Florida’s Own Prime Meridian

Every day, knowingly and more often unknowingly, we cross boundaries. We drive from one county into the next, we step across property lines, and we move in and out of the corporate limits of cities and towns. Visitors to Tallahassee’s recently renovated Cascades Park frequently cross a very important Florida boundary, now marked with an impressive new monument. It’s Florida’s own prime meridian, the initial point in the grid on which virtually all land surveying in the Sunshine State is based.

Brass plate marking the exact point at which Florida's prime meridian crosses its base line. All of the six-mile square townships comprising the state's land survey system are named in relation to this point. The point is located in Cascades Park, Tallahassee (photo 2014).

Brass plate marking the exact point at which Florida’s prime meridian crosses its base line. All of the six-mile square townships comprising the state’s land survey system are named in relation to this point. The point is located in Cascades Park, Tallahassee (photo 2014).

Initiating a system for identifying and selling land was a high priority for Florida’s earliest leaders. Settlers would be unlikely to take a chance establishing themselves in the new territory if there wasn’t a way to ensure the security of their title to the land they purchased. By the time Florida became a U.S. territory, the federal government already had a go-to method for measuring out new land. Called the Public Land Survey System, it called for the new territory to be divided into six-mile squares called townships, which were each further divided into 36 smaller one-mile squares called sections. Land grants for businesses, homesteaders, or government entities could then be sold off by the section or parts thereof.

An early map of Township 1 North, Range 1 West, encompassing much of western Tallahassee. The map delineates the 36 one-mile square sections within the township, as well as numerous individual parcels of land that had already been purchased (1853).

An early map of Township 1 North, Range 1 West, encompassing much of western Tallahassee. The map delineates the 36 one-mile square sections within the township, as well as numerous individual parcels of land that had already been purchased (1853).

The first step in laying out a township grid was to select a spot for it to start. When the order came down in 1824 for the surveying process to begin in Florida, the Surveyor General appointed for the territory, Robert Butler, had not yet arrived. Furthermore, territorial governor William Pope Duval was away from Tallahassee in conference with local Native Americans. Territorial Secretary George Walton, then, had the honor of selecting the location. How he made his selection is not precisely known, although some interesting stories have emerged over time. Probably the most popular version holds that while transporting a stone monument to the designated site it fell off its wagon about 200 yards short of its destination. Because of its immense weight, the legend explains, the stone was too heavy to put back onto the wagon, and consequently it was left where it fell and that became the point of beginning for Florida’s township grid. The story has a nice ring to it, but evidence suggests that the point was originally marked with a wooden stake, not a stone.

 

Robert Butler, Florida's first Surveyor General. Butler had served as a military aide to General Andrew Jackson, and would establish one of the earliest plantations in the Tallahassee area on the southwest shore of Lake Jackson (photo circa 1860).

Robert Butler, Florida’s first Surveyor General. Butler had served as a military aide to General Andrew Jackson, and would establish one of the earliest plantations in the Tallahassee area on the southwest shore of Lake Jackson (photo circa 1860).

 

George Walton II, son of the George Walton who signed the Declaration of Independence and became Florida's first Territorial Secretary (circa 1821).

George Walton II, son of the George Walton who signed the Declaration of Independence. He served as Florida’s first Territorial Secretary (circa 1821).

After the original point was established, surveyors began the lengthy process of establishing a north-south meridian and an east-west base line, dividing the territory into quadrants. The southeast quadrant contains the vast majority of Florida’s territory, as it includes the entire peninsula. As more townships were surveyed out in relation to these lines, the General Land Office began granting land to homesteaders and other buyers. The original point of beginning for the grid remained fairly obscure for the rest of the nineteenth century. In 1891, the City Commission of Tallahassee passed a resolution asking the General Land Office to establish a more elaborate monument marking the spot. The GLO gave orders for such a monument to be installed, and a local surveyor named John Cook identified a point on which to set it. This monument, however, for some reason appears never to have been placed. The one that existed before the Cascades Park renovation was erected by the Florida Legislature in 1925.

Blueprints for new monument to mark the original point of beginning for Florida's township grid - the meeting place of the original prime meridian and base line (1925).

Blueprints for new monument to mark the original point of beginning for Florida’s township grid – the meeting place of the original prime meridian and base line (1925). Located in Box 1, folder 1 of Series 1152 (Subject Files of the Secretary of the Florida Senate), State Archives of Florida.

 

The 1925 prime meridian marker in Cascades Park (1955).

The 1925 prime meridian marker in Cascades Park (1955).

Today, Florida’s prime meridian is proudly displayed as a valuable historic site. Cascades Park was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1971, in part due to the presence of the prime meridian marker. When Cascades Park was renovated, the old 1925 concrete monument was removed and taken to the headquarters of the Florida Surveyors and Mappers Society in Tallahassee. The new monument, installed flush with the surrounding walking space, has been incorporated into an elaborate plaza that emphasizes the importance of the point for all of Florida.

The prime meridian plaza at Cascades Park in Tallahassee (2014).

The prime meridian plaza at Cascades Park in Tallahassee (2014).

In Plain Sight: Secrets Beneath the Sands of Higgs Beach

Even in its most picture-perfect settings, the Florida coastline harbors many secrets about the past. At Higgs Beach in Key West, for example, visitors enjoy the sparkling blue-green waters of the Gulf of Mexico only yards away from one of the most unique cemeteries in the United States.

A view of Higgs Beach in Key West (May 5, 2006).

A view of Higgs Beach in Key West (May 5, 2006).

The cemetery, which only recently received proper investigation and recognition, originally contained the remains of nearly 300 Africans brought to Key West after they were confiscated by the U.S. Navy from ships engaging in the trans-Atlantic slave trade. Although slavery was still legal in much of the United States in 1860, the international slave trade was not. Consequently, when the American-owned vessels Wildfire, William, and Bogota sailed into the Caribbean attempting to deliver their human cargo to Cuba, they were seized, along with more than a thousand African men, women, and children.

The slave deck of the bark

The slave deck of the bark Wildfire, one of three brought to Key West after being seized by the U.S. Navy in 1860 (Harper’s Weekly, 1860).

Drawing of Africans being brought from the ship

Drawing of Africans being brought from the ship Williams, one of three vessels captured by the U.S. Navy in 1860 (drawing 1860).

The African refugees arrived malnourished and weak from their long trans-Atlantic voyage, and hundreds died while awaiting their fate in Key West. As many as 14 died in a single day – many were children. Scrambling to accommodate these unexpected arrivals, the U.S. marshal at Key West, Fernando Moreno, erected housing and a hospital for the Africans. Officials called the structure a “barracoon,” borrowing terminology used by slave traders operating on the African coast. The building was divided into nine large rooms so the sexes and children of different ages could be separated.

A print from Harper's Weekly depicting the

A print from Harper’s Weekly depicting the “barracoon” in which the African refugees were housed while awaiting their fate (1860).

While the Africans were at Key West, Moreno and other federal personnel guarded them vigilantly. Even with the illegality of the slave trade, these individuals were considered highly valuable in a region where slavery was still legal. Officials were concerned that someone might attempt to kidnap some of the Africans, or that they might attempt to escape. The guards mounted artillery pieces to defend against potential attacks, and deployed a police force consisting of Marines and local citizens.

A sketch made from a daguerreotype of an African refugee at Key West in 1860. This young woman was given the title of

A sketch made from a daguerreotype of an African refugee at Key West in 1860. This young woman was given the title of “princess” by whites who visited the Africans, on account of her “fine personal appearance and the deference that seemed to be paid to her by some of her companions” (1860).

As Moreno and the federal agents at Key West grappled with the difficulties of maintaining such a large group of guests, the United States government investigated ways of getting the refugees back to Africa. Ultimately, the U.S. negotiated a contract with the American Colonization Society to take the Africans to Liberia, a country on the west African coast founded with support from the U.S. as a resettlement location. The first group left Key West for Africa on July 3, 1860, with another group following about two weeks later.

According to a report published in the New York Times, many of the Africans asked not to be returned to Africa, but this may have been a mistaken interpretation. It was more likely the trans-Atlantic journey itself they most feared, and with good reason. Many had died on the voyage from Africa to the Caribbean, and hundreds more would perish en route to Liberia.

A barricade protects a section of Higgs Beach believed to be the site of the cemetery where hundreds of African refugees were buried in 1860 (photo 2006).

A barricade protects a section of Higgs Beach believed to be the site of the cemetery where hundreds of African refugees were buried in 1860 (photo 2006).

Not long after the last African refugee left Key West, the Civil War broke out, deflecting attention to other matters. The scores of graves at Higgs Beach were mostly forgotten, save for a few references in histories of the island. Over time, the construction of new military installations and roads in the area greatly disturbed the burials, further obscuring their story. Local researchers began a movement to properly identify and recognize the cemetery around 2000. The Florida Department of State erected a historical marker for the site in 2001, and archaeologists used ground-penetrating radar to locate at least nine distinct graves the following year. In 2012, the site was added to the National Register of Historic Places. The cemetery is particularly unique because its inhabitants were African, yet they never served as slaves, nor were they free. As researchers have explained during the course of the investigation, there are few if any sites of this kind in the Americas.

Historical marker indicating the approximate location of the African refugee cemetery in Key West (2006).

Historical marker indicating the approximate location of the African refugee cemetery in Key West (2006).

What secrets lie beneath the sands of the Florida coastline near you? Share with us by leaving a comment below!

 

 

Bone Dry: The Road to Prohibition in Florida

Most folks are aware of the United States’ “noble experiment” with prohibiting the manufacture and sale of liquor, which lasted from the passage of the Volstead Act in 1919 until it was repealed in 1933. Some Floridians may or may not, however, be aware that Florida had quite the head start on national prohibition, and even managed to elect a governor on the Prohibition Party ticket in 1916.

Policemen destroy confiscated liquor in Miami (1925).

Policemen destroy confiscated liquor in Miami (1925).

The question of whether and how to regulate or prohibit the sale of strong drink had been brewing in the individual states long before Congress dealt with the matter. In Florida, as in many states, the issue was hotly contested. Advocates of prohibition, or the “drys,” argued that liquor production and consumption was destructive to society and ought to be outlawed for the sake of health and the integrity of the family. Those who opposed prohibition, known as “wets,” countered that the government had no business interfering so deeply into the personal lives of citizens. Breweries and liquor distilleries added that to outlaw strong drink would destroy the jobs they provided to their workers.

The solution in Florida, for a time, was to provide each county with the option of whether to allow the sale or manufacture of liquor. A number of counties did become “dry” by vote of the local citizens, and they assured the rest of the state they were quite satisfied with the results. A.G. Campbell, the mayor of DeFuniak Springs, wrote in 1907 that he was sure that the crime rate in his town was very favorable to that of any wet town of the same size. W.B. Thomas, mayor of Gainesville reached much the same conclusion that year, noting that the total value of taxable property in the city was at least twice what it had been before the county went dry.

As time moved forward, prohibition became more political. The nationwide Anti-Saloon League began reporting on the progress of individual states toward prohibition, taking note of which politicians did or did not favor ending the sale and production of liquor. Carry Nation, the infamous anti-saloon activist who gained notoriety for smashing up bars with her hatchet, toured the Sunshine State in 1908 promoting a statewide prohibition law. She also endorsed Governor Napoleon Broward, who shared her views on spirituous drink and was up for reelection that year.

Carry Nation's notoriety and reputation as a force for prohibition was remembered long after she died in 1911. Pictured here are women at a Casa Loma hotel tea social in honor of Carry Nation's memory, in Coral Gables, Florida (February 20, 1925).

Carry Nation’s notoriety and reputation as a force for prohibition was remembered long after she died in 1911. Pictured here are women at a Casa Loma hotel tea social in honor of Carry Nation’s memory, in Coral Gables, Florida (February 20, 1925).

Portrait of Florida's 19th governor, Napoleon B. Broward (circa 1905).

Portrait of Florida’s 19th governor, Napoleon B. Broward (circa 1905).

In 1916, the movement for statewide prohibition received an unexpected boost. The Democratic Party in Florida had several candidates vying for the party’s nomination for governor that year. One was William V. Knott, at the time serving as the state’s comptroller and enjoying considerable political popularity. Another was Sidney J. Catts, a Baptist minister from DeFuniak Springs who had dabbled a bit in politics as well, but seemed to have little chance of being nominated. Knott chose to conduct a very limited campaign, emphasizing the press of state business in the comptroller’s office and relying on his friends to make the speeches. Catts, on the other hand, took to the roads in his Model T Ford to reach into the most remote corners of the state, denouncing Catholicism, regulation of the shellfish industry, and the “liquor interests.”

Florida's 22nd governor, Sidney J. Catts (circa 1920).

Florida’s 22nd governor, Sidney J. Catts (circa 1920).

Catts took the Democratic Party establishment by surprise when he was declared the winner of the Democratic nomination following the primary in June 1916. The margin between him and Knott was small, however, and Knott demanded a recount. The Florida Supreme Court granted the recount, and the results flipped the vote in favor of Knott by a mere twenty-one votes. Catts and a large number of his followers denounced the recount as a theft of the nomination from the people’s choice, and Catts agreed to run for governor on the Prohibition Party ticket.

A campaign poster for Sidney J. Catts (1915).

A campaign poster for Sidney J. Catts (1915).

Whatever the voters’ beliefs on prohibition, no third party had come anywhere close to defeating the Democrats in Florida since Reconstruction. Catts renewed his campaign efforts, however, and on Election Day in November 1916 he came away with the victory as governor of Florida. Sidney Catts would be the only non-Democrat to win the governorship between the end of Reconstruction in 1877 and the election of Republican Claude Kirk, Jr. in 1966.

 

By this time, the number of counties having voted to prohibit the sale and manufacture of liquor had increased, but statewide prohibition was still on the table. Bolstered in part by Catts’ encouragement and also by the nationwide movement toward prohibition, the issue was finally approved by the state legislature in 1917, ratified by the voters in 1918, and put into effect in 1919. The legislature also approved the 18th amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which prohibited the sale and manufacture of liquor nationwide. Although Florida would be the setting for many violations of the prohibition law during its short lifetime, the Sunshine State would mostly be, as the saying goes, dry as a bone.

John P. Brown driving an automobile decorated in support of prohibition (circa 1917).

John P. Brown driving an automobile decorated in support of prohibition (circa 1917).

The Cathedral Basilica of St. Augustine

Every Sunday, worshipers belonging to the oldest Catholic parish in the United States file into the St. Augustine Cathedral Basilica, where mass has been celebrated in some form or fashion for nearly 450 years. As timeless as this sturdy building may appear to the visitor, however, its history bears witness to many instances of warfare, disaster, and change that have shaped the city of St. Augustine.

This is an engraved, hand-colored map drawn by Baptista Boazio in 1589, depicts a raid on St. Augustine by the English navigator Sir Francis Drake. Boazio lived in London from about 1585 to 1603, illustrating accounts of English expeditions and campaigns.

This engraved, hand-colored map drawn by Baptista Boazio in 1589 depicts a raid on St. Augustine by the English navigator Sir Francis Drake. Boazio lived in London from about 1585 to 1603, illustrating accounts of English expeditions and campaigns.

In this zoomed portion of the Boazio map, notice the location of the parish church, marked "O" in the original and indicated with a green arrow.

In this zoomed portion of the Boazio map, notice the location of the parish church, marked “O” in the original and indicated with a green arrow.

St. Augustine was established in 1565 by Don Pedro Menendez de Aviles. He had carried with his expedition four priests who immediately began preparing to minister to the Spaniards who would settle in the new outpost. The map above shows the location of the first parish church at the southeast corner of the old plaza.

Depiction of the first mass celebrated in St. Augustine on September 8, 1565. This painting, dated 1919, is an exact copy of the version that hung on the wall of the St. Augustine Cathedral for many years before the building burned in 1887.

Depiction of the first mass celebrated in St. Augustine on September 8, 1565. This painting, dated 1919, is an exact copy of the version that hung on the wall of the St. Augustine Cathedral for many years before the building burned in 1887.

In addition to serving as the principal port and administrative center of Spanish Florida, St. Augustine was also the headquarters of the Catholic Church’s effort to minister to the Native Americans living in the surrounding area. Two lines of Franciscan missions extended outward from the town, one heading west as far as Tallahassee, and another stretching into present-day South Georgia as far as St. Catherine’s Island.

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Please Pass the Rattlesnake

The diamondback rattlesnake doesn’t exactly enjoy the best reputation among Florida’s wildlife. Generations of Floridians and visitors have been warned of the potentially deadly consequences of its bite, and as a result this venomous reptile is seldom a welcome sight when spotted.

A diamondback rattlesnake in Cedar Key, Florida (2001).

A diamondback rattlesnake in Cedar Key, Florida (2001).

That being said, rattlesnakes have also been a subject of great curiosity, when viewed from a safe distance at least. Eager entrepreneurs have tried in a number of ways to tap into this cautious enthusiasm over the years, including reptile shows, theme parks, reptile-skin gifts and clothing, and even by offering reptile meat as a food item.

George Kenneth End of Arcadia, who founded the Floridian Products Corporation (circa 1930s).

George Kenneth End of Arcadia, who founded the Floridian Products Corporation (circa 1930s).

George Kenneth End of Arcadia, Florida was one such businessman who made a living selling rattlesnakes in any way he could. Around 1930, he was helping his two young sons skin a rattlesnake they had just killed when the idea suddenly struck him to try cooking the meat to see what it would taste like. End found the meat tender and the flavor good, and he began experimenting with it to see how it could best be prepared as a marketable product.

An advertisement for the Floridian Products Corporation, showing a list of prices for its various products (1933).

An advertisement for the Floridian Products Corporation, showing a list of its various products (1933).

The result was the Floridian Products Corporation, Rattlesnake Division. End began selling every part of the snake that might capture the whimsy of a customer, from the skin to the rattles, the fangs, oil made from snake fat, and even live snakes themselves. Among the most popular products was End’s “Genuine Diamondback Rattlesnake with Supreme Sauce,” a canned portion of rattlesnake meat prepared with a sauce of meat stock, mushrooms, and heavy cream. Advertisements recommended serving the meat in pastry shells or on thin slices of toast as an appetizer for cocktails. End and his associates promoted the meat as a delicacy, and encouraged customers to “be the first in your neighborhood to give a rattlesnake dinner.”

A can of George End's famous rattlesnake in supreme sauce (circa 1930s).

A can of George End’s famous rattlesnake in supreme sauce (circa 1930s).

End’s bid for greatness as Florida’s main purveyor of rattlesnake products was successful. He first set up a factory for processing the rattlesnakes in Arcadia, not far from Florida’s Gulf Coast near Port Charlotte and Sarasota. The surrounding territory was largely undeveloped and full of scrub palmetto and other heavy growth, which made it ideal hunting grounds for the snake hunters who captured rattlesnakes to bring to End for processing. Later, as business picked up, End moved his main operation to Tampa, where he established his own “Rattlesnake Cannery and Emporium” in a two-story building at the corner of Bridge Street and Gandy Boulevard. In addition to processing the snakes, he also put on shows for visitors, who gasped in amazement as he and his associates handled the live rattlers and “milked” them to obtain the venom for medical purposes. End even managed to obtain permission to operate a post office at the site, naturally called “Rattlesnake.” Tourists were only too happy to send mail from this location, since it bore the unique “Rattlesnake, Fla.” postmark.

The original headquarters of the Floridian Products Corporation in Arcadia. Pictured out front are representatives of Elks Magazine, who were on their annual goodwill tour around the United States (circa 1933).

The original headquarters of the Floridian Products Corporation in Arcadia. Pictured out front are representatives of Elks Magazine, who were on their annual goodwill tour around the United States (circa 1933).

End’s success stemmed in part from the novelty and allure of his product, but his skills as a promoter were none too shabby. In addition to his “Rattlesnake” post office and attractive stop-over for tourists, he also at times took to the road to promote his products. Anyone who partook of a rattlesnake meal was furthermore entitled to membership in one of End’s reptile-related “clubs,” and would receive a membership card with their order. No doubt many a tourist left Florida proudly credentialed as a member of the “Reptile Science League,” the “Ancient Epicurean Order of Rattling Reptile Revelers,” or the “Subtle Society of Snake Snackers.”

A membership card for George K. End's "Rattling Reptile Revelers," obtainable with the purchase of a can of End's rattlesnake with supreme sauce. This card was found in the collection of longtime Florida folklorist Stetson Kennedy at the State Archives of Florida (circa 1933).

A membership card for George K. End’s “Rattling Reptile Revelers,” obtainable with the purchase of a can of End’s rattlesnake with supreme sauce. This card was found in the collection of longtime Florida folklorist Stetson Kennedy at the State Archives of Florida (circa 1933).

As the shadow of World War II emerged on the horizon at the start of the 1940s, George End was threatened with the loss of his most vital helpers in the rattlesnake industry, the young men of soldiering age who went out and actually caught the snakes. Unfazed, he reputedly claimed that Rattlesnake, Florida would “go on to bigger things and better things, in spite of hell, Hitler, and high water.”

He was almost right. On July 27, 1944, End was working with a six-foot rattler that had just arrived at his headquarters when the snake struck at his right hand between his thumb and forefinger. For all the time George End had spent working with deadly rattlesnakes, he had never in his life been snakebitten before, but once was enough. He administered anti-venom to himself, but it was ineffective. He died in a matter of hours.

The Rattlesnake, Fla. post office and the emporium at Bridge Street and Gandy Boulevard closed down eventually, and End’s rattlesnake empire began to fade into memory. Mrs. End sold the cannery equipment along with its patents and formulas to herpetologist Ross Allen, whose Reptile Institute at Silver Springs, Florida served as both a tourist attraction and a site for anti-venom research.

Ross Allen milking a rattlesnake for its venom, which could then be used to create anti-venom and conduct research (circa 1940s).

Ross Allen milking a rattlesnake for its venom, which could then be used to create anti-venom and conduct research (circa 1940s).

George End’s rattlesnake attraction was one of a multitude of Florida tourist spots whose peculiar nature and humble origins make them treasures of the history of the Sunshine State. What kinds of tourist attractions do you remember from Florida’s past? Did any of them have to do with snakes or other reptiles? Post a comment below and share your story!

In a State of Kitschiness: Jungle Land and Alvin’s Island

The early Miracle Strip along Panama City Beach was, and is, traditionally known for its outlandish attractions designed to entertain visitors to the Florida Gulf Coast. One such attraction was Jungle Land. Originally begun as housing for a roadside zoo attraction in the mid-1960s, the oversized artificial volcano reflected the whimsical architecture of reinforced stucco and concrete that was beginning to dot the coast.

Jungle Land Attraction in Panama City (1966).

Jungle Land Attraction in Panama City (1966).

Owner Val Valentine hired young women dressed (more or less) in full “Jungle Jane” gear to serve as tour guides leading visitors on a “dangerous” (again, more or less) tour through a winding cave to the center of the structure. Along the way, people could peek through holes in the cavern’s walls to get a glimpse of the “lava” bubbling at the core. Valentine also had the volcano fully stocked with smoke pots to emit smoke and flame from the opening which could be seen from quite a distance. Wild animals were kept at the center of Jungle Land and were trained by his “cave girls” to put on various performances for the tourists.

Women with Parrots at Jungle Land (1969).

Women with Parrots at Jungle Land (1969).

Although Jungle Land has since disappeared as a roadside attraction in Panama City, you can still experience the original, volcano-like structure which now houses Alvin’s Island Magic Mountain store. Venturing inside is a lot like walking into a colorful stalactite wonderland lined with plush dolphins and wholesale puka shell wind chimes. Nestled further into the center of the building (below the floor with the bathing suit cover-ups), you can find live alligators. Sometimes a trainer is on hand to give customers a chance to meet and greet these native reptiles.

Model Melody May posing in front of volcano at the Jungle Land attraction in Panama City (1966).

Model Melody May posing in front of volcano at the Jungle Land attraction in Panama City (1966).

The area may have lost an icon of kitsch when Jungle Land shut its doors for good in the early 1980s, but Alvin’s Island has rather historic roots in the area as well. Alvin Walsingham, founder of the Alvin’s Island chain, sought to cater to the booming tourist and souvenir business that was coming to define Panama City’s Miracle Strip. In 1981, he purchased the defunct Jungle Land volcano and opened a branch of his chain as the Magic Mountain store.

Alvin's Island Ad (circa 1980s). Courtesy of Tim Hollis.

Alvin’s Island Ad (circa 1980s). Courtesy of Tim Hollis.

Walsingham built onto to the volcano, ensuring that the new additions matched the existing rock-like structure. The store has since cut back on allowing the volcano to erupt, but has also tried to maintain the original pseudo-Polynesian and tropical theme that Valentine had envisioned. Today there are several Alvin’s Island locations in the Florida panhandle, including in Destin and Fort Walton Beach. The crown jewel, of course, is still the Magic Mountain Store!

Alvin's Island Magic Mountain Store (2013). Courtesy of Tim Hollis.

Alvin’s Island Magic Mountain Store (2013). Courtesy of Tim Hollis.

See our photo exhibit entitled Roadside Attractions in Florida for more images of sites like Alvin’s Island.

When Disney Came to Florida

Walt Disney World, the epicenter of the Disney entertainment empire and a vacation destination for millions of visitors each year, has been a thriving part of Florida tourism since 1971. But how did it get here? Walt Disney had already been operating Disneyland in Anaheim, California with great success since 1955. Practically every major city in the United States and many others around the world had invited Disney to bring his creativity to their vicinity, but for years Walt had appeared content to stick to one location and use Disneyland as the laboratory for his ideas. Yet by the late 1960s he had selected a swampy patch of ground just outside Orlando and Kissimmee to build what would become one of the world’s most popular places to visit.

A view of Cinderella's Castle, one of the hallmark features of Disney's Magic Kingdom (circa 1970s).

A view of Cinderella’s Castle, one of the hallmark features of Disney’s Magic Kingdom (circa 1970s).

In reality, Walt Disney had been eying possible locations for another theme park since the late 1950s. While Disneyland had been a resounding hit so far, the East Coast crowd had not taken to visiting as often as Disney and his team hoped they would. The solution, they believed, was to build a park in the east. Several potential projects were sketched out, including one in New Jersey, one in St. Louis, and even one in the Palm Beach area. Each of these possibilities fell through for various reasons, but over time Walt Disney’s attention settled on Florida as the most promising place for a new Disney attraction. Early in 1963, Disney gathered up a small team of trusted associates and sent them to Florida to locate between five and ten thousand acres of land for the new park. The project was kept secret at this stage, because Disney believed if word got loose that he was in the market for land in Central Florida, speculation would raise land prices sky-high. Consequently, the Florida project was referred to among the Disney inner circle as “Project X” or “Project Future.”

An aerial view of the Disney property near Orlando and Kissimmee prior to the park's opening (1967).

An aerial view of the Disney property near Orlando and Kissimmee prior to the park’s opening (1967).

Disney himself assisted in selecting the land near Orlando and Kissimmee. Locating the new park at the center of the state rather than on the coast eliminated some of the risk of damage from hurricanes, as well as the direct competition from the beaches themselves for visitors’ time. “We’ll create our own water,” he reportedly said. Once he had decided on the Orlando location, Disney worked with local representatives to buy up parcels of land using a series of nine “front” companies with names like the Latin-American Development & Management Corporation and the Reedy Creek Ranch, Inc. By the middle of 1965, Disney had purchased over 27,000 acres for just over five million dollars.

A group of Disney representatives inspecting the company's new property near Orlando and Kissimmee. The man at center in a dark sweater and glasses is Roy Disney, Walt Disney's brother (circa 1965).

A group of Disney representatives inspecting the company’s new property near Orlando and Kissimmee. The man at center in a dark sweater and glasses is Roy Disney, Walt Disney’s brother (circa 1965).

Disney representatives looking over a map while inspecting the Disney property fronting Lake Buena Vista (circa 1965).

Disney representatives looking over a map while inspecting the Disney property fronting Lake Buena Vista (circa 1965). Roy Disney is second from left.

As the planning continued, it became increasingly difficult to keep the project a secret. By the autumn of 1965, the press had called out Disney’s land purchases, and Walt and his associates decided to go public with their plans. Governor Haydon Burns confirmed the Disney rumors as early as October 24th, but his office worked with the folks at Disney to plan a formal press conference for November 15th at the Cherry Plaza Hotel in Orlando to make the official announcement. Dubbed “Disney Day” by the Florida Development Commission and various state officials, Governor Burns called it “the most significant day in the history of Florida.” Burns’ staff sent scores of invitations to media outlets, chambers of commerce, and local officials from around the state to dramatize the occasion. Walt Disney and his brother Roy sat on either side of Governor Burns as he explained to the many reporters and cameras how much the new attraction would mean to Florida. He predicted a fifty percent increase in tourism, as well as new tax revenue that would bring prosperity to the entire region.

Walt Disney, Governor Haydon Burns, and Roy Disney at a press conference announcing plans to build a Disney resort in Florida. The conference was held at the Cherry Plaza Hotel in Orlando (November 15, 1965).

Walt Disney, Governor Haydon Burns, and Roy Disney at a press conference announcing plans to build a Disney resort in Florida. The conference was held at the Cherry Plaza Hotel in Orlando (November 15, 1965).

 

Watch a clip from the press conference below, or click here to view the full conference video.

At the press conference, Walt Disney spoke only in broad generalities about what he intended to do at the new park. Considering how much secrecy had surrounded the land purchases, some might have easily believed he was purposely concealing his plans. In reality, his vague description owed mostly to the fact that very little had been definitely decided at that point about what Walt Disney World would actually look like. Walt hadn’t even set foot on the property yet; he would do that for the first time the next morning.

Even as late as 1969, there was still some question as to what Walt Disney World would look like when finished. This is an artist's concept of an aspect of Disney World, possibly EPCOT (1969).

Even as late as 1969, there was still some question as to what Walt Disney World would look like when finished. This is an artist’s concept of an aspect of Disney World, possibly EPCOT (1969).

After the announcement, however, the project moved swiftly. Disney “Imagineers” and other designers began sketching out the various parts of the new Florida resort, while contractors began preparing the actual site. The complexity of the new undertaking required a great deal of cooperation between the Disney corporation and governments at the state and local level. On May 12, 1967, Governor Claude Kirk signed into law new legislation creating the Reedy Creek Improvement District and two municipalities within it, Bay Lake and Reedy Creek (later renamed Lake Buena Vista). Situating the Disney property within these new entities enabled the company to develop the resort with a greater measure of independence regarding taxation and land use restrictions.

Governor Claude Kirk (left) shakes hands with Roy Disney (right) after signing new legislation facilitating the development of Walt Disney World (May 12, 1967).

Governor Claude Kirk (left) shakes hands with Roy Disney (right) after signing new legislation facilitating the development of Walt Disney World (May 12, 1967).

Walt Disney World opened on October 1, 1971 with two hotels and the Magic Kingdom theme park. Over the years new attractions emerged, including EPCOT, Hollywood Studios, Disney’s Animal Kingdom, and a wide variety of hotels and other amenities. Walt Disney, the man whose dream gave shape to the project, sadly did not live to see his masterpiece completed. Disney passed away in December of 1966, well before the park opened. As Walt himself once explained, however, the world of Disney entertainment was much bigger than Disney the man or his ambitions. “I only hope that we don’t lose sight of one thing,” he once said, “that it was all started by a mouse.”

Mickey Mouse greets several children at the Magic Kingdom, part of Walt Disney World (1977).

Mickey Mouse greets several children at the Magic Kingdom, part of Walt Disney World (1977).

What are your favorite memories from visiting Walt Disney World? Were you around to see the opening? Tell us about your experiences by leaving a comment below!

 

The “Swami of the Swamp”: Dick Pope and Florida’s Cypress Gardens

Cypress Gardens, one of Florida’s earliest and most famous themed attractions, has been capturing the imaginations of visitors for over seventy years. Originally opened by visionary promoter Dick Pope and his wife Julie in the mid-1930s, the gardens featured acres of blooming flowers, trees, and shrubbery, along with aquatic stunt shows and boat tours.

A bridge at Cypress Gardens, one of the most frequently photographed angles (circa 1950s).

A bridge at Cypress Gardens, one of the most frequently photographed angles (circa 1950s).

Although the beauty of the gardens alone makes them a Florida treasure, the story of how Cypress Gardens came to be is an equally valuable part of the rich history of Florida tourism. The land was little more than a swamp when founder Dick Pope acquired it, but Pope’s cunning business mind combined with a little luck to make the whole production come off beautifully. As Pope once told author Norman Vincent Peale, his motto was to “think big about everything.”

The

The “Swami of the Swamp” himself, Dick Pope, Sr (1966).

The idea to build a botanical garden for tourists came to Pope during a rough patch in his life. In the 1910s and 1920s, he and his brother Malcolm had been heavily involved in aquatic stunts and boat racing, as well as developing promotions for outboard motor companies like Johnson Motors. As the Great Depression took hold, however, demand for his services dropped, and Pope found himself looking for other projects. He was riding with his wife Julie in their car one day when a magazine article caught his eye. A man in Charleston, South Carolina had built up an impressive set of gardens on his estate, and had had success getting tourists to pay a small admission charge to visit. Dick Pope decided he could do something similar in Winter Haven, Florida, where he had spent much of his childhood and teenage years.

A view of Lake Eloise, where Dick Pope built Cypress Gardens in the 1930s (photo circa 1960s).

A view of Lake Eloise, where Dick Pope built Cypress Gardens in the 1930s (photo circa 1960s).

Pope quickly bought up several acres of land and a shuttered boat club on Lake Eloise and began preparing them for service as a botanical garden. The labor necessary to achieve this was extensive, of course, but Pope had a few ideas up his sleeve. He approached the local commission charged with managing the canals connecting Lake Eloise with the neighboring bodies of water, and convinced its board to invest $2,800 in his project, which he called “a community park.” He also incorporated the new attraction as a non-profit organization so he could apply for funding from the Works Progress Administration to construct it. After touring the area in a boat with Dick Pope explaining his plans, representatives from the WPA signed off on the project, and soon Dick Pope had a group of federal relief workers busy clearing brush, improving canals, and laying out walkways to serve the new gardens.

A postcard depicting one of the many canals at Cypress Gardens (circa 1940s).

A postcard depicting one of the many canals at Cypress Gardens (circa 1940s).

It wasn’t long before local and federal officials realized that this was much more a private venture than a community park, and the WPA and the local canal commission withdrew their support. Pope was jokingly labeled the “Swami of the Swamp” and the “Maharaja of Muck” for his manipulative handiwork, but he remained determined to open Cypress Gardens. He reorganized the business and began the planting process with the help of gardener Vernon Rutter of Tennessee. Julie Pope was heavily involved as well, as her husband admitted that he “didn’t know an azalea from a carrot” in those early days. Pope also enlisted the assistance of photographer Robert Dahlgren to ensure that the gardens were laid out in such a way that no matter which direction a camera was pointed, the photograph it captured would be appealing.

Every bend in the path brought a new burst of floral color at Cypress Gardens (1967).

Every bend in the path brought a new burst of floral color at Cypress Gardens (1967).

Cypress Gardens officially opened on January 24, 1935. Pope pulled every string in his arsenal of connections to get photographs of the gardens placed in newspapers and magazines across the country. He even managed to get the new attraction featured in several films, which added to the publicity. He invited beauty queens, movie stars, aquatic stunt performers – anyone who might draw attention to Cypress Gardens. Over time, the gardens would host a wide array of distinguished guests, including Bette Davis, Joan Crawford, President John F. Kennedy, and King Hussein of Jordan. Even the Shah of Iran came once to water-ski on the lake. Asked about the honor of hosting the Shah, Pope quipped, “There’s no business like Shah business.”

Dick Pope (right) with Governor Claude Kirk (left) at Cypress Gardens. Pope served on a number of commissions to promote Florida tourism during his career (photo 1967).

Dick Pope (right) with Governor Claude Kirk (left) at Cypress Gardens. Pope served on a number of commissions to promote Florida tourism during his career (photo 1967).

One of many aquatic stunt shows at Cypress Gardens (circa 1970s).

One of many aquatic stunt shows at Cypress Gardens (circa 1970s).

Cypress Gardens remained successful in the coming years, although changes in tourism and demographics began taking their toll by the early 1970s. Gas prices and shortages, the arrival of larger parks like Walt Disney World, and the tendency of families to make shorter, more location-specific trips cut into the attraction’s market share. Dick Pope and his son, Dick Pope, Jr., tried to adjust to meet the challenge, but found it impossible to catch up. The attraction changed hands several times before finally closing in 2009. The gardens themselves have been preserved as part of a new attraction called Legoland.

Dick Pope passed away in 1988, but his contributions to Florida tourism are honored in several lasting tributes. The University of Central Florida’s Institute for Tourism Studies is named for him, and in 2014 Cypress Gardens was added to the National Register of Historic Places.

Have you ever been to Cypress Gardens? Tell us about your experiences by commenting on our post. Also, search the Florida Photographic Collection to find more photos of your favorite Florida tourist attractions.

Caption the Cat

What is that cat thinking about? June is Adopt-a-Cat-Month, and in honor of the occasion we’ve taken our favorite cat photos and want to know…  Can you caption these cats’ thoughts?

Portrait of Susan Mayo with a Siamese cat - Tallahassee, Florida.

Portrait of Susan Mayo with a Siamese cat – Tallahassee, Florida

 

View showing the Hansen family cats "Corina" and "Julie" in the photographic studio - Tallahassee, Florida.

View showing the Hansen family cats “Corina” and “Julie” in the photographic studio (1971)

 

View showing the Hansen family cat in the photographic studio - Tallahassee, Florida.

View showing the Hansen family cat in the photographic studio – Tallahassee, Florida (1969)

 

View showing Dorothy Hansen's cat and kitten in the photographic studio - Tallahassee, Florida.

View showing Dorothy Hansen’s cat and kitten in the photographic studio – Tallahassee, Florida (1970)

 

Portrait of Julian Hansen playing with a cat - Tallahassee, Florida.

Portrait of Julian Hansen playing with a cat – Tallahassee, Florida (1967)

 

 

Have You Heard of Milwaukee Springs?

Milwaukee Springs was a segregated African-American recreational area operating northwest of Gainesville in Alachua County at least as early as 1940. During World War II, white and African-American leaders alike had high hopes it would be turned into a health and recreation facility for African-American soldiers stationed at Camp Blanding and elsewhere.

Taken by photographer Charles Foster, this is the only image Florida Memory has of Milwaukee Springs, a segregated recreational area for African-Americans in Alachua County.  Documentary evidence suggests it was located northwest of Gainesville (circa 1940).

Taken by photographer Charles Foster, this is the only photograph Florida Memory has of Milwaukee Springs, a segregated recreational area for African-Americans in Alachua County. Documentary evidence suggests it was located northwest of Gainesville (circa 1940).

One of the earliest references to Milwaukee Springs comes from a biennial report of the Florida Fresh Water Fish and Game Commission published in 1940, which briefly notes that the commission’s game technician had participated in a wildlife camp for African-American boys held at this location.

The site surfaces again in the paper trail during World War II. As war clouds threatened during the months before Pearl Harbor, the state government and local communities organized defense councils to coordinate preparations for the U.S. to enter the conflict.  With Jim Crow in full force throughout Florida at this time, communities frequently used separate organizations to coordinate the wartime efforts of African-American civilians, with their leaders keeping in close contact with their white counterparts for the sake of cooperation.

One of several posters contained in the papers of the State Defense Council of Florida, which helped organize communities across the state to meet the needs of the war effort during World War II (circa 1942).

One of several posters contained in the papers of the State Defense Council of Florida, which helped organize communities across the state to meet the needs of the war effort during World War II (circa 1942).

Managing and rationing supplies and manpower were critical, of course, but these defense councils also planned for recreation, for civilians and soldiers alike.  A number of African-American leaders were concerned that troops of their race had too few options for recreational activities, which was bad for morale. A group of local Alachua County citizens led by Charles Chestnut, president of the Colored Businessmen’s Association of Gainesville and chairman of a local African-American civil defense organization, proposed that Milwaukee Springs be converted into a facility to provide African-American soldiers with a place to relax during their time away from Camp Blanding or other nearby military posts.

Excerpt from the minutes of a meeting of the Negro Coordinating Committee on National Defense held in Tampa, December 17, 1941.

Excerpt from the minutes of a meeting of the Negro Coordinating Committee on National Defense held in Tampa, December 17, 1941 (Series 419 – Papers of the State Defense Council, Box 33, State Archives of Florida)

Chestnut’s proposal won the endorsement of local Alachua County representative Samuel Wyche Getzen, and together these men called on Mary McLeod Bethune of the federal Office of Negro Affairs and Executive Secretary James White of the NAACP for help in getting the federal government involved.

Samuel W. Getzen (second from left) with his family upon the unveiling of his portrait in the chamber of the Florida House of Representatives.  Getzen had been the Speaker of the Florida House in 1929.  Photo dated 1959.

Samuel W. Getzen (second from left) with his family upon the unveiling of his portrait in the chamber of the Florida House of Representatives. Getzen had been the Speaker of the Florida House in 1929. Photo dated 1959.

Photo of Mary McLeod Bethune in front of White Hall on the Bethune-Cookman College campus.  The photo is believed to have been taken around the time Bethune was serving as the Director of the Office of Negro Affairs in President Franklin D. Roosevelt's administration (circa 1940s).

Photo of Mary McLeod Bethune in front of White Hall on the Bethune-Cookman College campus. The photo is believed to have been taken around the time Bethune was serving as the Director of the Office of Negro Affairs in President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s administration (circa 1940s).

Although the Federal Security Administration appears to have visited the site to consider the project’s worthiness, and a public hearing was held to discuss the matter in early 1942, it is unclear whether Milwaukee Springs ever became the center of African-American health and recreation its sponsors had hoped for.  In fact, aside from a few references in the documents of Florida’s State Defense Council and the papers of the NAACP, very little else exists to document the site.

If you or someone you know has more information about Milwaukee Springs, we’d love to know about it.  Contact us using our web feedback form, and mention this blog post in the subject line.