Less than four decades after Pedro Menendez de Aviles landed in La Tierra de Flores and created a settlement he named Santa Augustine, a group of Timucuan natives of the Saturiba tribe were living in a permanent camp they called Capuaca near Moses Creek and ruled by a cacica or chieftess named Doňa Maria. By the middle of the eighteenth century, they had relocated to an area just north of Fort Mose, which was a community of freed slaves under the leadership of the freed slave Francisco Menendez. No doubt inter-tribal wars and marauding pirates had convinced them that this area was more suitable since it was protected by the garrison at Fort Mose and nurtured by the tiny mission church of Santa Teresa de Gracia Real. In addition, Doňa Maria had already been living at the nearby Mission Nombre de Dios for several years by this point. They remained here until the Spanish left in 1764 when they abandoned the land with them, avoiding British rule. The name of their village would echo for the next 150 years.
When English colonists began arriving in the summer of 1764, they wasted little time in setting themselves up on abandoned holdings. A planter named Fish bought the area between Indian Creek to the north and present-day Robinson Creek to the south for 100 pesos, intent on building his fortune in the new colony of East Florida. Naming his plantation Capuaca for the abandoned village still marked on maps of the time, he was successful in raising a number of different types of crops using mostly slave labor. Seven years later, the road that would become US 1- the Kings Road -was constructed on the western boundary of Capuaca, improving access to distant markets while ironically creating a highway for invasion. Jesse Fish never lived at Capuaca, but instead made his home on the island that bears his name (Fish Island) on the west side of Anastasia Island near modern St. Augustine Beach. In the winter of 1785, four pirates attacked his house there and looted it, providing an omen for things to come.
By now, East Florida was officially back under Spanish control, although the American Revolution had sown the seeds of discontent among settlers, especially along the Saint Marys River. When the War of 1812 came to the American republic, dissidents living in East Florida and southern Georgia were eager to settle old scores with the Spanish colonial government incurred during a revolt two decades earlier. The reticence of the Spanish to return runaway slaves to the English in Georgia helped precipitate what would be known as the Patriot Rebellion. It also spelled the end of Fish’s plantation at Capuaca. In April of 1812, the garrison at Fort Mose fought off the US-backed insurgents, but not before every structure on the farm was burned to the ground.
Over half a century would go by before there was any interest in the land that was once Capuaca. The meager remnants of both the plantation and Fort Mose would slowly disintegrate and sink into the marsh. The Timucua had died out, the Spanish and English were gone; now the new United States government took control of Florida, re-enslaving the few free Africans that remained. The First and Second Seminole Wars pushed out the last native Americans so that northern industrialists could begin exploiting the land. It would be this exploitation that resurrected the old name, as well as the old plantation. Parceled out and sold piecemeal, land speculators got rich selling the ruined fields of Capuaca after the Civil War.
An unlikely savior would appear on the scene at the dawn of the twentieth century, a rapacious new breed of capitalist by the name of Henry M. Flagler. Flagler did nothing halfway. When he decided to make St. Augustine the “Riviera of the south”, he built two state-of-the-art hotels: The Ponce de Leon and the Alcazar. When the railroads bringing his guests became unreliable, he bought his own. He built churches, put in water and sewer lines, electrified the city and generally spared no expense to create a subtropical paradise for his guests. The wealthy enjoyed a leisurely life of shopping, concerts, swimming, sailing and golf. To further the latter, Flagler’s Florida East Coast Hotel Company purchased all the separate tracts of land in 1915, then transferred the holding to the St. Augustine Golf Development Company. Capuaca was unified again, resurrected after almost a hundred years of neglect.
By 1916, Capuaca would enter its second life as a golf course for the rich and famous. Designed by Scotsman Donald Ross, it was one of the first in Florida, along with the Belleview in Clearwater (another Ross course) and Mission Inn’s El Campeon in Orlando. In keeping with Flagler’s Spanish theme, it was dubbed the Ponce de Leon Golf Course. Buses would transport duffers from the Ponce de Leon Hotel in downtown St. Augustine several miles out to the links. A year later, a separate organization calling themselves the Ponce de Leon Golf Course bought the 400 acre site from Flagler and began promoting it to the newly formed Professional Golf Association. Celebrities as diverse as Babe Ruth and President Warren Harding played there. It became a championship course in it’s prime due to its design, location and natural beauty. Nearly one-fourth of the tract is natural coastal wetland, providing habitat for bald eagles, wood storks, egret, herons, ibis, osprey and roseate spoonbills. There are also deer, alligators, raccoons and possum, attracted to the peace and quiet of the marshes.
Even as late as the 1930’s, the road from town to the golf course was known as Capuaca Road before it was finally renamed San Marco Avenue. A resort hotel was built on the southwest corner of the property in 1957, passing through the hands of a half dozen holding companies until it eventually became a Radisson hotel known as the Ponce de Leon Golf Resort and Convention Center. The transformation from native village to plantation to golf course was complete. Flagler’s dream was realized, but unfortunately, it would not survive far into the twenty-first century.
In 2002, the Ponce de Leon resort was transferred to new owners, the Ponce Associates LLC, a holding company for Stokes and Company. Most area residents were under the impression that the Jacksonville developer behind the scene, Chester Stokes, was going to modernize and expand the facilities. Instead, he quickly realized that the real estate potential of this formerly great golf course lay not with the sport, but in turning the land into a high-end 750 home residential subdivision. From the outset there was public outcry against the planned development. The mayor of Saint Augustine, George Gardner, announced that the city was interested in purchasing the property for preservation and public use. Seeking the best return on his fourteen million dollar investment, Stokes closed the Ponce de Leon on August 25, 2003. Appeals were filed with the city commission to review the approval issued by the zoning board that would allow the residential construction project to begin. When those failed, motions were filed in circuit court, but eventually they too were dismissed. The Ponce resort was doomed. Demolition of the hotel was complete by March of 2005.
Stokes residential community was to give a new name to the area once known as Capuaca. He called his plan Madeira, after the Portugese word for wood. Despite local objection, he pushed forward with the permitting until the hidden sins of the Ponce de Leon course came to light during an obligatory Florida Department of Environmental Protection audit of soil and water samples. The report issued by the Florida Department of Health in June of 2005 noted that excessive levels of arsenic and dieldrin (a pesticide) were present and widespread over the golf course proper- some 285 acres. Once the report was made public it only fueled the fires of opposition to the entire project. Stokes would be required to remediate the affected land before he could build on that portion. The rancor engendered by the proposed mitigation plans spilled over into the permitting application for the water system Madeira would need for its residents. The St. Johns River Water Management District required a hearing during which a heated debate arose over the wetlands issue. It became clear that between three and eleven acres of wetland, perhaps a third of the previously undisturbed habitat, was going to be irreversibly altered. Saltwater tidal pools would be dredged and cut off from natural sources, then turned into sterile freshwater ponds.
The development company had been aware of the contamination issue from the beginning. The toxic compounds had become concentrated in the soil and water from years of use by the golf course’s maintenance department. Chemicals such as these were commonly employed to combat insect infestation and maintain weed control, especially on the greens. Ponce Associates LLC agreed to accept full responsibility for the site’s cleanup during its initial meeting with the FDEP. What emerged during the process was slightly different however, in that Stokes wound up applying for a “brownfield” designation for the site. Essentially, this provision means that certain tax credits will be offered to the developer in return for money spent on cleanup of a previously contaminated site. Meant to encourage redevelopment of blighted areas, such as former factories and defunct commercial properties, to the opponents of the development, this smacked of using their tax dollars to pay for a cleanup they never wanted in the first place. For the St. Johns/St. Augustine Committee for Conservation and Recreation, it was the last rally. After engineering many legal challenges to halt the construction of Madeira, the committee (better known as Save Our Ponce) went into battle one last time. It was a lost cause. On November 13, 2006, city commissioners approved not only the final site plan, but gave the development company the brownfield designation. “The Ponce’s time has passed,” said Stokes.
On November 1st, 2006, the St. Johns River Water Management District provided for a minimum of ten conservation easements totaling approximately 35 and a half acres of wetlands with upland buffers, as well as corridors that follow natural drainage courses between Poinciana Avenue to the south, US 1 to the west and the existing southern boundaries of the previously platted sections of Jackson Park and De Leon Manors developments. These easements are mostly described within the southern end of the Madeira project on what was the Ponce de Leon Resort Center and the “front nine” of the actual golf course. The original holding company, Ponce Associates, LLC, their successors, Madeira Partners, LLC (another holding company), the Madeira at St. Augustine Master Owners Association, Inc. (including the Madeira Community Development District or CDD) and the ARB Committee (the developers designees), have all accepted these easements and agreed to be bound by their conditions under article 15 of the covenant. The covenant is enforceable for a term of 99 years under article 17, which also provides for 10 year extensions thereafter. The articles were legally adopted June 23rd, 2008.
So it is that 250 years of history is being buried under a conglomeration of condominiums, multi-million dollar homes, asphalt and concrete. Land that was once wild and full of nature will be subverted into an artificial enclave of the rich. I wonder if locals of Flagler’s time felt the same when the old plantation disappeared beneath the carefully manicured landscape of the Ponce de Leon? The problem is, our footprint is getter bigger with each successive generation, the impact on the land, the resources and wildlife grows exponentially. We need to be good stewards and watch where we step. (Originally filed: February 10, 2007)
Update: December 29, 2012
Builder’s websites and county records indicate that fewer than a dozen homes have been constructed to date, each with an asking price between $255,900 to $324,900.