Kingsley Plantation home re-opens to tours in Jacksonville, Florida

Weekend visitors can once again tour the owner’s house at the Kingsley Plantation in Jacksonville, Florida.

The home, which is part of the Timucuan Preserve on Fort George Island, was closed to tours in 2005 because of structural concerns. This winter, it has reopened to visitors on Saturdays and Sundays only, while restoration work continues during the week.

The Kingsley Plantation is named for Zephaniah Kingsley, who was quite the interesting character in early Florida history. He grew cotton on Fort George Island in the early 1800s while Florida was under Spanish rule.

Kingsley was known as a lenient slave owner, and he gave some of his slaves the opportunity to earn their freedom. He even married one of them, freed her and put her in charge of a plantation.

When I toured the site recently, I was surprised to see that nearly two dozen of the original slave cabins are still standing. Many U.S. slave cabins did not survive the Civil War, and those that did have fallen to ruin in the decades since. But these cabins were built from tabby, a pseudo-cement made from oyster shells that has stood for centuries, even in a land frequently hit by hurricanes.The owner’s home is stripped down to the structure at the moment, with no period furnishings or artwork on display. The design of the home was ingenious for the humid Florida climate: a large center room, with four corner rooms accessible only from the outside to allow for better air circulation. Unfortunately, later owners altered the house and took away this natural climate control.

If you’re looking for the opulence of the grand, restored plantation mansions in other parts of the South, you won’t find it at Kingsley Plantation. This was a more practical owner’s home.

But I was completely taken aback by the feeling of Kingsley Plantation. Those slave cabins — all in a half-circle at the edge of cotton fields-turned-forest — require a visitor to focus on what was happening in those fields more than what was happening inside the owner’s ballroom.

“I’m always struck by the difference in feeling I get when I walk the grounds, from the owner’s home on the river back here to the slave cabins,” National Park Service Ranger Roger Clark said. “Life was hard back here.”

Kingsley Plantation is open from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily, with the house open for tours at 11 a.m. and 3 p.m. on Saturdays and Sundays only. If you want to tour the house, reservations are recommended and can be made by calling (904) 251-3537.

Park Service rangers like Clark who are experts in the history of Kingsley Plantation conduct programs at 2 p.m. each day. It’s worth it to plan your visit at a time when you can catch the program.