What Day is Thanksgiving?

On the fourth Thursday in November, folks across Florida and the nation will observe the Thanksgiving holiday. For many people, Thanksgiving inspires nostalgia for turkey, dressing, mashed potatoes, desserts, autumn colors and gearing up for the holidays. Yet, as many know, the Thanksgiving table can at times host disputes, such as whose football team is better or the various merits of sweet potato versus pumpkin pie. But, as revealed in Series S368, Governor Fred Cone Correspondence, Florida was part of a national dispute over which day to observe Thanksgiving in 1939 and 1940.

Before the 19th century, Thanksgiving was celebrated with regional variations. Local governments or organizations proclaimed days of thanksgiving at various points throughout the year. In 1789, George Washington issued a proclamation for a day of public thanksgiving to take place on Thursday, November 26. Many subsequent presidents and governors proclaimed days of thanksgiving but dates varied until the 1860s. In 1850, Florida Governor Thomas Brown proclaimed Thanksgiving as November 28, the last Thursday of the month.

In 1850, Florida Governor Thomas Brown proclaimed Thanksgiving as the last Thursday in November. State Archives of Florida, Series S13, Volume 1, Page 127.

Brown’s successor, Governor James E. Broome, changed the observed Thanksgiving date throughout his time in office. Broome selected the fourth Thursday in November in 1855. In 1856, citing a desire to be in unison with other states, Broome declared Thanksgiving on the third Thursday in November.

Clipping from The (Tampa) Florida Peninsular, November 10, 1855, with Governor Broome’s proclamation of the fourth Thursday (November 22) as Thanksgiving.

Governor Broome’s Proclamation declaring Thanksgiving on November 20th, 1856. State Archives of Florida, Series S13, Volume 1, Page 273.

In 1863, President Abraham Lincoln declared the last Thursday in November as national Thanksgiving Day. Over the next seven decades, presidents followed suit and the last Thursday in November became the traditional observation of the holiday. State governors also issued their own proclamations, but they usually lined up with the national observance. The Florida Legislature officially established Thanksgiving as a public holiday in 1905 (1905 Laws of Florida, Chapter 5392).

As is the case today, Thanksgiving in the early to mid-20th century was associated with Christmas shopping preparations. Retailers at the state and national level looked forward to a sales boost after Thanksgiving. In 1939, November’s last Thursday happened to be the last day of the month: November 30. Fearing a shortened holiday shopping season and still reeling from the Great Depression, retailers petitioned state and national governments to move Thanksgiving up a week, to November 23, to give an earlier boost to holiday sales (for more on Florida in the Great Depression, see our other photo exhibits, collections, and New Deal Research Guide).

J.A. Waterman, president of Maas Brothers, requesting that the governor select an earlier date for the Thanksgiving holiday in 1939.

President Franklin Roosevelt agreed with the change and indicated that he would issue his proclamation moving Thanksgiving to the second to last Thursday in November: November 23, 1939 and November 21, 1940. On October 31, 1939, Roosevelt issued Proclamation 2373, officially setting the shifted holiday.

P.M. Birmingham, secretary of the Sarasota Retail Merchants Association, relays to the governor that the association will be celebrating Thanksgiving on November 23, 1939, as proclaimed by President Roosevelt.

While many welcomed the move, others were not so easily swayed. Many did not wish to alter long-held traditions, with Florida Governor Fred P. Cone among them. When asked about his intentions regarding the state proclamation for Thanksgiving in 1939, Cone indicated that he would err on the side of tradition and set the date as November 30.

https://www.floridamemory.com/fmp/selected_documents/medium/s368_b091_f05_x10_01.jpg

A poem sent to Governor Fred P. Cone criticizing Roosevelt’s changing the date of Thanksgiving.

Governor Fred P. Cone’s 1939 Proclamation, declaring Thursday November 30 as Thanksgiving in Florida. State Archives of Florida, Series S13, Volume 13, Page 229.

Cones’ traditional stance on Thanksgiving was welcomed by many throughout the state, as evidenced by these letters.

Mrs. Harriet Pratt Bodifield of Cocoa, Florida, thanks the governor for keeping with tradition and not changing the date of Thanksgiving to accommodate holiday shopping.

James M. Phillips of Phillips Hardware Company expressing support for the governor’s proclamation that Thanksgiving be November 30, 1939, rather than November 23, 1939. This letter shows that not all retailers desired the shifted date.

Twenty-two other states fell in line with Florida and observed Thanksgiving on November 30.

However, the shifted date was a source of consternation among several industries. Calendar manufacturers, for example, printed calendars two years out, making both the 1939 and 1940 calendars obsolete. The following exchange between the Stanwood-Hillson Corporation, a printing company, and First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt illustrates tensions over the Thanksgiving date change.

Letter from Eleanor Roosevelt to S. Hillson concerning the calendar printing industry’s objections to the shifted dates of Thanksgiving.

S. Hillson’s reply to Eleanor Roosevelt explaining the potential losses faced by calendar printers.

In 1940, the publication Hardware Age, printed a calendar addendum to list which states celebrated what date in order to address obsolete calendars created by the shifted date.

Other industries were also affected by the change of date. The editors of Turkey World Magazine, noting “confusion in the turkey industry,” wrote to the governor asking for clarification so the magazine could properly inform their readers.

M.C. Small, managing editor of Turkey World magazine, requests that the governor reply with information about when Thanksgiving 1939 will be held in Florida and the governor’s opinion about the future observance of the holiday.

The National Council for Teachers of English noted that their annual conference was customarily held on the weekend after Thanksgiving. When New York, one of the states in favor of an early Thanksgiving, hosted the 1939 conference, the council wrote to Governor Cone asking that he encourage local school boards to allow English teachers leave time on November 23 and 24 in order to attend the conference.

Alice Colvin Wright, president of the New York City Association of English Teachers, requests that the governor urge local school boards in Florida to let teachers attend the annual convention in New York over the Thanksgiving holiday break. Since Florida did not change the date of Thanksgiving to match the national calendar, New York and Florida had different official Thanksgiving holidays.

The Florida Bankers Association decided to observe both November 23 and November 30 as holidays to minimize confusion among their employees.

The bulletin states that banks of Florida will observe both November 23 and November 30 as Thanksgiving holidays so that there is uniformity across the state.

Florida Attorney General George Couper Gibbs also sought clarification. Under the attorney general’s reading of the law, Governor Cone’s intention on the traditional observance presented ambiguities.

Attorney General George Couper Gibbs advising the governor as to which day of the year Thanksgiving should fall on.

By proclamation, however, Governor Cone insisted on the traditional date as the state’s official observance. In the end, many towns followed the Florida Bankers Association in observing both days as holidays.

During the following year, the same controversy gripped Florida. Residents tried to plan accordingly to avoid the confusion from 1939. In January 1940, representatives from high schools across Florida contacted Governor Cone asking him for clarification for the date of Thanksgiving so they could properly schedule their traditional football rivalry games for the appropriate weekend. Florida and 15 other states once again broke with the federal date and held Thanksgiving on the traditional day, the last Thursday in November.

Letter from S.R. Troydon, athletic director at Landon Junior-Senior High School, asking the governor to confirm the date of the Thanksgiving holiday in 1940.

The controversy surrounding Thanksgiving’s date continued even into 1941. President Roosevelt finally admitted that the changes were not worth the hassle or confusion. The earlier date alienated many Americans, and they refused to go shopping until after they observed the traditional holiday. So, on October 6, through U.S. House Joint Resolution (HJR) 41, Congress attempted to set the date for future Thanksgiving observances as the last Thursday in November. Then, on December 9, the Senate amended HJR 41 to account for November months with five Thursdays by setting the fourth Thursday in the month as Thanksgiving Day. Every Thanksgiving since 1942 has been celebrated on this day.

https://www.archives.gov/legislative/features/thanksgiving

Senate Amendments to HJR 41, making the fourth Thursday in November a legal holiday, December 9, 1941. RG 233, Records of the U.S. House of Representatives, Center for Legislative Archives, National Archives and Records Administration.

No matter your Thanksgiving plans, the State Archives wishes you an enjoyable holiday!

Migrant Education Programs in Florida

The years spent in elementary school are formative ones in a child’s upbringing. But what if a child must move several times per year due to their parents’ work demands? In the late 1960s and early 1970s, Florida’s educators initiated compensatory education programming to benefit the children of migrant workers, whose frequent moves due to shifting employment circumstances posed difficulties for their social and educational gains.

In an August 1971 issue of Young Children (the journal of the National Association for the Education of Young Children), Eloyce Combs, early childhood education consultant for the Florida Department of Education, outlined the problem of education for migratory children: “Because of the mobility of migrant families,” Combs wrote, “the young children often suffer from… lack of medical and dental services, limited educational experiences… [and] must struggle with the major crises of development[,] such as the requirement to tolerate separation from the mother, [and] to find new friends when the family has to move.”

Mobile instruction units arrive at migrant labor camp in Broward County, ca. 1970. Found in series S 944, box 14, folder 30.

In supplying access to low-cost produce, the labor of migrant farm workers has sustained Floridians’ nutritional and financial needs for much of the state’s history. However, not until the late 1960s, in the wake of President Lyndon Johnson’s anti-poverty legislation, did federal and state governments began to address the specialized educational and social development needs of migratory children.

Records from Series S 944, Florida Migratory Child Compensatory Program Files, 1967-1974, illustrate initiatives on the part of educators, politicians and activists to improve access to healthcare and higher quality education for migratory children.

Lyndon Johnson Signs the ESEA

During the Great Depression, a young Lyndon Johnson taught the children of migrant workers in the Rio Grande Valley in Texas. The child poverty that he witnessed during his time as a schoolteacher would influence his later directives as president. Following the signing of the Civil Rights Act in 1964, Johnson began to prioritize poverty as a domestic policy issue. In 1965, Johnson signed the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) of 1965, granting federal funding to programs designed to close the skills gap in math, reading and writing for schoolchildren from low-income urban and rural households.

Early Childhood Learning Programs for Migrant Children in Florida

One program to receive federal funding under the ESEA was the Florida Migratory Child Compensatory Program, administered by the Florida Department of Education. At its inception in 1967, the program offered special education programming to provide for the needs of migratory farm workers in 20 Florida counties. Beginning in 1967, county school boards applied for ESEA grants on an annual basis to provide migratory students with textbooks, remedial math and language arts coursework, field trips, home visitation programs, summer school programs and in-service training for their teachers and other school staff.

Remedial language arts class administered through the Migratory Child Compensatory Program, ca. 1970. Found in series S 944, box 14, folder 57.

County grant applications often also requested supplemental funding to address migratory students’ health care needs, such as testing for hearing and visual impairment and psychological testing to identify special education needs, and for the provision of essentials such as food, clothing and glasses.

Child receives health services provided through Migrant Education Center in Broward County, 1971. Image excerpted from 1971 issue of The Traveler, the newsletter of the Broward County Migrant Education Center. Found in series S 944, box 14, folder 61.

County school boards designed their programs to correct “deficiencies in language development and social development with priorities on enhancing the child’s self-concept” and to “provide experiences and activities for the development of self-confidence and positive self-image” of their students.

Excerpt from Broward County Migrant Education Program Year End Report, 1972-1973 school year. Found in series S 944, box 7, binder 3.

Such enrichment activities included field trips to petting zoos and meetings with Santa Claus.

Migratory school children meet with Santa Claus, St. John’s County. Found in series S 944, box 14, folder 47.

The efficacy of these migratory education initiatives in Broward County was evaluated by the Broward County Board of Public Instruction through standardized testing of students to measure gains in areas such as reading comprehension and vocabulary. Program effectiveness was also gauged by the number of instances of health and supportive services provided to students, as well as number of staff members receiving in-service training.

Three years after the program’s initiation, the results of the Migratory Child Compensatory Program were mixed. In an April 5, 1970, article from the Miami Herald, Mary Dorsey, an education specialist at the Migrant Education Center in Broward County, identified a need for more in-service teacher training and attributed low student test scores to lack of individualized help due to overcrowding and lack of materials. While Dorsey reported individual gains in reading ability among students, test scores in 1970 charted Broward County student achievement levels as remaining below the national average for the seventh consecutive year.

Excerpt from Broward County Migrant Education Program Year End Report (1972-1973) describing in-service teaching programs. Found in series S 944, box 7, binder 3.

Another critique of the program, and one possible explanation for its low impact on standardized test scores at the time, was a lack of bilingual programming.

In January of 1971, the Polk County school system held a forum to allow groups representing local educators, agricultural companies, ministries and migrant laborers to publicly discuss issues surrounding the county’s migrant education program–the largest in the nation at the time, instructing 6,500 migratory students that year. Those representing migrant laborers, such as the Florida Farmworkers’ Association, Polk County Christian Migrant Ministry and the Organized Migrants in Community Action criticized the government’s efforts in education for failing to tackle the barriers standing between monolingual English speaking teachers and their multilingual pupils. Though compensatory programs in Florida provided for teachers’ in-service training in areas ranging from remedial math courses to first aid to auto harp instruction, bilingual lesson instruction was not a standard feature of the programs.

The ESEA has been reauthorized by presidential authority once every five years since its inception. In 2001, the Act was reauthorized under President George W. Bush as the “No Child Left Behind Act,” and in 2015, President Barack Obama reauthorized the Act as the “Every Student Succeeds Act,” known as ESSA. The Migrant Education Program stills exists today in Florida under Title I, Part C of ESEA. In accordance with revisions to the ESEA, the program is assessed once every five years and modified to conform to regulations at the federal level. It continues to allocate funding to schools with migratory student populations to support and advocate for migratory families and provide school placement assistance for migratory children.

Entrance to South Dade Farm Labor Camp, Homestead, ca. 1970. Found in series S 944, box 14, folder 56.

Behind every meal comprised of fresh Florida fruits and vegetables, there is a story of the difficult work that brought that meal to the consumer’s table. For researchers examining the intersections of labor trends and the economy, public health, education or social welfare, the experience of migrant worker offers an interesting lens.

Researchers with an interest in migrant labor in Florida will find the following series of use in their studies:

Series S 555 Florida. Governor’s Coordinating Task Force on Migrant and Rural Poor Records, 1971-1972

Series S 401 Migrant Labor Program Reading Files, 1970-1978

Series S 568 Migrant Labor Program Subject Files, 1970-1978

Series S 1172 Migrant Labor Program Administrative Files, 1973-1991

Series S 579 Migrant Health Program Administrative Files, 1972-1978

Sources:

Brucken, G. “Low Rank in Reading May Stay.” The Miami Herald, April 5, 1970.

Combs, E. “Florida’s Early Childhood Learning Program for Migrant Children.” National Association for the Education of Young Children, (XXVI, 1971): 359-363.

McKee, G. A. “Lyndon B. Johnson and the War On Poverty.” Accessed October 24, 2017. http://prde.upress.virginia.edu/content/WarOnPoverty

Riley, N. Floridas farmworkers in the twenty-first century. Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 2002.

Roderus, F. “Many Groups Study Migrant Problem In Polk.” The Tampa Tribune, January 15, 1971.

Gatorland

So you’re vacationing in Central Florida, and you’ve seen the big parks already. You’ve got one day left on your trip: What are you going to do?

Small tourist attractions fight hard for that “last-day dollar.” Many regional attractions around Florida have closed over time, but Gatorland has operated in Central Florida for almost 70 years.

Entrance to Gatorland, 196-

Gatorland was founded in 1949 by Owen Godwin, a colorful character known for his habit of dressing in full safari gear. He saw an opportunity for a wildlife-based, Old Florida roadside attraction, so he and his family established Gatorland along the Orange Blossom Trail (US 441). The property they purchased even had ready-made pits, perfect for alligators! Alligator pits, also called alligator holes, retain water during the dry season and attract prey for the alligator.

Owen Godwin wrangling a python

 

Alligator at Gatorland, 19–

Godwin’s over-the-top approach to marketing was well suited for the new attraction. He visited the northern states each summer to woo new customers, complete with his live alligator, Cannibal Jake, in tow. Meanwhile, visitors to Gatorland could walk above alligator pits on elevated boardwalks and observe other Florida wildlife, all for free!

Sightseers on footbridge, 1979

Gatorland’s donation-based business model was never particularly effective, but the park got by when it was just one of many roadside attractions in Central Florida. However, two things changed in the 1970s. First, Interstate 4 and Florida’s Turnpike, which began operating in the 1960s, bypassed Gatorland. Consequently, the Godwins had to find a way to draw tourists to the park. Second, once Disney World and other mega-parks arrived on the scene, they provided entertainment to tourists over multiple days rather than just for a few hours.

Tourists on train, 1979

How did Gatorland respond? By charging admission, of course! While this did lead to a drop in attendance for a while, it got them membership in the Florida Attractions Association (FAA) and thus listed in the FAA brochures found at every hotel.

Gatorland brochure, ca. 1971

In addition to more aggressive advertising, new CEO Frank Godwin (son of Owen) added attractions such as alligator wrestling and “Gator Jumparoo,” where gators jumped out of the water and snatched store-bought chicken from a trainer’s hands. Gatorland even became a major alligator farming and husbandry operation over the years.

“Gator Jumparoo,” 19–

Alligator wrestling, 19–

Responding to Florida’s tourism boom in the 1970s, Gatorland successfully made the transition over time from a family-owned roadside attraction to a small theme park run as a major corporation. You can find the park’s full history in Dorothy Mays’ 2009 article in the Florida Historical Quarterly, “Gatorland: Survival of the Fittest among Florida’s Mid-Tier Tourist Attractions.” If you’re ever in the Orlando area, it’s worth a visit!

Do you have memories of visiting Gatorland? Tell us about it in the comments below.

Trick-or-Treat for Disaster Relief

Are you thinking about how you can donate to the continued relief of the thousands of people affected by the recent scourge of hurricanes, earthquakes and wildfires? This Halloween, you might consider doing what a group of Tallahassee third graders did in 1989 and transform the anticipated custom of trick-or-treating into a grassroots pledge drive. Florida’s news media was there to capture this sweet story and the State Library and Archives of Florida has since preserved newspaper and television coverage of the students’ activism.

View of collapsed and burned buildings at Beach and Divisadero in the Marina District in San Francisco after the Loma Prieta earthquake, October 17, 1989. Photograph courtesy of Wikimedia commons via U.S. Department of the Interior U.S. Geological Survey.

View of collapsed and burned buildings at Beach and Divisadero in the Marina District in San Francisco after the Loma Prieta earthquake, October 17, 1989. Photograph courtesy of Wikimedia commons via U.S. Department of the Interior U.S. Geological Survey.

In September 1989, Hurricane Hugo ripped through Guadeloupe, Puerto Rico, the U.S. Virgin Islands, Georgia and South Carolina, leaving 27 dead and countless others displaced. A few weeks later, Hurricane Jerry slammed into the Gulf Coast of Texas, killing three, including Tallahassee native and Coast Guard Seaman Dan Lindley and his two-year-old daughter Selina. Then, on October 17, the Loma Prieta earthquake shook the San Francisco Bay to its core, claiming the lives of 200, injuring over 400 and causing millions in property damage. With natural disasters affecting people across the United States and the Caribbean, charitable organizations mobilized to raise money and donations for relief.

Clipping from the Tallahassee Democrat, October 26, 1989. The State Library of Florida holds microfilm copies of the Tallahassee Democrat, dating back to the early twentieth century. Posted with permission from the editorial staff of the Tallahassee Democrat.

Headline clipped from the Tallahassee Democrat, October 26, 1989. The State Library of Florida holds microfilm copies of the Tallahassee Democrat and its previous iterations dating from the early twentieth century to present. Posted with permission from the editorial staff of the Tallahassee Democrat. Florida Memory has digitized and made searchable online 50,000 photographs from the Tallahassee Democrat Collection, ranging in date from the 1950s to the 1970s.

At Sealey Elementary in Tallahassee, third-grader Kelly Collette had a creative idea for how they could turn Halloween into a fundraiser for natural disaster victims. Two weeks before the October 31st holiday, Collette stood up in front of her classmates in teacher Sharon Hartman’s language arts class and suggested that they trick-or-treat for money instead of candy and donate the proceeds to the American Red Cross. The proposal went to a vote on the classroom floor. While it was not unanimously affirmed, with one sweet-toothed youngster commenting that “A lot of people would rather have the candy,” the majority of students agreed to forego their candy for a cause. “We want to help those people instead of getting candies and cavities and toothaches,” said eight-year-old Meg Wood to Tallahassee Democrat reporter Kathleen Laufenberg.

The organizers of the Halloween donation drive, from left Kelly Collette, Hamilton Gilberg, Matthew Cooper and Rebecca Nelson. Photograph by Phil Cole, Tallahassee Democrat. Reproduced with permission from the editorial staff of the Tallahassee Democrat.

The youthful organizers of the Halloween donation drive, from left Kelly Collette, Hamilton Gilberg, Matthew Cooper and Rebecca Nelson, October 26, 1989. Photograph by Phil Coale/Tallahassee Democrat. Reproduced with permission from the editorial staff of the Tallahassee Democrat.

Nineteen third-graders strong, the trick-or-treating for disaster relief campaign got underway. After registering with the Red Cross, the kids in Miss Hartman’s class made collections bags, drew posters and wrote letters to other students, asking them to join in on the Halloween fundraiser. Impressed by her students’ initiative, Hartman said that organizing the natural disaster relief drive was a “great learning experience,” exposing budding minds to the ins and outs of social action.

Although it is unclear just how much money the students raised for the Red Cross, they did not go hungry after all.

On Halloween morning, a gaggle of costume-clad kids arrived in their classroom to prepare for a big night of fundraising. The story had already attracted the attention of a few local media outlets and the now-defunct Florida News Service came by the school to interview the students about their initiative. After the Florida News Service folded in 1991, the State Archives of Florida acquired a collection of 222 master story tapes, including colorful coverage of this harrowing Halloween story. In the middle of the segment, surprise visitor Raleigh Mackoul, president of the state tobacco and candy association, walked through the door with several pounds of sweet treats.

Mackoul said that after hearing about the plan from a Tallahassee lobbyist, he “thought that it was pretty good that the kids would give up going around to collect their Halloween treats to go collect money for the disaster victims….I didn’t think they ought to go through Halloween without candy.”

Want to help with this year’s natural disaster relief efforts?

Visit Volunteer Florida’s website for a comprehensive list of agencies in need of donations. Volunteer Florida, in partnership with the Division of Emergency Management, is the state’s lead agency for volunteers and donations before, during and after disasters.

Naturally Spooky

How might a nature-loving Floridian celebrate Halloween?  With a naturally spooky visit to Dead Lakes Recreation Area, of course!

https://www.floridamemory.com/items/show/44455

Dead Lakes, 1955.

Located slightly northwest of Wewahitchka and straddling the Calhoun-Gulf County line is Dead Lakes–a 6,700-acre body of water composed of swampland, lakes, the Chipola River and pristine wilderness. This unique environment was formed long ago when the Apalachicola River shaped a sandbar that partially impeded flow from the mouth of the Chipola River and flooded 12,000 acres of river swamp. The overflow killed thousands of trees and left behind an eerie stretch of cypress stumps amidst serene tannic waters, giving the area its creepy character and name. But don’t let the name fool you. Dead Lakes is quite biodiverse and has hosted a variety of Florida’s commercial industries over the years. The area was once utilized as a fish hatchery by the Game Commission; a harvest zone for turpentine, cedar shake and moss; and an apiary for tupelo honey–which is still a big business throughout the river valley.

https://www.floridamemory.com/items/show/67091

Fishermen at Dead Lakes, 1947.

In addition to its commercial appeal, Dead Lakes holds a long tradition of catering to nature lovers and pleasure seekers alike. In the late 1890s, vacationers traveled by steamer down the Apalachicola River then disembarked at the now unincorporated ghost town of Iola to journey by carriage to Dead Lakes.

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Detail of Iola and Dead Lakes from Rand McNally’s Florida, 1892.

The State Library’s Florida Collection holds a pamphlet called In Paradise which promotes all the amenities for steamer trips to Dead Lakes accompanied by lodging at the Lake View Hotel.

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Cover of the pamphlet In Paradise by J.T. Gilbert, 1892. State Library of Florida, Florida Collection.

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Page one of In Paradise by J.T. Gilbert, 1892. State Library of Florida, Florida Collection.

Travelers could begin their voyage in Columbus, Georgia, and journey down the Chattahoochee River while stopping in various towns in Georgia and Alabama. As the Chattahoochee and Flint rivers converged, steamers would continue down the Apalachicola River into Florida. Notable Florida destinations along the route included Neal’s Landing, Chattahoochee, Ochesee, Blountstown, Bristol and Rico’s Bluff. In addition to bountiful fishing, pine forests and orange groves, visitors were enticed by area attractions such as Florida syrup making, a duo of oaks that presided over several acres of land and the state asylum.

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Pages two and three of In Paradise by J.T. Gilbert, 1892. State Library of Florida, Florida Collection.

In Iola, passengers would disembark and proceed one and half miles on horseback to the hotel. Once at the Lake View, all needs were furnished–including ammunition and tobacco–at the lowest market prices. A two-week stay at the modest resort also included a trip to Apalachicola Bay. From the bay, tourists could view international ships, oyster and fish packing houses, and great lumber mills. One could relax, enjoy a variety of natural diversions and still investigate future investments in Florida’s resources.


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Pages four and five of In Paradise by J.T. Gilbert, 1892. State Library of Florida, Florida Collection.

https://www.floridamemory.com/items/show/59185

Dock and lake, Wewahitchka.

In addition to providing an eloquently quaint description of the trip agenda and locales, In Paradise also offers the testimonies of satisfied vacationers from previous excursions. Accounts from a doctor, a Civil War veteran and other ailing tourists afford a glimpse into the turn-of-the-century “cure-all” reputation of Old Florida. Dr. E. D. Pitman of LaGrange noted the cleanliness of the resort and recommended a Dead Lakes vacation to all the invalids he knew:


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Testimony of Dr. E. D. Pitman regarding his stay at Lake Chipola, December 7, 1891. In Paradise, pages 5-6, State Library of Florida, Florida Collection.

https://www.floridamemory.com/items/show/147158

Chipola River from porch, 1880s.

Satisfied sojourner and possible patient of Dr. Pitman, farmer George W. Truitt, remarked that he first journeyed to Dead Lakes for his health but returned for pleasure:

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Testimony of George W. Truitt regarding his stay at Lake Chipola, December 7, 1891. In Paradise, page 6, State Library of Florida, Florida Collection.

Civil War veteran W. W. Turner traveled to the Dead Lakes for relief from lung illnesses he had suffered since his time in the service:

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Testimony of W. W. Turner regarding his stay at Lake Chipola, December 12, 1891. In Paradise, page 8, State Library of Florida, Florida Collection.

https://www.floridamemory.com/items/show/78214

Bass fishing at Dead Lakes, 1960.

Furthermore, tourist A. P. Jones praised the climate and people of Florida in his testimony:

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Testimony of A. P. Jones regarding his stay at the Lake View Hotel, December 18, 1891. In Paradise, page 9, State Library of Florida, Florida Collection.

Like Truitt, Jones and Turner, folks still traverse the Dead Lakes for rejuvenation and merriment.  Whether you enjoy fishing, kayaking or just imagining the steam punk mystique of Florida’s past, their ghostly beauty holds both outdoor adventure and creepy curiosity for any daring explorer. This Halloween, if haunted houses and costume parties aren’t your thing, perhaps a trip to the mysterious Dead Lakes will quell both your nature-loving side and your desire for some uncanny fun.

A Koreshan Unity Halloween

There are many fun activities associated with Halloween–dressing in costumes, trick-or-treating or simply curling up with a spooky movie late at night. Among the many Floridians to celebrate Halloween throughout the years, members of the Koreshan Unity documented their festivities through their manuscripts and photographs, which are now preserved at the State Archives of Florida.

The Witches Halloween Brew and What Came of It, an original play of the Koreshan Unity, performed on Halloween in 1922 in Estero. N2009-3, box 324, folder 15.

In 2012, the Archives accessioned a large collection of papers from the Koreshan Unity, a religious utopian community based in Estero, Florida. Founded by New York physician Cyrus Teed in 1869, the Koreshan Unity maintained active membership into the early 1980s. Containing many subseries comprised of photos, correspondence, sheet music and more, the series also contains a substantial collection of plays, both published and originals written by Koreshan Unity members. This original play from 1922, entitled The Witches Halloween Brew and What Came of It, was written as a pantomime routine depicting a dispute between two witches over a pot of brew.

The Witches Halloween Brew and What Came of It, page 2. An original play of the Koreshan Unity, performed on Halloween in 1922 in Estero. N2009-3, box 324, folder 15.

Among the published plays in the collection is A Hallowe’en Adventure, by Effie Louise Koogle, in which young women encounter ghosts in a haunted seminary.

A Hallowe’en Adventure, by Effie Louise Koogle, published in 1906. N2009-3, box 323, folder 40.

Records as late as 1966 from the Koreshan Unity papers show an enthusiasm for the holiday. Photos taken at the home of Koreshan Unity president Hedwig Michel depict a party featuring guests in homemade costumes.

Portrait of a person in costume at a Koreshan Unity Halloween party, 1966.

People in costume posing at a Koreshan Unity Halloween party, 1966.

Throughout its history, Florida has had a rich tradition of celebrating holidays with music, parades, costumes and foodways. If you have photos memorializing your experiences in Florida of holidays past, consider donating them to the State Archives of Florida.

For more information about series N2009-3, Koreshan Unity papers, check out our eleven-part blog series documenting the accessioning, processing, arrangement and description of these records, including a brief history of the Koreshan Unity. 

The Mariel Boatlift of 1980

Between April and October of 1980, approximately 125,000 Cubans seeking refuge from Fidel Castro’s regime packed into a total of 1,700 boats in Mariel Harbor, Cuba, and journeyed to southern Florida. Twenty-five thousand more Haitians escaping the dictatorship of Jean-Claude Duvalier also arrived during this period. The mass exodus opened a new chapter in America’s long immigration history and permanently altered Florida’s cultural identity.

As the Mariel Boatlift got underway, the media converged on the south Florida points of entry, eager to record history in the making; local Key West photographer Dale McDonald was among them and later donated his images of the boatlift to the State Archives of Florida. McDonald’s photographs illustrate how the Mariel Boatlift unfolded on Florida’s southern shores.

Cuban refugee breaks down after arriving in Key West during the Mariel Boatlift. Photograph by Dale McDonald, 1980.

Cuban refugee breaks down after arriving in Key West during the Mariel Boatlift. Photograph by Dale McDonald, 1980.

Cuba, Florida and Cold War Immigration Policies

Though the sudden influx of Cubans definitively reshaped Florida’s demographic makeup, the exodus of 1980 was preceded by 20 years of steady Cuban immigration to Miami. In 1959, Fidel Castro had led the Cuban Revolution, overthrowing the American-backed dictator Fulgencio Batista and installing a new communist government.

Castro restricted American influence on the island and by the early 1960s had seized American-owned property in Cuba. Two incidents in the early 1960s, the Bay of Pigs Invasion and the Cuban Missile Crisis, further strained tensions between the two nations. Many Cubans, especially the well-heeled and those with ties to Batista, feared they would be targeted by Castro. Thousands fled to the United States. In light of this Cold War reality, President John F. Kennedy approved the Cuban Refugee Assistance Program (CRA) in 1961 to provide health, employment and educational services to Cuban refugees. The Florida Department of Public Welfare oversaw the program until 1974. 

This document was intended for distribution to Cuban refugees to help them understand the assistance available through the CRA, 1963. Click to enlarge and view full record. Click here to view additional resources on the Cuban experience in Florida.

This document was intended for distribution to Cuban refugees to help them understand the assistance available through the CRA, 1963. Click to enlarge and view full record. Click here to view additional resources on the Cuban experience in Florida.

By the late 1970s, over 700,000 refugees had fled Cuba for the United States. Considered political asylum seekers, the majority settled in Dade County, where a distinct Cuban-American enclave emerged in Miami. In 1978, tensions between the United States and Cuba thawed and a series of conferences, known as Dialogos (dialogues), took place between Cuban officials and prominent members of the exile community. The Dialogos resulted in the creation of a travel policy that allowed approximately 100,000 exiles living in the United States to visit Cuba. The relaxation of Cuban-U.S. relations in the late 1970s inadvertently increased pleas from Cubans wishing to leave the island 

The 1980 Cuban Exodus

In March 1980, President Jimmy Carter signed the 1980 Refugee Act which established standardized guidelines for refugee resettlement in the United States. Though the law capped the number of refugees permitted to enter the country through 1982 to 50,000, it did grant the president authority to increase the refugee limit for “humanitarian purposes.” Political unrest brewing in Cuba would soon test that caveat.

In early April 1980, a group of 10,000 Cubans, frustrated with the depressed economic climate of the communist regime, stormed the Peruvian Embassy in Havana and demanded political asylum.

Days later, on April 20, President Castro responded to the outbreak of social dissent. He announced that all Cubans wanting to leave the island could do so, as long as they left from Mariel Harbor, a port 25 miles west of the capital of Havana, and had someone waiting to retrieve them.

Parked cars line N. Roosevelt Street in Key West, Florida, as hundreds of Cuban exiles walk to nearby Garrison Bight Marina with the intention of retrieving family members in Mariel, Cuba. Photograph by Dale McDonald, 1980.

Parked cars line N. Roosevelt Street in Key West as hundreds of Cuban exiles walk to nearby Garrison Bight Marina with the intention of retrieving family members in Mariel, Cuba. Photograph by Dale McDonald, 1980.

Boats sit docked at the Garrison Bight Marina before embarking on the 125 mile journey from Key West, Florida, to Mariel, Cuba. Some private boat owners took financial advantage of the Cuban exile community’s desperation to meet their relatives at Mariel, selling at upwards of $10,000, and charters for not much less. Photograph by Dale McDonald, 1980.

Boats sit docked at the Garrison Bight Marina before embarking on the 125-mile journey from Key West to Mariel, Cuba. Some private boat owners took financial advantage of the Cuban exile community’s desperation to meet their relatives at Mariel, selling rides for upwards of $10,000 and charters for not much less. Photograph by Dale McDonald, 1980.

Within hours of Castro’s decree, the freedom flotilla began. Cuban exiles living in south Florida began making arrangements, such as buying or chartering boats from local private owners, to pick up relatives still living on the island. On April 21, the first boat from Mariel docked in Key West with 48 Marielitos, as this wave of Cuban refugees became known.

By April 25, a reported 300 boats were waiting in Mariel Harbor. While some refugees boarded boats supplied by family members, Cuban officials packed thousands more into old fishing vessels.

Shrimp boat, “El Dorado” arrives in Key West, packed with Cuban refugees from Mariel. Photograph by Dale McDonald, 1980.

The shrimp boat “El Dorado” arrives in Key West packed with Cuban refugees from Mariel. Overcrowded boats were at risk of capsizing and a total of 27 refugees died en route to Florida during the Mariel Boatlift. Photograph by Dale McDonald, 1980.

Haitian “Boat People”

At the same time that the Marielitos began arriving in Florida en masse, thousands of Haitian “boat people” did, too. Beginning in the late 1950s, soon after the totalitarian Duvalier regime took hold, Haiti’s exiled politically-connected and middle-class professionals first began immigrating to south Florida, often by way of airplane. Then, in the 1970s, Haiti’s rural and urban poor also started fleeing the country for Florida via boat, for which they became known as Haitian “boat people.” By 1979, an estimated 10,000-23,000 Haitians resided in south Florida. When Castro announced the opening of the port at Mariel the next year, droves of Haitians would take the opportunity to join the Cuban exodus and immigrate to the United States.     

Florida and the Mariel Boatlift

Already mired in foreign policy controversy with the ongoing Iranian Hostage Crisis, President Carter waited three weeks before authorizing the direct involvement of federal government officials to help with the intake of Marielitos

Private vessels “Foxy Lady” and “Matilde” filled with Cuban refugees from Mariel docked at Pier “B” in Key West. After disembarkation, passengers walked from the pier to the makeshift immigration processing center at the Key West Latin Chamber of Commerce. Photograph by Dale McDonald, 1980.

Private vessels “Foxy Lady” and “Matilde” filled with Cuban refugees from Mariel docked at Pier “B” in Key West. After disembarking, passengers walked from the pier to the makeshift immigration processing center at the Key West Latin Chamber of Commerce. Photograph by Dale McDonald, 1980.

Thus, during the first month of the Cuban exodus, as the federal government weighed the risks of federal involvement in the Cold War controversies surrounding the boatlift, much of the responsibility associated with the unexpected processing, relocating and absorption of Marielitos became the primary charge of Florida’s state and local officials, the extant Cuban-American community and volunteers.

Ports in Key West, Opa-Locka and Miami opened makeshift immigration processing centers to accommodate the flood of Marielitos. As the southernmost point in Florida and shortest distance from Mariel, the small island town of Key West was especially overwhelmed by the wave of nearly 3,000 immigrants that arrived within the first 20 days of the exodus.

Family and friends of Cuban refugees arriving from Mariel wait outside of the Key West Latin Chamber of Commerce of the Lower Keys, located in the old United Services Organization (USO) building at the intersection of Southard and Whitehead Streets. In Key West, approximately 150 local volunteers and medical staff--including physicians from the medical branch of the Cuban Confederation of Professionals in Exile and several nurses from a Cuban nursing home in Hialeah--worked in shifts to operate a 24-hour infirmary and processing center for incoming Marielitos, which provided medical care, food, and clothing. Photograph by Dale McDonald, 1980.

Family and friends of Cuban refugees arriving from Mariel wait outside of the Key West Latin Chamber of Commerce of the Lower Keys, located in the old United Services Organization (USO) building at the intersection of Southard and Whitehead streets. In Key West, approximately 150 local volunteers and medical staff – including physicians from the medical branch of the Cuban Confederation of Professionals in Exile and several nurses from a Cuban nursing home in Hialeah – worked in shifts to operate a 24-hour infirmary and processing center for incoming Marielitos which provided medical care, food and clothing. Photograph by Dale McDonald, 1980.

Bracing for the arrival of thousands more refugees, with no word on aid from the federal government, Florida Governor Bob Graham declared a state of emergency in Monroe and Dade counties on April 28.

According to a U.S. Coast Guard report, 15,761 refugees had arrived in south Florida for processing by early May. These staggering figures made clear to President Carter that the flood of immigrants could not be stemmed, prompting him to take action.

Cuban refugees wait to be processed by U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) agents in a temporary housing center located at an old Naval seaplane hangar at Trumbo Point in Key West. About half of the total Cuban entrants of the 1980 Mariel Boatlift were registered at makeshift immigration processing centers in the south Florida cities of Key West, Opa Locka and Miami.

Refugees wait to be processed by U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) agents in a temporary housing center located at an old naval seaplane hangar at Trumbo Point in Key West. The centers became so clogged with refugees in need of processing that many were forced to live for weeks, and sometimes months, in nearby tent camps while awaiting approval. About half of the total Cuban entrants of the 1980 Mariel Boatlift were registered at makeshift immigration processing centers in the south Florida cities of Key West, Opa-Locka and Miami. Photograph by Dale McDonald, 1980.

Monroe County school bus filled with Marielitos passes Trumbo Point as it heads to Naval Air Station Boca Chica, also in Key West, to await final transfer to at a processing center in Miami.

A Monroe County school bus filled with Marielitos passes Trumbo Point as it heads to Naval Air Station Boca Chica, also in Key West, to await final transfer at a processing center in Miami.

Mariel-era Immigration Policy

On May 6, Carter officially declared a state of emergency in the areas of Florida most “severely affected” by the influx of Cubans and Haitians. He also announced an open-arms policy in response to the boatlift which would “provide an open heart and open arms to refugees seeking freedom from Communist domination.” The next month, on June 20, the Cuban-Haitian Entrant Program was established, whereby Haitians that arrived during the Mariel-era (ending on October 10, 1980) would receive the same temporary status as Cubans and both groups would have access to the same rights as refugees.

Flier circulated on behalf of President Jimmy Carter to Cuban refugees arriving in the United States during the Mariel Boatlift. Translation:

Flier circulated on behalf of President Carter to Cuban refugees arriving in the United States during the Mariel Boatlift. Translation: “To the Cuban refugees: …President Jimmy Carter has opened the arms of our nation, respect the laws and obey the authorities.” Click to enlarge and read full translation.

In light of the open-arms policy, Castro called for the forced deportation of convicted criminals, the mentally ill, homosexuals and prostitutes. In an effort to halt the entry of such individuals, Carter called for a blockade of the flotilla and deployed members of the U.S. Coast Guard to seize incoming boats.

Aerial view of impounded vessels seized by the U.S. Coast Guard during the Mariel Boatlift Blockade. Photograph by Dale McDonald, 1980.

Aerial view of impounded vessels seized by the U.S. Coast Guard during the Mariel Boatlift Blockade. Photograph by Dale McDonald, 1980.

While guards did take possession of at least 1,400 boats, numerous others slipped by and a stream of 100,000 more Cuban and Haitian refugees continued to pour into Florida over the next five months.

Florida Marine Patrol officer monitors the Florida Straits as boats arrive with refugees from the Port of Mariel. After the U.S. Customs Office announced its intention to arrest any private boaters attempting to charge Marielitos for their travel, Florida Marine Patrol officers were sent to ensure that all refugees disembarked at designated locations, not simply dropped ashore.

Florida Marine Patrol officer monitors the Florida Straits as boats arrive with refugees. After the U.S. Customs Office announced its intention to arrest any private boaters attempting to charge Marielitos for their travel, Florida Marine Patrol officers were sent to ensure that all refugees disembarked at designated locations and were not simply dropped ashore.

After the high volume of entrants had inundated the immigration processing centers already set up in south Florida, the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) opened refugee resettlement camps at Eglin Air Force Base in northern Florida; Ft. McCoy in Wisconsin; Ft. Chaffee in Arkansas; and Indiantown Gap in Pennsylvania. These alternative centers ultimately processed and resettled 62,000 new immigrants, but the time-intensive vetting process required refugees to wait at the camps for weeks, sometimes months. 

In Ft. Chaffee, after a group of entrants grew frustrated with their uncertain status in the resettlement camp, a riot broke out in June 1980. Riots also occurred at the Eglin facility and at a federal penitentiary in Atlanta. These incidences bolstered existing rumors that Castro had unleashed Cuba’s criminal and mentally ill populations on the United States. Popular films such as Scarface (1983) helped perpetuate this stereotype. However, academic studies of Marielitos proved these rumors to be exaggerated. In fact, only 4 percent of Marielitos had criminal records, and of these, many had been imprisoned for political reasons. Over 2,000 entrants were jailed or detained upon arriving in Florida during the exodus. Some were deported back to Cuba, but many remained imprisoned for several years after the boatlift ended.

The Mariel Boatlift ended by mutual agreement between the United States and Cuba in October 1980.

In 1984, the Mariel refugees from Cuba obtained permanent legal status under a revision to the Cuban Adjustment Act of 1966. However, this law did not classify Haitian entrants as political refugees;  Haitians were instead considered economic refugees, making them ineligible for the same residency status as Cubans and subject to immediate deportation.

Two years later, under the Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986, all Cuban-Haitian entrants that had immigrated during 1980 were eligible to apply for permanent residency.

The Legacy of the Mariel Boatlift

Between 60,000 and 80,000 “Mariel” Cubans resettled in south Florida. Seventy-one percent of those entrants arriving in 1980 were working-class and black or mixed-race, a departure from the disproportionately white, wealthy and educated wave of Cubans that had immigrated in the prior two decades. Though they faced initial economic and social limitations, one report found that within six years of coming to the United States, most of the 1980 Cuban entrants had found jobs, improved their income levels and carved out a niche in Miami.

The same report, however, found that Haitians who had arrived in south Florida in 1980 had diminished levels of education, English literacy and employment compared with those that had immigrated in the 1960s and 70s. They were further stigmatized as carriers of HIV and generally experienced a harder time finding work and social acceptance. As of 1986, 33 percent of Haitian males and 80 percent of Haitian females living in the Florida were unemployed, though those numbers saw steady improvement in the 1990s.

The massive influx of Cubans in 1980 forever changed Miami’s Cuban community and, in turn, Florida’s, by creating an ethnic immigrant enclave much more representative of the social, economic and racial demographics in Cuba.

Selected Sources:

Briggs, Vernon M., Jr. Mass Immigration and the National Interest: Policy Directions for the New Century. Armonnk, N.Y.: M.E. Sharpe, 2003.
Engstrom, David Wells. Presidential Decision Making Adrift: the Carter Administration and the Mariel Boatlift. Lanham, Md.: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, 1997.
Florida Department of Children and Families. “Cuban, Haitian, and Bosnian Refugees in Florida: Problems and Obstacles in Resettlement,” 1999.
Hawk, Kate Dupes. Florida and the Mariel Boatlift of 1980: the First Twenty Day. Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 2014.
Larzelere, Alex. The 1980 Cuban Boatlift: Castro’s Ploy — America’s Dilemma. Washington D.C.: National Defense University Press, 1988.
McCoy, Clyde and Diana H. Gonzalez. “Cuban Immigration and Immigrants in Florida and the United States: Implications for Immigration Policy.” Bureau of Economic and Business Research, University of Florida, 1985.

Share Your Digital Photos: Hurricane Irma

Hurricanes NamesNow that Irma has passed, it will be remembered alongside Camille, Andrew, and Charley as one of many hurricanes that have shaped Florida’s history. Help the State Archives preserve that history by donating your digital images of preparation, damage, volunteers, shelters, recovery and other effects of this event. To learn more about donations, please see below.

What are the digital photograph specifications?

  • File Format: TIFF, JPEG, RAW
  • Megapixel: Minimum 5MP

Can I donate photographs taken with my phone?

Probably. The camera on your mobile device may produce images of a high enough quality to meet our minimum requirements. Most modern devices, including iPhones (4 and newer), iPads (3 and newer), and many Android devices by Samsung, Motorola and Sony take photographs at a minimum resolution of 5 megapixels. Check your phone’s specifications to verify that it provides the appropriate quality for images.

Will my photos be put on Florida Memory?

It is possible, but not all photographs donated to the State Archives appear on Florida Memory.

How do I donate my digital photographs?

Donors are asked to sign a Deed of Gift (PDF, 2 pages) transferring legal custody of the records to the State Archives and any copyright interests they hold in the records, thus allowing the Archives to make the records fully accessible to the public for historical research. Send all photos, along with the deed of gift, as attachments to the Archives by email at archives@dos.myflorida.com.

Florida’s Funny Bone

From vaudeville to variety shows, Florida has been home to many famous acts over the years. Big name talents such as Jackie Gleason filmed their shows in Florida, but lesser-known comedians, too, have called Florida home. Many examples of Florida’s humor live within the collections at the State Archives of Florida; and with careful evaluation and investigation, Archives staff have uncovered a few snippets.

The Koreshan Unity Papers (N2009-3) contains a subseries of commercial sheet music collected by the Koreshan Unity for use by their band or orchestra for public event performances and as a source of entertainment. This music may have been played during a vaudeville show, a variety entertainment form that was popular in the United States during the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

“Japonica (Danse Du Vaudeville)” sheet music, ca. 1900. State Archives of Florida, Koreshan Unity Papers, Collection N2009-3, Series 8, Box 379, Folder 44.

“Jacobs’ Vaudeville Favorites – No. 1 Medley Overture” sheet music, ca. 1907. State Archives of Florida, Koreshan Unity Papers, Collection N2009-3, Series 8, Box 374, Folder 53.

Some of the most popular styles of humor are parody, slapstick and screwball which often appear on television in variety shows. An example was found in the Miami Beach Auditorium and Convention Hall Event Files (L3), dating from 1960 to 1980. These records document the use of the large Miami Beach facility for a wide range of activities such as sporting events, concerts, television productions and political events. The records include seating charts, memoranda, correspondence, box office statements, contracts, expense accounts, event programs and attendance statistics.

Jackie Gleason developed a popular variety show, “The Jackie Gleason Show,” in New York City, as well as the popular television series “The Honeymooners.” In the 1960s-1970s, the name Jackie Gleason was synonymous with several trademark phrases: “And awaaay we go,” “How sweet it is!” “One of these days … One of these days … POW! Right in the kisser!” and “To the moon, Alice!” In 1964, Jackie moved the entire production of his variety show to Miami, and the shows were taped at the Miami Beach Auditorium from 1964-1970. Complimentary tickets such as these from series L3 were handed out to the awaiting audience prior to the taping of the show.

Jackie Gleason as one of his characters on “The Jackie Gleason Show,” 1950s.

Complimentary tickets to tapings of “The Jackie Gleason Show,” August 20 and October 15, 1966. State Archives of Florida, Miami Beach Auditorium and Convention Hall, Series L3, Box 4.

Political satire can often be seen at a political roast or retirement event in which the guest of honor is subjected to good-natured jokes. Commissioner of Agriculture Doyle Conner’s Miscellaneous Office Activities Files (S1920) includes a video recording of country comedian Jerry Clower giving a farewell message to Doyle Conner on his retirement. The video, titled Hello Doyle,” was recorded on September 10, 1989.

There have been numerous other vaudeville performers, comedians, stand-up comics and entertainers who were born here in Florida, raised here or just decided to make Florida their home. Do you recognize any of these fellow Floridians?

Key West native and African-American actor Lincoln Theodore Monroe Andrew Perry was better known by his stage name Stepin Fetchit. His screen persona is often cited as an example of unfavorable black stereotypes, although his popularity opened the door for many future black actors. In the still above, Perry plays servant Cicero in the 1936 film “Dimples,” with Shirley Temple in the title role. Frank Morgan (left) plays Professor Eustace Appleby.

Lincoln Theodore Monroe Andrew Perry, a.k.a. “Stepin Fetchit,” was a comic character actor and vaudeville artist who was born in Key West and later moved to Tampa. Darrell Hammond, a stand-up comedian and impressionist, was born in Melbourne. Josh Gad, an actor and comedian, was born in Hollywood. Wayne Brady, a comedian and improv performer, lived in Orlando. Scott Thompson, a.k.a. “Carrot Top,” a stand-up and prop comedian, was born in Rockledge and grew up in Coco Beach. Rigdon “Rick” Osmond Dees, an entertainer, radio personality, comedian and voice artist, was born in Jacksonville. Maya Rudolph, an actress and comedian, was born in Gainesville. And actor, comedian and writer Paul Reubens, a.k.a.“Pee-wee Herman,” grew up in Sarasota.

So, does Florida have a funny bone? And does the State Archives have records that would make you smile or chuckle? The answer to both is yes!

Designing Florida

Sunshine. Swampland. Mouse ears. What images come to mind when you think Florida?

In 1985, Governor Bob Graham, in a quest to redesign the state’s license plate, posed this exact question to Floridians. Earlier that year, the Legislature had enlisted professional graphic designers to create a a new tag, but Graham rejected the proposal. Instead, the governor initiated the Florida license plate drawing contest, calling on his constituency to share their ideas for how to best capture the Sunshine State aesthetic.

Florida license plate drawing competition entries ready for evaluation, September 25, 1985. Photograph by Deborah Thomas.

Florida license plate drawing competition entries ready for evaluation, September 25, 1985. Photograph by Deborah Thomas. Since 1905, Florida law has required all registered vehicles to display a license plate.

In an overwhelming display of public participation, the Florida Department of Highway Safety and Motor Vehicles received over 3,500 entries from people of every age, location and talent level. From the environment to tourism, the contest revealed the broad range of interests represented in the state, and especially highlighted the many factors that changed Florida after WWII. The competition also proved the auto tag’s dual purpose as both a vehicle identifier and a powerful marketing tool. As one contestant quipped, the plates acted as “a silent servant” used to “advertise Florida free of charge.”

The State Archives of Florida has since preserved this collection (S1046) of citizen artwork and Florida Memory has recently digitized a small selection. Over 30 years later, the license plate drawings are now a mosaic of how individual Floridians of 1985 visualized their state.

License plate contest entry submitted by Pat Bridges of Pensacola.

License plate contest entry by Pat Bridges of Pensacola. “My family and I have lived in many different places…and Florida is my favorite of all,” Bridges attested in an attached letter. Click to enlarge.

Contest participants tapped into a wide spectrum of Florida-related imagery, but one of the most popular themes was space exploration.

NASA’s opening of Kennedy Space Center on Brevard County’s Merritt Island in 1962 ignited economic and population growth in the surrounding Space Coast. By 1985, NASA officials had launched numerous successful missions from the central Florida cape, including the moon-landing Apollo 11 in 1969 and Columbia, the first shuttle to orbit in space, in 1981. The space program continued to expand into the 1980s. And many Floridians, like Bela Gajdoes of Winter Haven, a community about an hour and half west of the Kennedy Space Center, saw their home state as the epicenter of outer space innovation.

License plate contest entry by Bela Gajdos of Winter Haven, Fl. Click to enlarge.

License plate contest entry by Bela Gajdos of Winter Haven. Click to enlarge.

Whereas some contestants looked to technology for inspiration, many others focused on illustrating Florida’s abundance of plant and animal species.

Perhaps no fruit better represents Florida than a bright waxy orange. Since the 19th century, the citrus industry has remained central to the state’s agricultural economy. The orange has become a common symbol used to market Florida and appeared on several of the plate designs.

License plate contest entry by 11-year-old Kim Frimowtiz. Lawmakers did not officially designate the orange as Florida’s state fruit until 2005. Click to enlarge.

License plate contest entry by 13-year-old Kim Frimowtiz of Pembroke Pines. Lawmakers did not officially designate the orange as Florida’s state fruit until 2005. Click to enlarge.

The sabal palm, Florida’s state tree, also made its way onto hundreds of the tag drawings. “[It is] what I think … best depicts our state to the world,” explained Palm Beach resident W. Stuart Gates, who placed a palm tree silhouette on the center of his tag mock-up.

License plate contest entry submitted by W. Stuart Gates. Click to enlarge.

License plate contest entry by W. Stuart Gates. Click to enlarge.

Though tourists might think only of beaches and palm trees when they imagine Florida’s landscape, natives know all about the dangers lurking just beneath the surface of Florida’s swampland. In a design perhaps too graphic for the interstate, Loman O. Parent of Auburndale, a town near the central Florida Everglades, illustrated this tragic scene of a friend’s encounter with a Florida alligator.

License plate contest entry submitted by Loman O. Parent. It is unclear if Fred made it out of the gator’s belly alive. Click to enlarge.

License plate contest entry by Loman O. Parent. It is unclear if Fred made it out of the gator’s belly alive. Click to enlarge.

The Everglades are critical to Florida’s ecology, and environmentalists of the 1980s were concerned about the negative impact of unchecked draining and pollution on the fragile natural resource. The Florida Audubon Society saw the license tag as an effective means of promoting land conservation. They enlisted a professional graphic artist to design this plate emblazoned with a call to “Save the Everglades.”

License plate contest entry submitted by Florida Audubon Society. Click to enlarge.

License plate contest entry by Florida Audubon Society. Click to enlarge.

But those same development techniques that environmentalists opposed, incidentally helped to shape Florida into a desirable place for out-of-staters to move after WWII. Moreover, a sizeable wave of Caribbean immigrants (majority Cuban) fleeing political instability arrived in Florida between 1960 and 1980, further diversifying the populace. In fact, as of 1980 a reported 69 percent of Floridians had been born outside the state, up from 49 percent in pre-WWII 1930.

These demographic shifts likely inspired contestant Harry Gates of Lake City to scrawl  “U-MEET-SOMEONE FROM SOMEWHERE,” on the bottom of his plate entry.   

License plate contest entry submitted by Harry Gates. Click to enlarge.

License plate contest entry by Harry Gates. Click to enlarge.

Retirees made up a large portion of Florida’s rapidly expanding transplant population in 1985. 75-year-old Richard Allen, who had relocated from New Jersey to Bradenton in the late 1970s, submitted a proposal to change Florida’s nickname to the “Senior State.”

License plate contest entry by Richard Allen. Click to enlarge.

License plate contest entry by Richard Allen. Click to enlarge.

Along with the big increase in new permanent residents after WWII, the opening of Walt Disney World near Orlando in 1971 amplified Florida’s longstanding identity as a major tourist destination. Several proposed license plate designs paid homage to the beloved Mickey Mouse.

License plate contest entry by Frank Ambrose of Cross City, Fl. Click to enlarge.

License plate contest entry by Frank Ambrose of Cross City, Fl. Click to enlarge.

After reviewing thousands of entries, state officials narrowed it down to six possible picks and published pictures of them in the newspapers, soliciting public input on selecting the winner.

The Florida Cabinet initially named this stylized drawing of a blazing Florida sun but rescinded their decision after it sparked backlash for its resemblance to the Japanese flag,  still a contested symbol 40 years after WWII. “It has a white background with a rising sun in the middle of it. All we need now are Japanese characters on the tag and we can send it to Tokyo,” snarked one Orlando resident.

License plate contest entry finalist by art teacher Marion F. Lenon of Ocala. Click to enlarge.

License plate contest entry finalist. Click to enlarge. Note: A note on the back of this plate credits Ocala art teacher Marion F. Lenon as the designer of this plate, but newspaper articles printed this design and credited Hollywood’s Chuck Ax as the artist. It is unclear what the relationship between Lenon and Ax was.

When it came down to choosing a winner of the license plate contest, the Cabinet ultimately chose not to accept any of the contest drawings. In an anticlimactic turn of events, they decided to simply invert the colors of the existing plate and add two orange blossoms. That same tag design is still used today.

However, the Florida Legislature remains aware of Floridians’ many interests and has approved over 100 specialty plates since 1999. 

Rep. Fran Carlton (D-Orlando) lobbying Rep. Dale Patchett (R-Vero Beach) to pass the Space Shuttle Challenger license plate bill. The bill did not pass until 1999, when it became the first of Florida's specialty plates.

Rep. Fran Carlton (D-Orlando) lobbying Rep. Dale Patchett (R-Vero Beach) to pass the Space Shuttle Challenger license plate bill, 1986. The bill did not pass until 1999, when it became the first of Florida’s specialty plates.

Did you participate in the 1985 Florida license plate drawing contest? Share your story in the comments section below.

Selected Sources:

(S1046) 1985 Florida license plate drawings collection. State Archives of Florida.

Baker, Tiffany M. “Discover our Sunshine State. Rediscover Yours.”: The Public’s Participation in Florida Mythmaking in the 20th Century. M.A. thesis: Florida State University, 2008.