By Scott A. Grant
In 1914, Elizabeth Worthington Philip Stark, a wealthy socialite from New York, bought 350 acres of wild land along the St. Johns River overlooking Ribault Bay, near Mayport. She set out to build her own paradise. She called her new resort Wonder Wood by the Sea. It would include a sumptuous home she dubbed Miramar, a 1000-foot-long fishing pier, the Ribault Hotel, a riding stable, and other outbuildings.
Wonder Wood became a playground for the rich and famous, thanks in part to Elizabeth Stark’s famous brother, an important US diplomat and former Rough Rider with Teddy Roosevelt. In 1940, the US Government took most of her land to be used as a Naval base. They paid Stark a fraction of what the land was worth. Eminent domain can be cruel.
But, in 1917, Elizabeth Stark was still at the height of her wealth and power. She founded one of the first Girl Scout troops in Florida and used them to patrol the beaches looking for Germans and other suspicious characters during World War I. The eccentric woman rode a horse and carried a pistol as she led her girls up and down the beach. The girls carried shotguns and semiautomatic rifles. Her efforts caught the attention of the press. One bold headline proclaimed Stark “Leads Band Of Girl Hun Hunters.”
The eccentric Stark saw enemy agents everywhere. “Although we never had any spies arrested,” she wrote, “we kept a lot of them on the move.”
One night, a large ship approached the beach, ringing its bell. At the same time, a car appeared on the beach. Clearly the car was there to greet the ship full of invaders. Only the sight of her heavily armed Girl Scouts averted the imagined disaster. When some men from the ship rowed ashore claiming to be grounded and looking for a telephone, Stark and her girls were there to send them on their way.
When the government decided in 1940 to expand the Navy and add more bases, including one in Mayport, they used eminent domain to seize her land. They paid her in total $40,000 for a property estimated to be worth $2 million. Elizabeth Stark refused to leave. The Marines seized the Ribault Hotel. Legend says that they ultimately carried her from her home, tied to a chair and warned her to “never set foot on her property again.”
The name Wonder Wood survived. Wonder Wood by the Sea was gone, but the name continued as a place name. There is a Lake Wonderwood, Wonderwood Drive, and a Wonderwood Bridge. It is a peculiar feature of the south that we often retain the name of a place long after the original purpose ceases to exist.
Elizabeth Stark died penniless in 1967. She was buried in an unmarked grave in the Mayport Cemetery. In 1975, Brownie Troop 446 headed up an effort to raise funds for a pink marble headstone to be installed at Stark’s grave site.
Scott A. Grant is a local author and historian. By day, he manages assets for clients at Standfast Asset Mgmt. He welcomes your comments at firstname.lastname@example.org