The First Known Christmas in Florida

Florida has the unique distinction of being the probable site of the first Christmas celebration ever held in what is now the United States. Archaeological and documentary evidence suggests that Spanish conquistador Hernando de Soto and his expedition of more than 600 soldiers, slaves, craftsmen and adventurers observed the holiday while encamped at the Apalachee town of Anhaica, located where Tallahassee now stands.

Illustration of Hernando de Soto from Justin Winsor, ed., Narrative and Critical History of America, vol. 2 (Boston: Houghton Mifflin and Co., 1886).

Illustration of Hernando de Soto from Justin Winsor, ed., Narrative and Critical History of America, vol. 2 (Boston: Houghton Mifflin and Co., 1886).

Hernando de Soto had already participated in Spanish conquests in Central and South America by 1537, when King Charles V granted him the right to explore and conquer “La Florida.” Previous expeditions by Pánfilo de Narváez and Lucas Vázquez de Ayllón had reached Florida but had failed to establish permanent colonies. De Soto set out from Havana, Cuba on May 18, 1539 with 600 soldiers, 223 horses, nine ships and a host of servants, slaves and other participants. The expedition reached Florida on May 25th. Scholars have debated over where exactly the conquistador and his party landed, but most interpretations suggest they arrived the vicinity of Tampa Bay. De Soto spent the summer and fall of 1539 making his way up the Florida peninsula, searching for precious metals or other resources valuable to Spain and his own coffers. He encountered many native tribes along the way, who–not surprisingly–opposed the expedition’s intrusion into their territory. The natives used cane arrows tipped with fish bones, crab claws and stone points to attack the Spaniards, while de Soto’s army used their own cruel methods to compel the natives’ submission.

Map showing the routes and settlement sites of Spanish explorers during the colonial era, including Hernando de Soto. From the Division of Historical Resources' booklet titled Florida Spanish Colonial Heritage Trail (2009).

Map showing the routes and settlement sites of Spanish explorers during the colonial era, including Hernando de Soto. From the Division of Historical Resources’ booklet titled Florida Spanish Colonial Heritage Trail (2009).

On October 3, 1539, the expedition crossed the Aucilla River–now the boundary between Jefferson and Madison counties in North Florida–and entered the province of Apalachee. Three days later, de Soto reached the principal Apalachee town of Anhaica, located in what is now Tallahassee. With winter fast approaching, de Soto ordered his followers to establish a camp, where they would remain until March 3, 1540. The location of de Soto’s camp was revealed in 1987 when State Archaeologist B. Calvin Jones uncovered artifacts from the expedition’s stay at a construction site just south of U.S. 27, just under a mile from the State Capitol. A small army of archaeologists and volunteers descended on the site, finding several copper coins, an iron crossbow point, nails, links of chain mail, broken Spanish olive jars and perhaps one of the most telling artifacts of all–the jawbone of a pig dating to around the time of de Soto’s expedition. Since de Soto had been the one to introduce the pig to North America, this was almost certainly a sign that he had been there.

Artifacts discovered at the site of Hernando de Soto's 1539-40 winter encampment in what is now Tallahassee (1987).

Artifacts discovered at the site of Hernando de Soto’s 1539-40 winter encampment in what is now Tallahassee (1987).

The dates of de Soto’s stay at Anhaica confirm he spent Christmas there, but how did the expedition celebrate? The documentary evidence is scant, but we can make a few educated guesses based on what we do know. There were, for example, 12 Catholic priests included in the expedition, so it’s likely they held a traditional Catholic mass to mark the occasion. Also, the Apalachee natives had fled Anhaica before the Spaniards arrived, but they left behind immense stores of maize and beans, which de Soto and his followers used for their own sustenance. Did they have a Christmas feast similar to those still held today? Did the menu include the pig whose jawbone was found by Calvin Jones more than 400 years later? It’s quite possible.

An artist's depiction of the first Christmas celebrated in what is now the United States by Hernando de Soto's expedition in 1539.

An artist’s depiction of the first Christmas celebrated in what is now the United States by Hernando de Soto’s expedition in 1539.

While this may have been the first Christmas celebrated in what is now the United States, it was certainly not a time of peace and joy for de Soto, his followers or the Apalachees they displaced. The natives who had evacuated Anhaica ahead of the expedition besieged the intruders, regularly attacking their garrison and hunting parties, and attempting to burn the town down by flinging torches and shooting flaming arrows into it. De Soto responded in kind, using ruthless tactics to bring the Apalachees to heel. The expedition lost 20 members while encamped at Anhaica. The number of Apalachees killed by Spanish attacks, disease or starvation is unknown.

The historic Governor John W. Martin House in Tallahassee (2012).

The historic Governor John W. Martin House in Tallahassee (2012).

Despite the less than festive circumstances surrounding Hernando de Soto’s time in Tallahassee, the winter encampment site was a critical find. Until recently, it was the only place where verifiable physical evidence of the expedition had been found. The property, which includes the former home of Florida’s Governor John W. Martin, has since been purchased by the state and is now headquarters for the Florida Bureau of Archaeological Research.

When Money Grew in Trees

Florida wouldn’t be Florida without its beautiful oak and cypress trees. Moreover, those picturesque trees would look awfully naked without their hanging curtains of Spanish moss blowing gently in the breeze. It’s an image that has been evoked a thousand times or more in art, song, novels and poetry. The moss even has its own legend, which countless tourists have sent home on postcards for friends and loved ones to read:

Postcard with the legend of the Spanish moss (ca. 1950).

Postcard with the legend of the Spanish moss (ca. 1950).

But let’s get a few things straight about Spanish moss, as it is a most peculiar species. For starters, it isn’t Spanish. It’s native to North America as far north as Virginia, so the Spanish can hardly lay claim to it. To be fair, they didn’t actually mean to give their name to the moss; that was the work of their colonial rivals, the French, during the 16th and 17th centuries. French explorers jokingly called the moss “Spanish beard,” while their Spanish counterparts responded in kind by calling it “French hair.” In those days, you clearly had to get your entertainment where you could find it.

A cypress tree draped in Spanish moss at Edward Ball Wakulla Springs State Park (2007).

A cypress tree draped in Spanish moss at Edward Ball Wakulla Springs State Park (2007).

Spanish moss (Tillandsia usneoides) is also not actually a moss. In fact, as a bromeliad it has a closer relationship to the pineapple than it does to other species we would call “moss.” It’s an epiphyte, meaning it grows on other plants but is not parasitic. Contrary to popular belief, Spanish moss will not kill a tree if left unchecked, although it may produce enough shade to stunt its growth.

Picturesque as it may be, Spanish moss has long been known for more than just its good looks. Once its outer bark has been removed and the strong fibers inside have been allowed to dry, the resulting material is surprisingly strong, yet also soft enough to use for cushioning. Native Americans reportedly weaved dried moss into clothing, and early white settlers braided it into ropes and netting. As early as 1773, the roving naturalist William Bartram remarked during his tour of the Southeast that Spanish moss was “particularly adapted to the purpose of stuffing mattresses, chairs, saddles, collars, etc.; and for these purposes, nothing yet known equals it.” It also served as a popular curiosity and souvenir for Northern visitors. Tourists would take boxes of Spanish moss back home and hang it in their own trees, giving them a bit of Florida to enjoy until winter arrived and killed it off.

“The jolly old crowd in Auburndale,” some with Spanish moss adorning their heads (ca. 1920s).

It didn’t take the enterprising people of Florida long to figure out that this natural bounty could be harvested and sold for a profit. As early as 1834, a New Englander visiting Jacksonville commented on the growing moss industry in that area. The poet Sidney Lanier, who visited Florida in the 1870s, noted a similar factory just up the St. Johns River in Tocoi. The Census Bureau listed a moss processing plant at Pensacola in a supplement to the 1880 federal census, and there was a large moss factory at Gainesville as of 1882 as well. These businesses made their money by collecting moss from local forests, curing and ginning it, and then selling it to manufacturers up north, who used the material for cushions and mattresses and other products.

Articles of incorporation for the Florida Moss-Hair Company, based in Gainesville. From Box 192, Folder 612, Domestic Articles of Incorporation (Series S 186), State Archives of Florida.

Articles of incorporation for the Florida Moss-Hair Company, based in Gainesville. From Box 192, Folder 612, Domestic Articles of Incorporation (Series S 186), State Archives of Florida. Click or tap the image to view the entire document.

The moss business had its advantages and disadvantages. The supply was plentiful, and sometimes pecan and citrus grove operators actually paid moss collectors to rid them of the stuff, since it could decrease the trees’ production. Farm laborers often gathered moss during their off-season as a way to make extra money, gathering the material in their local woods and carting it to the nearest processing plant. The moss gatherer’s tool of choice was usually a long wooden pole with a hook or barb on one end, which could be twisted in the moss and pulled to bring it down in large clumps. From this point, however, the work was tough. The gray outer bark of the moss had to be removed to get to the strong fibers within, usually through a curing process. Moss factories sometimes did their own curing; other times they purchased pre-cured moss from their suppliers. Either way, workers would stack the moss in large piles or drop it into large trenches, and then soak the whole lot with water. This would cause the moss to rot and shed its bark. The longer the moss cured, the tougher and cleaner the inner fiber would become. Six months was required to produce the highest grade moss, which would sell at the highest price.

Spanish moss arriving at the Leesburg Moss Yard in a Ford sedan. Moss gathering was one way to earn a little extra cash back in the days when the moss industry was in full swing (photo 1946).

Spanish moss arriving at the Leesburg Moss Yard in a Ford sedan. Moss gathering was one way to earn a little extra cash back in the days when the moss industry was in full swing (photo 1946).

Moss drying on racks after curing (1946).

Moss drying on racks after curing (1946).

Once the gray outer bark of the Spanish moss slipped off easily, workers removed it from its piles or trenches and hung it out on lines to dry in the sun. Rain, wind and friction combined forces to separate the bark from the dark fibers inside. At this stage, the cured moss would either be taken to a gin or sold to another company that would process the material. Cured moss was worth about 4 to 5 cents per pound as of the late 1950s, depending on how well it had been cleaned. The unit value of the finished product is tough to determine, since government figures often combine moss with other upholstery stuffing materials. State agriculture officials in the 1950s, however, estimated the overall value of the Florida moss crop to be about $500,000 per year.

Bales of ginned moss being loaded onto a truck (1928).

Bales of ginned moss being loaded onto a truck (1928).

These days, inner-spring mattresses have replaced moss-stuffed ones, and synthetic materials cushion our furniture and car seats. The moss factories that once hummed with activity from Pensacola to Gainesville to Leesburg and Apopka are no more. That’s not such a bad thing, of course. The silver lining–or gray, if you please–is that now we have more beautiful Spanish moss to enjoy in the trees where nature originally put it!

A Healthful Haunting

Ghosts stories are often spooky by design, but are all ghosts really that scary? Is it possible that some ghosts–if you believe in such things–might prefer to be helpful rather than harrowing? This seems to be the case with Maria Valdez de Gutsens, who is believed to haunt the former Mercedes Hospital at 1209 Virginia Street in Key West.

The former Mercedes Hospital at 1209 Virginia Street in Key West. The building was later converted into residential apartments (photo ca. 1990).

The former Mercedes Hospital at 1209 Virginia Street in Key West. The building was later converted into residential apartments (photo ca. 1990).

Mercedes Hospital, also known as the Casa del Pobre (Home of the Poor), was established in 1911 in the former home of Eduardo Hidalgo Gato, a prominent Cuban-born cigar maker who first established his factory in Key West in 1874. Although Gato was the leading cigar manufacturer in town, he decided in the early years of the 20th century to move back to Cuba and leave the management of the business to his four sons, who were all officers of the company. That left the spacious Gato home open for other uses.

Bust portrait of Eduardo Hidalgo Gato, in the Official Gazette of the U.S. Patent Office - January 9, 1906.

Bust portrait of Eduardo Hidalgo Gato, in the Official Gazette of the U.S. Patent Office – January 9, 1906.

Meanwhile, a group of philanthropic Key West citizens of Cuban descent called the Beneficencia Cubana  hatched an idea to establish a hospital for residents who could not afford treatment at the city’s other medical facilities. The committee prevailed upon Eduardo Gato to lease his former home to the new institution for free. To honor the Gato family for their generosity, the new hospital was named for Mr. Gato’s wife, Mercedes.

Dr. Joseph N. Fogarty, mayor of Key West and a prominent local physician, donated money, instruments and equipment to the new hospital, but it was Maria Valdez de Gutsens who really ran the show. “Mother” Gutsens, as she was called, administered the hospital for 30 years from its opening until nearly the time of her death in 1941. She dedicated her life to nursing patients in the 30-bed facility, as well as finding money to keep the doors open. According to newspaper reports, Mrs. Gutsens would go around daily to the business houses of Key West and collect dimes and quarters to supplement the meager donations Mercedes Hospital received from the city and Monroe County. In 1934, Cuban president Carlos Mendieta awarded her the medal of Carlos Manuel de Cespedes, Cuba’s highest honor at the time.

Mother Gutsens’ own health began to fail in 1941, forcing her to retire from her nursing and administrative duties at Mercedes Hospital. She was able, however, to participate in ceremonies marking the 30th anniversary of the facility’s establishment. “It was been much trouble,” she admitted, “and many, many tears.” Later that same year, Maria Valdez de Gutsens died at her Catherine Street home and was interred in the Key West Cemetery. The hospital, now without the greatest source of its former vitality, was soon closed, and the Gato house was converted into residential apartments.

Mercedes Hospital might be no more, but some residents say its former matron, Mother Gutsens, still occasionally attempts to apply her healing and caring touch to those who need it. Even before the hospital was closed after her death, there were signs to suggest that she was still at work in the building. A couple of months after Gutsens’ death, for example, a man checked into Mercedes Hospital with a serious case of pneumonia. Convinced he was about to die, he asked the nurse who came to check on him in the middle of the night to help him write a letter to his family expressing his love. According to the man’s testimony, the nurse stayed for about an hour as he dictated the letter, which she wrote down, placed in an envelope and placed on the window sill. She then stayed with the ailing man as he gradually fell asleep. The next day, the man asked to see the night nurse so he could thank her for her help. The nurse on duty that morning replied with confusion that she had been the only staff member in the hospital the night before. When the man described the person who had written his letter, the nurse noted that it sounded a lot like the Mother Gutsens who had worked at the hospital for years, but that she had passed away. Her confusion turned to shock, however, when the man pointed out the letter the night nurse had written the might before… and the handwriting was clearly that of Maria Valdez de Gutsens!

More recently, residents of the old Gato house have seen someone fitting Maria’s description visiting their rooms, especially when they were feeling unwell. In most of these cases, the apparition would either appear to be feeling the person’s forehead for a temperature or checking their wrist for a pulse. A few folks claim to have spoken to the ghost–one woman says she told Maria that although she appreciated what she was doing, it still frightened her. The dutiful nurse responded by stepping away from the woman’s bed, smiling and fading away from view.

The Gato House still stands in Key West and is a favorite stopping place for ghost tours. And what does Mother Maria Valdez de Gutsens think of her fame? The only way to know for sure would be to visit and see if she’ll appear and tell you herself.

Gato House apartments, formerly the Mercedes Hospital in Key West (1988).

Gato House apartments, formerly the Mercedes Hospital in Key West (1988).

Dying to read more ghost stories from the Key West area? We recommend David L. Sloan’s Ghosts of Key West, published by Phantom Press.

 

 

The Legend of Spook Hill

The weather is getting cooler (finally), and it’s almost time for Halloween–that special day for thinking about all that’s creepy, crawly, scary and mysterious. We think it’s the perfect time to take a look at a curious tourist attraction in Central Florida that doubles as one of the state’s most unusual (super?)natural phenomena, Spook Hill.

Sign advertising Spook Hill in Lake Wales (1953).

Sign advertising Spook Hill in Lake Wales (1953).

Spook Hill is located on 5th Street in Lake Wales, a city in Polk County. For years, signs have invited motorists to stop their car at a white line on what appears to be the bottom of a hill, put their car into neutral, and watch with terror as their car appears to creep its way back up the hill, as if moved by some unseen force.

Ask most folks who study such phenomena and they’ll tell you it’s all an optical illusion, that the unique pattern of changes in elevation along 5th Street plays a trick on your eyes, making it seem as though you’re at the bottom of a hill when you’re actually at the top. But is this really what’s happening?

Many locals have offered much creepier explanations over the years. A popular restaurant in Lake Wales called Barney’s Tavern, for example, was kind enough to publish a leaflet in the 1950s explaining the “real” story behind Spook Hill. According to this legend, it all began when a Spanish pirate named Captain Gimme Sarsparilla decided to hang up his cutlass and retire to Lake Wales. He was joined by fellow pirate Teniente Vanilla, whose surname was an acronym for a much larger mouthful of a name–Vincento Alfredo Nieto Isidoro Lima Llano Alvarez. We’ll stick with “Teniente Vanilla” for the sake of brevity.

Postcard showing a photograph of Barney's Tavern, a popular restaurant in Lake Wales (ca. 1950).

Postcard showing a photograph of Barney’s Tavern, a popular restaurant in Lake Wales (ca. 1950).

According to the good folks at Barney’s, when Vanilla died he was buried at the foot of Spook Hill. Captain Sarsparilla, for whatever reason, ended up nearby at the bottom of the lake for which Lake Wales is named. All was well for a couple of centuries, but then one day in the early years of the automobile age a man decided to park his car right at the bottom of Spook Hill and go fishing. The car–which the crew at Barney’s estimated to be approximately the weight of 16 men–was parked directly over the grave of the long-forgotten Teniente Vanilla. And you know what they say about pirates and 16 men on a dead man’s chest. This was bound not to end well.

Vanilla, his rest now disturbed, was said to have called out to his old friend Captain Sarsparilla, who emerged from his watery tomb in Lake Wales and pushed the unlucky fisherman’s car up the hill and off of the dead pirate’s chest. And–legend says–that’s what will happen to your car as well if you dare to stop at the bottom of Spook Hill as that fisherman once did.

Leaflet describing Spook Hill, sponsored by Barney's Tavern in Lake Wales (1954).

Leaflet describing Spook Hill, sponsored by Barney’s Tavern in Lake Wales (1954).

Now that’s not the only explanation that has been put forward to explain this chilling peculiarity. At some point local tourism promoters put forward a completely different legend involving a struggle between a Native American chieftain and a particularly bothersome alligator. Someone else proposed a theory involving an underground lode acting as a magnet that draws automobiles up the hill.

The makers of this sign at Spook Hill in Lake Wales seem to have some doubts about the legend of Sarsparilla and Vanilla (ca. 1950).

The makers of this sign at Spook Hill in Lake Wales seem to have some doubts about the legend of Sarsparilla and Vanilla (ca. 1950).

So what’s the real story behind Spook Hill? We’ll leave it for you to visit Lake Wales someday and decide for yourself… if you dare!

Miami’s Master Suburb

Coral Gables started out as a family plantation with acres of grapefruit and avocado trees. By 1930, however, it had become a buzzing metropolis on the edge of Miami, with a flourish of Old World flair in its distinctive Mediterranean Revival architecture. Like most of the planned communities that emerged in Florida during the great boom of the 1920s, Coral Gables grew out of a vision–in this case one belonging to a young developer named George Merrick.

George Edgar Merrick, developer of Coral Gables (1926).

George Edgar Merrick, developer of Coral Gables (1926).

George Merrick arrived in Miami with his family in 1899. His father, Solomon Merrick, had been a minister in Duxbury, Massachusetts, but on the advice of a colleague in Coconut Grove he decided to move his family to Florida to try their hand at growing citrus on a 160-acre plot. Mrs. Merrick had wanted to name the plantation “Among the Pines,” but her husband preferred “Coral Gables,” a combined homage to both the local coral rock and the Massachusetts home of one of Solomon Merrick’s political idols, Grover Cleveland, which was called “Gray Gables.” The family decided to stick with the name Coral Gables Plantation, and soon it was being used in advertisements and signs.

The original Merrick homestead, named

The original Merrick homestead, named “Coral Gables” after “Gray Gables,” the Massachusetts home of Solomon Merrick’s political idol Grover Cleveland. The “coral” part of the name stems from the local coral rock used as a building material (1926).

Solomon Merrick died in 1911, leaving 25-year-old George as head of the family and manager of the Coral Gables property. Under the young man’s management the plantation grew to 1,200 acres and employed more than 40 workers, but George believed Coral Gables could be something more. Real estate in Miami and Coconut Grove was booming, with rapid new construction along Miami Beach and in suburbs along the outer edges of town. George was deeply interested in getting involved with the lucrative business of real estate development, and in 1912 he partnered with his brother-in-law to start a real estate firm. The following year the fledgling business combined with the Realty Securities Corporation, making Merrick president of the largest real estate and development company in Dade County.

An example of one of the many booklets being developed by Miami real estate developers in the 1910s and 1920s to entice northern buyers. This one was published by the Tatum Brothers Company to advertise their beachfront development north of Miami. Florida Collection, State Library (1918).

An example of one of the many booklets developed by Miami real estate developers in the 1910s and 1920s to entice northern buyers. This one was published by the Tatum Brothers Company to advertise their beachfront development north of Miami. Florida Collection, State Library (1918).

When George announced in 1918 that he planned to turn his family’s Coral Gables Plantation into a self-sufficient suburban village, many thought he had lost his mind. Even with Miami’s intense expansion, Coral Gables was still considered to be too far out of town, near if not in the Everglades. There were also other developments vying for the attention of home-seekers and real estate developers, namely Hollywood by the Sea, Hialeah and Biscayne Park. How would Coral Gables compete?

Busloads of potential home buyers make their way through the new suburban development at Hialeah (1921).

Busloads of potential home buyers make their way through the new suburban development at Hialeah (1921).

George Merrick remained confident that his idea would work if the quality of the product was exceptional and his advertising and marketing hit their marks. His aesthetic vision for Coral Gables drew heavily on his experiences traveling in the Bahamas and Cuba, as well as his affinity for Washington Irving’s Tales of the Alhambra, which had provided him with richly illustrated vistas of faraway Spain.  Of course, Merrick wasn’t the only developer smitten with the Old World at that time; Addison Mizner’s Spanish-style buildings in Palm Beach also influenced the young developer’s vision for Coral Gables.

“Amado,” the home of Charles Munn in Palm Beach. Designed by architect Addison Mizner, the house reflected the Mediterranean Revival style that influenced George Merrick’s plans for Coral Gables (photo circa 1919).

Merrick began hiring architects and engineers to work out the details for the new community, and the first concept drawings appeared in February 1920. To determine the names for the streets, he opened up his copy of Irving’s Tales of the Alhambra and selected Spanish place names like Asturia, Castille, Alcazar and Aragon. He bought the Mackinac Building at 158 E. Flagler Street in Miami from John Burdine to serve as the headquarters for the Coral Gables sales and development team.

Map of Coral Gables, including additions to the original planned community site (1934). Click or tap the map to view a larger, zoomable version of it.

Map of Coral Gables, including additions to the original planned community site (1934). Click or tap the map to view a larger, zoomable version of it.

Merrick and his associates began auctioning off lots in the new Coral Gables subdivision on November 28, 1921. Signs urging potential buyers to “follow the Golden Galleon” were posted all along Flagler Street in Miami to lead them toward the site, and costumed Spanish caballeros helped direct traffic to the original entrance to the development via Granada Boulevard.

Golden galleon promotional signage for Coral Gables (1921).

Golden galleon promotional signage for Coral Gables (1921).

The public response was overwhelmingly positive; over 5,000 people crowded into the unfinished subdivision to participate in the auction. Dr. Edward E. “Doc” Dammers, who Merrick had hired to be the main auctioneer and consultant for the venture, addressed the crowd from the back of a mule-drawn wagon. As each lot was sold, Dammers sent his partner off with the buyer to finish up the paperwork while he and the wagon moved on to the next lot to repeat the process. The purchasing terms were fairly simple–buyers chose a lot and a building plan, with prices starting at $5,785. If the buyer put down $500, he could finance the rest at $60 per month. In six days’ time, Merrick’s team had sold 300 lots for more than half a million dollars. George was so delighted with the results that he decided to pledge $10,000 for a public library and $100,000 for a college. This, of course, ultimately became the University of Miami.

Dr. Edward E.

Dr. Edward E. “Doc” Dammers auctioning off lots in Coral Gables from his mule-drawn wagon (1921).

The dramatic Granada Boulevard entrance to Coral Gables, with a tour bus entering through the main archway. This gate was designed by George Merrick's uncle, Denman Fink, and landscape architect Frank Button. It was completed in 1922 (photo also circa 1922).

The dramatic Granada Boulevard entrance to Coral Gables, with a tour bus entering through the main archway. This gate was designed by George Merrick’s uncle, Denman Fink, and landscape architect Frank Button. It was completed in 1922 (photo also circa 1922).

Once it was properly launched, Coral Gables continued to grow at a rapid pace. George Merrick and his associates had to establish their own tile and concrete block factories to keep up the necessary supply of building materials. By 1924, the settlement had its own volunteer fire department, woman’s club, Boy Scout troop and grammar school. The next year, Coral Gables was incorporated as a town, and Doc Dammers became its first mayor. The year after that, on February 4, 1926, the cornerstone was laid for the first building of what would become the University of Miami.

Baldwin residence at 2604 De Soto Boulevard in Coral Gables (1925).

Baldwin residence at 2604 De Soto Boulevard in Coral Gables (1925).

The Venetian Pool, also called the Venetian Casino, a striking feature of the original Coral Gables development. It was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1981 (photo circa 1925).

The Venetian Pool, also called the Venetian Casino, a striking feature of the original Coral Gables development. It was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1981 (photo circa 1925).

Crowd assembled for the laying of the cornerstone of the University of Miami's first building--the Merrick Building (1926).

Crowd assembled for the laying of the cornerstone of the University of Miami’s first building–the Merrick Building (1926).

The stage was set for a bright future. Even the collapse of the Florida Boom in the late 1920s failed to completely arrest the growth of Coral Gables. Today, the community continues as home to the University of Miami, as well as a center of international commerce. Numerous foreign consulates are located there, as are the corporate headquarters of Bacardi, Fresh Del Monte Produce and Capital Bank Financial.

Aerial view looking east over a section of Coral Gables (circa 1996).

Aerial view looking east over a section of Coral Gables (circa 1996).

The State Archives of Florida holds an extensive collection of photographs belonging to photographer William A. Fishbaugh, who George Merrick hired to help promote Coral Gables and other real estate developments in the Miami area. Browse the William Fishbaugh Collection on Florida Memory to find more historic images of the region during and after the Florida Boom.

Photographer William A. Fishbaugh in Dade County (1920s).

Photographer William A. Fishbaugh in Dade County (1920s).

For a more extensive treatment of George Merrick and the development of Coral Gables, we also recommend Arvah Parks’ recent book, George Merrick, Son of the South Wind: Visionary Creator of Coral Gables, published in 2015 by the University Press of Florida.

 

Dance Cards in the Archives

Has someone ever asked you to save some room on your dance card for them, or declined an invitation because their dance card was too full? These days, a person’s “dance card” is almost always a metaphor for their schedule, but in the 19th and early 20th centuries the meaning was much more literal. Formal dances were a popular form of entertainment in those days, and dance cards were an essential part of the etiquette that went along with them.

Dance card for an event given in honor of Miss Covington, Miss Ellis, and Messers Ellis in Tallahassee, 1926. From Box 2, Folder 14, Meginnis Family Papers (Collection N2015-3), State Archives of Florida.

Dance card for an event given in honor of Miss Covington, Miss Ellis, and Messers Ellis in Tallahassee, 1926, in Box 2, Folder 14, Meginnis Family Papers (Collection N2015-3), State Archives of Florida.

The concept was fairly simple. Women–and in some cases men as well–used dance cards to keep track of who they had promised to dance with throughout the evening. This was necessary for a couple of reasons. First, while today’s sound systems can play for hours on end without complaint, the music at 19th and early 20th century parties came from live musicians who needed a break now and then. As a result, there was usually only a specific number of musical selections planned for dancing. If you really wanted to dance with someone, you had to make sure you were on their schedule!

Dance cards also allowed a party-goer to be strategic in asking for a dance partner. At a formal event, each musical number was designed for a specific kind of dance, and the dancers were expected to not just have good rhythm, but also know the proper dance moves. If you didn’t know how to waltz, for example, you certainly wouldn’t want to sign up to dance a waltz with a partner you were looking to impress. You might sign up for a reel or a two-step instead, if those were your stronger dances. Dance cards helped by including the form of each dance next to its number on the inside of the card.

Inside of a dance card from a dance in Tallahassee in 1926. From Box 2, Folder 14, Meginnis Family Papers (Collection N2015-3), State Archives of Florida.

Inside of a dance card from a dance in Tallahassee in 1926, in Box 2, Folder 14, Meginnis Family Papers (Collection N2015-3), State Archives of Florida.

The cards could be simple, or they could be very ornate, depending on the occasion. A Valentine’s Day dance might feature cards in the shape of a red heart, while dances given in a particular person’s honor might have cards with the person’s monogram. Tiny pencils for filling in the cards were a common feature, usually attached to the cards with a loop of string or ribbon. Sometimes a lady would also use this to attach the card to her wrist.

Dance cards typically came with a few unwritten rules of etiquette, many of which would seem out of step with the times in today’s world. When it came to making dancing engagements, for example, men were supposed to take the lead. Ladies were supposed to wait to be asked. A lady could turn a gentleman’s invitation down, even if the spot was open on her dance card, but if she did it was generally considered impolite for her to accept another man’s proposal to dance that same number. It was also considered improper for a lady to dance every dance at a ball or party.

Panhellenic dance at the Florida State College for Women in Tallahassee (ca. 1935).

Panhellenic dance at the Florida State College for Women in Tallahassee (ca. 1935).

Dance cards still make an appearance now and then at formal occasions, but for the most part they’ve been relegated to scrapbooks and boxes of memorabilia from years gone by. Here at the State Archives, we often see dance cards included in collections of family papers. They’re a unique kind of source–both a snapshot of a particular occasion and a tool for exploring the social lives of Floridians in a very different era.

 

Dance card for Theta Ribbon Society Initiation Ball, 1923, in Box 8, Folder 2 of the Lively and Wesson Family Papers (Collection N2014-14), State Archives of Florida.

Dance card for Theta Ribbon Society Initiation Ball, 1923, in Box 8, Folder 2 of the Lively and Wesson Family Papers (Collection N2014-14), State Archives of Florida.

What are some of your favorite dancing memories? Leave us a comment, and don’t forget to share this blog with your friends and family so they too can take a quick dance down memory lane!

 

Rejoining the Union

It was May 10, 1865. The Civil War was over; General Robert E. Lee had surrendered his army at Appomattox Court House in Virginia the previous month. Telegraph lines were down all over the South, and many Floridians didn’t trust what they were hearing about the defeat of the Confederate Army. The ones in Tallahassee had little choice but to believe, however, when Brigadier General Edward Moody McCook came to town that day to accept the surrender of the remaining Confederate troops in Florida.

Governor John Milton, who had led Florida through much of the war, was dead. His successor, State Senate President Abraham K. Allison of Gadsden County, was now in charge, but what would happen to Florida now? Duly elected representatives of the people had signed an ordinance of secession in 1861 declaring the state a “Sovereign and Independent Nation.” Would Florida automatically become a part of the United States again? And if not, on what terms could it rejoin?

Ordinance of Secession, signed January 10, 1861 by 62 of the 69 delegates who attended a convention in Tallahassee to determine whether Florida would secede following the election of Abraham Lincoln (Series S972, State Archives of Florida). Click the image to enlarge it and see a full transcript.

Ordinance of Secession, signed January 10, 1861, by 62 of the 69 delegates who attended a convention in Tallahassee to determine whether Florida would secede following the election of Abraham Lincoln (Series S972, State Archives of Florida). Click the image to enlarge it and see a full transcript.

Unfortunately, the United States government was a little unsure about this issue as well. President Abraham Lincoln had viewed Reconstruction after the war as something the executive branch would handle. The way he saw it, the Confederate states had never really left the Union in the first place; they were just temporarily in the hands of disloyal rebels. Once loyal governments were back in control, the states would effectively be back in the United States. Lincoln devised what he called the Ten Percent Plan to establish a process for making this happen. To rejoin the United States, a state would need 10 percent of its electorate (as of 1860) to take an oath of allegiance and for the state government to form a new constitution that:

  1. Abolished slavery.
  2. Repudiated any debts the state had incurred during the war.
  3. Repealed the state’s ordinance of secession.

Lincoln’s plan never got very far–John Wilkes Booth assassinated the president before any state had met the requirements for readmission. That left Lincoln’s vice-president, Andrew Johnson, in charge. Johnson, himself a Southerner, favored his predecessor’s approach, but he faced serious opposition in Congress to such a lenient set of readmission requirements.

Governor Abraham Kurkindolle Allison (ca. 1860).

Governor Abraham Kurkindolle Allison (ca. 1860).

Meanwhile in Florida, Governor Abraham K. Allison wanted to take advantage of Johnson’s sentiments and normalize relations between his government and the U.S. as quickly as possible. Without consulting General McCook, he commissioned five representatives–David Levy Yulee, John Wayles Baker, Edward Curry Love, Mariano D. Papy, and James Lawrence George Baker–to confer with the president about readmission. Allison also summoned the state Legislature to convene on June 5, 1865, and set June 7 as the date for electing a new governor.

Letterbook Copy of David Levy Yulee's Commission from Governor Abraham K. Allison to Confer with President Andrew Johnson - May 12, 1865. Governors' Letterbooks (Series S32), State Archives of Florida. Click or tap the image to view the complete document and transcript.

Letterbook Copy of David Levy Yulee’s commission from Governor Abraham K. Allison to Confer with President Andrew Johnson – May 12, 1865. Governors’ Letterbooks (Series S32), State Archives of Florida. Click or tap the image to view the complete document and transcript.

Governor Allison’s actions shocked Florida’s Unionists, who had figured they would be closely involved in rebuilding the state’s relationship with Washington. General McCook was caught off guard as well, so he asked his superiors for instructions. As much as President Johnson had hoped to readmit the former Confederate states quickly, Allison’s actions went too far too fast. McCook received orders not to recognize any local or state government. The general placed the entire state under martial law on May 22, and Governor Allison was arrested and jailed, along with a number of other top state officials.

General Edward Moody McCook, who arrived in Tallahassee on May 10, 1865 to receive the surrender of Confederate troops in Florida.

General Edward Moody McCook, who arrived in Tallahassee on May 10, 1865, to receive the surrender of Confederate troops in Florida.

President Johnson appointed William Marvin of Key West as provisional governor on July 23, 1865. Marvin was given authority to handle civil affairs, but the state remained under martial law. He called an election for October 10, 1865, to choose delegates for a constitutional convention at Tallahassee, which was to begin later that month. Although a considerable faction of the Republican Party in Congress had made it clear they wanted African-Americans to be able to vote in these elections, President Johnson didn’t make the idea more than a suggestion in his instructions to the states, and Florida did not permit its black citizens to vote. As a result, the convention was made up of most of the same people who had been in charge before the war, and their ideas about the place of African-Americans in society had not changed.

The framers of Florida’s new constitution accepted the 13th Amendment ending slavery, repudiated Florida’s war debt and agreed to annul the ordinance of secession. They did not, however, grant African-Americans the right to vote. Moreover, the new legislature established a series of laws–called Black Codes–relating specifically to the behavior of African-Americans. They were similar to the slave codes that had been in force through the end of the war. This pattern was repeated across all of the former Confederate states, which gave Northerners the impression that the South meant to retain as much of slavery as they could.

Florida's 1865 Constitution (Series S58, State Archives of Florida). Click or tap the image to view the complete document with transcript.

Florida’s 1865 Constitution (Series S58, State Archives of Florida). Click or tap the image to view the complete document with transcript.

Congress reacted to these developments in two ways. First, the sitting members refused to seat newly elected delegates from the former Confederate states. Article I, Section 5 of the Constitution grants each house of Congress the power to judge the qualifications of its own members, which made this action possible. Congress also passed a civil rights bill establishing African-Americans as citizens and placing certain rights under the protection of the federal government, essentially invalidating the Black Codes. President Johnson vetoed the bill, but Congress overrode his veto. When some lawmakers questioned the constitutionality of the new law, Congress reinforced it by drafting the 14th Amendment, which would make many of the same principles part of the Constitution itself.

Of the Southern states, only Tennessee ratified the 14th Amendment. This further demonstrated to Northerners that the former Confederate states would have to be compelled to accept the new political rights they envisioned for African-Americans. The 1866 election resulted in a Congress with all the necessary votes to override a presidential veto on this subject, so lawmakers took control of the process the following spring. On March 2, 1867, Congress passed the Reconstruction Act over President Johnson’s veto. The act reestablished martial law in every former Confederate state except for Tennessee. It also declared their governments “provisional” and set up a new process for readmitting them to the Union. To qualify, a state would have to:

  1. Register all of its eligible voters, meaning all males 21 years of age and older, without regard to race or color.
  2. Hold elections for delegates to a constitutional convention.
  3. Frame a new state constitution guaranteeing males 21 years and older the right to vote without regard to race or color.
  4. Ratify the 14th Amendment.

Florida began registering voters according to the new rules in August 1867. Ossian Bingley Hart of Jacksonville, who would later become governor, was appointed to supervise the registration process. Many former Confederates chose not to register, even if they were qualified, perhaps out of a feeling of futility or sympathy for friends who were disqualified from registering because of their involvement with the Confederate government. At any rate, Hart’s registration drive resulted in 11,148 white voters and 14,434 black voters, who went to the polls without incident in November 1867 to select delegates for a constitutional convention.

Excerpt from the 1867-68 Voter Registration Rolls completed in compliance with the Reconstruction Act of 1867. Rolls for 19 Florida counties survive, and are searchable on Florida Memory. Click or tap the image to view the collection (Series S98, State Archives of Florida).

Excerpt from the 1867-68 voter registration rolls completed in compliance with the Reconstruction Act of 1867. Rolls for 19 Florida counties survive and are searchable on Florida Memory. Click or tap the image to view the collection (Series S98, State Archives of Florida).

Republicans had the majority this time around, but they were divided into factions, which resulted in a colorful series of events at the convention in 1868. They did manage to produce a constitution, however, and an election was held to choose a new slate of state officers. Harrison Reed, a Wisconsin native who had come to Florida on a federal appointment during the war, was elected governor. He was inaugurated on June 8, 1868, and the Legislature ratified the 14th Amendment the following day. On July 2, Governor Reed wrote the following note to John T. Sprague, the colonel supervising Florida’s second Union occupation, announcing that Florida had met the requirements for readmission to the Union:

Letter from Governor Harrison Reed to Colonel John T. Sprague announcing that Florida had met the requirements for Florida to be readmitted to the Union. Box 4, Folder 6, Governors' Correspondence (Series S577), State Archives of Florida.

Letter from Governor Harrison Reed to Colonel John T. Sprague announcing that Florida had met the requirements for Florida to be readmitted to the Union. Box 4, Folder 6, Governors’ Correspondence (Series S577), State Archives of Florida. Click or tap the image to enlarge it and read the transcript.

Congress received a copy of the new state constitution and officially readmitted Florida to the Union on July 25, 1868. This was only the beginning of Reconstruction, of course. Considerable challenges lay ahead both inside and outside the halls of government. The Sunshine State was, however, officially part of the United States of America once again.

 

 

 

Goober Peas

Peanuts are a tasty Florida treat, whether you prefer them boiled, roasted, or as creamy peanut butter. These tiny legumes have been with us for a long time, and a look into their history reveals lots of surprises.

Boiled Florida peanuts (1988).

Boiled Florida peanuts (1988).

Surprise #1: Peanuts aren’t nuts, at least not technically. Although the familiar peanut species (Arachis hypogaea) has a shell just like other “nuts,” it actually belongs to the same family of plants as garden peas and beans. That’s why you’ll often see peanuts referred to as “goober peas.” The “goober” part originates from an African word for the plant, nguba.

Archaeological evidence suggests the peanut originated in South America before European explorers carried it to other parts of the globe, including the British North American colonies. Virginia farmers cultivated multiple varieties of the plant as early as the 1780s.

During the Civil War, soldiers became familiar with the peanut as a tasty treat while marching across Virginia, and many veterans brought it back to their home states and experimented with crops of their own. The humble peanut even became the subject of one of the war’s most iconic songs, titled “Goober Peas.” Here’s a recording of that song from the Florida Folk Festival, as well as the lyrics to the first verse:

Sittin’ by the roadside on a summer’s day, chatting with my best mates passing time away,
Lying in the shadows underneath the trees, Goodness how delicious, eating goober peas!
Peas! Peas! Peas! Peas! Eatin’ goober peas! Goodness how delicious, eatin’ goober peas!

At first, Florida farmers only grew large crops of peanuts for animal feed and hay, with a small portion of the produce going for roasting or sweet treats like peanut butter and peanut brittle. In the early 20th century, however, two factors emerged that convinced planters of the peanut’s value for other uses.

The first was the widespread devastation to Southern cotton crops caused by the boll weevil. Cotton was valuable for both the fluffy stuff that went into making textiles and the oil that could be pressed from the seeds. When boll weevil infestations began threatening the source of cotton seeds for making oil, the U.S. Department of Agriculture began recommending peanuts as an alternative crop. Like cotton seeds, peanuts express an oil when pressed, which can be used in both lubricants and food-grade salad oils and shortening. Planters hoped peanut oil might keep the oil presses of the South going if the supply of cotton seeds should fail completely.

World War I was a factor as well, causing a jump in the demand for edible oils. As the price of peanut oil began to creep upward, the Pensacola News Journal declared that peanut oil was just as certain a source of wealth as petroleum!

Peanut hay in the process of curing in Holmes County (ca. 1890s).

Peanut hay in the process of curing in Holmes County (ca. 1890s).

The boom in peanut oil prices leveled off after World War I, but a few companies stayed in the game into the 1920s. Brown & Company of Portland, Maine, for example, bought up 64,000 acres of land in the Everglades and tried to establish a processing plant on an island in the middle of Lake Worth in Palm Beach County. The plant didn’t work out so well, but the island is still known as Peanut Island today!

Excerpt of a topographical map showing Peanut Island in the middle of Lake Worth just north of Palm beach and West Palm Beach. Map courtesy of the US Geological Survey (1946).

Excerpt of a topographical map showing Peanut Island in the middle of Lake Worth just north of Palm Beach and West Palm Beach. Map courtesy of the US Geological Survey (1946). Click or tap the map to enlarge it.

While the market price for peanuts may shift from time to time, Floridians seem to have always appreciated their value for entertainment. Newspaper reports from the early 20th century often mention party games involving the tiny legumes. In 1905, for example, young Ethel Crosby of Ocala gave a “peanut party” for her little friends, with all of the festivities involving peanuts in some way. There was a peanut hunt, much like an Easter egg hunt, as well as a “peanut walk,” which required the children to carry as many peanuts as they dared on the blade of a knife and walk as far as possible without dropping them. The Boy Scouts of Troop 3 in Pensacola held a similar contest in 1911, except in their version the boys had to scoop up the peanuts in a spoon held between their teeth and carry them to a distant bucket.

This particular race has enjoyed some serious staying power. Even in recent years, festivals celebrating and promoting agriculture have featured peanut relays of one form or another, like this one from Agriculture Day in 1986:

Representative Irlo

Representative Irlo “Bud” Bronson, Democrat from Kissimmee, passes a peanut to Representative Chance Irvine, Republican from Orange Park, as the two work together for the House of Representatives team during an Agriculture Day competition honoring the peanut industry (1986).

Isn’t it funny how the smallest and most common objects can have such complex histories? Share this post on social media and tell us about your favorite historical tidbit!

 

History Beneath the Waves

There’s an important piece of Florida and United States history located about a mile and half southwest of Pensacola Pass in the Gulf of Mexico. There’s not much to see on the surface, just a couple of rusty cylinders that look as though they might have once been the foundation for a platform or a beacon of some sort. They’re just the tip, however, of something much more significant lying beneath the waves–the final resting place of one of the United States’ oldest battleships, the USS Massachusetts.

A portion of the submerged USS Massachusetts, located southwest of the entrance to Pensacola Bay (1993).

A portion of the submerged USS Massachusetts, located southwest of the entrance to Pensacola Bay (1993). Box 5, Folder 18,  Archaeological Sites and Activities Slide and Video Recordings – Bureau of Archaeological Research (Series S2318), State Archives of Florida.

The Massachusetts (BB-2) was launched in 1893 as part of the United States’ new “Steel Navy.” Naval vessels were becoming faster and more deadly as the technology behind guns and engines improved. Congress realized a strong navy was critical to national security, so in 1890 it authorized the construction of three steel-hulled, armored battleships powered entirely by steam. These ships, termed the Indiana class, included the Indiana, the Massachusetts and the Oregon. The Massachusetts was built by William Cramp and Sons of Philadelphia; the keel was laid on June 25, 1891, and the completed ship was launched on June 10, 1893. Officially commissioned by the Navy in 1896, the battleship was 350 feet long, 69 feet wide at the center and had a draft of 24 feet. Its top speed was 15 knots, and it featured two 13-inch guns and eight 8-inch guns along with smaller armaments.

The USS Massachusetts in harbor (circa 1918).

The USS Massachusetts in harbor (circa 1918).

After being fitted out at Philadelphia, the Massachusetts was assigned to the Navy’s North Atlantic fleet and spent several years traveling up and down the Eastern Seaboard on maneuvers. The ship’s first military action came during the Spanish-American War in 1898. On May 31 of that year, the Massachusetts  joined the Iowa and New Orleans in firing on the Spanish warship Cristóbal Colón off the coast of Santiago, Cuba. The Massachusetts missed out on the rest of the ensuing battle, having been forced to steam over to Guantanamo Bay to refuel. On July 4, the ship helped sink the Spanish cruiser Reina Mercedes and later steamed over to Puerto Rico to help transport troops during the U.S. occupation of the island.

The so-called

The so-called “black gang” of the USS Massachusetts, nicknamed for their blackened faces and clothing resulting from long days shoveling coal in the ship’s boiler room (circa 1918).

The Massachusetts had a relatively short service period, coming along in a time when naval technology was improving rapidly and older ships quickly became obsolete. It did have its high points, however. It was one of the first ships to have a permanent wireless telegraph system aboard, the installation being supervised directly by the inventor of the wireless telegraph, Guglielmo Marconi. During a European tour in 1911 it marked the coronation of King George V and Queen Mary of England with a 21-gun salute on behalf of the United States. The following year, the Massachusetts had the honor of offering a similar salute for President William Howard Taft during a review of the fleet at New York City.

The USS Massachusetts band (circa 1918).

The USS Massachusetts band (circa 1918).

The Massachusetts was decommissioned in 1914 (actually for the second time), but the outbreak of World War I led naval authorities to put it back into service as a gunnery practice ship for reserve crews training off the Atlantic coast. The ship returned to Philadelphia after the war, where it was decommissioned permanently and struck from the official Navy List. With no more missions to complete, the Navy offered the Massachusetts to the War Department, which decided to use it for target practice for coastal defenses near Pensacola. In January 1921, the Navy towed the ship around the tip of Florida and anchored it just outside the entrance to Pensacola Bay. The first attempt to scuttle the ship backfired when naval authorities realized the spot they had chosen was too shallow, and the ship had to be painstakingly refloated and moved to deeper water.

Map showing the location of the USS Massachusetts in relation to Pensacola and Santa Rosa Island. Included in an informational brochure on the USS Massachusetts published by the Florida Department of State, Division of Historical Resources in 2013.

Map showing the location of the USS Massachusetts in relation to Pensacola and Santa Rosa Island. Included in an informational brochure on the USS Massachusetts published by the Florida Department of State, Division of Historical Resources in 2013.

Meanwhile, the Army set up coastal artillery pieces at Fort Pickens on Santa Rosa Island and Fort Barrancas on the mainland and aimed them at the sunken ship. For 12 days they fired on the Massachusetts, stopping periodically to study the damage done by different kinds of ammunition shot from various angles. By the end of the month, the tests were complete, and the ship was abandoned with parts still protruding from below the waves of the Gulf.

A diver explores part of the wreckage of the USS Massachusetts (1993).

A diver explores part of the wreckage of the USS Massachusetts (1993). Box 5, Folder 18,  Archaeological Sites and Activities Slide and Video Recordings – Bureau of Archaeological Research (Series S2318), State Archives of Florida.

Despite having been underwater for nearly a century, the USS Massachusetts has been an uncommonly useful shipwreck. During World War II, student aviators from Naval Air Station Pensacola used the ship for target practice, and parts of its superstructure were harvested for urgently needed scrap metal. It was declared a Florida Underwater Archaeological Preserve in 1993 and has become a popular site for both diving and fishing. Amberjack, cobia, grouper and snapper are just a few of the game fish that make their home in the decaying hull of the Massachusetts.

Looking for more information and photos relating to Florida shipwrecks? Try searching the Florida Photographic Collection, and visit the Florida Museums in the Sea website, a fun, easy way to learn more about Florida’s twelve Underwater Archaeological Preserves.

The Vine That Ate the South

If you’ve spent much time driving around North and Central Florida, chances are good that you’ve seen vines take over a few trees and power poles. It happens. Plenty of vines like Virginia creeper and wild grapevine love Florida’s climate and are all too happy to climb up a tree or pole to get a little closer to the sun. One vine in particular, however, has developed a reputation for being almost evil in its quest to grow and thrive, choking out anything that stands in its way. Kudzu (Pueraria thunbergiana) has in recent decades been drubbed as “the green menace” and “the vine that ate the South,” with tendrils that allegedly grow so fast they can outwalk a human. While we doubt kudzu really has nefarious intentions, it certainly is an invasive plant, and it has a history almost as complex as its bewildering carpet of vines and leaves.

Kudzu has overtaken this field near Lamont in Jefferson County (2018).

Kudzu has overtaken this field near Lamont in Jefferson County (2018).

Kudzu is native to Asia, where both Japanese and Chinese farmers have used it for centuries as food for livestock and ground cover to prevent erosion. It most likely first came to the United States in 1876, when representatives of the Japanese empire brought along a few cuttings to show off in their exhibit at the Centennial International Exposition in Philadelphia. The vines were hardy and the leaves were attractive, so visitors were delighted to take home a few plants for ornamental use. Southerners appreciated kudzu’s potential as an erosion control agent, and soon it was sprouting in valleys and gullies all over the Carolinas, Georgia, Alabama, and Mississippi.

A kudzu leaf, photographed off South Barber Road near Lamont in Jefferson County (2018).

A kudzu leaf, photographed off South Barber Road near Lamont in Jefferson County (2018).

While kudzu may have possibly entered Florida before 1900, it really burst onto the scene just after the turn of the 20th century, thanks to the diligent boosterism of a Chipley photographer and planter named Charles Earl Pleas. An Indiana native, Pleas and his wife, Lillie, had grown kudzu near their home to serve as a shade vine. When the plant began to creep out onto the lawn–as kudzu tends to do–Pleas dug it up and threw it onto a trash heap near the barn. Determined to survive, the vines took root and began to cover the trash pile and the nearby building.

Then, something unexpected happened. Pleas noticed that all kinds of farm animals, from hogs to horses, seem to enjoy eating the vine. He wrote the U.S. Department of Agriculture to find out if kudzu was known to be poisonous, and the agency responded that it was not, although they also doubted livestock would eat the plant. Seeing that kudzu’s potential as forage had not yet been realized, Pleas and his wife launched a veritable kudzu crusade, promoting the vine as a miracle solution to the South’s long-standing need for a cheap, hardy yearlong food crop for livestock.

Pleas wrote glowingly about kudzu for newspapers and pamphlets, praising its high nutritional value and the ease with which it could be cultivated. It could grow up to a foot a day in early summer, for a total of up to 60 feet of new growth in a single growing season. Soon others in Florida, including State Chemist Rufus E. Rose, were promoting kudzu as both a superior feed crop and an instant solution to erosion. And if the vine overgrew its welcome? “It is an easy matter to get rid of Kudzu if desired,” wrote Edward B. Eppes of Tallahassee in 1913. New plants only sprouted from the crowns, he pointed out, so mowing down the crowns with a plow during the heat of summer would be enough to kill the plant dead. “For this reason,” he wrote, “there is no danger of Kudzu ever becoming a pest.”

Cover of a pamphlet titled "Soil Improving Crops," distributed by the Florida Department of Agriculture in 1948. The image features a field and tree overtaken by kudzu which, in the context of soil conservation, actually had some positive aspects. The State Library's State Document Collection contains many books and pamphlets on soil conservation efforts throughout the 20th century.

Cover of a pamphlet titled “Soil Improving Crops,” distributed by the Florida Department of Agriculture in 1948. The image features a field and tree overtaken by kudzu which, in the context of soil conservation, actually had some positive aspects. The State Library’s State Documents Collection contains many books and pamphlets on soil conservation efforts throughout the 20th century.

For a while, Eppes’ evaluation was spot-on. Floridians and their neighbors throughout the South used kudzu as feed and as ground cover to hold the soil in place on hillsides and in gullies. The U.S. Soil Conservation Service began officially recommending it to farmers in 1935, and the Civilian Conservation Corps planted innumerable cuttings along public roadways and railroad embankments. As late as 1944, the federal government paid farmers to cultivate kudzu, hoping it would both preserve the soil and make money for struggling American farmers still reeling from the effects of the Great Depression.

Kudzu vines growing on an embankment along a railroad near Tallahassee (1961).

Kudzu vines growing on an embankment along a railroad near Tallahassee (1961).

By the 1960s, however, the vine’s reputation had taken a dive. The Pensacola News Journal noted that it had a new nickname– the “cuss you” vine–because it had turned out to have some unfortunate qualities. Yes, kudzu was a good cover crop, but turn your back for just a moment and it might overtake another planted field, and even the barn beyond it! If conditions were right, it could even choke out young pine trees, destroying valuable sources of lumber and pulpwood. The vine snaked its way into everything, taking over unoccupied dwellings, gardens and even utility poles, occasionally shorting out electrical lines. In 1970, the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which had earlier been one of kudzu’s biggest cheerleaders, declared it a common weed and began experimenting with means for eradicating it.

Local and state officials in Florida did what they could to stem kudzu’s green tidal wave as well. Santa Rosa County passed an ordinance in 1996 imposing fines on property owners who allowed kudzu vines to creep onto their neighbors’ land. Hillsborough County opted to use herbicides to beat back the vines. Tallahassee’s Parks and Recreation Department contracted with a sheep farmer to bring hundreds of lambs down to Florida to chow down on the woody growth.

Kudzu still covers millions of acres of territory in the southeastern United States, but is now under somewhat better control. Some people have even used the vine for basket weaving, confections and kudzu cigarettes! Most Floridians, however, prefer to keep the so-called “green menace” as far away as possible.

Woman weaving a basket from kudzu vines at Tallahassee Market Days (1986).

Woman weaving a basket from kudzu vines at Tallahassee Market Days (1986).

What are some of the most unusual plants in your Florida community? Let us know by leaving us a comment, and don’t forget to share this post with your friends and relatives!