Historic Palatka home provides a window into 1850s Florida
by Ron P. Whittington
There are many Northeast Florida houses that are older than the Bronson-Mulholland House in Palatka, but very few that welcome visitors—something that Palatka and Ashleigh Boice are eager to do.
In September, Boice was hired to give tours of the Bronson-Mulholland House, but has spent many hours a week trying to drive more foot traffic to the home—creating a logo, a new newsletter, launching a Facebook site, and working on a website that she hopes to unveil early this year.
The house isn’t the oldest in Northeast Florida by a long shot (it was built in 1854), but that doesn’t diminish its value as a local site.
“It’s really more like a historical home, museum and event venue all wrapped up into one,” says Boice. “We have weddings and other events on the grounds.”
The origins of the Bronson-Mulholland House begin with Federal District Judge Issac Bronson, who lived in St. Augustine when Florida was still a U.S. territory. The judge was called upon to handle the deposition of about 1,220 acres of land when several land owners had defaulted on a loan. The land, called the Palatka Tract, was eventually conveyed in trust to the judge by three families—the Burts, the Carrs and the Reids.
Reid’s great-, great-grandson, Larry Beaton, still lives in the area and is the past president of the Palatka Historical Society.
“That’s my personal tie to the house…that my ancestor’s bad financial investments meant he lost the original tract of property where the judge’s house ended up being built,” Beaton says.
The judge also was a part owner in a saw mill just south of Palatka, so he decided to build the home nearer to his business operations and move his family from St. Augustine. Bronson originally named the grounds Sunny Point, selecting 10 acres of land along the St. Johns River, and conveying the remainder of the land back to one of the original owners, James Burt.
“Bronson moved his wife and two daughters there,” Beaton says. “The irony is that even though the house still carries his name, he only lived in the house for one year before he died.”
Bronson’s widow eventually remarried and stayed there until the Civil War broke out.
“The family was originally from New York, so I suspect she decided it wasn’t a good place for a Yankee to be, so she returned up north,” Beaton says.
The house, which had two floors and an attic, changed hands several times during the war. Since Palatka had a deep water port, Confederate troops took up positions in the attic and used it as a look-out point for Union gunboats. Later in the war, the Union captured it and used it as barracks. It would change hands after the war and go through renovation with a new owner, a staunch abolitionist who held classes in the home to educate freed slaves, before it eventually became the property of Mary Mulholland.
Mulholland would live in the house the longest period of all its owners, from 1904 until the early 1930s. Mulholland adopted Cuban-born Edelmira Rivero while she lived there, and her adopted daughter took ownership of the house when her mother passed away in 1935. Rivero sold it in 1945.
From there, the home went through a few more owners and morphed into an apartment building when it became, in Beaton’s words, “a really run-down place.”
In 1965 the city of Palatka acquired the house from the owner in lieu of unpaid taxes and initially planned to demolish the building and put a playground in its place. The public effort to save the house gave rise to the area’s first historical society, which was able to convince the city to restore the dwelling to its original splendor. With the help of local fundraising and a federal community development block grant, the house was renovated and opened to the public in 1977, and added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1972.
While none of the original furniture survived its travel though time, Beaton says period pieces have been assembled throughout the house thanks to donations and purchases made by the historical society—and some deeded back to the city from the Rivero Estate.
“I think it’s the combination of the history of the house and the architectural features that make it really interesting,” he says. “One interesting element is that all the windows that open to any porch on the first and second level are also doors. We’ve reasoned it’s because they could be opened up when the family had parties to add more space to entertain, but it may also be because taxes were based on the number of windows a home had and those would be considered doors.”
“It’s in immaculate condition inside, and the city’s done a stunning job with it from an historical perspective,” says Boice. “I have no doubt there’s a lot of people who would be just as fascinated with this place as I am. Everyone deserves to know this house is here. It's such an integral part of our history, and it's simply beautiful.”