Sawgrass History

30º 8′ North Latitude
The land on which our homes is situated has been the site of some exciting adventures in American history.   It was on these shores that Spanish explorer Ponce de Leon landed in his quest for the legendary Fountain of Youth, coming ashore at the northern border of the Guana Tolomato Matanzas National Estuarine Research Reserve in April 1513.

“Scholarly studies indicate that Ponce de León first sighted and named the land La Florida on Easter Sunday, March 27, 1513, and sailed north. On April 2, according to a surviving navigational fix from his voyage, Ponce’s three-ship fleet was at 30 degrees, 8 minutes north latitude – just south of present day Ponte Vedra Beach. The Herrera account states that Ponce and his landing party first came ashore in La Florida the following morning, April 3, 1513.”

At this time in history, it was the Timucuan Indians that called our backyards home.   In fact, according to the August 1974 Sawgrass Adventurer, an early community newsletter, slivers of flint and golden brown pottery shards were later discovered all over Sawgrass.  During the 1600s and into the 1700s, Ponte Vedra Beach and the surrounding areas were the scenes of many conflicts between Timucuan tribes, the Spanish, the French and the English.  When Spain sold Florida to the United States in 1821, the state became a U.S. territory. Throughout the 1800s, the area remained sparsely populated with new settlers, plantations and sugar cane.

Florida’s first governor, General Andrew Jackson, divided the territory into two counties ,  Escambia and St. Johns. The peaceful life of the area started to come to a halt with the start of the seven-year Seminole War in 1835, and continued with the four-year Civil War in 1861, which signaled the end of plantation culture.

Mineral City
Following the European explorers and native Americans, a parade of interesting characters passed this way. French, Spanish and English soldiers, missionaries, indigo and rice planters, cattle ranchers and cowboys came and went. St. Augustine, Atlantic Beach and Jacksonville Beach grew into towns, but the land we now occupy remained relatively unchanged.  Then , in 1914, two young chemical engineers, Henry Holland Buckman and George A. Pritchard, discovered the area’s beautiful beaches contained more than a dozen industrial minerals, including rutile and ilmenite, components necessary for the production of titanium and zirconium. These minerals were needed during World War I, and were mined extensively throughout the 17 -mile stretch of beach from Jacksonville Beach to South Ponte Vedra Beach (including Sawgrass).  By 1916, the National Lead Company bought out Pritchard and Buckman , and the mining settlement was dubbed Mineral City.  Eventually the mining boom subsided. In 1928 the National Lead Company changed the name of the area from Mineral City to the more pleasing Ponte Vedra.

James Stockton Sr . was brought on to manage the development of an exclusive resort, the Ponte Vedra Club. During the '30s, the community north of us slowly developed, but still our land remained undisturbed.

Operation Pastorius
One summer night in 1942, Germany made an unsuspected invasion of America on the shores of Ponte Vedra near Sawgrass. Four Nazi saboteurs from a U-boat landed with a stash of bomb-making gear — detonators, fuses, explosives, and a bundle of cash with which to destroy some of the manufacturing capacity of the United States. From the record of the military tribunal following their capture, here is the story in the words of one of the invaders:

“In the early morning of June 17th the submarine approached the beach of Florida near Ponte Vedra … (it) drew to within about 50 yards of the beach and a rubber boat was blown up and launched. We dressed in swimming trunks and the army caps, and placed the boxes in the sea bags, the shovels and zipper bags in the boat, together with one sailor from the submarine and we paddled to the beach and landed the boxes and bags. The sailor returned with the rubber boat to the submarine after jumping to shore momentarily, scooping up some sand to take with him as a souvenir.”

“We walked north along the beach a short distance carrying the materials about 300 feet back from the ocean. In the sand we buried the boxes using shovels we had brought for that purpose. We then buried the shovels and the army caps.”

“The reason we had worn the army caps was that if we were captured wearing army caps, we would be considered German soldiers, and therefore prisoners of war and not subject to the death penalty for entering the country as spies.

“We then walked north along the beach for some distance until we reached a point on the beach in front of a golf club at Ponte Vedra. We stayed there until about 11 A.M., swimming and resting on the beach. All of us then changed from our trunks to our regular clothes that we had brought along and walked over to the main highway from the beach to a gasoline filling station …and shortly thereafter a bus came along which all four of us boarded to Jacksonville, Florida.”

(From the Stenograpic Transcript Of Proceedings Before The Military Commission To Try Persons Charged With Offenses Against The Law Of War And The Articles Of War, Washington, D.C., Monday, July 20, 1942)
From there they headed north with the intention of meeting up with four other saboteurs who had landed earlier in Amagansett, NY. Fortunately, two of the New York gang decided they liked living in the US, and had given themselves up to the FBI. With the information they provided, the remaining six were quickly apprehended and prosecuted. The FBI later recovered the cache of explosives in the dunes just south of our beach club. Among the items were blocks of TNT shaped like laundry soap, a device that looked like a pen that could start fires, and a watch that could detonate explosives!

The next time you’re enjoying a relaxing walk on the sidewalks or sands of Sawgrass, keep in mind the adventurers both renowned and infamous who passed this way. It wasn’t always this peaceful.

The Stockton Revolution
In the early 1970s James R. Stockton, Jr., started planning the Sawgrass Country Club, the property we call home. 

The Stockton family was involved in Jacksonville real estate long before Sawgrass was even a concept. Jimmy’s grandfather,Telfair Stockton, developed Riverside, Avondale, San Marco and other residential areas beginning back in 1884. Jimmy’s father, Jim Sr., began managing the Ponte Vedra Club in 1928, eventually purchasing the club and property in 1942 for $500,000.

Jimmy, Jr., also part of the family firm, left to form his own company in 1966. At that time he purchased 600 acres on the west side of Ponte Vedra Boulevard and 1,600 feet of oceanfront land on the east side of the boulevard (total price: $600,000). Another 500 - 600 acres west of the original purchase was added shortly thereafter, and in 1971 Stockton Properties was created with the idea of developing a yet-unnamed planned community. 

When ground was broken in 1972, the 1,100 “Sawgrass” acres looked much like it did when it emerged from the sea about 11,000 years earlier. “There was nothing but palmettos and rattlesnakes,” claims Randy Brown, a long-time Ponte Vedra resident, in describing the land on which Sawgrass developed. “About half of it was good land; the rest was swamps and mud. You couldn’t drive on it.” The first structures were the Administration Building at the current south gate and a helicopter pad. The sales team could only show the land from the air as there were no roads. 

Al Hammack, the engineer of the Sawgrass community, and the first to purchase a private home here, concurs. “It was typical Florida - slash pines and palmettos, elevation about 4 to 5 feet. There were no lakes.” There was nothing south of Corona Road but the Fountains Apartments - no other homes, businesses or developments.

So how did we get from there to where we are today? Mr. Hammock has an answer. “The development was so well planned, and we really followed that plan.” The engineering company Hammack worked prior to joining the Sawgrass team, had also developed Hilton Head and Amelia Island Plantation – land that was “much prettier than this,” according to Hammack. Jimmy Stockton visited both, as well as Johns Island and developments in California. 

Stockton had a vision for the Sawgrass Country Club. So, Hammack, the engineer, along with Don Cheek, the planner, and Ed Seay, the golf course architect, strived to make that vision a reality. “A million cubic yards of dirt were removed,” recalled Hammack. “Six hundred thousand were used to make the golf course and also provided drainage and building elevations. Lots were laid out and roads surveyed. The roads, utilities, golf course and beach were all connected. The internal drainage was well covered and the internal lake system was established. There were no planned communities like it. It was a tremendous opportunity and undertaking, and very appealing.” 

We might want to thank Jimmy Stockton and those talented men who worked with him. They took some Florida scrub land, a vision and a well thought-out plan and created Sawgrass Country Club and surrounding community, a lasting gift that has kept on giving.

Sawgrass Association - Ponte Vedra Beach, FL