By Mike Steely
Next time you’re in Northern Florida, whether it’s for a UT game in Gainesville, or if you’re passing through on the way to Disney, there’s a Day Away side trip that’s free and interesting. If you’re into military history or the ministry, there are two places just east of Gainesville that are worth a drive.
Located on State Route 16 West both public attractions are about eight hours from Knoxville, depending on traffic through Atlanta. The easiest way to reach them is by taking Highway 24 North from Gainesville and drive to Starke, than take State Highway 16.
Much of Highway 16 was actually built by J. C. Penney, the founder of J.C. Penney’s department stores. That’s later in the story.
Camp Blanding is now an active National Guard post but, during World War II, was a training base for several Army infantry divisions. At one time the camp was the 4th largest city in that state, with theaters, post exchanges, a commissary, mess halls, etc.
Today the camp remains active and you can’t go beyond the guard gates but you can visit a very nice military museum with a knowledgeable guide and lots of items to view. The Camp Blanding Museum and Memorial Park is located outside the gates just off Highway 16.
There are examples there of all the military services and the museum is a neat walk through experience. Plus it’s free. One of the unique displays is a recreated firing stand like those used in the Vietnam War.
The facility is operated by the Camp Blanding Museum & Historical Association and you can find it online or call (904)682-3198. The museum is open most days and even on Sundays and holidays from noon until 4 p.m. The memorial park is scattered with military monuments, tanks, ambulances, and other vehicles and is open always to visitors.
Just a few miles west along Route 16 is an unusual and unique settlement created by James Cash Penney, better known as J. C. Penney. Back in 1925 Penney bought 120,000 acres in Clay County, Florida and a year later decided to move a group of retired ministers, missionaries and YMCA workers to cottage apartments he built there.
While other millionaires were busy buying other businesses, Penney developed the community, built apartments, cottages and a grand church, and promoted the retirement settlement. He even built and expanded what is now Highway 16 to service the new community.
The church and most of the homes were built in the French-Norman style architecture when Penney had seen while touring Europe. In 1999 Penney Farms became a Historic District on the National Register of Historic Places.
Today people still live in Penney Farms and the incorporated little town, just off Highway 16, is available to walk or drive through. The church is open from 8 a.m. until 5 p.m. each day. The archive of the Penney Retirement Community is located in the boiler room of the church. On the grounds of the settlement is a railroad exhibit, a sharecropper cabin, a park and playground and an exhibit of the Historic Society in Town Hall. You can get more information on the internet or by calling 904-284-8200.