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Clay Springs on the Wekiva

Clay Springs courtesy Florida Memory Project

Clay Springs was once a vital port of entry for Central Florida. Known today as Wekiwa Springs State Park, a magnificent setting at the head of the enchanting Wekiva River, I should point out first that this article is not about the park or the proper use of V versus W. In fact, this article is not about Wekiwa Park at all, but rather Clay Springs, the original 19th century settlement at this one-time important port of entry, established long before the idea of a park was concocted.

“I am glad to see it agitated to buy Clay Springs, misnamed “Wekiva, and make it a public park.” These words, penned in a 1922 letter to the editor by Sanford P. Shepherd, was written in support of creating a park at this very spot, although the writer, an early Central Florida surveyor, felt as though the proposed park’s name should be spelled with a “V.” So, let’s leave it at that!

Of any 19th century Florida pioneer alive in 1922 who might know of the history and terrain of the Wekiva River basin it was Sanford P. Shepherd. He was 70 years of age and in his fifth decade as a resident of both the Little Wekiva Creek and the Wekiva River when he wrote his editorial in 1922, a letter that continued by saying “Clay Springs was named after a Mr. Clay who settled there soon after the war and cleared up a farm where he raised cotton and corn.”

The “Mr. Clay” that S. P. Shepherd wrote about was Shadrick H. Clay (1813-1888). With his bride Lydia (Mobley) (1830-1903), Shadrick and Lydia settled at the head of the Wekiva River in 1850, the very year they had married.

Orange County in 1850, you should know, had only about 250 men, women and children living in the entire county. Of thousands of square miles, the census of that year reports the county as having 466 residents, but Volusia County had yet to be carved from Orange County at that time. Half of the population for 1850 Orange County lived in towns on the east side of the St. Johns River, towns such as New Smyrna (yes, Orange County back then had oceanfront property), and the town of Enterprise on the north shore of Lake Monroe.

While clarifying information, let me also point out that Sanford P. Shepherd was not related to either the city or the namesake of Sanford, Florida. Sanford P. Shepherd was one of three sons who had followed their father, Parkinson Dodge Shepherd, Sr. (1804-1883) to Orange County, Florida. Departing their Civil War-torn Virginia homeland, the Shepherd family settled at first near Hoosier Springs and Lake Brantley - before Seminole County was carved from Orange.

“When I came in 1874,” wrote S. P. Shepherd in his 7 September 1922 editorial to the Orlando Sentinel, “all that was left of the (Shadrick H. Clay) farm was the clearing and two rows of bittersweet citrus trees, and these trees were killed by the freeze of 1894.” Shepherd added, “In the olden days, an old steamer by the name of Fox used to come up the river from Sanford.”

Mrs. Higgins 1887 Plat of Clay Springs, Florida.

Upon Sanford P. Shepherd’s death in 1931 at age 79, his obituary stated that he had been a resident of Central Florida for 53 years.” Sanford Shepherd at first settled near Lake Brantley,” said his obit, but as a long-time resident and surveyor, his mark, “S. P. Shepherd, Deputy Surveyor,” can also be found in Winter Park, Winter Garden, and Orlando. But his mark will also be found at the Ghost Town of Clay Springs, where in 1887, “S. P. Sanford” surveyed a Plat of “Mrs. R. A. Higgins Subdivision, at Clay Springs, Fla.”

Clay Springs on the Wekiva will be continued as Part II of this Blog Series, but if 19th century Central Florida history intrigues you, I invite you to join me too for my presentation “Ghost Towns & Phantom Trains” on Thursday, June 20, 2024, at 6:30PM in Heller Hall at the Winter Garden Heritage Foundation in historic Winter Garden, Florida.

Email for reservations

Clay Springs will be one a two dozen Ghost Towns, and I’ll be talking as well about a plethora of Phantom Trains, including the “Alabama, Florida & Atlantic Railroad” that was projected to pass right through downtown Clay Springs.

Now then, for a commercial. I released Orlando Lakes: Homesteaders & Namesakes in 2019. An encyclopedia of Central Florida lakes, this book lists in alphabetical order 300 historic lakes. You can quickly find who settled on each and why they were named as they were. You can pick up a copy at my June 20 Winter Garden presentation, or buy it today at Amazon.

On August 22, 2024 I will be presenting a Lake County version of Ghost Towns & Phantom Trains at the Tavares History Research Center. Email for details or reservations.

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