Article by Bill Delaney

Willie Browne’s story

Willie Browne, courtesy of the National Park Service and The Florida Times-Union.

William Henry Browne III was born in 1889 to Eliza and William Browne II. Having lost Willie’s two older sisters to the 1888 Jacksonville yellow fever epidemic, the Brownes determined to find a more secluded location to raise Willie. In 1890, they purchased 600 acres of mostly wooded land around the St. Johns Bluff from the Spearing family (more on them in a bit). Willie’s younger brother Saxon was born the next year.

Willie and Saxon enjoyed an idyllic childhood in the woods and marshes of their vast acreage. When their house, Shell Mount, burned down, Eliza and William II moved back to Jacksonville, leaving the boys on the bluff where they camped out in the barn. On Willie’s 16th birthday in 1905, his father ceded him the entire property as a gift and a charge. He called on Willie to keep the land in a natural state and defend it from poachers. Wanting the boys to be self sufficient, William helped them build the one room cabin where they spent the rest of their lives.

Even as most of the rest of the St. Johns Bluff area faced progressive development and sprawl through the 20th century, Willie steadfastly refused to let go of his land. When asked why he would turn down offers that reportedly reached millions of dollars, Willie simply said, “money cannot buy happiness, and this place makes me happy.” Saxon Browne died in 1953, leaving Willie alone. In his later years, he did welcome the occasional visitor (barring hunters) and reportedly enjoyed showing folks around his woods.

In 1969, Willie deeded the entire property to the Nature Conservancy, to take effect upon his death. The agreement stipulated that the Nature Conservancy and any future owner keep the land in its natural state. When he passed away on December 14, 1970, the Theodore Roosevelt Area – named by Willie after the former president, his ecological hero – was born. Today it is a part of the vast Timucuan Ecological and Historical Preserve and one of the great natural treasures of Northeast Florida.

Willie Browne’s woods

Spanish Pond

The boardwalk on the Spanish Pond Trail

The Roosevelt Area is nearby other popular features of the Timucuan Preserve including, the Fort Caroline National Memorial and Ribault Column, a replica of the monument left behind by French explorer Jean Ribault in 1562. Two main trails lead into the Roosevelt Area, the Spanish Pond Trail off Fort Caroline Road and the Willie Browne Trail off Mt. Pleasant Road.

As COVID-19 made a large-scale celebration of the 50th anniversary of the Theodore Roosevelt Area untenable, the National Park Service have placed a series of signs giving information on the space and encouraging visitors to contemplate Willie Browne’s gift.

Trailhead of the Willie Browne Trail.

Bridge over Hammock Creek.

Next page: Sites and features of the Theodore Roosevelt Area