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The names of certain families loom large in Jacksonville history: The Browards, Harts, Hendricks, Hogans and Phillipses were city pioneers who left their marks all over Jacksonville’s founding documents (not to mention our streets and bridges). But, too often, the faces behind the names get forgotten. Today, we’d like to introduce you to one such family: the Cummers of Riverside.

Wellington Cummer. photo credit: The Cummer Museum of Art & Gardens

The Cummer family already had significant lumber holdings in Michigan and Virginia when Wellington Cummer moved his family, including sons Arthur and Waldo, from Cadillac, Michigan to Florida in 1896. When the men of Cadillac queried why they were moving to Jacksonville, the answer they received was, “to turn boys into men.”

One of the Cummer Lumber Company sawmills, circa 1900.

In truth, as the pine forests in Michigan became exhausted, the firm found a field for its energies in Florida.  Here the business was carried on in the name of the Cummer Lumber Company. Cummer bought up vast tracts of cypress and long leaf pine forest, eventually becoming the largest landowner in the state.

To haul lumber and phosphate from Cummer operations in Georgia, the company constructed the Jacksonville & Southwestern Railway, a railroad nearly 100 miles long. Sons Waldo and Arthur formed the Cook-Cummer Steamship Line and built a mill and phosphate shipping facility north of the city that employed 1150 workers in 1906.

The Wellington Cummer home, circa 1897.Michigan architect William Williamson designed this palatial home for Wellington and Ada Cummer, which was built in 1902 at a cost of $25,000. The white-and-yellow home featured four massive columns, highly detailed portico, and a one-story colonnade wrapping around the Georgian Revival Style structure. There were huge reception rooms and a vast wine cellar.

During the Great Fire of 1901, the Cummers opened the third floor of their home to some destitute families that had nowhere else to stay. Cummer died Christmas Day, 1909, and his subsequent funeral was said to have been one of the largest held in the city’s history.

Although sons Waldo and Arthur were able businessmen, it was Arthur’s wife, Ninah, who is responsible for the Cummer family’s most lasting legacy. Active in several charitable groups and a leading light of Riverside society, Ninah also was an avid gardener and knowledgeable collector of European treasures, from a sixteenth-century polyptich, to Meissen porcelain, Old Master portraits, Russian icons and snuff boxes of lapis lazuli. When she passed on, Ninah willed that her home, with its stunning gardens and cultural treasures, be turned into a museum.

The Cummer Museum of Art & Gardens, built on the site of the home of Arthur and Ninah Cummer, opened its doors November 10, 1961, and this year celebrates its 50th anniversary.

(The Cummer Museum isn’t the only Cummer legacy still standing. Waldo Cummer’s first home, purchased from Riverside developer Edward Cheney, was moved to its present location in 1911. This charming, elegant and well-mannered home, now 140 years old, is all that remains of Riverside in its infacy.)

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