Deep in Clay County, within the boundaries of Belmore State Forest there lies a grave for one Francis Marion Degen. The only information on this grave is a name, a date (February 12, 1890) and a Freemasonry symbol.
This is a bit of a departure from my normal type of post, but this subject is a bit near and dear for me. The first time I encountered Mr. Degen’s grave was around 2007 or 2008. At the time it was surrounded by cables and was somewhat undisturbed. By the time I took a job on the forest in 2011 the cables had been stolen and the gravestone partially knocked over.
Seeing his grave site in disarray I grew curious about the history of this man. Was he important? What brought him to his final resting place in the middle of the woods? How did he die? Did he leave anyone behind who might want to care for his grave?
Thankfully, the internet was a helpful tool for researching such questions. Not only was I able to dig up bits and pieces of information, I managed to get in touch with the Clay County historian. She was able to find me original documents regarding Mr. Degen’s estate. Through some of her connections we were able to find enough information about him to create a narrative of his life and death and the interesting events which took place afterwards.
I’ll get to all that eventually. But first: a little background.
Around the year 1885, The Belmore Florida Land Company of Chicago purchased nearly 4,000 acres in Clay County and touted it as a paradise for Northern souls hoping to escape the miseries of Northern winters (something I can identify with).
At the time, it was predicted that the entire tract would one day be settled and sown in orange trees and other fruits and vegetables.
“A Safe And Certain Investment”
The investors were so hopeful about their purchase that they platted out a new city and offered 40×100 foot lots for $3 a piece. In order to help attract and educate new settlers they published a pamphlet discussing how to plant an orange grove and what other plants would be valuable to grow there. The city was platted out in a grid complete with parks and a public school.
Five acre orange groves were platted out to the north of the city. These were offered for $15-50 per acre and touted to bring in $100 or much more a year in profit. Similar towns had sprung up all over the state with differing success rates. Optimistic investors were found and many of the lots were sold.
It was this promise of profit and healthy living that attracted a 59 year old Francis to purchase 14 acres in 1889 and send his servant, Hugh McNeil, to start an orange grove. The plan was to retire and enjoy fine Florida living.
That plan however, didn’t work out…
Next week we’ll tell you a bit about Mr. Degen himself. Keep reading!