they could still use their skills and be secure financially.

Initially, he had focused solely on his own businesses, working seven days a week to establish a chain of stores all over the country. But the deaths, both of his first wife, Berta, and the second, Mary, left him, grieving, to raise his three sons alone. A cruise to Europe and the Holy Land with his spiritual advisor, the Rev. Dr. Francis Short, encouraged him to reflect on his faith in God and on a broader, more philanthropic approach to life.

Known for his keen interest in honest and successful business practices, Penney spoke with farmers who frequented his stores, aware that many lacked effective knowledge of successful farming, and were somewhat isolated in their rural areas. This revived his own long-held affection for the land, and a desire to promote improvement. On his estate in White Plains, N.Y., he began planting seed and raising dairy cattle.

In 1924, when the land of the Florida Farms and Industries Company was being auctioned to the public, he came to Clay County, drawn by the advantages of a nearby railroad system, busy waterways, local forestry, the dairy industry, and the popularity of Green Cove Springs – the “Saratoga of the South,” which was becoming known as a tourist destination.

He had two dreams. The first: to create an independent, cooperative farming community, which would follow best practices. The second: to create a retirement haven for pastors, missionaries and YMCA workers. Forming a partnership with partner Ralph Gwinn (Penney Company Attorney), he purchased 120,000 acres of Clay County farmland stretching from Green Cove Springs to Starke – approximately one-third of the county. He also owned two hotels in Green Cove Springs: the St. Elmo and the Qui Si Sana (“Here Is Health”).

For his retirees, Penney had first intended to erect a large building of 100 three-room apartment units in Green Cove Springs, but ran into the objection that “traffic would increase,” and there would be “too many old people for such an up-and-coming town.” His original plan to house farming families in the somewhat run-down lumbermen’s cottages near the mill on the St. John’s River also met reversal when he decided they deserved something better: homes built for them in Long Branch City.

In 1926, 60 acres out of the 120,000 were reserved for the Memorial Home Community – now, the Penney Retirement Community (PRC). In this year, Penney also married his third wife, Caroline, with whom he would have two daughters. Retirement cottages were being planned, but in 1927, the Chapel dedicated to his parents – now known as Penney Memorial Church – was the first building to be finished.

More than 100 families had arrived in response to Penney’s venture. The Town had a railroad spur line, hauling turpentine in wooden barrels, milk in 5-gallon cans, farm produce, beef, pork and chickens, and the U.S. mail to markets in Green Cove Springs, St. Augustine, Jacksonville, and other cities along the Florida East Coast Railway. In the Agricultural Institute, built to encourage scientific farming, students pored over soil testing and drainage, the suitability of seed and fertilizer, the latest methods for raising a crop, and the improvement of livestock.

For about three years, farmers and their families seemed to do well, but then, various problems began to coalesce. The great quantity of fertilizer needed to overcome the sandy soil was costing the farmers too much. Distribution to markets near and far was not efficient. Produce spoiled. Heat wilted crops. Construction of the Memorial Home Chapel and other buildings in Penney’s retirement village attracted men who were tired of farming and wanted steadier wages, and finally, the reality of the Depression settled in. By 1930, many families were forced to leave. Penney faced bankruptcy and could no longer financially undergird the retired Christian workers in his Memorial Home Community.

The 120,000 acres intended for farming, timber and cattle were bought by Paul Reinhold, of the Foremost Dairies, who had joined the original venture with his successful company. Sheltered under the umbrella of The Christian Herald, The Memorial Home Community was overseen by Dr. Daniel Poling and the many superintendents who would follow. Penney had been a generous benefactor to Poling, who was Editor of the Herald, and head of its foundation. Retirees were asked to pay a monthly fee for their cottages. During the Depression years, residents found odd jobs like carpentry, maintenance, laundry, and dressmaking. They raised their own food in community gardens or on their farms. Fishing, and hunting deer, rabbits, and wild pigs provided resources for the table. Some neighbors had cows and chickens, and the Town continued its life.

As Camp Blanding was built, and World War II involved the United States, military personnel and their families flooded into Jacksonville, Orange Park, Green Cove Springs and Penney Farms. The Colonial Inn, on the corner of County Road 218 and State Road 16 was always full. Residents of the Town and the retirees learned to be plane spotters. When the War ended, people from the Town helped to feed the German P.O.W.’s.

The Christian Herald had helped to publicize the retirement community, and in the late 40’s it was opened to Christian laypeople. In 1950, the Herald Foundation built the Quadrangle Apartments which Penney had first envisioned for Green Cove Springs. Administration offices and a Dining Hall were included. And in the ’60’s, the operation of the Retirement Community was then turned over to the residents themselves. The first professional CEO was Robert Rigel, who served from 2001 to 2014. The eight previous superintendents, beginning with Dr. Poling, had offered their own contributions and furthered improvements.

These improvements would include such things as the addition of single homes, an Arts and Crafts Center, an assembly hall, a Commons, a new nursing home, a memory- care unit, a clinic, a nursing home, assisted living buildings, a small motel for guests, a golf course and an activity center. As the infrastructure of PRC improved, so did that of the surrounding community.

The Town Hall was enlarged, roads improved, trees planted, and damaged ones removed; a new wastewater system was developed and grants were sought for various needs. A Historical Society was begun in 2007. With a large gift from an anonymous corporate donor, plus funds raised by the residents and labor donated by the New York sculptor, a statue of J.C. Penney was erected in front of Town Hall. Types of employment followed by Town residents listed small farming; animal adoption; sales of dairy equipment, supplies, and garden machinery; auto services; tree farming; lawn services; food service; property maintenance; construction; nursing; social services; hair salon; cattle raising; small business management. New Hope Baptist Church, First Black Creek Baptist, and Beulah Baptist nurtured their congregations. Mayor Thomas DeVille has served several terms – both as Mayor and on the Town Council. Estimates of the present census are between 720 and 750.

Presently supporting PRC is a staff of 169 employees and 16 administrators, who themselves contribute not only through their work, but through personal caring and dedication. Employees come from Penney Farms, as well as from several towns and counties in the area, and some have worked here for almost 40 years. Children or other relatives of both staff and residents have also come to work or live in Penney Farms. Generations of family members from the Town have left their own legacies. Penney retirees have frequently served in Town government.

From multiple interviews held with individuals representing staff, retirees, and Town residents, the consensus is that this is an active, peaceful, caring place to live. Many of those who grew up here cherish this area as: “the best of all worlds.”

PRC consistently has been recognized for its generosity and service – often known as “volunteering” – but prompted by a core faith which values others through God’s love. Recorded in March of 2016 for the previous year were 133,000 hours of service benefiting retired neighbors and the greater area. This includes commitments within and outside of the community, such as working at P.E.T.; supporting Church benevolences; tutoring; guardian et litem representation; helping with income tax reporting; transportation services; safety patrol; monitoring the Fitness Center; producing online and printed community news; contributing to the Green Cove Food Bank; maintaining a busy Resale outlet; serving on committees for the benefit of residents; serving on the Town Council; contribution to Resident Aid; and helping in the Pavilion and Assisted Living buildings. Residents have their own Executive Association, and also sit on the Corporate Board of Directors. PRC has embraced Christian workers with every kind of background: aviation, business , banking/financial planning, internal revenue, teaching, music, creative arts, publishing, medical, scientific, architectural, agricultural and environmental, engineering, design and manufacturing, management, missions, social work, law enforcement, the military, pastoral and preaching.

At the heart of the community, Penney Memorial Church itself incorporates over 27 different denomination backgrounds, gives to many worldwide and local ministries, offers scholarships to deserving students and sponsors a free commemorative series of programs and concerts open to the public. The wealth of pastors and missionaries in retirement affords the congregation a different worship leader every week, plus four Sunday School classes, Tuesday Night Bible Study and Friday morning Intercessory Prayer, as well as Healing Prayer services.

The Arts, Crafts and Services Division was one of the earliest organizations created at PRC. Year- round, various groups are busy making stained glass, jewelry, ceramics and pottery, weavings, knitted items, paintings and drawings, photography, woodworking and carvings, pine-needle crafts, quilting, wreaths, sewn items, and decorative items specific to Christmas. A Fall Sale is held every November. Also available for residents are services such as mending and alterations, picture- framing, upholstery, and the repair of furniture, small appliances and electronics, computers, watches and clocks, golf carts and bicycles – all priced very reasonably.

If two of the “jewels in the crown” are the Church and the Arts and Crafts Division, the third would have to be P.E.T., an acronym for Personal Energy Transportation. Begun in 1994 by Larry and Laura Hills, former missionaries to Zaire (now Congo), Africa, this outreach benefits individuals who have lost the use of their legs through disease, accident, or war. The sturdy three-wheeled carts are propelled by hand. Recipients not only find themselves mobile, but may be able to further their education or carry on a small business. P.E.T. has approximately 24 locations (affiliates) across the United States, and in 2015, the Penney affiliate produced 800 units, shipped to over 100 countries.

Respecting in every way the expressed conviction that God has ordained and sustained this community from its inception, it should also be emphasized again that the thriving of Penney Farms has depended upon the ongoing, generous interaction between the entities cited at the beginning of this story. The current PRC Chief Executive Officer, Teresa Scott, states: “I have witnessed the value and security of the residents having a voice in all areas of operation. What continues to be consistent is the love and caring that exists between our neighbors and all of us who serve the mission of this community … where older adults can live active and purposeful lives.”