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!

 

Surviving the Blast: Fallout Shelters in Tallahassee

The 1950s were in many ways a prosperous time for the United States. The population was booming, the national economy was on the upswing, and more consumers were gaining access to goods and services that enriched their families’ lives. Just under the surface, however, lay growing concerns about the possibility of nuclear war between the highly polarized eastern and western blocs in the Cold War. When the Soviet Union detonated its first atomic device in 1949, U.S. policymakers and concerned citizens alike pressed for more preparedness for a potential nuclear blast within U.S. territory. The national Office of Civilian (Civil) Defense in Washington took on the primary role in developing programs to educate the public about the potential nuclear threat and coordinate local, state, and national efforts to prepare for it. In Florida, state government was highly involved as well.

Logo of the Florida Civil Defense Council, adopted from its national counterpart, used in the 1950s and 1960s.

Logo of the Florida Civil Defense Council, adopted from its national counterpart, used in the 1950s and 1960s.

A broadside alerting citizens to the need for having a plan in place in case of nuclear attack (1954).

A broadside alerting citizens to the need for having a plan in place in case of nuclear attack (1954).

A map of sites around the state for monitoring radiation levels in the event of a nuclear attack. This map was one of several included in the 1962 revision of the state's Civil Defense Plan.

A map of sites around the state for monitoring radiation levels in the event of a nuclear attack. This map was one of several included in the 1962 revision of the state’s Civil Defense Plan, which can be found in the State Documents Collection at the State Library of Florida.

One of the main concerns was how to ensure the survival of the largest number of citizens possible during the actual nuclear attack. Although the images and reports coming from witnesses to the earlier Hiroshima and Nagasaki atomic bomb sites were less than reassuring, scientists and officials held out hope that an atomic blast was survivable if citizens were properly prepared and adequate fallout shelters were available. Consequently, civil defense agencies at the local, state, and national level began identifying existing structures that could be designated as fallout shelters, and planned for more to be built. Private citizens also began building fallout shelters of their own. An entire industry developed around providing consumers with the materials necessary to construct and supply these structures.

Gilbert Chandler, Jr. emerges from a basement under the Tallahassee Motor Hotel on North Monroe Street. Civil Defense officials said 500 people could potentially take shelter in the space in the event of a nuclear attack (March 2, 1961).

Gilbert Chandler, Jr. emerges from a basement under the Tallahassee Motor Hotel on North Monroe Street. Civil Defense officials said 500 people could potentially take shelter in the space in the event of a nuclear attack (March 2, 1961).

Aside from sheltering the population, governments also had to think about maintaining order during a disaster. In the event of a nuclear attack, state officials would need to be able to communicate with law enforcement and local governments across the state to coordinate their efforts once the attack was over. To ensure that the state government would remain functional during a nuclear emergency, Florida’s civil defense authorities established fallout shelters under both the governor’s mansion and the capitol building, complete with supplies of drinking water, food, and other necessities.

Chlorine is added to water supplies at the fallout shelter in the basement of the old capitol building in Tallahassee. At left is Hal Miller, field operations officer of U.S. Civil Defense Region #3, based in Thomasville, Georgia. At right is Tallahassee city engineer Thomas P. Smith (February 15, 1962).

Chlorine is added to water supplies at the fallout shelter in the basement of the old capitol building in Tallahassee. At left is Hal Miller, field operations officer of U.S. Civil Defense Region #3, based in Thomasville, Georgia. At right is Tallahassee city engineer Thomas P. Smith (February 15, 1962).

Workers prepare to build thickened walls around the basement of the governor's mansion in Tallahassee so it could be used for a fallout shelter. The man at right is Charles P. Walker, who had served as the superintendent of the executive mansion for 20 years when this photo was taken (December 18, 1961).

Workers prepare to build thickened walls around the basement of the governor’s mansion in Tallahassee so it could be used for a fallout shelter. The man at right is Charles P. Walker, who had served as the superintendent of the executive mansion for 20 years when this photo was taken (December 18, 1961).

Governor C. Farris Bryant tests an emergency radio system located in the fallout shelter located in the basement of the governor's residence in Tallahassee. In the event of a nuclear attack, this shelter would have become Florida's seat of government, and the radio system would have enabled communication between the governor and the State Highway Patrol, the Road Department, and other state agencies. This photo was taken around the time of the Cuban Missile Crisis (October 1962).

Governor C. Farris Bryant tests an emergency radio system located in the fallout shelter located in the basement of the governor’s residence in Tallahassee. In the event of a nuclear attack, this shelter would have become Florida’s seat of government, and the radio system would have enabled communication between the governor and the State Highway Patrol, the Road Department, and other state agencies. This photo was taken around the time of the Cuban Missile Crisis (October 1962).

Some shelters, such as this one planned for the Collins Building on Gaines Street in Tallahassee, never made it past the blueprint stage.

A plan showing the basic concept of a fallout shelter to be built under the Collins Building on Gaines Street in Tallahassee. This shelter was never built (plan drawn up circa November 1962).

A plan showing the basic concept of a fallout shelter to be built under the Collins Building on Gaines Street in Tallahassee. This shelter was never built (plan drawn up circa November 1962).

Thankfully, aside from a few drills and the drama of the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962, these shelters were never needed for their intended purpose. Many were later remodeled for storage or other purposes. A few still remain, however, and they remind us of how seriously the danger of nuclear war commanded the attention of Floridians living during the Cold War.

Do you know of a former fallout shelter still in existence somewhere in Florida? Did you ever participate in a drill that involved going into one of these shelters? Tell us about your experience by leaving a comment.