Pat’s Wildways: Congaree and Penn

By Pat Foster-Turley

The entrance walkway at Congaree and Penn.

If you are looking for an interesting nearby Saturday or Sunday day trip, you might want to check out Congaree and Penn, a farm-to-table enterprise located in north Jacksonville. For those like us who don’t like driving into the “big city” it is an interesting and fun drive to get there the back way via U.S. Route 301, then state Road 23 south, then finally Old Kings Road until you reach their entrance just north of Interstate 295. Part of this route takes you through the middle of state forest land — just trees and native plants surrounding you — a soothing ride for nature lovers.

And, once at Congaree and Penn, there is more nature to imbibe, artfully cultivated this time. With a $10 farm pass (or $5 if you eat there), you can ramble around the 330-acre farm at your leisure. The property includes a vineyard, orchards, tree nurseries, market and wildflower garden, and geese, ducks, emus, goats and horses — all there for the viewing. The Little Trout Creek bisects the property, and a well-groomed large lawn area shaded by glorious live oak trees, with tree swings and picnic tables, provides a relaxing landscape for group gatherings. On the far side of the creek, there apparently is a natural oak hammock and a “back field” where the adventurous can even find a beaver dam, or so they tell me.

When Bucko and I were there last Sunday, we didn’t make it to the back field, but maybe next time. On this day, we only had 45 minutes before our 11 a.m. brunch reservation – not nearly enough time for a full exploration. But it was enough time to soak in the scenery and ambiance. Back near the creek, I saw a family dressed in their best, fishing! Who would pay $10 each to fish here, I wondered, when there are wild streams all around to fish in for free? And really, who would dress up to go fishing?

A family is dressed up for a photo shoot at Congaree and Penn.

So, ever curious I approached the family and enquired, and it turns out they were there as a group for a photo session, with poses set up by a professional photographer. The fishing was all for show, no fish involved. For a fee of $150, people can book a 90-minute photo session, not including the photographer you must hire yourself. I could have paid an additional $10 to pick wildflowers there to place in a jar they provide, but like the fishing, this activity can be done for free all along the rural road. I imagine, though, that some city people might pay the price, but not me. There are other activities available for a fee, too. Picking blackberries was offered at $7 in addition to the farm pass. That’s $17 for a pint of blackberries picked in the hot sun in a patch far away from the entrance. Not for me either. We could have petted goats or taken an agritourism tour and other activities, but we passed on these, too. The fees here can really mount up.

Bucko is intrigued by my croque madame and flight of hard cider.

The brunch, however, was well worth the price. My croque madame was large, filled with locally sourced ham and a few types of cheese, and topped with a fried egg with a large fresh homegrown salad. Bucko’s chicken sandwich from local organic chickens, served on homemade bread with a large side of french fries suited him just fine, too.

The highlight was an unexpected one. Have you ever had hard cider? Well I never have, and this place offered a flight of ciders to sample their four current varieties, all between 4.5% and 5% alcohol content. Although imported apples from up north form the base of their ciders, which they ferment themselves, each variety is enhanced with various fruits they grow on the premises. Mayhaw, mulberry, gallberry, and muscadine grapes were the flavors available that day. All were wonderful!

The mayhaw orchard on site has an interesting story, too. The owners discovered mayhaw trees and their fruit (“Florida cranberries”) and planted what they say is the largest “young” mayhaw orchard in the world. At any rate they have planted 1,800 mayhaw trees on 35 acres of their land, a noteworthy endeavor for sure. I see lots of mayhaw jelly in their future.

The live oak-shaded amphitheater is among the many event areas on the grounds.

Already, Congaree and Penn produce other homegrown foods for sale: different types of hard cider, rice that they mill themselves, pecan oil that they press, locally produced honey, and lots of jams and jellies from their orchards of fruit and berries.

If you want to see Congaree and Penn for yourself, go soon, and make a reservation for your meal beforehand. From June 28 through September 14, their menu will be offered via counter service and reservations will not be available. But walk-ins will be welcome. I know I will return again in the fall. I have to find that beaver dam!

Pat Foster-Turley, Ph.D., is a zoologist on Amelia Island. She welcomes your nature questions and observations. [email protected]

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Noble Member
5 days ago

Wonderful article! Thanks for sharing. I did not know about this curious place.

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