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 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. 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 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 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 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.

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.

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. 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.

The Taylor Family Papers: Using Plantation Records for Researching Enslaved People

Finding personal details of enslaved people prior to the end of the Civil War can be difficult. The basic tool that many use for researching American ancestors, the United States population census, did not name slaves. The census slave schedules, taken in 1850 and 1860, listed the slave owner’s name and slaves by sex and age only, with occasional exceptions to this rule. Sometimes, court documents, such as wills and probate proceedings, bills of sale and, rarely, plantation records, also include personal information about slaves.

Journals, ledgers and other personal records can likewise prove useful for researchers. Though records from Florida antebellum plantations tend to be scarce, when they have been preserved, they can often yield valuable information about slaves. Using records housed at the State Archives, we will demonstrate how genealogical researchers can use some of the resources listed above to find valuable information about enslaved ancestors.

In collection M83-27, Taylor Family Papers, among a number of letters detailing the genealogical history of a group of allied North Florida families is a remarkable journal kept by Elizabeth L. (Grice) Taylor (1830-1888). The journal records the movement of her family from North Carolina to Leon County, Florida, and then around North Florida to various plantations. In addition to listing births and other important events in her own extended family, she also documented the names, ages, births and deaths of some of their slaves.

On the first page of her journal, Elizabeth noted the names and birthdates of her own children, Sarah, Elizabeth Roberta, Charles, Catherine, William Jr. and Leslie. On the second page, titled “Black Creek, Jan. 4th, 1851” and subtitled “Negroe ages,” she listed the birth dates of children born to the enslaved women between 1850 and 1858. On subsequent pages are additional birth dates and death dates of slaves. She also made a timeline for the various places the family moved to in Leon, Wakulla and Madison counties.

Timeline in the journal of Elizabeth L. Taylor, ca. 1860s.

The dates and locations of residence that Elizabeth noted in her timeline can be especially useful for structuring a search for other records; a researcher will have a better general idea of what kind of records and particular repositories to search for the Taylors and any documentation on the slaves. Knowing the dates allows researchers to conduct a more targeted search.


William N. Taylor (1825-1896) and Elizabeth L. Grice were married July 24, 1850, in North Carolina. They left North Carolina on the 30th of September for a honeymoon trip to New York and arrived in Florida on the 6th of October. They arrived after the census was taken that year, so they were not recorded in a Florida census until 1860.

From 1850-1855, the Taylor family and their slaves lived at Black Creek Plantation, Leon County, in the Miccosukee area. Elizabeth noted birth dates of the slaves at that time:

“Mary Brown was born about 1831

Mary’s child – George was born 20th of July 1850

Fanny was born 29 November 1852

Harriet was born 1839 – month not known

Mary Branson’s child – Charles was born 22 March 1853

Maria was born March 25th 1855

Lizzie was born August 1854

Bell’s boy Bull S. born April 1st, 1855

Pleasant, Till’s babe born January 1855″

List of births in the journal of E.L. Taylor.

Between 1855 and 1861, the Taylors lived at The Pinewoods in Wakulla County. During that time, Elizabeth noted the following slave births:

“Florence born April 1856

Lany’s boy born August 15, 1856

Emily born July 1857

Ellen born January 22, 1858

Allmand born November 16th, 1858

Dora Ansy, Till’s 3rd daughter was born July 1860

Capitola, Mary’s daughter, was born February 1860

Austin Till’s boy born August 11, 1863″

Additional births in the journal of E.L. Taylor.

She recorded deaths on separate pages, one also labeled “Negroes”:

“Mary Branson died Jan 18th 1860

Mary Brown died August 2nd 1867

Maria died October 1859

Emanuel died Nov 1857

Emily died Sep 1859

Capitola, Feb 1860

Vina and Hepsy died August 1850

Old Dr Alick died January 22, 1863

Dora, Till’s daughter died June 8th 1863″

List of deaths in the journal of E.L. Taylor.

One of the letters in the Taylor Family Papers mentioned an 1858 bill of sale in the Wakulla County Courthouse between William N. Taylor and James M. Shine. This deed record confirms many of the names in the journal, adds several other individuals, and reveals mother-child relationships not noted by Elizabeth.

Deed between William N. Taylor and James M. Shine from Wakulla County Courthouse, Deed Records Book A-B, February 5, 1858, page 295.


Deed between William N. Taylor and James M. Shine from Wakulla County Courthouse, Deed Records Book A-B, February 5, 1858, page 296.

From page 296:

“Trustee of the said Elizabeth L. Taylor & his successors the following slaves to wit Marr aged about twenty two years, Mary ages 40 years & her child Charles aged 5 years, Isaac aged 23 years, Harriet ages 16 years, Isabel aged 40 years & three children aged Temperance aged 9 years, Margarett aged 7 years and William Henry aged __ years; Mary aged 24 years & four children George 6 years, Fany aged 4 years, Maria aged 2 years and & infant; Gillany aged 25 years, Matilda aged 21 years & two children, Pleasant aged 4 years & Emily aged 1 year”

A number of the same individuals listed in this deed and in Elizabeth’s journal were later included in the 1860 slave schedule. The U.S. Census Slave Schedule, taken June 22, named the slaves of William N. Taylor located in Shell Point District, Wakulla County. Most of the slave schedules do not name slaves, but the census taker in Wakulla County did that year.

1860 U.S. Census, Wakulla County, Florida, Slave Schedule, Shell Point District.

Under “William N. Taylor, Owner” the following slaves are listed: Allick, age 70; Isaac, age 23; Harriet, age 19; Matilda, age 21; Pleasant, age 6; Isabella, age 40; Temperance, age 13; Margaret, age 11; William, age 5; Mary, age 27; George, age 10; Fanny, age 8; Ellen, age 4; Mace, age 25; Gelaney, age 22; Charles, age 8; and June, age 11.

In 1861, the household moved to “Ridgeland,” on Lake Jackson north of Tallahassee in Leon County, and remained there until 1867. After 1867, the Taylor family moved to various locations in northern Florida, including “Woodlawn” and “Myrtle Grove” in Leon County and several locations in Madison County. At some point afterwards they moved back to Tallahassee, where they are buried.


It is a bit more difficult to trace the former slaves after 1865, as surnames are not given for most of them in the Taylor documents. They may also have selected new surnames. In order to find and trace emancipated slaves in extant documents, a researcher would have to work with the types of information that would have been recorded, the most useful being dates and places. For example, the 1870 population census asked for age, sex, race, occupation, and place of birth, and enumerated people by county and district. In this case, a possible clue would be the place of birth; the adults listed in the slave schedule of 1860 may have been brought from North Carolina by the Taylors. The last plantation they owned before the end of the Civil War was in Leon County, so it would be reasonable to search there for emancipated slaves. The ages given in the Taylor journal and in the slave schedule could be very helpful, although ages were not always consistent between different sources.

Case study: Lany

An unusual given name can also be key. As an example, one woman named Lany is mentioned in the journal, and there is a woman named Gelaney in the 1860 slave schedule. The 1858 bill of sale in the Wakulla County Courthouse listed “Gillany aged 25 years.” Gelaney or Gillany being an uncommon name, it is possible that a woman listed in Leon County census records in 1870, 1880, and 1885 married to Alfred Mitchell or Mitchel might be the same person as the Lany noted in the Taylor journal.

In 1870, the census taker for Leon County, Northern District listed “Delaney,” age 32, born in North Carolina as the wife of Alfred Mitchell, age 33, born in North Carolina. Also in the household is a 4-year-old named Elizabeth, an 18-year-old named Charles (possibly the child born to Mary Branson in 1853), and a 60-year-old woman named Isabella Page. Isabella was also born in North Carolina and could possibly be the same Isabella named in the 1860 slave schedule.

1870 U.S. Census, Leon County, Florida, population schedule.

The same household is recognizable in the 1880 census, comprised of Alfred, his wife Gillaney, and daughter Eliza, now 14 years old.

1880 U.S. Census, Leon County, Florida, population schedule.

The 1885 Florida state census finds Alfred Mitchell, his wife Laney, and his daughter Elizabeth still living in Leon County. Also in the household are Delia Ford, 20, listed as Alfred’s niece, and Laney Wilson, 8, listed as his ward.

1885 Florida state census, Leon County.

Unfortunately, Gilaney does not appear in subsequent census enumerations. Alfred appears in the 1900 Leon County census with a wife named Lucy. One of the questions asked in 1900 was number of years married, and Alfred and Lucy had been married for 10 years. Gilaney might have died between 1885 and 1890. Eliza most likely married after 1885 and would be listed under a married name.

To continue tracing this family, a researcher could explore other resources including county courthouse records, Freedmen’s Bureau records, the records of the Freedman’s Bank, Freedmen’s Contracts when available, and the Voter Registration Rolls, 1867-1868 (digitized on Florida Memory.) For instance, a search for Lany’s husband, Alfred Mitchell, in the Voter Registration Rolls on Florida Memory returns a record of his registration to vote in Leon County on August 17, 1867. Each individual record may contain clues that lead elsewhere and a more detailed picture of a family’s lives and circumstances may emerge.

Tracing the genealogy of enslaved persons can be difficult due to the limited amount of information about enslaved persons kept in US census records prior to emancipation. When researching former slaves, don’t overlook the possibility of plantation records and other non-traditional genealogical resources. While scarce, when found they can add context and detail to information found in census and courthouse records.

Tallahassee’s Live Oak Trail

It’s hard to imagine Tallahassee without the beautiful live oak trees that line canopy roads and shade park-goers all over the city. As the city began to expand in the 1930s and cars became more ubiquitous, gas stations and storefronts popped up downtown and threatened the live oak trees. To expand the streets and keep the sidewalks clear of tree debris for pedestrian traffic, the trees had to be removed. Caroline Edwards Elliot thought differently, so she spent her life defending the capital city’s natural beauty.

Portrait of Caroline Edwards Elliot (1877-1966).

Born in 1877 near Lloyd, Florida, roughly 25 miles from Tallahassee, Elliot was the oldest of seven girls. In 1900, she moved to Tallahassee and eventually worked as secretary to Governor Albert Gilchrist. After marrying Frederick Cotten Elliot in 1912, the couple built a new home at the corner of Gadsden and Virginia streets in Tallahassee. Frederick Elliot would soon become chief engineer of the Everglades drainage project. Caroline Elliot’s involvement with the Tallahassee Garden Club began in 1926 when the club was founded. She became an active member of the club by helping form the Oleander Circle in 1927,  participating in committees, and later serving as president of the club near the end of World War II.

The people of Tallahassee have long valued the natural landscape of this area. In this photo, children gather for a May Day celebration under the May Oak at Lewis Park in Tallahassee in the early 1900s. Rubie Byrd was the May Queen. The tree was thought to be more than 100 years old when it collapsed in August 1986.

Over time, the Tallahassee Garden Club focused their attention on preserving the natural beauty of the city. One of the club’s first major initiatives was developing Lafayette Park into an arboretum during the 1930s. Though the onset of war halted this plan, Lafayette Park was for a period of time a vital part of the club’s activities. Together with botanists from Florida State College for Women (later Florida State University), Tallahassee Garden Club introduced native plant species to the park, many of which can still be seen today. The club also laid out paths so visitors could enjoy all of the plant and animal life that called Lafayette Park home.

Tallahassee Garden Club members in the early 1940s. Back, left to right: Almena Pierson, Caroline Elliot. Center: Gladys Henderson, Mary Dozier, Eva Thomas, Kate Bell. Front: Loranne Ausley, Reba Messer.

Elliot’s fight to preserve Tallahassee’s trees started at the end of 1938 when a developer planned to cut a 75-year-old live oak tree to make way for a service station near the Florida Capitol. Tallahassee Mayor J. R. Jinks approved the removal of the tree which was located downtown at the corner of Pensacola and Adams streets. A civic group composed of Elliot, the Tallahassee Garden Club, the Florida Federation of Garden Clubs, the Business and Professional Women’s Club and others protested the removal of the tree and demanded that the county commission revoke the permit. The protest received national attention and, as a result, the county commission voted in favor of the civic groups. In a statement that appeared in the Daily Democrat on December 15, Mrs. Covington, president of the Garden Club at the time, stated that “It just doesn’t seem right to take down a tree that is 75 years old to make room for a filling station that will be there only five or 10 years.”

This victory was just the beginning of Elliot’s campaign to save the trees, but not all of the efforts made by the preservation activists were successful. Many trees were removed downtown as new stores, streets and homes were built. In an effort to save as many trees as possible, Elliot initiated the annual Live Oak Trail with the purpose of drawing attention to the importance of preserving the city’s trees.

Entrance to the Los Robles neighborhood in Tallahassee (1930s). The Live Oak Trails of 1940 and 1941 both started at Los Robles Park.

The first trail was held on June 6, 1940, and led participants around the city to learn about and admire the majestic oak trees. Tallahassee residents opened their homes to the participants for luncheon parties and experts taught them about conservation. Notable Tallahassee residents such as Mary Call Collins, historic preservationist and wife of future Florida governor LeRoy Collins, and Ruby Diamond, generous benefactor to Florida State University and namesake of the auditorium on campus, were both in attendance.

More than 200 people attended the first trail and visitors from North Florida and South Georgia participated. Multiple organizations came together to make this event a success. The Chamber of Commerce and the Tallahassee Women’s Club assisted in arranging and executing the day’s events; and the Boy Scouts placed guiding markers and directed visitors during the trail.

The Daily Democrat published numerous stories about the trail, no doubt thanks to Elliot’s thoughtful planning. In her June 6 column, “Your Tallahassee and Mine,” Dorothy Van Brunt urged Tallahasseans to value their city’s trees: “It behooves Tallahassee as well as the state of Florida to become more tree-conscious. Other southern states have realized the value of trees to their well-being. Florida must eventually face the issue and follow suit.”

Then, the day after the trail, the newspaper ran a story with the headline “Live Oak Trail Proves Success.”  This city-wide effort did exactly what Elliot had intended: the city’s oak trees were receiving the attention they deserved.

East front of the Capitol (now the Historic Capitol Museum) in 1900. In 1860, the city council of Tallahassee ordered that 200 trees be planted around the city, including around the Capitol building. This was the first effort by Tallahasseans to preserve the city’s natural beauty.

After the excitement of the first trail, Elliot didn’t waste any time planning the 1941 trail. She wrote to Senator Spessard Holland, the future governor of Florida, requesting that he mention Tallahassee’s beautiful trees in his inauguration speech. “It will mean much to us in our work of preserving the live oak trees on the streets and in the parks of Tallahassee,” she expressed to him.

With a whole year to plan the second trail, Elliot was able to exhaustively promote the event. To help guide participants during the event, the Chamber of Commerce published a map of the trail’s route that included a description of the order in which the trees should be viewed and places of interest around the city.

Map from the second annual Live Oak Trail, 1941

Over two days, April 13 and 14, hundreds of participants followed the 25 mile route by car around Tallahassee. Garden Club members served as guides along the trail and private residences and gardens were opened to the public. Not only was the trail promoting the live oak trees, but it also highlighted the many historic homes and buildings in the area, such as the Grove Park Hotel, the Governor’s Mansion, and the Capitol. Once again, the Daily Democrat reported on the trail with great enthusiasm and declared the trail as “one of the finest and most important developments in this community in recent years.”

Postcard of the Grove Park Hotel (later The Grove Museum) on N. Adams Street in Tallahassee (1930s). On April 13, 1941, the Daily Democrat wrote that “…the old mansion of Gov Richard Keith Call [Grove Park Hotel], which will be visited by participants in the Trail, is one of the noteworthy homes which should be preserved and made available as a point of interest to be visited by tourists and others.” After extensive restoration by the Florida Department of State, The Grove Museum opened to the public in 2017.

Despite two years of success, the Live Oak Trail was discontinued when the U.S. entered World War II in December 1941. The Tallahassee Garden Club spent their time contributing to the war effort by volunteering with the hospital, Red Cross, and Service Club. Elliot served as president of the garden club at the end of the war, from 1944 until 1946, during which time she attempted to revive the Live Oak Trail. Unfortunately, interest in the trail waned and it was permanently discontinued.

Postwar economic boom in Tallahassee led to further destruction of the city’s trees as the number of businesses downtown increased. In late October 1946, Tallahassee’s three city commissioners approved a plan to expand Tallahassee’s streets to accommodate the influx of car traffic downtown. Elliot and the community came together to oppose the expansion but with little success. Twenty-six trees were set to be removed along Calhoun Street with additional tree removal along College Avenue and Jefferson and Pensacola streets. Elliot and her husband quickly filed an injunction to stop tree destruction along these streets. Though the Elliots won the injunction in May 1947, many trees were cut down in the interim. But, without the hard work of the Elliots, the Tallahassee Garden Club, and all of the other tree activists during the 1930s and 40s, there would be fewer trees today in the capital city.

Selected sources:

Clements, Patricia Lasche. A Legacy of Leadership: Florida Governors and Their Inaugural Speeches. Tallahassee: Sentry Press, 2005.

“Live Oak Trail Proves Success.” Daily Democrat, June 7, 1940.

O’Bryan, Carolyde Phillips. The Live Oak Trail. Tallahassee: Sentry Press, 1999.

Tallahassee Garden Club, Inc. History Tallahassee Garden Club Inc. 1926-1960. Tallahassee, 1962.

Tallahassee Garden Club, Inc. Year Book of the Tallahassee Garden Club 1936-1937. Tallahassee, n.d.

“Tallahassee’s Live Oak Trail.” Daily Democrat, April 13, 1941.

“Tree Defense Fight Arouses Wide Interest.” Daily Democrat, December 15, 1938.

Van Brunt, Dorothy. “Your Tallahassee and Mine.” Daily Democrat, June 6, 1940.

Post-War Aviation in Florida

The years following World War II saw a transformation in aviation from military use to civil, commercial and, notably, agricultural applications. Agriculture has long been the foundation of Florida’s economy, and in the post-war era, a key technological advancement began to emerge within the industry: aerial agriculture. Aerial application of pesticides and seeding became prevalent in Florida as military airfields, such as Brooks Army Airfield in Brooksville and Pompano Air Park in Ft. Lauderdale, were adopted for civil use and as war surplus biplanes, such as the Stearman, were re-purposed for agricultural use. Within this rise in civil and agricultural use, State Aviation Director William C. Lazarus saw a need for tighter controls on aviation at the state level, in the form of licensing and regulation of airports, and lobbied for legislation to achieve this aim.
The State Airport Licensing Act (Chapter 24046, Florida Laws 1947), a bill to provide state licensing and regulation of airports, was passed to encourage and develop aeronautics in Florida and effected uniformity of the laws and regulations relating to the establishment and development of airports in accordance with federal aeronautics laws and regulations. The proposed rules and regulations set forth by the State Improvement Commission in 1947 were circulated to owners of existing private airports for their input.

Crop dusting in Florida.

Airport Licensing Rules and Regulations set forth in accordance with State Airport Licensing Act of 1947 (Series S 284, box 1, folder 18, item 21).

Correspondence received in reaction to the rules and regulations gives insight into the pursuit of civil and agricultural aviation in Florida, given firsthand from stakeholders and enthusiasts in the industry. A.H. Lane, manager of Davis Seaplane Base, wrote the following to William Lazarus:

Letter from A. H. Lane expressing concern over aviation regulations, 1947 (Series 284, box 1, folder 18, item 7).

Florida is an air minded state. The airmen seem much interested in the facilities and uses of aircraft, especially the new members of this group. This has convinced me that it is a good state in which to operate. Seaplanes are popular here due to so many lakes and costal [sic] waters available for landings.

Just when civil aviation needs a boost and operators, working at prewar prices and post-war costs are going “under,” it seems that in order to promote aviation it is necessary for all of us to get on one side and push.

Further, Lane’s letter emphasizes the role of crop dusting pilots in Florida’s agricultural sector and expresses anxieties over the impact of regulation on their business:
Dusting pilots have done much to control pests and in so doing have helped the industrial areas. They have enough to contend with now, even with CAA rules waived. They are a hard working group and 2.30 – 2.31 – 2.32 are unnecessary added complications.
We must keep all landing spots open and free to the flying public if we are ever to see personal aircraft become popular.
Lane wasn’t alone in his concern over the act’s impact on agriculture. Many crop dusting companies wrote in objection to regulations on the width of airstrips (a newly imposed minimum of 300 feet.) Crop dusters argued that a strip of this width would not be feasible in rural areas and that dusting planes had to land and take off close to the fields. A letter from J. R. McDaniel of McDaniel Dusting Service described in detail the procedures of crop dusting and expressed concern over the plight of the farmer in Florida as related to regulations set forth on crop dusting:

Letter from J.R. McDaniel to William C. Lazarus, outlining concerns about the impact of the State Airport Licensing Act on crop dusting procedures, page 1 (Series S 284, box 1, folder 21, item 6).


Letter from Delta Air Lines Dusting Division to William C. Lazarus expressing concern over sections of the State Airport Licensing Act that would affect crop dusting operations (Series S 284, box 1, folder 21, item 7).

Many companies also expressed criticism of the gross weight limit of two tons put forth for use of Class I airports under the initially proposed rules and regulations. At the outcry of corporations such as United States Sugar and Showalter, as well as special interest organizations, the commission dropped the regulations that limited gross weight of airplanes on certain airports.

Letter from U.S. Sugar to William C. Lazarus expressing concern over regulations on the weight of aircrafts (Series S 284, box 1, folder 18, item 11).

Letter from H.W. Showalter, Jr. expressing concern over regulations on the gross weight of planes, 1947 (Series S 284, box 1, folder 18, item 12).

Despite public concerns over the regulations’ impact on agriculture, the State Airport Licensing Act was in many respects lenient so as to encourage aviation in the state. No approvals were required for the sites of existing airports, meaning airstrips used by farms and other private operations were grandfathered into the act.

Master list of privately owned airports and seaplane bases, 1947, page 1 (Series S 284, box 1, folder 7, item 3).

Licensing for new airstrips was decidedly inexpensive. The section of the act providing for the licensing of airports deemed that a fee not to exceed $50.00 (the equivalent of $561.00 in 2017) would be charged for the approval of airport licensing, while renewals of licenses were not to exceed $10.00.

Airport licenses issued from 1947 to 1948 (Series S 284, Box 1, Folder 8, item 14, page 2 of 5).

Correspondence relating to the submission of these fees to the Florida State Improvement Commission gives a rare glimpse into the operations of now-defunct private aeronautic small businesses, such as Stone and Wells Flying Service of Jacksonville.

Letter, Stone and Wells Flying Service to Florida State Improvement Commission, enclosing licensing fee for temporary airports at Jacksonville Beach and Fernandina Beach (Series S 284, box 1, folder 54, item 7, page 1).

Flight chart for temporary airport locations in Jacksonville Beach and Fernandina Beach (Series S 284, box 1, folder 54, item 7).

Though there are new laws and regulations governing aviation in Florida, the State Airport Licensing Act was one of the first laws to require the inspection, approval, registration and licensure of air strips and airports and to regulate air traffic. Cited as the first law in the history note of most sections of the current Florida Statutes on regulation of Aircraft and Airports, the Act has shaped many of today’s laws governing aviation.
Records from series S284 Aviation Division Administrative Records, 1947-1959, give rare insights into the post-war history of aviation in Florida, including licensing of private and commercial airstrips and airports, airport rules and regulations, and regulations regarding crop dusting. License and master airport lists included in this series contain valuable information for genealogists whose families may have been involved in aviation in Florida. Historians with an interest in aviation in Florida will find this series as well as collection M82-133 William C. Lazarus Papers, of use in their research.
S284 Aviation Division Administrative Records, 1947-1959, Box 1, State Archives of Florida, Tallahassee, Florida.
Brown, W. J. (1994). Florida’s Aviation History: The First One Hundred Years. Largo, FL: Aero-Medical Consultants.

Step Aboard for the Gospel of Good Health!

From livestock and citrus to passengers and freight, Florida’s intricate railroad network has served the commercial interests of the state since the mid-19th century.

But, between 1915 and 1917 the railroads also helped meet the public health needs of the state.

In those years, Florida State Board of Health officials kept the rail lines hot as they traveled aboard Florida’s Educational Health Exhibit Train, or exhibit cars equipped with the latest techniques for preventing disease and preserving good health. The health train stopped at nearly every juncture in the state, ready to share the “gospel of good health” with any Floridian who would listen.

The abbreviated history of the Florida health train illuminates how the private-public partnership between southern rail lines and the state health board worked to educate people on how to maintain good health.

View of Florida's health exhibit train, 1916. Florida Health Notes, January 1916, p. 416, State Library of Florida.

View of Florida’s health exhibit train, 1916. Florida Health Notes, January 1916, page 416, State Library of Florida.

Florida’s Expanding Railroads

Map of Florida's railroads, 1915. Florida Map Collection, State Library of Florida.

Map of Florida’s railroads, 1915. Florida Map Collection, State Library of Florida. (Click to enlarge and view full record.)

Beginning in the 1880s, Florida’s railroad infrastructure underwent rapid expansion. Powerful railroad investors like Henry Flagler, Sir Edward James Reed and Henry Plant oversaw the creation of expansive statewide rail systems with the hopes of attracting more tourists, permanent residents and industry to Florida. By 1900, over 3,000 miles of track weaved through the Sunshine State, and by 1912 Henry Flagler’s Florida East Coast Railway stretched from Jacksonville to Key West.  The spread of the rails succeeded in bringing more people to the once sparsely populated state, expanding Florida’s population from 269,000 people in 1880 to 752,000 in 1910.

Disease by Rail

However, the spread of infectious disease began to emerge as an unintended, and deadly, consequence of the increased human interaction brought on by the the expansion of Florida’s mighty railroad empires. Mobs of southerners affected by Florida’s deadly yellow fever outbreaks of the 1870s, 80s and 90s frequently directed their anger and sense of helplessness toward the railroad companies, who, they believed were responsible for the spread of the disease.

Cartoon from Frank Leslie's Illustrated Newspaper, depicting how during the yellow fever epidemic in Florida,

Illustration from Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper, depicting how during the yellow fever epidemic in Florida, “refugees were not allowed to leave the trains for fear of spreading the disease,” 1888.

For instance, in the summer of 1888, armed residents living in the tiny, but critical railroad junction of Callahan, Florida, threatened to destroy the local tracks if the Savannah, Florida and Western Railroad Company did not cease operations. But, the company refused to halt travel through the afflicted town and the disease spread. Thousands continued to perish of yellow fever until 1900, when scientists recognized it as a mosquito borne illness.

In the next few decades, the state reacted by passing several pieces of legislation aimed at mitigating future public health crises. Mandatory screens on windows, improved sewage infrastructure and potable water requirements were among the solutions. However, healthcare professionals warned that without proper education on these new techniques, lasting public health improvements would not occur. Indeed, smallpox, typhoid fever, malaria, hookworm and bad hygiene practices continued to claim countless lives well into the 1900s.

Flier for the anti-mosquito conference in Daytona, 1910. Florida’s incessant mosquito problem was proven as the cause of many diseases and health concerns. Prior to the health trains, state health officials traveled the state lecturing on mosquito-borne illness prevention techniques. Florida Bureau of Health Printed Matter (.S 908), Box 1, Folder 7, State Archives of Florida.

Even though state health officials had a new understanding of how these deadly diseases spread by the early 20th century, a lack of access to education on proper health habits, especially in Florida’s many rural communities, stalled public health progress.

Florida’s Educational Health Exhibit Train

Determined to educate all Floridians on how to stay healthy, State Health Office Joseph Y. Porter first created a large traveling exhibit intended for display in hotels, conference centers and other public spaces. Though the program was well-received, there were so many panels and displays that it proved too difficult to transport it throughout Florida as originally intended.

Florida's health exhibit on display in an auditorium, January 1915. Florida Health Notes, January 1915, page 4. State Library of Florida.

Florida’s health exhibit on display in an auditorium, January 1915. Florida Health Notes, January 1915, page 4, State Library of Florida.

Porter thought about how he could condense his message and reach more people. The health director looked to the innovative health train programs already chugging through Louisiana, North Dakota and Michigan for his answer. Doctors, nurses and attendants staffed these health trains and disseminated important health information to the public in a variety of formats.

Porter and his team sought to bring the traveling health exhibits to Florida. They were met with full support from the Railroad Commission, but the program required legislative consent.

Cartoon depicting the Florida State Board of Health

Cartoon depicting the Florida State Board of Health “shutting out disease,” 1915. Note the allegorical brick with the label ‘exhibit train law’ on the top of the wall. Florida Health Notes, June 1915, page 204, State Library of Florida.

In 1915, the legislature approved the operation of the Educational Health Exhibit Train (Chapter 6894, Laws of Florida, 1915) among several other public health measures. The law “authoriz[ed] the purchase of cars for [use in the exhibits], and [permitted] the free transportation of them by any railroad compan[y].” The Pullman Company sold the board three wooden cars, equipped for exhibit features, for the reduced price of $500.00 each. The cars typically sold for no less than $15,000 apiece.

When the health train first pulled away from a Jacksonville depot in late 1915, officials expressed high hopes for its impact on public health:

“The entire state will be covered, stops being made at practically every railroad station thus bringing to every section of Florida, no matter how remote, the gospel of good health and disease prevention,” suggested a report published in the January 1916 volume of Florida Health Notes, the official bulletin of the State Board of Health.

The Exhibits

The traveling educational health exhibit consisted of three Pullman cars used to promote new sanitary living conditions and preventative health measures. One car was used exclusively for staff living quarters, while the other two housed educational film presentations, slideshows, public health demonstrations, models, electric devices, panel texts and numerous other instructional devices.

Interior view of car number one, which served as living quarters for Florida health train staff, 1916. Florida Health Notes, January 1916, page 415. State Library of Florida.

Interior view of car number one, which served as living quarters for Florida health train staff, 1916. Florida Health Notes, January 1916, page 415, State Library of Florida.

Interior view of the first exhibit car of the Florida health train, 1916. Florida Health Notes, January 1916, page 416, State Library of Florida.

Interior view of the first exhibit car of the Florida health train, 1916. Florida Health Notes, January 1916, page 416, State Library of Florida.

The March 1916 volume of Florida Health Notes described the two exhibit cars in further detail:

The larger part of the car is devoted to the installation of various models, as that illustrating the Imhoff sewage disposal system, another showing how water in driven or open wells is contaminated by drainage from stable, outhouse and polluted surface water. A miniature model shows a dipping vat for ridding cattle of the ticks, A model dairy is illustrated in the same manner; the proper feeding and clothing of babies and the open-air treatment of tuberculosis and many other practical questions of sanitation and disease prevention are similarly illustrated. … Car number three is divided through most of its length by a partition on which are displayed 36 panels. They carry… warnings and advice on sanitary subjects and disease prevention. Numerous electrically operated models and a large steremotograph (automated slide machine)… are also arranged[.]

State public health officials, including doctors and nurses, kept a tight schedule as they traveled all over Florida spreading the word about public health advancements. The program made regular stops in towns and cities along existing railroad routes, pulling in for a day or two at each location.

When the health train rolled into town, it typically attracted hundreds of visitors. School officials often planned a field trip around the train’s visit, sending their students to soak up the valuable hygiene lessons. Some teachers even awarded prizes to the student with the best essay describing what they had learned.

Interior view of the first exhibit car on the health train, 1916. Florida Health Notes, January 1916, page 147, State Library of Florida.

Interior view of the first exhibit car on the health train, 1916. Florida Health Notes, January 1916, page 147, State Library of Florida.

Gladys Brown, a seventh grade student from Green Cove Springs, a community near Jacksonville, published her observations in the April 1916 volume of Florida Health Notes.

Brown wrote about how when she first walked into the exhibit there was a model of an unsanitary kitchen. In it there were no screens and food had been left out on the dinner table, leaving it open to flies and possible contamination.

On the opposite side from this was shown a house… barn and other out houses. There was a large pile of fertilizer near by and the flies flew from this into the home, where of course, they [sit] on food, etc. There were chickens in the barnyard. One was dead, maybe of cholera. … Through the kitchen window I saw a kettle streaming on the stove. There were no screens to this window either–everything open to flies.

As Brown moved through the health train, she described informational panels about proper dental hygiene and slides with instructions on how to care for snake bites, dizziness and broken bones. Another display emphasized infant mortality, highlighting insufficient prenatal care, tuberculosis, diphtheria, whooping cough and scarlet fever as causes of death.

Brown documented that the exhibit concluded with a model of a sanitary home, replete with screened-in windows to keep flies and other bugs out and proper sewage.

“The last was a little bell which I had been hearing ring. It tapped every minute to remind you that someone died from a preventable disease.”

Closeup view of one the health education displays likely seen by patrons of the health train, 1915. Florida Health Notes, January 1915, page 5, State Library of Florida.

Closeup view of one the health education displays likely seen by patrons of the health train, 1915. Florida Health Notes, January 1915, page 5, State Library of Florida.

Although the trains ceased operation during the stifling summer months, the traveling health exhibit reached about 25 to 30 locations per month. Some of the stops included Cocoanut Grove, West Palm Beach, Titusville, New Smyrna, Walton, Maytown, Daytona, Palatka, Lake City and Jacksonville.

No community was too big or too small to receive the so-called gospel of good health, and by the close of 1916 the health train had visited a total of 126 towns in Florida.

Dr. Porter took great pride in the innovation, writing in his 1916 Annual Report to the State Board of Health:

It can be said without any undue boast or immoderate brag, that the Educational Health Exhibit Train has been the crowning feature of the health administration of the past four years…The Train affords the means of bringing the subjects which the State Board of Health believes to be of prime importance to the welfare of the people in Florida in their health and happiness…along the lines of rail communication. (This) moving school of instruction… represents a striking effort toward the sole object of improving the human health…and the State…hopes through this means to impress the people…with useful lessons of not only how to live healthily and therefore happily, but also how to live long and monetarily profitably. The…fruitful benefit resulting from the visit of these cars equipped with an exhibit is purely educational in character of a sanitary and hygienic nature…is clearly shown by request from the people…for literature giving additional information on disease prevention and improved manner of keeping in the health.

In 1917, the program reached another 78 towns, but the successes of the Educational Health Exhibit Train were short-lived. When Dr. Porter resigned later that year, interest in the program faded. With that, the state sold the exhibit to a carnival and the health trains became history.

Selected Sources:

Huffard, Scott R., Jr. “Infected Rails: Yellow Fever and Southern Railroads.” Journal of Southern History. 79.1 (Feb. 2013): p. 80.

Turner, Gregg M. A Journey into Florida’s Railroad History. Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 2008.

Florida Health Notes, 1915-1917. State Library of Florida.

Annual Report of the Florida State Board of Health, 1916. State Library of Florida.

(.S 900) Florida State Board of Health Subject Files. State Archives of Florida.

Dirigible Flights Over Pensacola

On July 2, 1900, the first Zeppelin flight took place near the city of Friedrichshafen on Lake Constance in southern Germany. Although the dirigible flew for approximately one hour and 15 minutes, it was difficult to steer because there was almost no directional control. The sliding weight mechanism, which controlled vertical movement, malfunctioned during the flight and caused the LZ-1, as the airship was known, to land on the lake’s surface. Unable to move on its own, the airship had to be towed back to its shed. This anticlimactic maiden voyage didn’t deter Count Ferdinand von Zeppelin from improving his design and neither did subsequent crashes of roughly 10 airships between 1900 and 1913. By the time Germany entered World War I in 1914, Zeppelins had developed into a reliable form of transportation in Germany; they were even used to transport passengers between cities.

The USS Los Angeles (ZR-3) flying over Miami, 1925. Photo by G.W. Romer. This rigid airship was built by the Zeppelin company of Germany and given to the United States as reparation for World War I.

When the war started, the German army took control of three Zeppelins and eventually expanded the fleet with airships from other manufacturers. Britain, France and Russia also each had their own fleet of airships during the war. Airships were used in combat to observe enemy troop movements and artillery, but airships also threatened civilian populations. In early 1915, Germany began using airships to conduct raids over England. Count Zeppelin had intended his airships to be used in war, yet the Zeppelins themselves were ill-equipped for this purpose. Though the airships were a frightening sight, the threat of enemy fire almost certainly spelled disaster for an airship during the war. Some airships were even accidentally shot down by their own side; and gusts of wind could easily throw the airship off course resulting in bombs being dropped miles from their intended target. But, as the war continued and airship designs became more advanced, raids by airships were more frequent and deadly.

The United States Navy’s lighter-than-air program started developing airships later than Germany and the rest of Europe. Lighter-than-air crafts, such as blimps, balloons and airships, use lifting gases to help the craft rise above the Earth’s surface (as opposed to heavier-than-air crafts, such as airplanes and helicopters, which use other features to help them rise). After Count Zeppelin’s flight in 1900, the United States began to gather information about the design and the materials used in the Zeppelin’s production. Though the U.S. Navy was unable to produce a rigid airship like the Zeppelin until the USS Shenandoah (ZR-1) in 1923, they had been developing nonrigid airships years before the U.S. even entered WWI. In fact, the U.S. Navy’s lighter-than-air program began with nonrigid airships. The difference between rigid and nonrigid has to do with the structure of the dirigible: the shape of a rigid airship is defined by its metal framework, whereas nonrigid airships will deflate without the pressure of the gases.

A U.S. Navy balloon being prepared for ascent in Pensacola as part of the lighter-than-air program, April 15, 1916. Balloons were used to monitor enemy troop movements and gather intelligence during wars dating back to the 18th century.

The development of the nonrigid airship for the U.S. Navy surpassed that of the rigid airship. In 1915, a contract was awarded to the Connecticut Aircraft Company for the Navy’s first nonrigid airship. By 1917, the U.S. Navy had its first nonrigid airship, the DN-1. The DN-1 would make its first flight at the recently constructed Naval Air Station Pensacola (NAS Pensacola). Just a few years before, Pensacola had been selected as the site of naval aviation training. In April 1917, the DN-1 arrived in Pensacola, and the airship completed its first flight on April 20.

The DN-1 outside of its hangar at NAS Pensacola, April 27, 1917. The floating hangar was designed specifically to house the DN-1.

During the dirigible’s maiden voyage, the DN-1 sailed above Santa Rosa Island, circled over Pensacola, and then returned to the naval air station. The next day, the Pensacola Journal reported that the first flight was a “perfect success” and described how the airship exceeded expectations. Other accounts, however, said the ship was too heavy and leaking air.

Story from the Pensacola Journal about the DN-1’s first flight, April 21, 1917. Click for full story. Image: University of Florida Digital Collections.

The DN-1 was damaged after a few flights and eventually broken up. The floating hangar that was designed specifically to house the DN-1 was repurposed ashore as a hangar for landplanes until the 1920s.

The DN-1 entering its floating hangar after a test flight at NAS Pensacola, April 27, 1917.

The United States continued to develop its lighter-than-air program during the interwar years, as did the rest of Europe. During World War II, the U.S. Navy used airships to monitor the Atlantic and Pacific oceans in an effort to spot enemy submarines. After WWII, the airship faded into obscurity as the military allotted more funding to develop heavier-than-air aeronautics. By the mid-1960s, the Navy’s lighter-than-air program had come to an end.

Read more about Florida’s role in WWI in our online exhibit. For more information about the history of airships, see the following sources:

Althoff, William F. Sky Ships: A History of the Airship in the United States Navy. Pacifica, CA: Pacifica Press, 1990.

Beaubois, Henry. Airships: Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow. New York: The Two Continents Publishing Group, Ltd., 1973.

Botting, Douglas. Dr. Eckener’s Dream Machine: The Great Zeppelin and the Dawn of Air Travel. New York: Henry Holt and Company, 2001.

Clarke, Basil. The History of Airships. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1961.

Payne, Lee. Lighter Than Air: An Illustrated History of the Airship. London: Thomas Yoseloff Ltd, 1977.

Dispatches from the Florida Capital

Spot a politician in the Florida state Capitol building and expect to find a gaggle of reporters nearby, vying to scoop the latest story. While some of today’s bylines carry more weight than others, from 1944 to 1982 United Press International (UPI) reporter Barbara Landstreet Frye dominated Florida’s state politics beat. Dubbed the dean of Tallahassee’s correspondents, Frye’s no-frills, objective style journalism is credited with changing the direction of Florida government. The veteran reporter covered the administrations of 11 Florida governors, dozens of legislative sessions, state courts and a stream of other political events that have since made Florida history.

But Frye broke more than news during her 38-year tenure. As the first female reporter to cover Florida’s capital politics, she broke barriers for future generations of women journalists. “She was a liberated woman long before anyone used that term… She competed against all-male competition in the early days, and she beat them,” remembered former Tallahassee Democrat editor Bill Mansfield. Once declared “an institution” by clerk of the Florida House and founder of the Florida Photographic Collection Allen Morris, Frye’s unmatched work ethic and passion for Florida politics cemented her legacy as a pioneering woman in journalism.

Portrait of UPI Tallahassee Bureau Chief Barbara Landstreet Frye, ca. 1960.

Portrait of UPI Tallahassee Bureau Chief Barbara Landstreet Frye, ca. 1960.

When Barbara Frye was born Barbara Landstreet in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, in 1922, only a handful of women worked in the male-dominated news business. But this prevailing reality did not stop Landstreet from pursuing a journalism degree at the University of Georgia. Upon graduating in 1943, the United Press Association (UPI’s predecessor) offered Landstreet a reporting position in Atlanta.

But there was just one minor problem: she was already engaged to marry her college boyfriend. In those days, married middle-class women didn’t work if they could help it. Moreover, Landstreet recognized the fleeting pretext of the job offer–with so many American men fighting in WWII, employers sought female talent to fill in the temporary wartime gaps. In a career-defining moment, the aspiring reporter bucked societal expectations, broke off the engagement and boarded a train for the Georgia capital. “I just couldn’t resist an offer from a big wire service.”

After a nine month stint in Atlanta, UPI promoted the fresh-faced 22-year-old co-ed to head up the new Tallahassee Bureau–a job she hesitated to accept at first: “My family was in Atlanta and I had never been out on my own before. I was nearly in tears, I had never even heard of Tallahassee.” Despite these initial reservations, Landstreet made the move.

Barbara Landstreet Frye, ca. 1945.

Portrait of Barbara Landstreet Frye, ca. 1945. Photo by Harvey Slade.

On the train ride down to Florida’s capital city, she happened to sit next to a hospitable woman focused on easing the young reporter’s fears. The woman turned out to be Florida’s First Lady Mary Groover Holland and she extended a dinner invitation to the newcomer. The UPI bureau chief ate her inaugural Tallahassee meal at the Florida Governor’s Mansion in the company of Governor Spessard Holland and family. On her first night in town, Landstreet was already gathering political sources, a skill that would help earn her an impeccable reputation as one of Florida’s top political reporters.

Soon after arriving in Tallahassee, Landstreet met and married former director of the state Game and Fresh Water Fish Commission Dr. Earl O. Frye. From then on, her byline read simply Barbara Frye (UPI). “I never planned a career when I started work. I always envisioned myself as working a few years, getting married and becoming a housewife.”

But the grip of Florida’s evolving twentieth century political landscape held Frye in the press gallery at the Capitol for almost four decades. In that time, she sat through countless dull government meetings and traveled all over the state to interview sources, all the while remaining dedicated to informing the public on the latest developments in Florida politics.

Barbara Frye enjoying eating at Governor Millard Caldwell's press conference in Orlando, 1946.

Barbara Landstreet Frye eating at Governor Millard Caldwell’s press conference in Orlando, 1946.

Capitol Press Corps interviewing Governor Fuller Warren at the Silver Slipper restaurant , 1949. Frye is pictured second from left.

Capitol Press Corps interviewing Governor Fuller Warren at the Silver Slipper restaurant in Tallahassee, 1949. Frye is pictured second from left.

“She came here almost as a bobby-soxer. I can remember when she first came she was such a spry, attractive person,” remembered Governor LeRoy Collins. When she first started writing about Florida politics, only a handful of reporters covered the state Capitol and Frye was the only woman in the group. “At first no one took me very seriously because they simply were not used to women covering the news here.” In an era when editors often assigned “fluff” pieces to female reporters, Frye fought hard to cover meatier topics. Described by a friend as a “mix of old south and modern feminist,” her disarming southern lilt fit right in with Florida’s “good old boy” political climate of the 1940s and 50s–and helped bridge some  initial gender barriers.

Program from the fifth annual Capital [sic.] Press Club Skits, ca. 1955. William T. Cash Collection (N2004-5, Box 04, Folder 13), State Archives of Florida. Since the 1940s, Tallahassee’s legislative correspondents have put on the press skits at the start of each legislative session, satirizing lawmakers. As a member of the press club, Barbara Frye participated in a number of skits over the years.

By the 1950s, every reporter, politico and pundit in the state not only knew Barbara Frye’s byline but implicitly trusted the accuracy of her reporting. Veteran Florida political writer Martin Dyckman remembered one telling anecdote from the Governor Reubin Askew era: Frye had mistakenly filed a story with the lede “Gov. LeRoy Collins today…” and it almost went unnoticed.

Barbara Frye sits with other members of the Capitol Press Corps covering the Bay County High School awards ceremonies for March of Dimes, 1962. Jim Stokes|State Archives of Florida.

Barbara Frye sits with other members of the Capitol Press Corps covering the Bay County High School awards ceremonies for March of Dimes, 1962. Photo by Jim Stokes.

 Barbara Frye with Governor Reubin Askew, Congressman Bill Young and Florida Secretary of State Richard Stone, 1976. Don Dughi/State Archives of Florida.

Barbara Frye with Governor Reubin Askew, Congressman Bill Young and Florida Secretary of State Richard Stone, 1976. Photo by Don Dughi.

Frye cultivated close relationships with her political subjects, winning high praise from several of Florida’s governors. “I think the way she helped me more than any other way was in her expectation that my conduct would measure up,” said Governor Collins. “She expected the most of me and I felt if I didn’t measure up, she would be disappointed,” he continued. Echoing Collins, Governor Askew characterized Frye as “a woman who, in her own way, constantly challenged those who held positions of public trust to realize their potential as public servant.” Her own public service work extended beyond the press corps, as she was also an active member of the Tiger Bay Club, Junior League and the Statewide Citizens Council on Drug Abuse.

At the height of her dynamic journalism career, while other reporters scrambled to track down sources, tipsters frequently sought the ear of the UPI bureau chief. Sources offered Frye exclusive information because they trusted her news judgement.

Members of the Capitol Press Corps covering the 1968 special legislative session. Note that Barbara Frye, pictured top left, is the only woman in the corps.

Members of the Capitol Press Corps covering the 1968 special legislative session. Note that Barbara Frye, pictured top left, is the only woman in the corps.

From special elections to legislative reapportionment, Frye meticulously drafted an almost half-century’s worth of Florida history with speed, precision and her own personal flair.


UPI article by Barbara Frye regarding the 1967 Special Legislative Session on reapportionment. Barbara Frye Press Files Collection (M90-18), Box 5, Folder 17, State Archives of Florida. Frye wrote most of her articles on a teletype machine, unable to see the words she was typing. Her work was then transmitted over the UPI wire service and printed.

UPI article by Barbara Frye regarding the 1967 Special Legislative Session on reapportionment. Barbara Frye Press Files Collection (M90-18), Box 5, Folder 17, State Archives of Florida. Frye wrote most of her articles on a teletype machine, unable to see the words she was typing. Her work was then transmitted over the UPI wire service and printed.

Before reaching middle age, Frye had become a living legend at the Florida Capitol. Frye set the standard for good journalism in Tallahassee and mentored many up-and-coming Tallahassee reporters over the years, especially young women.

Former statehouse reporter turned Leon County Commissioner Mary Ann Lindley, longtime Tallahassee Democrat journalist Bill Cotterell and retired editor of the St.Petersburg Times Martin Dyckman all learned the ropes from Frye. “Barbara could, and would, teach anybody – including competitors – about state government,” remembered Cotterell. “She was never too big to lend a hand to green frightened reporters covering the big beat for the first time. She never forgot the tears and apprehension she had on the night train from Atlanta so long ago,” reminisced Dyckman.

Barbara Frye interviewing Governor Bob Graham at the Governor's Mansion in Tallahassee, ca. 1979. Graham's was the last administration Frye reported on before her death in 1982.

Barbara Frye interviewing Governor Bob Graham at the Governor’s Mansion in Tallahassee, ca. 1979. Graham’s was the last administration Frye reported on before her death in 1982.

Though her editor at UPI offered Frye a string of different jobs in Washington, she turned them all down, citing her unbridled enthusiasm for writing about Florida’s steamy politics.

Frye never missed a day of work, until she was diagnosed with cancer in 1981. Even still, she continued reporting on select happenings downtown throughout most of her illness. “I thought I was immortal…. I thought I’d be the last person left. I never thought cancer,” Frye reconciled in an interview during the last year of her life. The Florida Capitol mourned when 60-year-old Barbara Landstreet Frye died at Tallahassee Memorial Hospital on May 22, 1982.

Poster of 1984 Florida Women’s Hall of Fame inductees, State Library of Florida. Barbara Frye is pictured on the top left.

Once known as a living legend, Frye has continued to maintain a legendary status some 35 years after her death. Immediately following her passing, the Capitol Press Club of Florida created the Barbara L. Frye Scholarship which awards annual prizes to aspiring young journalists. Additionally, in 1984, the Governor’s Commission on the Status of Women posthumously elected Frye to the Florida Women’s Hall of Fame; the Florida Press Association Hall of Fame also honored her in 1990. That same year, the State Archives of Florida acquired the esteemed journalist’s press files, where the story of her legendary career as one of the nation’s trailblazing female political reporters lives on.

Miss Nancy’s Story

This is the second installment of our two-part blog series highlighting the Nancy Tribble Benda Collection (N2016-1) available at the State Archives of Florida. Benda was one of the first mermaids to perform at Weeki Wachee Springs when it opened in 1947. She later went on to star in WFSU-TV’s educational children’s television show “Miss Nancy’s Store”  from 1966-1967 before working for the Florida Department of Education.

After splashing onto the scene in the 1940s as one of the first-ever Weeki Wachee mermaids, Nancy Tribble Benda briefly stepped out of the limelight to pursue a degree in elementary education at Florida State University (FSU). But by the 1960s she was making waves again. This time as the star of her own educational television show: The hit children’s series “Miss Nancy’s Store” aired on WFSU-TV from 1966-1967. During an illustrious 40-year public education career, Benda worked both on and off-screen to expand educational access in Florida.

Nancy Tribble Benda on the set of WFSU-TV's educational children's television show,

Nancy Tribble Benda on the set of WFSU-TV’s educational children’s television show, “Miss Nancy’s Store,” ca. 1966.

Nancy Tribble was born in 1930. Back then, radio was king and television was still a new-fangled experiment. But by the time a teen-aged Ms. Tribble landed her role as an underwater entertainer at the new Weeki Wachee Springs amusement park in Brooksville, Florida, in 1947, home television sets had debuted in American markets. Over the next decade, as television began to redefine national media consumption, it would also redirect Benda’s career path.

Shortly after appearing in the 1948 motion picture Mr. Peabody and the Mermaid, Benda hung up her mermaid fin and moved back to her hometown of Tallahassee, where she enrolled at Florida State University. She married architect Charles Benda in 1950. After graduation, Mrs. Nancy Tribble Benda took her first job at Havana Elementary School in Gadsden County, teaching fifth grade. A few years later, she transferred to Sealey Memorial Elementary in Leon County. But Benda wouldn’t stay in a traditional classroom for long. Her combined performance and teaching talents would soon thrust her into the emerging educational television industry.

Nancy Tribble Benda with her sorority sisters at Florida State University, ca. 1949.

Benda (second row, right) at the Alpha Xi Delta Sorority rush party at Florida State University, ca. 1949.

Ed. Television Comes to Florida

By 1955, half of American households owned a television. Big networks such as ABC, CBS, and NBC captivated audiences with the comedic cheese of family sit-coms like The Goldbergs, Leave it to Beaver, and I Love Lucy. However, heavy product placement, gimmicky ads and implausible story lines left some parents and professionals concerned that the first generation of American youngsters to grow up in front of the television were starved for intellectual stimulation.

The answer to the call for more educational television programming first arrived in 1952 with the creation of the Educational Television and Radio Center (later renamed National Educational Television and replaced by the Public Broadcasting Service in 1970). The network aimed to educate the nation’s growing number of television viewers with an entertaining yet enriching lineup. Proponents saw potential in the new technology’s unprecedented ability to provide underserved populations with quality educational programming.

Individual states soon caught on to the idea of “teleducation,” developing the first statewide educational television networks in the 1950s. Florida’s population increased enormously after World War II, ballooning from just under 2 million in 1940 to 3.7 million by 1955. The dramatic influx of new residents overburdened the state’s traditional public education infrastructure. Consequently, Florida Governor LeRoy Collins, who was elected in 1954 on a progressive education platform, looked to the remote access afforded by educational television programming as a possible solution.

In 1957, the Florida Legislature created the Florida Educational Television Commission (Ch. 57-312, Laws) “to provide through educational television a means of extending the powers of teaching in public education and of raising living and educational standards of the citizens and residents of the state.”

The commission joined with state universities and the independent Florida Institute for Continuing University Studies (FICUS) to create the Florida Television Network. The entity produced both closed-circuit and public access educational programming to enhance learning in all levels of public education, from kindergarten to adult learning.

Illustration showing the radial reach of the Florida Television Network’s six stations, ca. 1966. Nancy Benda Collection (N2016-1), Box 05, Folder 9, State Archives of Florida. Click to enlarge and view full record.

Some channels also collaborated with local school boards. WTHS-TV in Miami opened the first school board-run station in the country in 1957, serving students enrolled in district by day and the general public by night. In 1960 WFSU-TV, whose production studios were located on FSU’s campus, went live in Tallahassee.

By 1965, six non-commercial broadcast stations were in operation throughout Florida: Tallahassee, Gainesville, Miami, Tampa, Jacksonville and Orlando.

Tallahassee’s T.V. Teacher

Benda’s role in the rising educational television movement started in 1960, when she took a continuing education summer school class on the “techniques” of educational television. The following year, she and several other local Leon County elementary school teachers formulated a curriculum for a televised fifth grade social studies course for students in the district.

Once the Leon County School Board approved the new social studies course, the school board held auditions for an on-air teaching position and Benda won the part. On February 1, 1962, the first episode of the live history-themed puppet show, “Our Nation’s Story,” premiered on WFSU-TV’s Channel 11. During the course, which aired every Tuesday and Thursday at 2:00 p.m. in fifth grade social studies classrooms throughout Leon County, Benda taught lessons on the history of the United States from “the westward movement in the late 1840s … to [the] beginnings] [of] space travel.”

WFSU-TV program guide featuring an advertisement for "Our Nation's Story," 1963. Nancy Benda Collection (N2016-1), Box 05, Folder 9, State Archives of Florida. Click to enlarge and view full record.

WFSU-TV program guide featuring an advertisement for “Our Nation’s Story,” 1963. Nancy Benda Collection (N2016-1), Box 05, Folder 9, State Archives of Florida. Click to enlarge and view full record.

WFSU-TV’s reach expanded quickly to the rural counties surrounding Leon County, including Calhoun, Gulf, Jackson, Liberty and Wakulla counties. The program supplemented traditional classroom material and helped break down educational access barriers, serving an estimated 6,000 viewers in the Big Bend area.

“We want to be sure we’re fulfilling a need and we want to put TV to best use,” Benda said. The school board eventually approved Benda’s transfer from Sealey Elementary to full-time status as a television teacher. Only responsible for teaching one course, the state’s handful of TV teachers were able to devote more time to enhancing their lessons and making them more engaging for students. Additionally, TV teachers could fill in if a school did not have a teacher qualified to teach a particular course.

Before long, Benda was appearing on Florida’s other five regional public television stations as part of the network’s statewide educational programming initiative, “Through the TV Tube,” which offered for-credit elementary, secondary and college telecourses. Benda taught televised elementary level American history and science classes. The network also offered Spanish, physical education,reading, literature, art, writing and speech courses. Additionally, many Florida high schoolers tuned in to watch a televised version of the legislatively mandated six-week high school course, Americanism vs. Communism. The Cold War-era content remained a public school curriculum requirement until 1983 when lawmakers replaced it with an essential economics class.

Letter from the Florida Institute for Continuing University Studies to Nancy Benda thanking the teacher for her work on “Through the TV Tube” with a “small honorarium,” August 3, 1964. Nancy Benda Collection N2016-1, Box 05, Folder 1, State Archives of Florida.

Florida’s innovative educational television programming garnered high praise from national critics. Nancy Benda won the 1965 Freedoms Foundation Award for her work on “Our Nation’s Story.”

Additionally, Television Digest touted the Florida networks’ expansive coverage, writing in 1964 that “Despite much talk by other states about elaborate, proposed ETV systems, Florida is still the only state to achieve anything like a real statewide network with programs available to significant numbers of major population areas.”

Benda’s interest in educational television stemmed from her deeper passion for educational equality. After participating in Operation Headstart, a federal program launched in 1965 aimed at providing early childhood education for low-income children, she saw a greater need for high-quality kindergarten instruction.

“In many poverty[-stricken] homes children haven’t even seen books or heard good music. But even in middle or upper class homes, children of working parents often lack opportunities… the parents just don’t have time,” the television teacher elaborated to the St. Petersburg Times.

Determined to help bridge the gaps, Nancy Benda pitched a new children’s television show to WFSU-TV.

 “Miss Nancy’s Store”

In 1965, the Florida Department of Education partnered with WFSU-TV to create, “Miss Nancy’s Store,” an enchanting new after school puppet show geared toward boosting childhood literacy. The series starred Benda in the title role and premiered in January 1966.

Nancy Benda working on the set of

Nancy Benda working on the set of “Miss Nancy’s Store,” ca. 1966.

At the height of its run, “Miss Nancy’s Store” aired on all six public television stations in Florida five nights per week at 5:00 p.m, with a potential viewing audience of six million people.

“It’s really a cooperative venture. Parents in the community have felt a need for a children’s show in the area at this time–something they could be sure wouldn’t have to be supervised, something educational, sound, well-done and enjoyable,” she explained.

While filming the show, Benda also earned her master’s in elementary education supervision via correspondence graduate courses at FSU. She brought her expertise to the set and hit all the right marks with viewers.

Miss Nancy stands next to a magical pot-bellied stove in her store, ca. 1966. The stove's smoke transported children into an alternative world filled with music and moving pictures. Other props included a

Miss Nancy stands next to a magical pot-bellied stove in her store, ca. 1966. On the show, the stove’s smoke transported children into an alternative world filled with music and moving pictures. Other props included a “no-cracker cracker barrel” filled with toys, a gramophone, and a secret door in the brick wall where puppets appeared.

Upon turning on the tube, children were transported in the magical world of Miss Nancy’s Store. To get youngsters excited about learning, Nancy employed creative tactics not feasible in a regular classroom. Miss Nancy played dress up and taught language lessons with the help of the show’s colorful puppet characters. “We want children to watch because [they are] interested, not because mama or teacher says it’s good to learn,” she emphasized to a reporter.

Booklet detailing the different characters and quirks of “Miss Nancy’s Store,” as well as the information about the show’s current and future budget, 1966. Nancy Benda Collection (N2016-1), Box 05, Folder 9, State Archives of Florida. Click to enlarge and flip through the full record.

“Miss Nancy’s Store” ranked number one on WFSU-TV’s Channel 11, receiving 11,000 pieces of fan mail in its first year. To make the show more interactive, she spent the last few minutes of each episode acknowledging viewers’ birthdays and reading  fan letters. Florida Commissioner of Education Floyd T. Christian praised the show for its top-notch instructional content.

“I watch your show every day, and I like it very very much…. My mother likes your show too, and thinks you are very pretty and charming. She also thanks you for keeping me out of her hair while she fixes dinner. [We] both send you a big kiss,” gushed one young viewer.

Fan letter to Nancy Benda from five-year-old Timmy Wilson of Hialeah, ca. 1966. Nancy Benda Collection (N2016-1), Box 05, Folder 10, State Archives of Florida.

Despite such favorable ratings and reviews, the show billed high production costs. And a lack of funding forced the network to cancel “Miss Nancy’s Store” in August 1967. Fans, from kindergartners to grandparents, wrote futile pleas to the show’s producers, begging them to keep it on the air.

“I watch Miss Nancy’s Store, everyday. I like her program. Would you please keep her on the air, so children of my age and yonger [sic.] can continue to be educated and intertained [sic.]?”

Letter from “Miss Nancy’s Store” fan Wanda Coles in reaction to series cancellation, August 2, 1967. Nancy Benda Collection (N2016-1), Box 05, Folder 12, State Archives of Florida.

One adult viewer pleaded with producers to keep the show on the air, asking if “For once, couldn’t the viewer be considered and some other program be dropped and put the money into this feature that holds so many children’s attention?”  She attached an article referring to children’s TV as a “mini-wasteland” to support her case.

Letter to WFSU-TV producers from Mrs. George Brant on the cancellation of “Miss Nancy’s Store,” August 13, 1967. Nancy Benda Collection (N2016-1), Box 05, Folder 12, State Archives of Florida. Click to view full record.

Lifelong Educator

Once “Miss Nancy’s Store” stopped filming, Benda accepted a job with the Florida Department of Education (FDOE) as the director of equal opportunity programs. Until her retirement in 2003, the former television star took up the charge of enforcing Title IX–a 1972 federal law barring sex discrimination in scholastic and athletic programs at educational institutions receiving federal funds–in Florida’s public schools. She traveled the state investigating the disparities in athletic offerings for male and female students. Sports teach discipline and competition, she said. Benda intimated that “those are skills that have served our males very well,” and would benefit women as well.

In 1993 she traveled to Washington D.C., testifying as a witness in a congressional hearing on alleged sex discrimination in secondary and collegiate level sports. Toward the end of her tenure with FDOE, Benda expressed tempered views on the progress of educational opportunity in Florida: “Schools have made some enormous strides, [but] there’s a lot of work to be done.”

Nancy Tribble Benda died of cancer in 2015 at the age of 85. After the former educator’s passing, her family donated her career files to the State Archives of Florida for preservation. The collection documents the television teacher’s historic contributions to expanding educational access in Florida. A sampling of items from the collection is now available online.

Florida now boasts a total of 13 public access channels, their success owed in part to the educational television framework built by innovative teachers like Nancy Benda.

Selected Sources:

Nancy Tribble Benda Collection (N2016-1). State Archives of Florida.

Educational Television Commission Minutes (.S 1913). State Archives of Florida.

A Mermaid’s Tale

This is the first installment of our two-part blog series highlighting the Nancy Tribble Benda Collection (N2016-1) available at the State Archives of Florida. Benda was one of the first mermaids to perform at Weeki Wachee Springs when it opened in 1947. She later went on to star in WFSU-TV’s educational children’s television show “Miss Nancy’s Store”  from 1966-1967 before working for the Florida Department of Education.

Many young children play dress up and fantasize about becoming a mermaid, a movie star, or a queen. But what if you really could be a mermaid, act in a movie, and be treated like Hollywood royalty? In 1947, teenager Nancy Tribble would become one of the first “mermaids” to work at Weeki Wachee Springs, landing a role on the big screen in Universal Pictures’ Mr. Peabody and the Mermaid.

Nancy with her mermaid tail, photographed during promotion for Mr. Peabody and the Mermaid, 1948.

Nancy Tribble was born in DeLand, Florida, in 1930 to Lewis and Hillis Tribble. The family moved to Tallahassee in 1940, where she would go on to attend Leon High School and Florida State University. As a young woman, her hobbies included swimming in the local rivers and springs, spending time with friends, and competing in local beauty pageants, such as the Miss Underwater contest.

Nancy as Miss Killearn Gardens with Miss Wakulla Springs during the Miss Underwater contest, 1946.

In 1947, Nancy would accept an unusual position as one of the first underwater performers at nascent tourist attraction Weeki Wachee Springs, situated along US 19 near the small and remote town of Brooksville. A year prior, park founder and former U.S. Navy swim coach, Newton Perry, had recognized Weeki Wachee as a good location for his new underwater theater business. In preparing the site for tourism, Perry first cleared the spring of the abandoned cars and rusted home appliances that had been sunk there by area residents. He then experimented with underwater breathing hoses, eventually creating a method of breathing underwater via a hose supplying oxygen from an air compressor. Taking occasional breaths from this hose, the “mermaids” could perform 20 feet underwater for extended periods of time, rather than being encumbered by wearing an oxygen tank.

Brochure advertising Weeki Wachee Springs, 1949 (Series N2016-1, Box 3, Folder 5).

Six feet below the water’s surface, Perry built an 18-seat theater so that visitors could view performances and experience the beauty of the blue spring. Perry recruited young women from all over Florida and trained them to perform synchronized ballet moves and host underwater picnics while breathing through air hoses hidden throughout the scenery.

Nancy posed with underwater sign at Weekiwachee Spring, 1947.

On October 13, 1947, the first underwater show at the Weeki Wachee Springs theater opened. In a few short years, Weeki Wachee would become one of America’s most popular tourist attractions. Movies began to be filmed at the spring–notably, Universal Pictures’ Mr. Peabody and the Mermaid in 1948. Nancy tried out for the role of the lead actress in Mr. Peabody and the Mermaid, but that part was given to Ann Blyth. Instead, Nancy was cast as Blyth’s underwater body double and performed the swimming parts for the film. Journal entries left in Nancy’s scrapbook detail her experience of flying to Hollywood to meet the cast and crew.

Upon arriving in Hollywood, Nancy was immediately fitted for her mermaid costume by having a plaster mold made from her body. The tail in question, originally budgeted at $500, ultimately cost $18,000 to fabricate. In her first journal entry documenting her trip, Nancy comically illustrates the plastering process as if describing a scene from a horror film:

Journal entry by Nancy written December 9, 1947, describing her first day in Hollywood (Series N2016-1, Box 4).

In the center of the room was a white, pillow-covered operating table with fluorescent lights lowered over it. That was for me! Golly. I turned to run but the door was barred…one of the big fellows grabbed me, while the women, who [were] by no means tiny, greased me from head to foot. Then I was thrown face down on the torture table and “plastered.” The stuff was cold and damp but with no sympathy whatsoever, the tyrants covered me from my neck down to my toes with plaster.

Following this plaster incident, Nancy was fitted for her mermaid wig by two makeup artists, who she described as “beautiful witches with long fingernails”:

Journal entry written by Nancy on December 11, 1947, describing the process of being fitted for a wig (Series N2016-1, Box 4).

What pain, what agony, why, it was awful! Have you ever had anyone drive nails straight into your head? That’s what they did to me, or at least, it felt like it…jabbing in a hairpin here, driving home a bobbypin there…when at last their fiendish thirst was quenched, I was told to go swimming.

Hollywood wasn’t a complete terror, however. Nancy also wrote of the luxuries afforded to movie stars:

Journal entry written by Nancy on December 10, 1947, describing the luxuries afforded to actors and actresses in Hollywood (Series N2016-1, Box 4).

Have you ever felt like a queen or wanted to feel like one? Well, I have pinched myself until I am black and blue and my dream still doesn’t fade; I feel like a queen. I live in a hotel room with my mother and what a room it is. We have everything from a radio and Kleenex to clean sheets every night. When I wake up, a merry voice says, “Good morning and what would you like for breakfast this morning?”…After eating, free of charge…I go out the front door to a waiting Cadillac or Lincoln…everyplace I go there is always a happy, cheerful voice greeting me or asking if there is anything he can do to make me more comfortable.

Nancy returned to Weeki Wachee to film the swimming sequences of Mr. Peabody and Mermaid. To promote the film, she toured across Florida in full mermaid garb, ushered around inside of a large aquarium.

“Mermaid” Nancy Tribble receives a key to the city of Tampa in 1948.

As shooting for the film wrapped up, and Nancy’s stint as a mermaid winded down, her adventure was actually just beginning. She would soon enter Florida State University, beginning a long and significant career in education and communications. Stay tuned for next week’s blog in our two-part series profiling the life of Nancy Tribble Benda.

External Sources:

Nancy Tribble Benda’s Obituary on Tallahassee Democrat. Retrieved May 11, 2017, from http://www.legacy.com/obituaries/tallahassee/obituary.aspx?pid=175400455

Weeki Wachee’s History. (n.d.). Retrieved May 11, 2017, from http://weekiwachee.com/about-us/history/