Postmarked Christmas, Florida

Each year, people from miles around bring their holiday greeting cards to the post office in Christmas, Florida. Located 25 miles east of Orlando, this small community offers a unique opportunity for those sending holidays greeting cards to relatives and friends around the world: a postmark from Christmas.

The history of this community’s relationship with the Christmas holiday dates back to its founding. The Second Seminole War brought soldiers and settlers to the area, and they built a log fort on the outskirts to protect themselves from the Seminoles. The fort was constructed on December 25, 1837, and was appropriately named Fort Christmas.

When the first post office was established there in 1892, “Fort” was dropped and the community became known simply as Christmas. The Christmas postmark didn’t gain widespread attention until World War II, when servicemen stationed nearby would travel to the Christmas Post Office to have their letters sent home. The popularity of this postmark steadily increased following World War II, and people from all around the world now wish to have their holiday cards postmarked from Christmas, Florida.

Front of a postcard showing the U.S. Post Office building in Christmas, Florida.

Back of the postcard showing the Christmas, Fla. postmark. The postcard is postmarked March 17, 1950.

Juanita S. Tucker served as postmistress at the Christmas Post Office for 42 years, from 1932-1974. She was appointed to the position by President Herbert Hoover and succeeded her mother-in-law, Mrs. L.O. Tucker, who had served since 1914. As postmistress, Juanita Tucker saw the amount of holiday mail increase from year to year. People who couldn’t come in person to the post office could send packages filled with letters to have them stamped with the Christmas postmark. Holiday greeting cards and letters to Santa came from as far away as Scotland, England and the Philippines to be stamped. Many patrons, though, were locals who came back every year to partake in this newly minted Florida tradition.

Juanita Tucker at the post office window in Christmas, Florida, 1947.

To spread the word about her little community, Tucker wrote a booklet titled Perpetual Christmas (1934), in which she outlines the history of Christmas, Florida, including the post office’s history. She writes that the Christmas season at the post office “is a festive and merry occasion as well as a busy one.”

Perpetual Christmas (1934) was written by Juanita S. Tucker, who served as postmistress at the Christmas post office for 42 years. Click to read the entire booklet.

Around the holiday season, Tucker would add personal touches to the letters that came to the post office. While the postmark had to be stamped in black ink, she would personalize cards with an additional Christmas tree stamp in green ink for festive flair.

The post office became so inundated by holiday mail by the 1960s that Tucker had an addition built onto the existing post office and hired seasonal employees to lighten the load. Her husband, Cecil, was often around to assist during the holidays too. A cancellation machine also helped with the influx of mail, but Tucker still preferred to hand stamp the postmark because the stamp came out clearer. By the time she retired in 1974, the post office was mailing roughly 300,000 greeting cards from around the world and she had personally postmarked millions of cards.

Marion Stockton is Santa’s little helper at the post office in Christmas, Florida, 1947.

While the post office has changed a lot since Tucker’s retirement, the tradition of sending festive holiday greeting cards with the Christmas postmark remains. Floridians and residents nearby make the annual trip to the post office around Christmastime and can now decorate their envelopes with stamps and colorful ink provided by the post office.

What are your Christmas traditions? Have you had your holiday greeting cards stamped in Christmas, Florida? Share with us by posting a comment below or on our Facebook page!

What Day is Thanksgiving?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A Koreshan Unity Halloween

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Homemade Holiday Greetings

Spreading holiday cheer with greeting cards is a tradition dating back to the mid-1800s. With the holiday season upon us, we wanted to share some of the imaginative cards living in the collections of the State Archives. They might even inspire you to create your own.

These cards from the Florida Department of Education are hand-painted drafts by an unknown artist. On one of the cards below, you can see the artist’s notes about the sizing of the final product:

From Series S1466, Florida Department of Education, Office of Public Information Subject Files, Box 3.


From Series S1466, Florida Department of Education, Office of Public Information Subject Files, Box 3.

From Series S1466, Florida Department of Education, Office of Public Information Subject Files, Box 3.

From Series S1466, Florida Department of Education, Office of Public Information Subject Files, Box 3.

This undated handmade card, complete with a glitter-outlined Christmas tree, comes from David, the son of Florida women’s rights activist Roxcy O’Neal Bolton:

Collection M94-1, Roxcy O’Neal Bolton Papers, 1956-2016, Box 55.

Collection M94-1, Roxcy O’Neal Bolton Papers, 1956-2016, Box 55.

And if you prefer family photos to homemade art for your holiday greetings, perhaps this card from the Joseph Steinmetz collection will inspire you. Steinmetz created several unique holiday cards like this one incorporating the family pet:

The 1936 Christmas card from the Steinmetz family.

The 1936 Christmas card from the Steinmetz family featuring their dog, Peter Pan.

What are your handcrafted holiday traditions? Share them with us in the comments below.

Give the Gift of History

This holiday season you can give the gift of history to your loved ones with a print from the State Archives of Florida. We have something for everyone: film lovers, history buffsmusic enthusiasts and more.

For your cartographically inclined friends and relatives, the recently digitized Florida Maps Collection from the State Library of Florida has almost 300 maps that date from the 16th century to the present.

Map mantle

After purchasing a print from Florida Memory, you can have it custom framed at a shop in your community. (Please note: Florida Memory does not provide matting or framing services.)

Order by Friday, December 8, 2017, to guarantee delivery in time for Christmas.

Use the online shopping cart to order prints and high-resolution scans of photographs and maps. Audio recordings and videos can be ordered by email, phone or mail. Happy shopping!

Women’s Equality Day: The First Ladies of Florida Politics

In 1929 a journalist reported on Florida’s first U.S. Congresswoman Ruth Bryan Owen’s unusual problem: no pockets! Unlike her male colleagues — whose suits were constructed with upwards of thirteen pockets — Owen’s feminine professional attire provided little room for storing the necessities men typically kept in their pockets. Insisting she needed her hands to orate and handle important bill files, Owen reportedly fashioned a makeshift knapsack with a long strap to wear across her shoulders. With her hands free, Owen helped represent the first generation of women in politics, advocating on behalf of her constituents in the 4th congressional district of Florida from 1929 to 1932. Congresswoman Ruth Bryan Owen, like many of Florida’s pioneering female politicians, faced new and unexpected challenges after winning the right to vote in 1920.

Since 1971, Florida has joined in the nationwide observation of Women’s Equality Day on August 26th. Women’s Equality Day commemorates the anniversary of the certification of the 19th Amendment (see our blog on Florida’s women suffragists), which granted women’s suffrage, and symbolizes “the continued fight for equal rights.” Today, in honor of 96 years of women participating in Florida politics, we have profiled the history and achievements of four of Florida’s most path-breaking female elected officials.

Portrait of U.S. Congresswoman Ruth Bryan Owen, c. 1929.

Portrait of U.S. Congresswoman Ruth Bryan Owen, c. 1929.


Ruth Bryan Owen, Florida’s First U.S. Congresswoman (1929-1932)

The daughter of famed U.S. Congressman and three-time presidential candidate, William Jennings Bryan, Ruth Bryan Owen (1885-1954) became a ground-breaking politician in her own right after being elected to serve as Florida’s first female congresswoman in 1928. Having grown up in a well-connected, politically active family, government fascinated Owen. As a young girl in the 1890s, she delighted in watching her father debate in Congress, earning her the nickname “sweetheart of the house.” After living abroad with her husband during WWI, Owen settled in Coral Gables, Florida, and soon developed a reputation as a strong public speaker and political organizer. In the early 1920s she served as President of the Community Council of Civic Clubs, and represented Florida on the National Council on Child Welfare. Though she lost her first campaign for Congress in 1926, she tried again in 1928 — touring her green Model T on an aggressive 500 stop speech-circuit from Jacksonville to Key West — and won.

Ruth Bryan Owen during congressional campaign, c. 1928.

Congressional candidate Ruth Bryan Owen poses with her secretary, driver and campaign car, “The Spirit of Florida.” Photo by G.W. Romer, c.1928.

As a congresswoman, she advocated for establishing the Everglades as a national park; expanded protections for children and families; and secured funding for a youth citizen program, which brought future leaders to Washington. “I like Congress. [I] always like work you feel you can do and I like to work for the people in Florida,” Owen said about her post. After a dry posture on alcohol prohibition caused her to lose reelection in 1932, President Franklin D. Roosevelt appointed Ruth Bryan Owen U.S. Minister of Denmark and Iceland, and once again she broke new ground as the first woman to hold such a high profile diplomacy position.

Name tag worn by student delegates to the Second Ruth Bryan Owen Brigade, 1931.

Name tag worn by student delegates to the Second Ruth Bryan Owen Brigade, 1931.

Owen enacted a youth civic engagement program, and invited a delegation of students from each of her district’s 18 counties to shadow her in Washington.

Of this initiative she wrote: “I think there are two qualities all young people have. One is energy and the other is idealism. [If] it is just possible to translate government into the terms which appeal to that sense of idealism in youth we not only give to youth the most wonderful interest in the world by bringing a powerful aid to government.”

Beth Johnson, Florida’s First Female State Senator (1963-1967)

Advertisement for Beth Johnson's State Senate campaign, c. 1962.

Advertisement for Beth Johnson’s State Senate campaign, c. 1962.

Elizabeth “Beth” McCullough Johnson (1909-1973) took her place in Sunshine State history when she won the distinction of the first woman elected to serve in the state senate in 1962. After graduating with a B.A. from prestigious Vassar College in 1930, Johnson relocated with her husband to Orlando in 1934. For the next two decades, the mother of three children assumed leadership positions in various local civic organizations like the Orlando Junior League, the League of Women Voters, and the Orlando Planning Board. In 1957, she became the second woman elected to the Florida House of Representatives, and subsequently won reelection until 1962 with her historic election as the first female state senator.

In the Florida Senate until 1967, Johnson championed educational access and mental health issues, taking on membership in the Governor’s Commission on the Status of Women, Constitutional Revision Commission, and the Legislative Council Committee on Mental Health. Specifically, she advocated for daytime access to adult education, lamenting that “too many feminine Phi Beta Kappa minds are in the kitchen. They should be going to college during the same hours their youngsters are attending school.”  Perhaps her greatest achievement as senator came in 1965 when she pushed for the passage of a $7.5 million bond program for the construction and establishment of the University of Central Florida in Orlando.  For her accomplishments, Senator Beth Johnson received the Susan B. Anthony Award as Democratic Woman of the Year in 1966 as “the woman who most nobly, ably and conscientiously exemplifies the entire spirit of the 19th Amendment.”

Carrie Meek, Florida’s First African-American Member of U.S. Congress since Reconstruction (1993-2002)

Portrait of Representative Carrie Meek, 1984.

Portrait of Representative Carrie Meek, 1984.

The 1992 election of Florida Congresswoman Carrie P. Meek (1927-present) signaled the start of a new era in Florida politics: Meek would be Florida’s first African-American representative in U.S. Congress since Reconstruction. Although the 19th amendment barred voter discrimination on the basis of sex, it did not address the longstanding tradition of racism at the polls. Not until the passage of the 24th Amendment in 1964, which outlawed poll taxes, and the Voting Rights Acts of 1965, which spurred the fair redrawing of congressional districts, could African-Americans in Florida legitimately participate in politics. Carrie Meek, the granddaughter of former slaves, would lead the way for a new generation of black politicians in Florida.

Born in 1926, Meek grew up as the daughter of sharecroppers in the “black bottom” neighborhood of Tallahassee, receiving her education at the segregated Lincoln High School and Florida A&M University before earning a graduate degree from the University of Michigan.  In 1961, the newly divorced mother of two accepted a teaching position at Miami-Dade Community College. In 1978, after two decades as an educator, administrator, and community activist, she successfully campaigned for a spot in the Florida House of Representatives. A few years later in 1982, she became the first African-American woman elected to the Florida State Senate. During her tenure in the Florida Legislature, Meek advocated for gender, racial, and economic equality.

State Representative Carrie Meek seated in the Florida House Chamber, c. 1980.

Representative Carrie Meek seated in the Florida House Chamber, c. 1980.

From there, the 66-year-old grandmother set her sights on a federal ticket, capturing 83 percent of the vote in her historic 1992 run to represent Florida’s 17th congressional district on Capitol Hill. But, as Congresswoman Meek saw it, her responsibilities stretched beyond her Miami-based constituency, but to blacks throughout the state, who now, for the first time in over a century, had political representation in the federal lawmaking body: “[African-Americans in Florida will] have somebody they know will be attuned to their needs… Many [whites] are sensitive but they can’t really understand how hard we’ve had to struggle.”

During her first years in Washington, Meek fought hard for a spot on the powerful House Appropriations Committee — a position typically closed to freshmen representatives — and made federal funding to relieve the devastation of Hurricane Andrew in Miami a top priority. Among other initiatives in Washington, Meek sponsored bills related to immigration and welfare reform, as well as increased entrepreneurial opportunities for African-Americans. In 2002, at the age of 76, Carrie P. Meek decided not to seek re-election due to her age. Upon her departure, she expressed deep affection for the ten years she spent in Washington: “I wish I could say I was tired of Congress [but] I love it still.”

Paula Hawkins, Florida’s First Female U.S. Senator (1981-1986)

Portrait of U.S. Senator Paula Hawkins, 1980.

Portrait of U.S. Senator Paula Hawkins, 1980.

U.S. Senator Paula Hawkins (1927-2009) still holds the title of the only Florida woman elected to serve in the upper house of the Congress.  Hawkins also carries the distinction of being the first woman to win a full Senate term without a political family connection.  Before representing Floridians in Washington, Paula Hawkins lived in Winter Park and served on the Florida Public Service Commission from 1973-1979. She simultaneously ran two unsuccessful campaigns for U.S. Senate in 1974 and Lieutenant Governor in 1978. Then, in 1980, the “fighting Maitland housewife,” who stood on a platform of conservative family values, won the race for U.S. Senate by a landslide — making her just one of two women in the U.S. Senate at the time. Shortly after her victory, a male reporter sarcastically asked who would do the laundry while she was busy lawmaking. “I don’t really think you need to worry about my laundry,” snapped the first female senator to bring her husband with her to Washington.

In the U.S. Senate Hawkins emerged as a tireless advocate for children, families, and drug-free youth.  Among her major legislative achievements, Senator Hawkins sponsored the National Missing Children’s Act in 1982, which allowed for federal intervention in state kidnapping cases and created the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children. On her crusade for children’s welfare, Paula Hawkins even spoke openly about how her own experiences as a child abuse victim inspired her fight for neglected and mistreated children in the Congress. “I can recall today how terrified I was…. I was embarrassed and humiliated…. Now, when children complain, I believe them,” she revealed to her constituents. Despite her advocacy for vulnerable youth, Hawkins ultimately lost a heated reelection race against Governor Bob Graham in 1986.  Nonetheless, her unmatched service as Florida’s first and only female U.S. Senator keeps her ranked high among the state’s most accomplished women in politics.

These are profiles of just four of the many Florida women who shaped state and national politics in the twentieth century.  For additional resources on the history and contributions of women in Florida, check out our Guide to Women’s History Collections.

Mardi Gras in the Sunshine State

Think Mardi Gras is something that only happens in New Orleans? Think again! Mardi Gras, French for “Fat Tuesday,” has been celebrated in many parts of the world at one time or another, including right here in Florida. And it isn’t a recent phenomenon. Some Florida towns were holding Mardi Gras celebrations over a hundred years ago.

Mardi Gras celebrants in Milton in Santa Rosa County, complete with royalty. Milton celebrated its first Mardi Gras 100 years ago this year (photo 1916).

Mardi Gras celebrants in Milton in Santa Rosa County, complete with royalty. Milton celebrated its first Mardi Gras 100 years ago this year (photo 1916).

Mardi Gras, for all its characteristic decadence, actually stems from religious origins. It is the final, culminating day of the Carnival season on the Christian liturgical calendar. Carnival season extends from Epiphany (also known as Twelfth Night or Three Kings’ Day) to the beginning of the Lenten season on Ash Wednesday, which occurs about six weeks prior to Easter Sunday. Since the Lenten season typically involves a sober regimen of self-denial and penance, Carnival season and Mardi Gras serve as an opportunity to eat richly and celebrate joyously (hence the “fat” part of Fat Tuesday) before things get more serious.

Mardi Gras in Pensacola (1977).

Mardi Gras in Pensacola (1977).

A wide variety of colorful rituals and traditions have developed around this basic concept, many unique to the cities in which they were born. Common Mardi Gras activities include parades, costume balls, colorful decorations, and the designation of “royalty” to preside over the festivities. When Apalachicola celebrated its first Mardi Gras in 1915, for example, the event was reigned over by King Retsyo. Ten points if you can guess the significance of King Retsyo’s name!

King Retsyo ascends to his throne during Apalachicola's first Mardi Gras celebration in 1915.

King Retsyo ascends to his throne during Apalachicola’s first Mardi Gras celebration in 1915.

Apalachicola Mardi Gras parade (1915).

Apalachicola Mardi Gras parade (1915).

Lester Buer and Myra Franc Kaplan dressed in costume for Mardi Gras celebrations in Pensacola (circa 1916).

Lester Buer and Myra Franc Kaplan dressed in costume for Mardi Gras celebrations in Pensacola (circa 1916).

Pensacola was perhaps the first Florida city to observe Mardi Gras, holding its first celebration in 1874. A group of leading local socialites formed a Mardi Gras “krewe” called the Knights of Priscus Association to organize the festivities. The tradition fizzled after a few years, but was revived with gusto in 1900. Pensacola continues to celebrate Mardi Gras annually.

Pensacola’s Mardi Gras celebration of 1900 included the crowning of King Priscus, better known as local attorney Alexander Clement Blount, II.

Today, Mardi Gras is celebrated in cities all over Florida, featuring a blend of time-honored traditions and new ideas. Apalachicola, for example, recently instituted a Mardi Gras parade featuring both citizens and their pets. The event is spearheaded by the Krewe of Salty Barkers, adopting themes like “Barkaritaville” and “Woofstock” to guide both two- and four-legged participants in their costume choices.

One of the merrymakers at Apalachicola's Mardi Gras parade organized by the Krewe of Salty Barkers (2015). Photo courtesy of the Krewe of Salty Barkers.

One of the merrymakers at Apalachicola’s Mardi Gras parade organized by the Krewe of Salty Barkers (2015). Photo courtesy of the Krewe of Salty Barkers.

Farther down the peninsula, Orlando’s Universal Studios theme park offers an annual Mardi Gras event patterned after the popular New Orleans version of the festival. Hollywood also holds an annual Mardi Gras celebration titled “Fiesta Tropicale.” It originated in 1935 as the “Festival of Nations.” These are just a few examples; Florida towns from Dunedin to Lake Wales to Leesburg regularly celebrate Fat Tuesday with enthusiasm.

Mardi Gras celebration at the American Legion in Tampa (1926).

Mardi Gras celebration at the American Legion in Tampa (1926).

Does your Florida community do something special to celebrate Mardi Gras? If so, we want to know about it! Leave us a comment below, and don’t forget to share this post on Facebook and Twitter!

Shop on Florida Memory

Did you know that you could shop for historic photographs, videos and audio recordings on Florida Memory? You don’t have to wait for Cyber Monday to buy gifts for your loved ones, you can do it all year long! Place your order by December 10th and receive your purchase in time for Christmas.

Ordering online is made easy. Browse the collection and select the historic photographs, videos and audio recordings you want to purchase.

Photographs can be purchased through our online shopping cart system. Simply go to the photograph you want to purchase and click the blue “Buy Now” tab above the photograph. Follow the prompts to select the size and options, and then add to cart. To purchase your selected items, go to your shopping cart in the top right-hand corner of the webpage and follow the prompts.

Videos and audio recordings may be purchased by email, phone, or mail-in orders.

Love & War

It’s said that absence makes the heart grow fonder. The experience of Floridian Confederate soldier Albert Symington Chalker and his sweetheart Martha Bardin certainly illustrates the point well. Albert and Martha (or “Mattie”) were from Middleburg in Clay County. Either before or during the Civil War, they became acquainted, and the long-distance courtship that followed produced one of the most heart-warming series of letters held by the State Archives of Florida.

Albert Chalker to Martha Bardin, May 8, 1864. This is the earliest letter in the Chalker Collection held by the Archives (Collection M72-11).

Albert Chalker to Martha Bardin, May 8, 1864. This is the earliest letter in the Chalker Collection held by the Archives (Collection M72-11).

In his first letter to Bardin (that we have), Chalker describes what it was like to arrive at Camp Finegan near present-day Lake City, and how the soldiers went about setting up their tents and equipment with an air of joviality. Chalker, however, was missing his dear sweetheart:

“I am sitting here alone thinking how hapy I might be if I was with my dear Mattie. Yes, if I was with you this evening I would be hapy. I did not know what it was to love, or how much I loved you untill now. I will quit writeing in this tone for I fear I am getting two sentimental, and you will think I am crazy.”

Chalker continued to write letters to Mattie through the end of the war, almost always saying he had no interesting news to share, although he does indeed provide some interesting tidbits about the everyday life of a Confederate soldier in Florida. He often ended his letters with bits of poetry. Some of the verses appear to come from established poets of the day, such as Bayard Taylor and Edward Everett. The origins of some of the poems are unknown. Either way, Chalker attempted to make up for his absence by writing the most loving bits of verse he could find into his messages. Here’s one poem that appears to have been taken from the text of a Valentine’s Day card from 1840:

Excerpt of Albert Chalker's letter to Martha Bardin, November 20, 1864 (Collection M72-11, State Archives of Florida).

Excerpt of Albert Chalker’s letter to Martha Bardin, November 20, 1864 (Collection M72-11, State Archives of Florida).

Fondly love my heart is beating
With affection warm and true to thee;
And timely I would send this greeting
Where I fain would wish to be.


Martha did her share of writing as well. In one letter, she chides Albert for not writing as much as he should:

Martha Bardin to Albert Chalker, January 18, 1865 (Collection M72-11, State Archives of Florida).

“I have written to you before nearly two weeks since, and have not heard a word from you yet. Now for your scolding. I want to know why it is you have not written. Have I offended you in any way? If so let me know and not keep me in suspense as I am. I sometimes think you have gone home sick or to the hospital or that I said something in my last letter you did not like, and sometimes I think like the Dutch man’s boy.”

We can be sure this was quite gentle criticism, because this Florida love story has a very happy ending. Albert Chalker was honorably paroled on May 17, 1865 after Florida’s Confederate forces formally surrendered to General Edward M. McCook of the United States. He returned to Clay County and married Martha Ann Bardin in December 1865. Martha’s father, William Sims Bardin, gave his Middleburg residence to the couple as a wedding gift. Albert and Martha Chalker settled and remained there for the rest of their lives. Albert Chalker served for 17 years as Middleburg’s postmaster, and as tax collector for Clay County from 1881 to 1885. He was also a prominent businessman, and operated both a private ferry on the south prong of Black Creek and a general store in Middleburg.

The historic Clark-Chalker House at 3891 Main Street in Middleburg, Clay County (circa 1988).

The historic Clark-Chalker House at 3891 Main Street in Middleburg, Clay County (circa 1988).

Don’t forget to check out the rest of the letters from this romantic exchange in the Albert S. Chalker Papers.

Retirement is for the Birds… Especially Turkeys

Have you ever known someone who retired and quickly became bored with their new freedom? Some retirees solve this problem by traveling, spending more time with the grandkids, or taking up a hobby. Mrs. W.G. Butler of Havana, Florida found quite an unusual hobby when she became a little dissatisfied with retired life in the 1950s. Skipping the more conventional retirement activities, Mrs. Butler decided to raise turkeys.

Mrs. W.G. Butler with turkeys at the Tot's Tender Turkey Farm, Havana (1952).

Mrs. W.G. Butler with turkeys at the Tot’s Tender Turkey Farm, Havana (1952).

That’s right – turkeys. Mrs. Butler turned her 12-acre plot in Gadsden County into Tot’s Tender Turkey Farm, home to literally thousands of gobbling birds destined eventually for holiday tables across America. Mrs. Butler explained that after decades of moving around the country for her husband’s construction career, she thought settling down would be relaxing. But it wasn’t. Her husband was often out hunting and fishing, and she was alone at home.

Mrs. W.G. Butler with turkeys at the Tot's Tender Turkey Farm, Havana (1952).

Mrs. W.G. Butler with turkeys at the Tot’s Tender Turkey Farm, Havana (1952).

The turkey farm started out merely as something to do. She bought 200 chicks and gave each one a name. Within a few months, however, the enterprise had taken off. A few years into her new-found career, Mrs. Butler was raising and shipping over 7,000 turkeys annually. The hens weighed between 10 and 16 pounds, while the toms weighed between 20 and 23 pounds. She ended up hiring a staff of 30 workers to help feed and inoculate the birds on a regular basis. Turkeys, moreover, love to squabble, and Mrs. Butler reported that she and her workers spent a great deal of time breaking up spats between their charges. So much for a restful and relaxing retirement!

Turkeys feeding at the Tot's Tender Turkey Farm (1952).

Turkeys feeding at the Tot’s Tender Turkey Farm (1952).

Tot’s Tender Turkey Farm is no longer in operation, but the tradition of eating delicious turkey around the holidays still continues for many families across the Sunshine State. What are some of your favorite holiday treats? Share with us by posting a comment below or on our Facebook page!

And… don’t forget to browse the Florida Photographic Collection for more images depicting Thanksgiving traditions in Florida.