A Few Hundred Strong, African-American Community Aims to Become Florida's Next Trail Town

Posted 01/08/14 by Herb Hiller in Success Stories, Trail Use

Photo © East Coast Greenway Alliance

There is an experience that is unique to the people driving cars along State Road 207 in Florida.

Only they can make the sharp, abrupt drop into Armstrong - a settlement where moms walk babies and folks chat along the narrow town road that abruptly ends in woods. From the high-speed, four-lane highway to the serene woods the drivers go ...plop! It's a strange juxtaposition.

Riders and walkers on the Palatka-to-St. Augustine State Trail enter and leave through these same woods. But trails code users for different expectations, and the transition we experience as we make our way to these woods is likely to be different, too.

Arriving in Armstrong, we've already stopped at the historical sign that explains how, 130 years ago, the trail was the rail corridor for tapping the region's farmlands. Fresh produce supplied the tables of the opulent hotels that revived ancient St. Augustine. Gullahs and Geechees, West Africans enslaved on island plantations in the south in the 1700s, came from South Carolina to work the fields. Some 300 to 400 of their descendants call Armstrong home today. 

Photo © East Coast Greenway Alliance

"I know why you like Armstrong," Jasmin Hines, a local, says to me. 

It is Bike Florida's November 2013 tour, and we are standing in a recreational field serving as an official stop, complete with vendors and a blues band thinly covering Allman Brothers from under a shed.

"It's the same as why we like it. We're all family here."

Reviewing that tour, Ron Cunningham of Bike Florida later wrote, "I was a bit worried that, being the last day of our ride, some of our cyclists would be tempted to skip Armstrong and continue right on to St. Augustine. As it turned out, they were taken by how Armstrong residents welcomed us with open arms. The brunch was easily one of the high points of our seven-day ride." 

That reception was anything but spontaneous. 

The SEA Community - Spuds, Elkton, and Armstrong - pursued Cunningham for months to make sure that brunch in Armstrong would be on the tour. 

The brunch would take place almost a year after locals had celebrated the community's 100th anniversary together with the opening of the Palatka-to-St. Augustine Trail. That day, they hosted some 200 riders, including the director of Florida's parks and recreation office and elected officials from the trail's endpoint cities. 

The trail today is paved and off-road for 8.5 miles. It's part of the 260-mile St. Johns River-to-Sea Loop, which is almost half completed. On the trail are signs of the East Coast Greenway, posted last year when the East Coast Greenway Alliance adopted the trail as part of its 3,000-mile Maine to Florida route. 

"We started thinking how Armstrong could achieve some economic development by catering to cyclists along the trail," says Malinda Peeples, Executive Director of the SEA Community, adding, "People at the dedication sure had a good time."

Now a year later, the North Florida Bicycle Club schedules Armstrong food stops for its weekend rides from St. Augustine. In May of this year, new SunRail commuter trains will connect Orlando with the Loop where they meet at the far southwest turn in DeBary. Trains will carry bikes for free. Peeples is working to make sure Armstrong is ready when cyclists come touring the Loop on their own, and Bike Florida also plans to develop train-trail tours, as well.

Cyclists will soon find a paved path into the park, and a trailhead. Peeples plans to use income from cyclists who stop by to help match grants that will provide a welcome center with a café. There's talk of a small grocery store, a community museum and of getting a more frequent schedule for a mobile health clinic. In time, perhaps some overnight rooms.

Everything gets tested in late winter when Bike Florida will run its annual mass ride for about 1,000 people along a northern portion of the Loop. That throng will stop in Armstrong during its last morning.

How does Armstrong plan to host numbers maybe three times its population?

Peeples laughs. She rattles off the SEA Community's relationship with the county's helpful office of housing and community services and the county parks and recreation department. The St. Johns County Fairgrounds sit just northeast on State Road 207, if needed.

"But we want our visitors to experience Armstrong itself," she adds.

"Our church has been here since the late 1800s. You know about black churches and farming families. We're used to cooking big meals. Most of the year, we feed migrants. Not that many in the Armstrong camp, but we sure know where the veggies are for a lot more."

Herb Hiller is a program consultant for the East Coast Greenway Alliance. He writes about placemaking from his home in DeLand, Fla.

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