Linda and Pinkham Pacetti pose on their dock on the St. Johns River at their home in Orangedale.
Fishing's first family: Pacetti's talk about fish camp
The Pacetti family ran a fish camp on Trout Creek from 1928 to 2012
Posted: May 19, 2013 - 12:10am
Joseph J. Pacetti grew up at a time when he and friends swam Julington Creek if they wanted to get across. There was no bridge. His grandson-in-law, Pinkham Pacetti remembered, “They’d put their clothes on a stick to keep them dry and swim across that way.”
The history of what would become Pacetti’s Fish Camp is hazy; as vaporous as the fog that shrouds Trout Creek on cold mornings. Exact dates are a moving target for the memories of the Pacetti clan that followed. They don’t always agree. The mental calendars are based on second-hand stories rather than calendars.
But what is generally agreed upon it that Joseph J. Pacetti liked to fish and hunt. And he liked doing it on Trout Creek in what was then called New Switzerland. Sometime around 1928 he built the first building on the property where the fish camp would remain in one form or another for 83 years. It was an 8-by-10 single room.
He did not own the land at that time. The ties to the land were squatter at first or maybe homesteader, though neither term is all the way correct. What is clear is that he and wife Louise moved to the property from Duval County around that time.
What happened over the next couple of decades is an untraceable series of purchases of small parcels of property and outright land swaps.
A great stock market crash was about to set into motion a depression that brought the nation to its knees. It is unclear whether the move and the event were connected.
In 1928 the bridge over the pretty creek was a one-lane, wooden structure. A round trip to St. Augustine was a two-day slog on Nine-Mile Road, breaching 12-Mile Swamp then hanging a right on the King’s Road — now U.S. 1. — then back.
Early on, Joseph J. Pacetti set up a saw mill. It produced the raw materials needed to gradually build bungalows, furniture, boats and his family’s future on the property.
Pacetti’s granddaughter, Linda Pacetti, said that Joseph J.’s buddies began to come down the place to fish and hunt with him. The place eventually got noticed by a wider range of sportsmen.
The first commercial use of the property came about in the early ’30s. Enough folks were showing up that Joseph J.’s wife, Louise, began leaving sandwiches and drinks at the little house on the weekends. Fishermen would grab what they needed and leave money in a glass jar. The honor system worked fine, Pinkham Pacetti remembered. “They always got more money than they were due because customers couldn’t get change.”
Fish camp started
Slowly the beginnings of a fish camp began to appear. The little sandwich stand became a little restaurant with hot meals. Docks were built to accommodate the fishermen. Joseph J. Pacetti began building boats from the cypress he took from adjacent swamp. Some were sold; most were rented at the camp.
Joseph J. Pacetti’s son, Joe Pacetti, grew up around the place. Later he lived in North Carolina, travelling the Southeast managing the construction of hospitals and cathedrals.
When the threat of WWII broke out in the early 40s he was pressed into service building ships in Jacksonville. He would drive down at night and on weekends to help at the camp. In 1945, he moved his wife Evelyn to the creek for good with their daughters Dorothy and Linda.
The family bought property on Trout Creek across from the camp on the site of the current Trout Creek Park. President Harry S Truman signed the tax deed. The property, Linda remembers, had fruit trees, a large garden and smokers for fish, turkeys, deer and other critters that shared the creek.
Now things moved more quickly due to the one-two, father and son Pacetti punch. It was around that time that eight small bungalows with palmetto-thatched roofs were added so guests could spend the night in style. “Fishermen started building fires, cooking fish and drinking a little too much,” Pinkham Pacetti remembered. “They needed a place to stay.”
The camp continued to evolve as time and grudging profits allowed. A new, small restaurant was built on the water.
Fishing was big business in the ’50s. There were fish camps all up and down the St. Johns River. Pinkham Pacetti doesn’t remember them all, but does recall those at Six-Mile Creek, Florence Cove, Palmo Cove and Riverdale. There was even another camp just west of Pacetti’s on the other side of the bridge — Moody’s Fish camp.
“There was no TV, no Little League,” he said. “It was about family and fishing.”
At one point during that era Pacetti’s had 64 rental boats on the property, going for $2 a day. And by that time Joe Pacetti had wrangled an Evinrude outboard dealership deal. Pinkham Pacetti has the first engine ever run out of the camp still hanging in the garage of his riverfront home in Switzerland. It’s a 1.1 hp Ranger.
Linda Pacetti says that at the time her dad Joe Pacetti had no idea how to work on motors, but that he could build or fix almost anything. “He tore the first motor down and put it back together and said, ’Now I’m a mechanic.’”
In its heyday, Pacetti’s was the largest Evinrude dealer in Northeast Florida. It was during this time that Linda’s aunt, Doris Silvius, became the face of the camp to the customers for two decades. Evelyn kept the books and ran the restaurant.
The family business
In the ’60s and ’70s the fish camp took its more familiar shape.
The thatched cottages were gone; replaced by three duplex apartments. Other units were built as time passed. There were more docks and restaurant renovations. And a few scattered trailers began to take shape as the RV park. Few know that the family built a bomb shelter on the property during the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1964. It’s still there.
It was also in the 60s — 1960 to be exact — that Pinkham Pacetti took Linda Pacetti for his wife and neither had to change their monograms. The canopy of the Pacetti clan’s family tree casts a big shadow in St. Johns County; rooted here in 1768.
By the early ’70s the failing health of Joe and Evelyn Pacetti threatened the future of Pacetti’s Fish Camp and Marina.
“Dad said we had to sell the place or try to keep it in the family,” Linda Pacetti said. At the time Pinkham Pacetti owned an insurance company in Jacksonville. The two made the decision to move to the creek and take over the business.
But it was still run on self-sufficiency. When the government decided that the there were enough trailers on the property to call it a park, it insisted that a sewer system be put in place. At the time Powder Springs, Georgia was installing a new municipal sewer plant. The Pacettis bought the old one for $1,800 and hauled it down. They surveyed the footprint. Then, with grit and an old backhoe tractor, installed the system as needed over the next few years.
Since taking over the camp Pinkham and Linda have watched it grow in some ways and ebb in others.
The outboard business went away. “I didn’t even know what a piston was,” Pinkham Pacetti said. The rental boats petered out too in the late ’80s. “We had about 14 boats left. The last drunk that sunk one… we took them all out.”
‘We sell sunsets’
But Pinkham Pacetti opened a familiar real estate office there claiming “We sell sunsets.” His son, Joe, ran a mortgage company on the property.
The restaurant changed hands several times during that time. Pinkham Pacetti recalled “We ran it long enough to know we (he and Linda) didn’t want to be in the restaurant business.”
But what became the backbone of the property was the recreation hall. Three hundred people could and did jam the place. It was known most for hosting square dance groups from across the Southeast. A newspaper article from the time described it as “An airy place to doesy do.”
But it was more.
Yes, there were horseshoes, ping pong; arts & crafts and flower shows. There were barbecues and covered dish dinners.
But the rec hall made Pacetti’s the social epicenter of the lovely stretch of river between St. Augustine and Jacksonville. It celebrated births, baptisms and weddings for friends and neighbors. It wept at funerals services.
Regular church services were held there for years under the spreading oaks.
A living of love
Last year the family finally let go. The property was sold and, for the most part, the physical presence of Pacetti’s is gone.
The Pacettis can tell stories all day long about the friendships built with employees and guests. Linda Pacetti likened them to more to family.
Son, Joe, was raised on the creek and remembers the fishing and cookouts — especially on Sundays. “I grew up living there by the fire — sleeping there… I’d go to school with marshmallows in my hair.”
Linda Pacetti looks back with mixed emotions. “We have no regrets, but there were times it was harder than we thought… We put in long hours but we had fun along the way.”
Pinkham Pacetti agreed. “We had it easier in Jacksonville.” Then he nodded toward his wife of 52 years saying “But I was working with my best friend, and I’d got to see her every day.”