A devastating fire sparked a family’s dream and that eventually became Sawgrass.
In 1901, most of downtown Jacksonville burned down. The fire started in a broommaking company and quickly spread, leaving thousands homeless. But not for long, as developers such as James R. Stockton quickly sold the inventory of homes in closein suburbs such as Riverside, Avondale and San Marco ... and got wealthy along the way.
Stockton and other developers concentrated on the central part of Duval County. With the opening of the Acosta Bridge in 1921, no longer was a ferry required to reach the Southside and the boom continued there.For many, that was enough. For Stockton, the horizon never ended and his business expanded past homebuilding. One subsidiary was Telfair Stockton Inc., a property management firm.
Skip now to 1928, when the National Lead Company decided to do some expansion of its own. National Lead was a mining company that found rich deposits between Jacksonville and the ocean and owned, among many other land holdings, an enormous piece stretching along the Atlantic Ocean. They had built an executive retreat on part of it and decided to convert it into a resort.
To plan and develop this, they hired Telfair Stockton Inc., and James Stockton now had an entree into the oceanfront. The Great Depression slowed things down, but the Inn at Ponte Vedra finally opened in 1937.
The onset of World War II gave National Lead other priorities — such as developing the atomic bomb. They asked Stockton to broker a land sale. There were no takers so National Lead offered to radically cut the price. Stockton didn’t have the cash but had borrowing power, and ended up owning what now has, perhaps, an inestimable value: 18 miles along the Atlantic Ocean.
Stockton didn’t stop there, adding land south of Ponte Vedra — now known as the Guana tract — and kept expanding the business. Stockton kept merging. The real estate company added Brown Whatley and Joseph Davin and the name reflected it: Stockton, Whatley and Davin. A new face in the company was the man who eventually built Sawgrass: James Stockton Jr.
Another merger was SWD with Great American Oil of Texas. Another new company was Telfair Corporation with young Jimmy, his uncle and his father. A notable part of that deal was a 600acre tract south of the Ponte Vedra club. Yet another merger was the Telfair Corp. with Industrial America.
And that’s where Sawgrass comes in. The oceanfront land, plus the 600 acres, are now the Sawgrass community. The senior Stockton died in 1969 and, three years after, Jimmy and sister Preston became developers of what is now one of Florida’s most prestigious residential country clubs.
“It was truly a swamp,” said Jimmy Stockton. “The lakes were full of alligators. If you walked around without snake boots, you weren’t very smart. It was nowhere with nothing. no water, no power, no roads. It was as raw as you could find.”
The first real structure was the office building at what is now the South entrance. The North entrance didn’t come until the mid80’s. “We had a generator to produce power,” said Stockton. "Eventually, JEA ran lines from the Davis property across the Intracoastal.”
The building became an attraction for two reasons. “It was where I put a lot of my safari trophies,” said Stockton, “so there were all kinds of wild animals. “And, we had a helicopter that we used to take tours for potential land buyers. That was a big deal, too.”