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