Exploring White Oak Conservation

White Oak Conservation is a 16,000-acre haven in Nassau County for endangered animals, providing options to save species that need the most help.

Located on the banks of the St. Marys River in Nassau County, White Oak Conservation is an internationally known premiere wildlife conservation facility 30 miles north of Jacksonville.

The facility, which encompasses 700 of 16,000 acres on White Oak Plantation, was originally established by philanthropist Howard Gilman in 1982.

The plantation’s history dates back to April 16, 1768, when the British governor of Florida provided a land grant to his deputy surveyor of lands, Andrew Way. Three years later, the property was acquired by Jermyn Wright.

The brother of Royal Governor James Wright, Jermyn Wright built the road from the Cow Ford (in present-day downtown Jacksonville) to the St. Marys River in 1774-75 along with another brother, Charles. The Wright brothers were also considered pioneers of tidal culture rice production along the Savannah River.

At White Oak, Wright cleared roughly 350 acres of cypress trees from the property’s swampy areas to establish the southernmost rice plantation on the Atlantic coast. Today, Wright’s abandoned rice paddies remain visible.

In 1833, White Oak was acquired by Zephaniah Kingsley, who owned the plantation until it was sold to Abraham Bessent of St. Marys, Georgia. 118 enslaved persons, 109 whose names were recorded in the deed, were included in Bessent’s purchase. However, the property’s run as a plantation with enslaved labor came to an end following the American Civil War.

In 1938, White Oak Plantation, along with extensive timberlands in Florida and Georgia, were acquired by Charles Gilman. In 1939, he relocated the operations of the Gilman Paper Company to St. Marys.

Founded by his father Isaac Gilman in Vermont in 1884, the Gilman Paper Company grew to become the largest privately held paper company in the country by the time Charles Gilman's son Howard took over the business in 1981.

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