The Day They Gave a Florida Island Away on “The Price is Right”

If you’ve ever seen the hit daytime show The Price is Right, you know they’ll give away just about anything. Toasters, exercise equipment, new cars, bread makers, trips to Italy – you name it, they give it. But have you ever heard of The Price is Right giving away an island?

Excerpt of map of Putnam County showing Bear Island in the middle of Crescent Lake (1990).

Excerpt of map of Putnam County showing Bear Island in the middle of Crescent Lake (1990).

Well, not the entire island. But Bill Cullen, the host of the show before CBS took it over, did give away a nice chunk of Florida real estate on Bear Island in the middle of Crescent Lake, which straddles the border between Putnam and Flagler counties near the Atlantic coast. The date was December 11,1961, and the movie Mysterious Island, based on the popular Jules Verne novel of the same name, was about to be released in theaters by Columbia Pictures.

Columbia and the Price is Right folks had gotten together and planned a whole show promoting the movie release. One lucky winner would walk away with the keys to a new two-bedroom house on their very own (part of) “Mysterious Island,” complete with a dock and the latest amenities.

The house on

The house on “Mysterious Island,” locally known as Bear Island (1961).

Mr. and Mrs. Henry Freeman of New York were the lucky winners of the “Mysterious Island” house. They were flown to Crescent City for a ceremony at their new home, where they were given the keys, the deed to the land, and a private screening of Mysterious Island. Columbia filmed all of this, and used it to help promote the movie.

Mr. and Mrs. Henry Freeman, the lucky winners of the

Mr. and Mrs. Henry Freeman, the lucky winners of the “Mysterious Island” house (1961).

The Freemans appeared to be very pleased with their new home on “Mysterious Island,” but they ended up not doing much with it. After the ceremony and a fishing trip, they returned to New York and reportedly never returned. In early 1964, the local newspaper reported that Jake Ward, the developer who owned the rest of the island, had bought the house. He hoped to perpetuate the “Mysterious Island” theme and create an attractive housing development.

Mr. and Mrs. Henry Freeman enjoying their first (and apparently last) fishing trip on Crescent Lake (1961).

Mr. and Mrs. Henry Freeman enjoying their first (and apparently last) fishing trip on Crescent Lake (1961).

The island is still privately owned today. There’s not much there, aside from the house and a landing strip. There’s no telling whether the owners even know the unique history of the place. But now you do!

You never know what kinds of quirky Florida history will show up when your browse the Florida Photographic Collection. Tell us about the interesting photos you’ve found by sharing on our Facebook page, or leave a comment below.

 

 

 

Spanish Cattle in Florida

There are several obvious places to look for signs of Florida’s Spanish heritage. Place names like Santa Rosa Island, Cape San Blas, and Boca Raton are hard to miss. Then there’s Saint Augustine, home to the Castillo de San Marcos and the nation’s oldest Catholic parish.

These are great places to visit, but there’s no need to travel so far to find living traces of Florida’s colonial Spanish era. Often, a nearby cow pasture will do the trick.

Florida cowman reenactor with scrub cattle at Lake Kissimmee State Park (circa 1980).

Florida cowman reenactor with scrub cattle at Lake Kissimmee State Park (circa 1980).

Florida scrub cattle, or Cracker cows, are often associated with the U.S. settlers who began tending them in the 19th century. Their origins, however, are Spanish.

When Juan Ponce de Leon arrived on his final mission to Florida in 1521, he brought Spanish Andalusian cattle with him to help provision the growing settlement he hoped to establish on Florida’s Gulf coast. Calusa Indians attacked the would-be Spanish colonists, and they were forced to retreat to Cuba and leave many of their supplies behind.

No records exist to explain just what happened to the cattle, but it’s possible some of them survived and remained in the wild.

Juan Ponce de Leon (circa 1500s).

Juan Ponce de Leon (circa 1500s).

If this didn’t get the herd started, the larger Spanish settlement at St. Augustine certainly did. Once the Spaniards established themselves on Florida’s Atlantic coast in 1565, they began expanding their influence outward into the territory through a series of Catholic missions.

Each became a small village, complete with facilities for ministering to Native Americans and for sustaining the Spanish inhabitants. More Andalusian cattle flowed into the area to serve these missions, and Spanish landowners began raising cattle as well.

These cows were unfenced; they wandered at will in the woods to graze until they were rounded up. Brands were used to keep each owner’s cattle separate. The system worked, although years of conflict between the Spanish, Native Americans, and British settlers from the north acted to scatter the herds across the peninsula.

Old Spanish cattle brands. Date of drawing unknown.

Old Spanish cattle brands. Date of drawing unknown.

The Spanish hold on Florida began to unravel in the 18th century, and new inhabitants began tending the cattle roaming around the region. Years of free range living had toughened the herds, making them less vulnerable to parasites and better able to tolerate life in areas with less than an ideal food supply.

Native Americans began using the cows as an auxiliary food supply. When U.S. settlers began arriving in the area, they bought (or took) scrub cows to improve their own herds. As the 19th century progressed and the Seminoles were pushed farther south, the herds they had once tended came increasingly under the control of these newcomers.

Cattle drive at Bartow (circa 1890s).

Cattle drive at Bartow (circa 1890s).

A variety of other breeds have been introduced into Florida herds in the past two centuries, but the Cracker (or scrub) cattle can still be found on ranches across the state. To the untrained eye, they might not look much different from any other Florida cows, but in reality they’re a testament to Florida’s Spanish heritage.

For more photos of the Florida cattle industry, check out our Cattle Ranching photo exhibit, or search the Florida Photographic Collection.

Shipwreck of the Atocha

It was June 13, 1971. Don Kincaid, who had been diving off the coast of the Florida Keys, made his way to the surface with a handful of something shiny, coiled up like a small snake. He climbed aboard the work boat Virgalona with the aid of a ladder, and excitedly spread his find out for his colleagues to see.

Kincaid’s boss, shipwreck hunter Mel Fisher, congratulated him and radioed to his other cruiser nearby to join them. Kincaid had found nearly eight feet of gold chain, a sign that Fisher and his team were close to something big. In time, they would learn that they had found the remains of a Spanish treasure ship, part of a fleet lost in a hurricane in 1622. The ship was called Nuestra Señora de Atocha.

The workship James Bay, used by Mel Fisher and his crew to excavate the remains of the Spanish galleon Atocha.

The work ship James Bay, used by Mel Fisher and his crew to excavate the remains of the Spanish galleon Atocha (1979).

The Spanish government sent treasure fleets periodically to its New World possessions to collect gold, silver, precious stones, and trade goods that had been mined or produced there. The ships then returned to Spain to deliver their holdings into the coffers of the Spanish monarchy. The Atocha had been recently built at Havana, Cuba for one of these missions. The name Nuestra Señora de Atocha honored the Virgin of a shrine near Madrid. The ship was 600 tons.

An example of a Spanish galleon similar to the Atocha, on display at McKee's Museum of Sunken Treasure on Plantation Key (1972).

An example of a Spanish galleon similar to the Atocha, on display at McKee’s Museum of Sunken Treasure on Plantation Key (1972).

When the 1622 treasure fleet left Spain in April, it carried wine, cloth, ironwork, and books to distribute to Spanish settlements in the Americas. It also carried around half a million pounds of mercury, which would be used to extract silver from ore mined in what is now Bolivia. When the fleet reached the New World, the ships began trading their goods for the riches of the Americas. They took on silver from Peru, gold bars and silver coins from New Granada, tobacco, indigo, and tons of Cuban copper.

Fleet officials were already getting nervous; hurricane season had started. The oppressive tropical summer heat was intense, and workers cursed and sweated in the baking sun as they loaded cargo and tended their ships. The Atocha and its sister vessels remained docked at Havana while their captains awaited the new moon, which they believed would provide fairer sailing weather until they could get past the dangerous Florida coast. On September 4th, the fleet finally put out to sea.

 

Map showing the approximate location of the wreck of the Spanish galleon Atocha.

Map showing the approximate location of the wreck of the Spanish galleon Atocha (indicated by a red circle).

Less than two days later, a powerful hurricane passed over the fleet near the Dry Tortugas, snapping masts and scattering the ships. Two of the ships, Nuestra Señora de Atocha and the Santa Margarita, sunk within sight of one another after running aground between Key West and the Dry Tortugas. Only five people from the Atocha survived, one sailor, two ship’s boys, and two slaves.

The loss of the treasure of the Atocha and the Santa Margarita was a significant financial blow for Spain. The Spanish government needed this money to run the country, especially the military, which was involved at this time in the ongoing Thirty Years’ War plaguing Central Europe. The Spanish sent salvage ships to the supposed site of the wreck, where indigenous slaves dove to the sea floor with the aid of a diving bell to search for the lost cargo. Eventually, the Spanish recovered about half of the treasure lost from the Santa Maragrita. One Spanish recovery mission found the location of the Atocha, but the water was too deep for divers to reach it. The Spaniards had little choice to abandon the wreck and its treasure in the churning waters of the Florida Straits, where it would remain for over 300 years.

Treasure hunter Mel Fisher viewing items recovered from the wreck of the Atocha (1978).

Treasure hunter Mel Fisher viewing items recovered from the wreck of the Atocha (1978).

That is, until Don Kincaid swam to the surface to show his shining discovery to shipwreck hunter Mel Fisher. After nearly two years of additional searching, Fisher’s crew began unearthing large amounts of treasure from the sea floor. On one day in May 1973, the divers brought up around 1,500 coins. They nicknamed the area the “Bank of Spain.”

 Gold coins from the wreck of the Atocha on display at Mallory Square in Key West (1982).

Gold coins from the wreck of the Atocha on display at Mallory Square in Key West (1982).

The treasures kept coming. Swords, cannonballs, gold bars, a rosary, the navigator’s astrolabe – treasure after priceless treasure emerged from the deep. Some were sold to pay for the costs of the hunt, including payments to people who had invested in Mel Fisher’s expedition. Many artifacts from the Atocha are now on display in museums around the Florida Keys.

Treasure from the Atocha on display at Mallory Square in Key West (1982).

Treasure from the Atocha on display at Mallory Square in Key West (1982).

Cannons taken from the wreck of the Atocha (1975).

Cannons taken from the wreck of the Atocha (1975).

Astrolabe from the wreck of the Atocha (circa 1980s).

Astrolabe from the wreck of the Atocha (circa 1980s).

What secrets lie beneath the waters near your Florida community? Search the Florida Photographic Collection for more photos of shipwrecks and the treasures they have yielded over the years.

Florida’s Union Bank

Florida’s habit of booming and busting stretches far back, much farther than the land boom of the 1920s many Floridians already know about. One of the most controversial busts happened shortly after Florida became a U.S. territory. Like most frontier societies with a future, Florida was full of eager settlers with a vision. And visions require money. In the agricultural economy of the Old South, much of the wealth was tied up in land, slaves, and the capital goods necessary to grow crops. Even the wealthiest planters relied heavily on credit to do business, because there just wasn’t much cash to be had. So what do you do when you need better access to cash and credit? You build a bank, of course!

This building served the Union Bank of Florida, two of its predecessor banks, and a freedmen's savings bank opened after the Civil War (Tallahassee, circa 1870s).

This building served the Union Bank of Florida, two of its predecessor banks, and a freedmen’s savings bank opened after the Civil War (Tallahassee, circa 1870s).

The Spanish had barely weighed anchor and left Pensacola before efforts began to get a bank established in Florida. Military Governor Andrew Jackson forwarded a petition of Pensacola citizens to the federal government asking for a branch of the United States Bank. Their request was denied. A number of Floridians also attempted to have the territorial government charter a bank, but Governor William Pope Duval vetoed every proposal, believing banks to be monopolistic.

William Pope Duval, Florida's first territorial governor (in office 1822-1834). Date of painting unknown.

William Pope Duval, Florida’s first territorial governor (in office 1822-1834). Date of painting unknown.

After the U.S. weathered its banking crisis and the United States Bank was no more, credit and cash-hungry planters renewed their demand for some kind of bank in Florida. In 1828, enough support developed in the territorial legislature to pass a charter for the Bank of Florida at Tallahassee. Lawmakers would charter a total of 18 banks between 1828 and 1839, but the most interesting (and most infamous) of these was the Union Bank of Florida, also established at Tallahassee.

John Grattan Gamble, one of the principal founders of the Union Bank of Florida (circa 1830s).

John Grattan Gamble, one of the principal founders of the Union Bank of Florida (circa 1830s).

The Union Bank, chartered in 1833, was founded by a group of planters led by John Grattan Gamble of Jefferson County. Gamble and his associates believed if they could only get enough capital to bring their land under full cultivation, they could quickly make a tremendous amount of money. The first problem, however, was to get enough capital to start the bank.

Gamble and his associates used a common scheme of that era to finance the new bank. First, the planters purchased stock in the new institution by mortgaging their land and slaves, the most valuable assets they owned. Operating cash came from the sale of thousand-dollar bonds guaranteed by the territorial government, redeemable in 1860 with six percent interest. Gamble intended to go abroad and drum up more capital from foreign investors. Surely they would recognize the potential of an untapped agricultural paradise like Florida. What could possibly go wrong?

A $1,000 bond of the territorial government of Florida, designed to capitalize the Union Bank (1835).

A $1,000 bond of the territorial government of Florida, designed to capitalize the Union Bank (1835).

A lot could go wrong, and a lot did go wrong at the Union Bank. The bank’s officials were the ones who determined how much a stockholder’s land was worth, and therefore how much stock he might receive in return for mortgaging it, and how much money he might borrow from the bank. This almost immediately led to charges of favoritism. Some of Gamble’s friends and family received larger amounts of bank stock and credit than other planters with the same amount of collateral. Lots of folks had paid into the scheme to get the bank started, but only a few were receiving any benefit.

Moreover, the Panic of 1837 and a severe drought in 1840 combined to tax the bank’s resources to the maximum. The law prohibited the bank from increasing its capital through more bond sales, which left the bank unable to pay its debts to its stockholders or on the territorial bonds that had originally funded its creation. The territorial government was left holding the bag for these latter obligations. When it became clear in 1843 that the Union Bank would not recover, the legislature suspended its banking authority by law.

A check from Union Bank president John Grattan Gamble to the Phenix Bank of New York, dated August 2, 1836. Not longer after this, the bank's credit would drastically drop and its checks and currency would be widely rejected.

A check from Union Bank president John Grattan Gamble to the Phenix Bank of New York, dated August 2, 1836. Not long after this, the bank’s credit would drastically drop and its checks and currency would be widely rejected.

The Union Bank may have passed away, but the building lived on to serve many useful purposes in Tallahassee. From the end of the Civil War until 1879 it served as a savings bank for freedmen. At other times it served as a feed store, shoe factory, coffee house, art gallery, locksmith’s shop, and even a church.

The Union bank building showing its age (circa 1920s).

The Union bank building showing its age (circa 1920s).

By the mid 20th century, however, the building was showing signs of neglect. Local historians and preservationists succeeded in having the building recognized as a historic landmark in 1967. The building’s location on prime Tallahassee real estate, however, threatened its continued existence. To save the building from being demolished for a parking lot, a group of local citizens and the state government teamed up to raise $40,000 to have the Union Bank building moved to its present location on Apalachee Parkway. It now houses Florida A&M University’s Black Archives Research Center.

Preparing to relocate the Union Bank building to its new home on Apalachee Parkway (1971).

Preparing to relocate the Union Bank building to its new home on Apalachee Parkway (1971).

Moving the Union Bank building (1971).

Moving the Union Bank building (1971).

What are the oldest buildings in your Florida community? Search for photos of these and other historic Florida structures in the Florida Photographic Collection.

The Union Bank building after restoration (circa 1990s).

The Union Bank building after restoration (circa 1990s).

See and Do It All at Floridaland!

By the 1960s, Florida was a tourist’s playground. Any family could find something to do, whether it was to hit the beach, catch a few roller coaster rides at the Miracle Strip, stroll through the lush scenery of Cypress Gardens, or take in the historic sights of Key West or St. Augustine. In Florida, you could do anything. But where could you do everything?

Performing dolphins (or porpises) at Floridaland (1967).

Performing dolphins (or porpoises) at Floridaland (1967).

Floridaland near Sarasota aspired to be that place. The park was located on fifty acres between U.S. Highway 41 and Sarasota Bay. It opened on Christmas Day in 1964, and offered ten distinct attractions for one admission price. From the moment visitors walked through the gates and received greetings from the talking macaws posted there, they had the freedom to explore and take in all kinds of entertainment.

One option was to travel back in time and visit the ghost town attraction, where pistol-packing sheriffs would periodically save the day from robbers and troublemakers. Watching the spectacle was tough work, of course, so the Golden Nugget Saloon was nearby to provide refreshments and a show.

Wild West show at Floridaland's Ghost Town (1960s).

Wild West show at Floridaland’s Ghost Town (1960s).

 

“Miss Kitty” performs in a stage show at the Gold Nugget Saloon at Floridaland (1960s).

Families more interested in modern action could choose to visit one of Floridaland’s many shows featuring trained porpoises. Handlers coaxed these animals into doing almost anything for a couple of fish. They jumped high into the air on cue, jumped through the proverbial hoops, and even donned costumes to delight their patrons. On one occasion, Floridaland officials organized the world’s first known “porpoise to porpoise” long distance call. Moby Dick, one of Floridaland’s porpoise performers, contacted his colleague Keiki at Sea Life Park in Hawaii on May 14, 1965 using a specially designed phone. The two chattered for more than five minutes before hanging up.

Porpoise jumps through a pair of hoops over a trainer's lap at Floridaland (1960s).

Porpoise jumps through a pair of hoops over a trainer’s lap at Floridaland (1960s).

Floridaland's sheriff had a little help from this porpoise, who donned a hat and gun in this stunt (1960s).

Floridaland’s sheriff had a little help from this porpoise, who donned a hat and gun in this stunt (1960s).

Other popular animal attractions included Billy Goat Mountain, Deer Park, and the “nursery.” These were especially popular with the youngsters, as they could feed many of the animals by hand and watch them perform up close and personal.

“Billy Goat Mountain” at Floridaland (1965).

Children bottle-feed Floridaland's youngest residents at the

Children bottle-feed Floridaland’s youngest residents at the “nursery” (1960s).

Floridaland enjoyed great success, enough to convince Holiday Inn to build a hotel near the resort only three years after it opened. There were challenges, however. The tanks containing the park’s trained porpoises drew their water from the surrounding bays, which made them vulnerable to contamination with insecticides and dangerous red tide algae. On at least one occasion, the performing animals had to be removed from their home by stretchers and temporarily placed in the swimming pool of the nearby Holiday Inn. Furthermore, the cost of running such an extensive set of attractions was high. Ultimately, this cost became unsustainable. The owners attempted to bump up gate receipts by adding more rides, gardens, and longer shows, but it was not enough. The park closed on July 2, 1971.

Floridaland's tour train (1965).

Floridaland’s tour train (1965).

Floridaland lasted less than a decade, but its attractions were still enjoyed by many, as today’s photos from the Florida Photographic Collection reveal. What were your favorite Florida tourist attractions to visit when you were growing up? Tell us about it by leaving us a comment below.

Also, if you happen to be in the Tallahassee area on Friday, October 17th, visit the State Archives’ slideshow exhibition entitled “The Golden Age of Florida’s Miracle Strip.” The cycling slideshow will feature over 150 historic images of Panama City Beach and its famed Miracle Strip tourist district from the 1930s through the 1970s. Melody May, a promotional model long associated with the Miracle Strip, will be present, and tourism historian Tim Hollis is scheduled to speak about the history of the tourism industry in the Panama City area. Parking and admission are free, and complementary refreshments with a Florida tourism theme will be provided. The event will last from 6-8pm, and will be located in the lobby of the R.A. Gray Building at 500 S. Bronough St. in Tallahassee. Contact the State Archives at 850-245-6719 with any questions.

 

Civil War Letters Home: Roderick Gospero Shaw

Of all the Civil War documents here at the State Archives, letters from soldiers to their loved ones are some of the most engaging. Many of the young men who signed up for military service at the beginning of the war were eager, confident, and impatient to get into the fray and make a name for themselves.

Roderick Gospero Shaw of Attapulgus, Georgia enlisted at Quincy in April 1861  in the “Young Guards,” a unit of the “old” First Florida Infantry. He served one year in this unit, and later re-enlisted in August 1862 in the 4th Florida Infantry at Chattanooga. The State Archives of Florida holds typewritten transcripts of nearly a dozen of Shaw’s letters to his sister, Mrs. Jesse Shaw Smith, who lived in Quincy for much of the war (Collection M87-6).

Lt. Roderick Gospero Shaw (circa 1861).

Roderick Gospero Shaw (circa 1861).

Shaw’s early letters betray his impatience as a young soldier ready for action. In May 1861, he wrote to his sister Jesse that members of his company were dismayed to be limited mostly to loading wagons with supplies and digging post holes for camp improvements. He was resolved not to share his displeasure with anyone else, however.

“I came for the purpose of making a soldier of myself as long as I was here,” Shaw explains, “and [to] lay off the ‘Gentleman’ and ‘Dandy.’ It is rather hard to do, but I think I act it as well as any of the boys.” Shaw held out hope that his unit would see action soon. “I would not be surprised,” he tells Jesse, “to hear the roaring of cannons any morning instead of the drum for reveille.”

Confederate camp behind Fort Barrancas near Pensacola (April 1861).

Confederate camp behind Fort Barrancas near Pensacola (April 1861).

As the war dragged on, Shaw began sharing sentiments so many soldiers on both sides felt – weariness with camp life and the desire to see loved ones back home. In a May 1863 letter to Jesse, Shaw describes the bland contents of the average soldier’s diet while campaigning.

“Meal after meal we sit to cornbread (once in a while a little flour), bacon and water,” he laments. “We consider ourselves fortunate if perchance we obtain a quart of buttermilk occasionally for 50 cents. I had the pleasure yesterday of partaking of a ham of mutton at dinner. Butter cannot be procured anywhere.”

Shaw’s letters often speak of his wanting to come home on furlough, but he resolves to do his duty as a loyal soldier and stay with the Army.

“I wish I could be at home with you,” he tells Jesse in December 1862, “but it is impossible. My country needs my services and, til peace is declared, I expect to remain with the Army.”

“On Picket,” an etching by “H.B. McLellan of Company A” (1860s).

Shaw was not only eager to remain with the Army, but also to move up in the ranks. In several letters, he explains to Jesse that he has been studying military tactics and taking on leadership roles in his company so as to support his application for an officer’s position. He asks often for cloth or ready-made clothing so as to improve his appearance and distinguish himself. After achieving the rank of sergeant major, Shaw muses to Jesse in one letter about having a horse and assistant to accompany him.

“Should I ever get home, I will expect to live more at ease on my return to camp. The first thing I will want is a boy to cook for me and attend to other little necessaries. As it is it costs more to live in camp than at home, and much more troublesome. [...] I wrote to Uncle Tom about buying a horse, but there is a question as to whether the promoted major is entitled to it or not…” (R.G. Shaw to Jesse Shaw Smith, Nov. 5, 1861).

Shaw received the promotion he had so earnestly hoped for in October 1863. He was transferred to Company E, 4th Florida Infantry, and made a 2nd Lieutenant.

“I do not feel very proud of it yet as I think I have no right to it for skill and valor,” he tells Jesse in January 1864, “but by Summer I will either deserve it or the brand of coward.”

Shaw’s words proved to be prophetic. General William Tecumseh Sherman took command of the Union’s western forces in March 1864, and began preparing to march southward toward Atlanta.

“This Spring will be the most important period of the war,” Shaw writes in one letter sent just before Sherman took command. “It will prove the point of culmination. The mighty hosts of the invader will be driven back or Rebellion will tremble.”

Shaw would lose his life in the Confederate attempt to halt Sherman’s advance. On May 27, 1864, he began a letter to his Uncle Thomas Smith in Attapulgus, Georgia, which he never finished. His last written words were: “I leave now for a skirmish myself for 24 hours. Goodbye until tomorrow evening.”

Tomorrow evening did not come for Lt. Roderick Gospero Shaw. A letter to his uncle from one of his comrades reported that he had been killed in a skirmish near Dallas, Georgia. With the weather warm and no means available to transport the body quickly to any cemetery, he was laid to rest not far from the road between Dallas and Marietta. Shaw had just turned 21.

Confederate graves in the Old City Cemetery at Tallahassee (photo 1967).

Confederate graves in the Old City Cemetery at Tallahassee (photo 1967).

Stories such as Lieutenant Shaw’s abound in the many letters, diaries, reports, and other materials available at the State Archives of Florida. For more information, check out our Guide to Civil War Records, and visit us to see what materials may be available to help you research the Civil War soldiers in your family tree.

Also, don’t forget about our featured program for October, Civil War Voices from Florida. Each day in October 2014, Florida Memory will post a letter or diary entry written exactly 150 years ago in October 1864.

 

Ochopee, Home of the Nation’s Smallest Post Office

Florida’s unique history owes some of its splendor to great people and great visions. In many cases, however, the most interesting tidbits have happened when no one was expecting it. That’s certainly the case with Ochopee, home of the smallest post office building in Florida, and most likely the smallest in the United States. The people of Ochopee hadn’t planned to have such a cramped space for handling mail. If it hadn’t been for a serious tragedy, the tiny settlement might never have had such a distinction.

Map of Southwest Florida showing Ochopee and the nearby Gulf Coast. Naples is located northwest of Ochopee along U.S. 41 (1953 map - Florida Map Collection, State Library of Florida).

Map of Southwest Florida showing Ochopee and the nearby Gulf Coast. Naples is located northwest of Ochopee along U.S. 41 (1953 highway map – Florida Map Collection, State Library of Florida).

Ochopee got its start in 1928 when the James T. Gaunt family purchased a few hundred acres in Collier County on either side of what was to become the Tamiami Trail. The Gaunts were farmers, and they intended to set up a major tomato-growing operation. Farming on the edge of the Everglades was no easy task, of course. The family and their workers lived in surplus Army tents when they first arrived, which made the heat and mosquitoes a daily torture.

A view of the terrain near Ochopee, mostly marshes with a few heads of palmetto (1942).

A view of the terrain near Ochopee, mostly marshes with a few heads of palmetto (1942).

In the first year, the Gaunts and their business partners wrestled a real settlement out of the muck. They hired a large workforce to tend and harvest their tomatoes, mostly African-Americans from Miami and Georgia, with a few local Seminole families as well. The Seminoles lived in their own chickees near the company property, while the African-Americans typically lived in houses on the site. One of the workers’ quarters was called “Boardwalk” because for much of the year the only way to get between the houses was by boardwalk. Wages ranged between $1.00 and $2.50 per day, plus free utilities and health insurance.

Seminole workers in the tomato fields of the J.T. Gaunt Company - Ochopee (circa 1930s).

Seminole workers in the tomato fields of the J.T. Gaunt Company – Ochopee (circa 1930s).

By 1932, the Gaunt Company had a substantial village to serve their tomato farm, but it didn’t have a name. That year, the family decided to establish a post office, but they wanted something a little more special than “Gaunt” or “Gaunt Farms” for a name. According to one of the family members, Someone asked Charley Tommie, a local Seminole, what the native word for “farm” was. Charley replied “O-chopp-ee,” and the Gaunts decided that would be the name of their growing settlement. The post office was established in August of that year, and postal business was carried out in a corner of the company store.

One night in 1953, a fire broke out in the boarding house at Ochopee. It spread quickly to other buildings, and with the nearest fire department being miles away at Everglades City, residents were forced to fight the blaze with buckets of water from a nearby canal. Postmaster Sidney Brown was able to get his records out of the general store, but when the flames were finally extinguished, the building was a total loss. The next day, when the mail arrived, Postmaster Brown needed someplace to conduct business. A member of the Gaunt family pointed out a nearby shed used to store irrigation pipes and hoses, and with that the nation’s smallest post office building was adopted. Gaunt Company workers moved the building to a more convenient location, installed a counter and work space, and it was ready for service.

Ochopee Post Office (circa 1940s).

Ochopee Post Office (circa 1940s).

Since then, the Ochopee post office has been as much a tourist attraction as it has a place of business. The Florida Photographic Collection contains a number of photos of the building from various angles and at different times. Some visitors assumed the locals built the post office that size originally as a novelty, but Ochopee residents knew better. Their post office, like so many curiosities in Florida’s past, was an accident of history.

Postmaster Sidney H. Brown in front of the Ochopee Post Office. Brown managed to save the records of the post office from the fire that destroyed this building's predecessor in 1953 (photo circa 1960s).

Postmaster Sidney H. Brown in front of the Ochopee Post Office. Brown managed to save the records of the post office from the fire that destroyed this building’s predecessor in 1953 (photo circa 1960s).

Does a landmark in your community have a story like that of the Ochopee post office? Tell us about it by leaving a comment or sharing on our Facebook page!