Some Trees Have Knees

If someone asked you to name something that lives for centuries, can grow over a hundred feet tall, and can have dozens of knees, what would you say it was? It might sound like some hideous creature, but most Floridians would know it’s actually the majestic bald cypress.

A cypress swamp in Palmdale (1961).

A cypress swamp in Palmdale (1961).

The bald cypress (Taxodium distichum) is a familiar sight near Florida’s many lakes, rivers, creeks, swamps, and springs. The trees generally take their time to grow, but that’s not really a problem for a cypress. They can live for hundreds of years. The Senator, a bald cypress that grew near Longwood in Seminole County until it was tragically burned in 2012, was estimated to be about 3,500 years old at the time of its death. (More on the Senator Tree here).

Tourists holding hands around the Senator Tree in Longwood (circa 1930).

Tourists holding hands around the Senator Tree in Longwood (circa 1930).

One of the bald cypress’ most unusual characteristics is its “knees.” The knees are conical growths protruding up from the root system that radiates out from the tree’s trunk. They often have a knobby, knee-like appearance at the top. Their function is unknown, although studies suggest they may help the cypress absorb oxygen and remain stable in loose wet soils.

Cypress trees and knees at Fisheating Creek in Glades County (circa 1980s).

Cypress trees and knees at Fisheating Creek in Glades County (circa 1980s).

Cypress root system, photographed in Collier County (1978).

Cypress root system, photographed in Collier County (1978).

Cypress wood has long been admired for its beautiful grain, durability, and the ease with which it can be shaped and cut for building purposes. In the early 20th century, logging companies bought up vast tracts of land and cut much of the bald cypress growing in Florida swamps. The hearts of these trees, some of which were likely approaching a millenium in age, were sawed into lumber and marketed as “tidewater cypress.” The cypress industry is still in business, although the supply of available trees has dwindled considerably. Many cypress stands are now part of publicly owned protected wetlands.

Men sitting on a particularly large cypress log transported by train to the Burton-Swartz Lumber Company mill in Perry (1926).

Men sitting on a particularly large cypress log transported by train to the Burton-Swartz Lumber Company mill in Perry (1926).

As for the knees, they too have been a prized commodity. Their distinctive shape, natural broad base, and easy carvability make them perfect for creating figurines, birdhouses, and other small knick-knacks. Tom Gaskins of Palmdale, Florida made a career out of carving and shaping cypress knees for sale. He developed a Cypress Kneeland museum in Palmdale, featuring a collection of carved, peeled, and otherwise altered knees, plus a catwalk zig-zagging through an actual cypress swamp.

Along the path, visitors could see some of Gaskins’ experimental methods for shaping the knees as they grew. At various times, he tried flattening the knees with weights and carving designs into them so that the wooden flesh of the knees would grow around the cuts. Gaskins passed away in 1998, and the Cypress Kneeland Museum closed in 2000.

Tom Gaskins, artist and owner of the Cypress Kneeland attraction in Palmdale (1987).

Tom Gaskins, artist and owner of the Cypress Kneeland attraction in Palmdale (1987).

One of Tom Gaskins' creations (1987).

One of Tom Gaskins’ creations (1987).

Cypress trees and their unusual knees are just one of the features that make Florida a unique environment and all the more interesting. Which of Florida’s distinctive characteristics is your favorite? Share this post on social media or leave a comment below and get the conversation started!

Cypress sentinels watch over Lake Eloise in Polk County at sunset (1980).

Cypress sentinels watch over Lake Eloise in Polk County at sunset (1980).

When Florida Touched the Mississippi

The calm, winding Perdido River currently serves as Florida’s western boundary, but that hasn’t always been the case. In fact, for much of the 18th and early 19th centuries, Florida’s territory extended all the way to the Mississippi River!

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Florida’s First Steam-Powered Railway

On September 5, 1836, the Lake Wimico & St. Joseph Railroad ran its first train from the Apalachicola River to St. Joseph. It took about 25 minutes to move the eight cars and 300 passengers along the eight-mile stretch of track. An enthusiastic crowd met the train at its destination, delighted in both the local and statewide implications of this short voyage. In addition to boosting the local economy, the Lake Wimico & St. Joseph Railroad had the honor of being the first steam-powered railroad to operate in Florida.

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Farming at Fellsmere

The town of Fellsmere is located just west of Sebastian off Interstate 95 in Indian River County. It was one of many small communities wrestled from the swampy plains of South Florida in the early 20th century to serve the growing number of farmers making their living in the region.
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There Oughta Be a Law!

Whoever said law books are boring clearly hasn’t read many city and town ordinances from the 1800s or early 1900s. Local governments are closest to the people, so naturally the laws they create often regulate the most mundane, common behavior. You can learn a lot about a community and the challenges it faced in a particular time period by studying its local ordinances. In doing the reading, however, you’re likely to find a few that give you a chuckle. Here are a few gems from cities and towns around Florida:

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Welcome to Dunedin

Floridians have a diverse collective heritage that connects the state with all parts of the world. Dunedin, a quiet city on Florida’s Gulf Coast, is a perfect illustration of this. Dunedin citizens take pride in their town’s Scottish roots, such that tartan kilts and bagpipes are as a common a sight as palm trees.

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Researching the Homefront

Today’s post is part of the Florida Department of State’s Victory Florida campaign to commemorate the contributions of Floridian men and women to winning World War II. Help us get the word out by sharing this and other related posts on social media using the hashtag #VictoryFL.

Americans nationwide are preparing to celebrate the 70th anniversary of the end of World War II. The weekend of August 14-16 will mark the 70th anniversary of Japan’s announcement that it would surrender, while September 2nd will be the anniversary of the formal ending of hostilities.

Bird's eye view of the Victory Club of the Florida State College for Women in Tallahassee, standing in a

Bird’s eye view of the Victory Club of the Florida State College for Women in Tallahassee, standing in a “V for Victory” formation (1942).

Over 248,000 Floridians, including more than 50,000 African Americans, served in the military during the war, while the state itself served as a year-round training center with over 170 military installations. Florida’s population grew by leaps and bounds during and after the war, as many former military personnel decided to make the Sunshine State their permanent home.

It goes without saying that Florida’s military contributions to the war were vital, but Floridians on the homefront also played an essential role in achieving victory. Citizens from all walks of life – men and women, whites and African Americans, city dwellers and rural folks – poured countless hours into civilian defense programs designed to keep Florida safe and prepared for any possibility. They took stock of food, water, and medicine supplies, organized carpools and child care services for working mothers, planned recreational activities for the men and women in uniform, and even helped watch the skies and seas for signs of the enemy.

Scrap metal collection was a vital homefront program. Seen here are several Floridians in Pensacola with a large collection of scrap metal and rubber (circa 1943).

Scrap metal collection was a vital homefront program. Seen here are several Floridians in Pensacola with a large collection of scrap metal and rubber (circa 1943).

This organizational chart demonstrates the breadth of the projects undertaken by the State Defense Council and its local branches. Shown here are the various state committees, along with the organizations with which they cooperated (Box 14, Series 419 - State Defense Council Records, State Archives of Florida).

This organizational chart demonstrates the breadth of the projects undertaken by the State Defense Council and its local branches. Shown here are the various state committees, along with the organizations with which they cooperated (Box 14, Series 419 – State Defense Council Records, State Archives of Florida). Click to enlarge.

Many of these programs were administrated by Florida’s State Defense Council, a state-level counterpart of the national Office of Civilian Defense. Each county had its own defense council, with committees assigned to take on various tasks associated with civilian defense. Because these entities answered to the State Defense Council, many of their records have been preserved at the State Library and Archives in Tallahassee in Record Series 419. For the local historian working on a history of a particular Florida community or county, these records can be invaluable for understanding how local leaders helped meet the serious challenges of World War II. Genealogists may also find it interesting to learn how various relatives participated in civilian defense work. Here are some examples of the kinds of records available:

 

Personnel Lists & Organizational Charts

Each county and many cities had their own defense councils, administrated by community leaders and supported by hundreds of local volunteers. Many of the committee chairpersons were required to submit oaths of allegiance before their appointments to local leadership positions would be confirmed by the state and made official by the Governor. The local council also had to notify the state if there were any changes in personnel as the war progressed. All of this activity was documented through correspondence and lists of essential defense council leaders. Local and family historians can use this information to determine who was in charge of each area of civilian defense work during the war in a given community.

A leadership roster from the Dixie County Defense Council, showing who was in charge of the various committees. This sort of roster is available for most counties in Florida (Box 16, Series 419 - State Defense Council Records, State Archives of Florida).

A leadership roster from the Dixie County Defense Council, showing who was in charge of the various committees. This sort of roster is available for most counties in Florida (Box 16, Series 419 – State Defense Council Records, State Archives of Florida).

Chart suggesting a method for organizing civilian defense volunteers. Note that the chart provides alternative arrangements for areas with varying population density (Box 14. State Defense Council Records - Series 419, State Archives of Florida).

Chart suggesting a method for organizing civilian defense volunteers. Note that the chart provides alternative arrangements for areas with varying population density (Box 14. State Defense Council Records – Series 419, State Archives of Florida).

 

Local Programs & Advertisements

Local defense councils, especially those in Florida’s larger cities, designed intricate programs to handle basic needs like child care for working mothers, transportation, and spreading information about air raid drills, blackouts, and other safety measures. Many of the child care centers, supply distribution points, and other agencies created during the war disappeared quickly after victory, leaving little trace of their existence. The records in Series 419 can help local historians piece together what these entities were doing, where they were doing it, and who was in charge.

Example: Leaflet describing wartime child care services in Duval County established by the local school board and the Duval County Defense Council (Box 16, Series 419 – State Defense Council Records, State Archives of Florida.

 

Another example:

Flyer produced by the Dade County Defense Council encouraging citizens to volunteer (Box 12, State Defense Council Records - Series 419, State Archives of Florida).

Flyer produced by the Dade County Defense Council encouraging citizens to volunteer (Box 12, Series 419 – State Defense Council Records, State Archives of Florida).

 

Correspondence

While much of the correspondence between the State Defense Council and the local defense councils consists of routine business, some of the letters contain excellent descriptions of the work being done, and of the challenges local leaders faced in getting the supplies they needed, the information they wanted, and so on. These letters are a must for anyone working on the history of civilian defense work in a Florida community. Here is an example of one such letter to the State Defense Council from Mrs. C.C. Codrington of Lake City, who had volunteered to chair a local campaign to recruit women into the Women’s Army Corps. She describes speaking to local civic clubs about her work, working with local theater managers to show informative films, and starting work in the local high school library. Mrs. Codrington’s oath of allegiance was enclosed with the letter.

Source: Box 12, Series 419 – State Defense Council Records, State Archives of Florida.
These are only a few examples of the many gems to be found in the records of the State Defense Council at the State Archives of Florida. If you or someone you know is working on a history of your Florida community during World War II, visit us and have a look. More information on Series 419 may be obtained from the Archives Online Catalog, or you may contact the State Archives directly by email at Archives@dos.myflorida.com or by phone at (850)-245-6719.

Also, don’t forget to share this post with friends or family who may be interested in learning more about Florida’s World War II contributions. Use the hashtag #VictoryFL to help more people find this and other related posts!