In the early 1870s, to escape Civil War devastation, young Thomas Oesterreicher left his home in South Carolina and traveled to Northeast Florida to begin a new life. Looking to farm, he settled on a plot of 34 acres on the edge of Durbin Swamp, on the Duval County line, halfway between Jacksonville and St. Augustine.
It was 1873. He was 17 years old. With the help of a friend, Thomas built himself a one-room wooden cabin, with a fireplace and porch, out of cypress logs they hauled out of the swamp.
Before long, he married Ella and together they raised nine children in their beloved cabin, adding rooms through the years. The Florida Cracker style home, with its raised floors, chimney, metal roof and front porch remained in the family, and in the same location for 142 years.
But time and circumstances finally caught up with this old house, as the family came to call it. The land it sat on was sold. To save it, it needed to be moved.
So in 2014, to restore and preserve it for future generations, the family of Oesterreicher’s grandson, J.T. McCormick and his wife, Jean Haden McCormick, donated the house to the Beaches Museum & History Park in Jacksonville Beach. It was moved by truck to the museum on May 12.
It now sits in the center of the park, restored to look much as it did when Thomas and Ella lived there, Chris Hoffman, museum executive director says. It is now the oldest structure on the grounds, joining an 1887 chapel, 1900 railroad foreman’s house, 1900 railroad depot, 1903 post office and 1911 locomotive.
Hundreds of area residents are Oesterreicher descendants, and many stories have been passed down through the years about life at the homestead, which didn’t receive plumbing or electricity until 1942. Stories about those who lived there, their way of life, and their struggles, grit and joys will be preserved as well, serving to educate future generations about an important era in First Coast history.
The story is that “they only went to town twice a year, in a horse drawn wagon,” says great-great-granddaughter Suzanne McCormick Taylor. “They went for coffee, salt, fabric and shoes. Otherwise they were self-sustaining,” she says, by hunting, fishing, raising cattle and growing their own vegetables.
“It’s phenomenal to me,” she says. “It was a wild, wild time.”
Money to move the original two rooms and porch was raised during a fundraising campaign, aided by a grant from the Davis family, which now owns the land. By spring, it was ready to be moved by truck.
A symbol of Florida’s architectural heritage, “it will be part of our historic tour to feature pioneer life in Northeast Florida,” Hoffman says. It will also be a functional space, serving as a ready-room for weddings and concerts that take place in the park’s chapel.
“I’m thrilled it is going to the museum,” says great-great-great-grandson Gavin Moore. “As much as I would like to have everything stay the way it was,” he says, “I’m glad this piece of it will be a permanent centerpiece there.”