By Martie Thompson
Along State Road 13, the Bennett House, the Hartley Store and Beluthahatchee all reflect the vibrant history of the NW St. Johns County area — and thanks to the efforts of St. Johns County Parks and Recreation and the Stetson Kennedy Foundation, all were recognized simultaneously at a community celebration held on Saturday, Feb. 24.
“All three buildings are already local historical landmarks,” said Karen Roumillat, board member of the Stetson Kennedy Foundation. “This event was a celebration of their history.”
Roumillat, Stetson Kennedy’s stepdaughter who has been advocating for the history of the area for years, said that the goal was to remind both new and existing community members of the rich history of the area.
“We have a wonderful story to tell and we want to do what we can to celebrate and remember it,” she said.
Roumillat said that the day of the celebration was sunny and beautiful and the azaleas were blooming at Alpine Groves Park, where an estimated 75 – 100 people gathered to hear speakers State Rep. Cyndi Stevenson, St. Johns County Commissioner Jimmy Johns, Assistant Parks Director Billy Zeits, Sandra Parks and Roumillat of the Stetson Kennedy Foundation, and Andrew Piezzo of Andrew’s Homestead in front of the Bennett House. Following the speeches, refreshments were provided by the Friends of Alpine Groves Park, and then attendees were invited to visit the Hartley Store and Beluthahatchee. Roumillat estimates that 50 people attended the open house that day at Beluthahatchee.
The Bennett House, located in Alpine Groves Park, still needs to be restored and is not open to visitors at this time, although the county is working on funding, according to Roumillat. Built in 1886 by Robert Willis as a winter season home, the Bennett House was purchased in 1899 by Robert Ellis Brooker and Julia Church Brooker. Their legacy expanded to own the Hartley Store on State Road 13, next door to the Switzerland Post Office. Robert Brooker was the postmaster from 1921 – 1941, followed by his postmistress wife until 1955.
The Hartley Store was built around 1930 and is currently open for business as Andrew’s Homestead, a little country market managed by Andrew Piezzo. Its legacy spans nearly 75 years as a locally-owned general store by the Leonard and Evelyn Hartley family since 1945. Many local residents have fond memories of sitting on the porch, visiting with friends and catching up on the local news of their community.
Stetson Kennedy’s home Beluthahatchee was built in 1973 and although not quite 50 years old, has been designated a St. Johns County Historic Landmark because of its historical significance. It was twice designated a literary landmark honoring Stetson Kennedy (pioneer folklorist, American author and human rights activist) and Woody Guthrie (American singer-songwriter and one of the most significant figures in American folk music). Beluthahatchee is open to the public by reservation or appointment as well as for special events such as Second Sundays at Stetson’s.
“We have such a wonderful community here in St. Johns, which encompasses Fruit Cove, Switzerland, Orangedale and more. It was a very close-knit community back in the day and we are lucky to have these three buildings that remind us of those times,” said Roumillat.
The Stetson Kennedy Foundation would like to record residents’ oral histories of the area in an effort to capture and preserve memories. Call Karen Roumillat at (904) 707-5207 if you have a story to share.
Photo courtesy Susan Brandenburg
St. Johns County Commissioner Jimmy Johns, Sandra Parks (Stetson Kennedy Foundation), Andrew Piezzo (owner of Andrew’s Homestead), Karen Roumillat (Stetson Kennedy Foundation), State of Florida Representative Cyndi Stevenson, Billy Zeits (Assistant Director Parks and Recreation Department) were all speakers at the celebration.