When Disney Came to Florida

Walt Disney World, the epicenter of the Disney entertainment empire and a vacation destination for millions of visitors each year, has been a thriving part of Florida tourism since 1971. But how did it get here? Walt Disney had already been operating Disneyland in Anaheim, California with great success since 1955. Practically every major city in the United States and many others around the world had invited Disney to bring his creativity to their vicinity, but for years Walt had appeared content to stick to one location and use Disneyland as the laboratory for his ideas. Yet by the late 1960s he had selected a swampy patch of ground just outside Orlando and Kissimmee to build what would become one of the world’s most popular places to visit.

A view of Cinderella's Castle, one of the hallmark features of Disney's Magic Kingdom (circa 1970s).

A view of Cinderella’s Castle, one of the hallmark features of Disney’s Magic Kingdom (circa 1970s).

In reality, Walt Disney had been eying possible locations for another theme park since the late 1950s. While Disneyland had been a resounding hit so far, the East Coast crowd had not taken to visiting as often as Disney and his team hoped they would. The solution, they believed, was to build a park in the east. Several potential projects were sketched out, including one in New Jersey, one in St. Louis, and even one in the Palm Beach area. Each of these possibilities fell through for various reasons, but over time Walt Disney’s attention settled on Florida as the most promising place for a new Disney attraction. Early in 1963, Disney gathered up a small team of trusted associates and sent them to Florida to locate between five and ten thousand acres of land for the new park. The project was kept secret at this stage, because Disney believed if word got loose that he was in the market for land in Central Florida, speculation would raise land prices sky-high. Consequently, the Florida project was referred to among the Disney inner circle as “Project X” or “Project Future.”

An aerial view of the Disney property near Orlando and Kissimmee prior to the park's opening (1967).

An aerial view of the Disney property near Orlando and Kissimmee prior to the park’s opening (1967).

Disney himself assisted in selecting the land near Orlando and Kissimmee. Locating the new park at the center of the state rather than on the coast eliminated some of the risk of damage from hurricanes, as well as the direct competition from the beaches themselves for visitors’ time. “We’ll create our own water,” he reportedly said. Once he had decided on the Orlando location, Disney worked with local representatives to buy up parcels of land using a series of nine “front” companies with names like the Latin-American Development & Management Corporation and the Reedy Creek Ranch, Inc. By the middle of 1965, Disney had purchased over 27,000 acres for just over five million dollars.

A group of Disney representatives inspecting the company's new property near Orlando and Kissimmee. The man at center in a dark sweater and glasses is Roy Disney, Walt Disney's brother (circa 1965).

A group of Disney representatives inspecting the company’s new property near Orlando and Kissimmee. The man at center in a dark sweater and glasses is Roy Disney, Walt Disney’s brother (circa 1965).

Disney representatives looking over a map while inspecting the Disney property fronting Lake Buena Vista (circa 1965).

Disney representatives looking over a map while inspecting the Disney property fronting Lake Buena Vista (circa 1965). Roy Disney is second from left.

As the planning continued, it became increasingly difficult to keep the project a secret. By the autumn of 1965, the press had called out Disney’s land purchases, and Walt and his associates decided to go public with their plans. Governor Haydon Burns confirmed the Disney rumors as early as October 24th, but his office worked with the folks at Disney to plan a formal press conference for November 15th at the Cherry Plaza Hotel in Orlando to make the official announcement. Dubbed “Disney Day” by the Florida Development Commission and various state officials, Governor Burns called it “the most significant day in the history of Florida.” Burns’ staff sent scores of invitations to media outlets, chambers of commerce, and local officials from around the state to dramatize the occasion. Walt Disney and his brother Roy sat on either side of Governor Burns as he explained to the many reporters and cameras how much the new attraction would mean to Florida. He predicted a fifty percent increase in tourism, as well as new tax revenue that would bring prosperity to the entire region.

Walt Disney, Governor Haydon Burns, and Roy Disney at a press conference announcing plans to build a Disney resort in Florida. The conference was held at the Cherry Plaza Hotel in Orlando (November 15, 1965).

Walt Disney, Governor Haydon Burns, and Roy Disney at a press conference announcing plans to build a Disney resort in Florida. The conference was held at the Cherry Plaza Hotel in Orlando (November 15, 1965).

 

Watch a clip from the press conference below, or click here to view the full conference video.

At the press conference, Walt Disney spoke only in broad generalities about what he intended to do at the new park. Considering how much secrecy had surrounded the land purchases, some might have easily believed he was purposely concealing his plans. In reality, his vague description owed mostly to the fact that very little had been definitely decided at that point about what Walt Disney World would actually look like. Walt hadn’t even set foot on the property yet; he would do that for the first time the next morning.

Even as late as 1969, there was still some question as to what Walt Disney World would look like when finished. This is an artist's concept of an aspect of Disney World, possibly EPCOT (1969).

Even as late as 1969, there was still some question as to what Walt Disney World would look like when finished. This is an artist’s concept of an aspect of Disney World, possibly EPCOT (1969).

After the announcement, however, the project moved swiftly. Disney “Imagineers” and other designers began sketching out the various parts of the new Florida resort, while contractors began preparing the actual site. The complexity of the new undertaking required a great deal of cooperation between the Disney corporation and governments at the state and local level. On May 12, 1967, Governor Claude Kirk signed into law new legislation creating the Reedy Creek Improvement District and two municipalities within it, Bay Lake and Reedy Creek (later renamed Lake Buena Vista). Situating the Disney property within these new entities enabled the company to develop the resort with a greater measure of independence regarding taxation and land use restrictions.

Governor Claude Kirk (left) shakes hands with Roy Disney (right) after signing new legislation facilitating the development of Walt Disney World (May 12, 1967).

Governor Claude Kirk (left) shakes hands with Roy Disney (right) after signing new legislation facilitating the development of Walt Disney World (May 12, 1967).

Walt Disney World opened on October 1, 1971 with two hotels and the Magic Kingdom theme park. Over the years new attractions emerged, including EPCOT, Hollywood Studios, Disney’s Animal Kingdom, and a wide variety of hotels and other amenities. Walt Disney, the man whose dream gave shape to the project, sadly did not live to see his masterpiece completed. Disney passed away in December of 1966, well before the park opened. As Walt himself once explained, however, the world of Disney entertainment was much bigger than Disney the man or his ambitions. “I only hope that we don’t lose sight of one thing,” he once said, “that it was all started by a mouse.”

Mickey Mouse greets several children at the Magic Kingdom, part of Walt Disney World (1977).

Mickey Mouse greets several children at the Magic Kingdom, part of Walt Disney World (1977).

What are your favorite memories from visiting Walt Disney World? Were you around to see the opening? Tell us about your experiences by leaving a comment below!

 

The “Swami of the Swamp”: Dick Pope and Florida’s Cypress Gardens

Cypress Gardens, one of Florida’s earliest and most famous themed attractions, has been capturing the imaginations of visitors for over seventy years. Originally opened by visionary promoter Dick Pope and his wife Julie in the mid-1930s, the gardens featured acres of blooming flowers, trees, and shrubbery, along with aquatic stunt shows and boat tours.

A bridge at Cypress Gardens, one of the most frequently photographed angles (circa 1950s).

A bridge at Cypress Gardens, one of the most frequently photographed angles (circa 1950s).

Although the beauty of the gardens alone makes them a Florida treasure, the story of how Cypress Gardens came to be is an equally valuable part of the rich history of Florida tourism. The land was little more than a swamp when founder Dick Pope acquired it, but Pope’s cunning business mind combined with a little luck to make the whole production come off beautifully. As Pope once told author Norman Vincent Peale, his motto was to “think big about everything.”

The

The “Swami of the Swamp” himself, Dick Pope, Sr (1966).

The idea to build a botanical garden for tourists came to Pope during a rough patch in his life. In the 1910s and 1920s, he and his brother Malcolm had been heavily involved in aquatic stunts and boat racing, as well as developing promotions for outboard motor companies like Johnson Motors. As the Great Depression took hold, however, demand for his services dropped, and Pope found himself looking for other projects. He was riding with his wife Julie in their car one day when a magazine article caught his eye. A man in Charleston, South Carolina had built up an impressive set of gardens on his estate, and had had success getting tourists to pay a small admission charge to visit. Dick Pope decided he could do something similar in Winter Haven, Florida, where he had spent much of his childhood and teenage years.

A view of Lake Eloise, where Dick Pope built Cypress Gardens in the 1930s (photo circa 1960s).

A view of Lake Eloise, where Dick Pope built Cypress Gardens in the 1930s (photo circa 1960s).

Pope quickly bought up several acres of land and a shuttered boat club on Lake Eloise and began preparing them for service as a botanical garden. The labor necessary to achieve this was extensive, of course, but Pope had a few ideas up his sleeve. He approached the local commission charged with managing the canals connecting Lake Eloise with the neighboring bodies of water, and convinced its board to invest $2,800 in his project, which he called “a community park.” He also incorporated the new attraction as a non-profit organization so he could apply for funding from the Works Progress Administration to construct it. After touring the area in a boat with Dick Pope explaining his plans, representatives from the WPA signed off on the project, and soon Dick Pope had a group of federal relief workers busy clearing brush, improving canals, and laying out walkways to serve the new gardens.

A postcard depicting one of the many canals at Cypress Gardens (circa 1940s).

A postcard depicting one of the many canals at Cypress Gardens (circa 1940s).

It wasn’t long before local and federal officials realized that this was much more a private venture than a community park, and the WPA and the local canal commission withdrew their support. Pope was jokingly labeled the “Swami of the Swamp” and the “Maharaja of Muck” for his manipulative handiwork, but he remained determined to open Cypress Gardens. He reorganized the business and began the planting process with the help of gardener Vernon Rutter of Tennessee. Julie Pope was heavily involved as well, as her husband admitted that he “didn’t know an azalea from a carrot” in those early days. Pope also enlisted the assistance of photographer Robert Dahlgren to ensure that the gardens were laid out in such a way that no matter which direction a camera was pointed, the photograph it captured would be appealing.

Every bend in the path brought a new burst of floral color at Cypress Gardens (1967).

Every bend in the path brought a new burst of floral color at Cypress Gardens (1967).

Cypress Gardens officially opened on January 24, 1935. Pope pulled every string in his arsenal of connections to get photographs of the gardens placed in newspapers and magazines across the country. He even managed to get the new attraction featured in several films, which added to the publicity. He invited beauty queens, movie stars, aquatic stunt performers – anyone who might draw attention to Cypress Gardens. Over time, the gardens would host a wide array of distinguished guests, including Bette Davis, Joan Crawford, President John F. Kennedy, and King Hussein of Jordan. Even the Shah of Iran came once to water-ski on the lake. Asked about the honor of hosting the Shah, Pope quipped, “There’s no business like Shah business.”

Dick Pope (right) with Governor Claude Kirk (left) at Cypress Gardens. Pope served on a number of commissions to promote Florida tourism during his career (photo 1967).

Dick Pope (right) with Governor Claude Kirk (left) at Cypress Gardens. Pope served on a number of commissions to promote Florida tourism during his career (photo 1967).

One of many aquatic stunt shows at Cypress Gardens (circa 1970s).

One of many aquatic stunt shows at Cypress Gardens (circa 1970s).

Cypress Gardens remained successful in the coming years, although changes in tourism and demographics began taking their toll by the early 1970s. Gas prices and shortages, the arrival of larger parks like Walt Disney World, and the tendency of families to make shorter, more location-specific trips cut into the attraction’s market share. Dick Pope and his son, Dick Pope, Jr., tried to adjust to meet the challenge, but found it impossible to catch up. The attraction changed hands several times before finally closing in 2009. The gardens themselves have been preserved as part of a new attraction called Legoland.

Dick Pope passed away in 1988, but his contributions to Florida tourism are honored in several lasting tributes. The University of Central Florida’s Institute for Tourism Studies is named for him, and in 2014 Cypress Gardens was added to the National Register of Historic Places.

Have you ever been to Cypress Gardens? Tell us about your experiences by commenting on our post. Also, search the Florida Photographic Collection to find more photos of your favorite Florida tourist attractions.

Caption the Cat

What is that cat thinking about? June is Adopt-a-Cat-Month, and in honor of the occasion we’ve taken our favorite cat photos and want to know…  Can you caption these cats’ thoughts?

Portrait of Susan Mayo with a Siamese cat - Tallahassee, Florida.

Portrait of Susan Mayo with a Siamese cat – Tallahassee, Florida

 

View showing the Hansen family cats "Corina" and "Julie" in the photographic studio - Tallahassee, Florida.

View showing the Hansen family cats “Corina” and “Julie” in the photographic studio (1971)

 

View showing the Hansen family cat in the photographic studio - Tallahassee, Florida.

View showing the Hansen family cat in the photographic studio – Tallahassee, Florida (1969)

 

View showing Dorothy Hansen's cat and kitten in the photographic studio - Tallahassee, Florida.

View showing Dorothy Hansen’s cat and kitten in the photographic studio – Tallahassee, Florida (1970)

 

Portrait of Julian Hansen playing with a cat - Tallahassee, Florida.

Portrait of Julian Hansen playing with a cat – Tallahassee, Florida (1967)

 

 

Have You Heard of Milwaukee Springs?

Milwaukee Springs was a segregated African-American recreational area operating northwest of Gainesville in Alachua County at least as early as 1940. During World War II, white and African-American leaders alike had high hopes it would be turned into a health and recreation facility for African-American soldiers stationed at Camp Blanding and elsewhere.

Taken by photographer Charles Foster, this is the only image Florida Memory has of Milwaukee Springs, a segregated recreational area for African-Americans in Alachua County.  Documentary evidence suggests it was located northwest of Gainesville (circa 1940).

Taken by photographer Charles Foster, this is the only photograph Florida Memory has of Milwaukee Springs, a segregated recreational area for African-Americans in Alachua County. Documentary evidence suggests it was located northwest of Gainesville (circa 1940).

One of the earliest references to Milwaukee Springs comes from a biennial report of the Florida Fresh Water Fish and Game Commission published in 1940, which briefly notes that the commission’s game technician had participated in a wildlife camp for African-American boys held at this location.

The site surfaces again in the paper trail during World War II. As war clouds threatened during the months before Pearl Harbor, the state government and local communities organized defense councils to coordinate preparations for the U.S. to enter the conflict.  With Jim Crow in full force throughout Florida at this time, communities frequently used separate organizations to coordinate the wartime efforts of African-American civilians, with their leaders keeping in close contact with their white counterparts for the sake of cooperation.

One of several posters contained in the papers of the State Defense Council of Florida, which helped organize communities across the state to meet the needs of the war effort during World War II (circa 1942).

One of several posters contained in the papers of the State Defense Council of Florida, which helped organize communities across the state to meet the needs of the war effort during World War II (circa 1942).

Managing and rationing supplies and manpower were critical, of course, but these defense councils also planned for recreation, for civilians and soldiers alike.  A number of African-American leaders were concerned that troops of their race had too few options for recreational activities, which was bad for morale. A group of local Alachua County citizens led by Charles Chestnut, president of the Colored Businessmen’s Association of Gainesville and chairman of a local African-American civil defense organization, proposed that Milwaukee Springs be converted into a facility to provide African-American soldiers with a place to relax during their time away from Camp Blanding or other nearby military posts.

Excerpt from the minutes of a meeting of the Negro Coordinating Committee on National Defense held in Tampa, December 17, 1941.

Excerpt from the minutes of a meeting of the Negro Coordinating Committee on National Defense held in Tampa, December 17, 1941 (Series 419 – Papers of the State Defense Council, Box 33, State Archives of Florida)

Chestnut’s proposal won the endorsement of local Alachua County representative Samuel Wyche Getzen, and together these men called on Mary McLeod Bethune of the federal Office of Negro Affairs and Executive Secretary James White of the NAACP for help in getting the federal government involved.

Samuel W. Getzen (second from left) with his family upon the unveiling of his portrait in the chamber of the Florida House of Representatives.  Getzen had been the Speaker of the Florida House in 1929.  Photo dated 1959.

Samuel W. Getzen (second from left) with his family upon the unveiling of his portrait in the chamber of the Florida House of Representatives. Getzen had been the Speaker of the Florida House in 1929. Photo dated 1959.

Photo of Mary McLeod Bethune in front of White Hall on the Bethune-Cookman College campus.  The photo is believed to have been taken around the time Bethune was serving as the Director of the Office of Negro Affairs in President Franklin D. Roosevelt's administration (circa 1940s).

Photo of Mary McLeod Bethune in front of White Hall on the Bethune-Cookman College campus. The photo is believed to have been taken around the time Bethune was serving as the Director of the Office of Negro Affairs in President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s administration (circa 1940s).

Although the Federal Security Administration appears to have visited the site to consider the project’s worthiness, and a public hearing was held to discuss the matter in early 1942, it is unclear whether Milwaukee Springs ever became the center of African-American health and recreation its sponsors had hoped for.  In fact, aside from a few references in the documents of Florida’s State Defense Council and the papers of the NAACP, very little else exists to document the site.

If you or someone you know has more information about Milwaukee Springs, we’d love to know about it.  Contact us using our web feedback form, and mention this blog post in the subject line.

 

Happy Father’s Day!

You taught us how to bait our hooks and land the big catch.  You showed us how to throw and how to hit the ball just right. You picked us up and swung us around and cheered us up when we needed it most. Thank you to all the wonderful dads out there. Happy Father’s Day!

3 year old Bruce Carlton shows his father, Pet Carlton, his first fish - Saint Petersburg, Florida

3 year old Bruce Carlton shows his father, Pet Carlton, his first fish – Saint Petersburg, Florida (1948)

 

Commercial seine net fisherman with his son in Naples, Florida.

Commercial seine net fisherman with his son in Naples, Florida (June 1949)

 

Edwin Perry having breakfast with his daughters on Father's Day in Tallahassee.

Edwin Perry having breakfast with his daughters on Father’s Day in Tallahassee (1962)

 

Leigh M. Pearsall and daughter Edna with alligator on dock - Melrose, Florida

Leigh M. Pearsall and daughter Edna with alligator on dock – Melrose, Florida (ca. 1905)

 

Governor Farris Bryant playing ping pong with his daughters on Father's Day in Tallahassee (1962)

Governor Farris Bryant playing ping pong with his daughters on Father’s Day in Tallahassee (1962)

 

Gubernatorial candidate Fred B. Karl with his daughter (1964)

Gubernatorial candidate Fred B. Karl with his daughter (1964)

 

Eddie Oxendine and son with hoop nets - Georgetown, Florida

Eddie Oxendine and son with hoop nets – Georgetown, Florida (1985)

 

Daughter wields gavel at legislative session - Tallahassee, Florida

Speaker of the Florida House of Representatives Peter Rudy Wallace prepares to conduct business while his daughter wields gavel at legislative session – Tallahassee, Florida (1995)

 

John Cypress holding his daughter Julia at a temporary camp in Immokalee, Florida.

John Cypress holding his daughter Julia at a temporary camp in Immokalee, Florida

The Thomas Guest House of Cedar Key

The small fishing village of Cedar Key on the Gulf Coast is in many ways an icon of Old Florida charm. Wood frame houses line the sandy streets of downtown, and the restaurants serve up fresh Florida seafood, much of which was brought in from right offshore. Golf carts are a favored mode of transportation, and why not? There’s not even enough automobile traffic on the island to require the use of a single traffic signal.

An aerial view of the Dock Street loop in Cedar Key. Photo circa 1970s.

An aerial view of the Dock Street loop in Cedar Key. Photo circa 1970s.

Few landmarks in Cedar Key capture the essence of the place so well as the Thomas Guest House, a small wooden cottage built on pilings over the shallow Gulf waters right off 1st Street. Originally built in 1959 by the Thomases of Gainesville, the house was for many years an ideal escape from the press of everyday business for the family and their friends. A small boardwalk was all that connected the house with the mainland. Out front, visitors were treated to a panoramic view of the sparkling Gulf and the other islands of the Cedar Key archipelago.

The Thomas Guest House sometime prior to Hurricane Elena in 1985 - likely taken in the 1970s.

The Thomas Guest House (December 1977).

The Thomas Guest House at sunset. Photo circa 1970s.

The Thomas Guest House at sunset. Photo circa 1970s.

Read more »

Harriet Beecher Stowe in Florida

Harriet Beecher Stowe (1811-1896), famed author of Uncle Tom’s Cabin (1852) and noted abolitionist, is remembered for her New England roots and Northern perspectives. However, Stowe both influenced and was influenced by Florida.

Photograph of Harriet Beecher Stowe

Harriet Beecher Stowe

After the Civil War, in 1867, Stowe and her family wintered in Mandarin, FL on the east bank of the St. Johns River, now a neighborhood of Jacksonville.

Mandarin, FL Home Harriet Beecher Stowe and family

Mandarin, FL Home Harriet Beecher Stowe and family, between 1869 and 1878

During her Florida winters, Stowe wrote Palmetto Leaves, published in 1873, a travel memoir of her years in Mandarin. Palmetto Leaves’ literary sketches include: “A Flowery January in Florida,” “Swamps and Orange-Trees,” “The Laborers of the South,” and “Buying Land in Florida” among others.

HBS cover

Cover of the 1st Edition of Stowe’s Palmetto Leaves (1873)

Until its destruction in 1964 by Hurricane Dora, the Church of Our Saviour in Mandarin, FL housed the Stowe Memorial Stained Glass Window created by Louis Comfort Tiffany.

Harriet Beecher Stowe memorial window created by Louis Comfort Tiffany for the Chruch of Our Saviour in Mandarin, Florida

Harriet Beecher Stowe memorial window created by Louis Comfort Tiffany for the Church of Our Saviour in Mandarin, FL

 

Preparing for D-Day: Camp Gordon Johnston near Carrabelle

Today marks the 70th anniversary of the 1944 D-Day invasion, in which over 100,000 Allied troops stormed the beaches along the coast of Normandy, France, making it the largest seaborne invasion in history. Some of the troops  arrived by parachute, but the vast majority waded ashore after being transported in specially constructed vehicles. The Army and Navy had been planning for amphibious invasions like the one at Normandy for some time, and Camp Gordon Johnston near Carrabelle, Florida was one of the sites selected for training troops to do the job.

Map of the Florida Panhandle showing Carrabelle and nearby cities.

Map of the Florida Panhandle showing Carrabelle and nearby cities.

Carrabelle, a small town southwest of Tallahassee in Franklin County, was little more than a small fishing village when military leaders decided to use the terrain around it as an amphibious training base. A small military installation called Camp Carrabelle was already located here, but it would require major expansion to suit the Army’s needs. Once the site was selected, the federal government quickly bought up 10,000 acres of land and leased an additional 155,000 acres, forming a base with nearly twenty miles of frontage on the Gulf coast between St. George Island and Alligator Point, including Dog Island and the beaches near Carrabelle. In a few weeks contractors were already at work on the thousands of buildings and other structures needed to complete the training center. The new installation was named for Gordon Johnston, an Alabama native who served in the Spanish-American War and World War I and received the Medal of Honor in 1910.

An aerial view of Camp Gordon Johnston, with the Gulf of Mexico on the south (left). Photo 1943.

An aerial view of Camp Gordon Johnston, with the Gulf of Mexico on the south (left). Photo 1943.

Camp Gordon Johnston quickly developed a reputation for its tough conditions. For many of the camp’s first inhabitants, few of whom were actually from Florida, the contrast between the Florida of postcards and travel literature and the Florida they experienced was incredible. Because they had been thrown together in such short order to accommodate the troops, the barracks lacked dependable heating and in most cases had no floors. At first, the camp had no mess halls, and soldiers were obliged to eat their meals outdoors using their mess kits.

Barracks at Camp Gordon Johnston. Notice that the walls are little more than tar paper on a wooden frame (circa 1943).

Barracks at Camp Gordon Johnston. Notice that the walls are little more than tar paper on a wooden frame (circa 1943).

A wash-up shed at Camp Gordon Johnston (circa 1943).

A wash-up shed at Camp Gordon Johnston (circa 1943).

Soldiers wait in a chow line with mess kits in hand at Camp Gordon Johnston (circa 1943).

Soldiers wait in line with mess kits in hand at Camp Gordon Johnston (circa 1943).

Camp residents wash their mess kits in a pot of boiling water after a meal at Camp Gordon Johnston (circa 1943).

Camp residents wash their mess kits in a pot of boiling water after a meal at Camp Gordon Johnston (circa 1943).

The challenges of the terrain were no cakewalk, either. Sure, there was a beach, but as residents of the camp explained, there were also insects, snakes, lizards, mud, drenching rain, and stifling heat. Sergeant Bill Roth captured the feelings of the men toward Camp Gordon Johnston’s steamy conditions in a poem that appeared in one of the first issues of the camp’s newspaper, The Amphibian.

The rattlesnake bites you, the horsefly stings,
The mosquito delights you with his buzzin wings.
Sand burrs cause you to jig and dance
And those who sit down get ants in their pants.

The heat in the summer is one hundred and ten
Too hot for the Devil, too hot for the men.
Come see for yourself and you can tell
It’s a helluva place, this Carrabelle.

Living conditions nothwithstanding, soldiers at Camp Gordon Johnston found plenty of ways to entertain themselves during their stay. Carrabelle itself might not have been the most active metropolis, but GI’s could have a pleasant time reading in the camp’s library, fishing from one of the nearby piers, attending a USO-sponsored dance, or catching the latest movie at the camp’s theater. By the end of the war, the post featured five theaters, three service clubs for enlisted men, clubs for both commissioned and non-commissioned officers, baseball, baketball, and boxing leagues, and six chapels to minister to the spiritual needs of the camp residents. Tallahassee was the nearest city of any size, but it was already crowded with GI’s stationed at Dale Mabry Field. Soldiers reported difficulties even finding a room at the local hotels, but that didn’t stop them from trying. The Lee Bus Line and later a special passenger railroad carried residents of Camp Gordon Johnston to and from Tallahassee regularly.

Soldiers and visitors dance to music from a live band at one of Camp Gordon Johnston's dance halls (circa 1944).

Soldiers and visitors dance to music from a live band at one of Camp Gordon Johnston’s dance halls (circa 1944).

Training for amphibious warfare was the initial purpose of Camp Gordon Johnston, but as the war continued the Army began shifting more responsibility for this kind of tactic to the Navy. In 1943 the base was re-purposed as an Army Service Force Training Center, where small companies could be trained to operate boats and amphibious trucks for the Army’s “island-hopping” campaign in the Pacific. Engineers charged with constructing, repairing, and maintaining ports also trained at the center, and starting in 1944 small numbers of German and Italian prisoners of war were sent there.

Soldiers jumping obstacles during training at Camp Gordon Johnston (circa 1943).

Soldiers jumping obstacles during training at Camp Gordon Johnston (circa 1943).

Practicing maneuvers on the beach near Carrabelle (1943).

Practicing maneuvers on the beach near Carrabelle (1943).

A GM manufactured amphibious vehicle called a DUKW, located at Camp Gordon Johnston. DUKW was a code describing the specifications of the vehicle.

A GM manufactured amphibious vehicle called a DUKW, located at Camp Gordon Johnston. DUKW was a code describing the specifications of the vehicle. “D” stood for date (1942), “U” stood for amphibian, “K” indicated the vehicle was all-wheel drive, and “W” meant the vehicle had dual rear axles. Photo 1944.

Company photo of the 1057th Engineer Port Construction and Repair unit at Camp Gordon Johnston (circa 1944).

Company photo of the 1057th Engineer Port Construction and Repair unit at Camp Gordon Johnston (circa 1944).

A number of African-American troops resided at Camp Gordon Johnston during its tenure. For these men, many of whom were from the Northern U.S., entering the segregated world of the Florida Panhandle in the 1940s was a difficult transition. While white residents enjoyed the use of the camp’s guest house, library, and service clubs, black soldiers were not permitted to enter these facilities, nor was a segregated alternative provided until much later in the war. Moreover, Carrabelle and other nearby small towns were still in the grip of Jim Crow segregation laws, and tensions between the races at times broke out into violence.

African-American soldiers in front of barracks at Camp Gordon Johnston (circa 1943).

African-American soldiers in front of barracks at Camp Gordon Johnston (circa 1943).

When news of the Japanese surrender reached Camp Gordon Johnston in 1945, the effect was said to have rivaled the power of the atomic bomb. Concerts and parades marked the occasion, and the demand for beer was so high that bartenders reportedly were forced to serve it before it had even had time to chill. With the war over, the camp’s life came to a close as well. The base officially shut down in early 1946, and by 1947 the federal government had disposed of its land in the region.

A barricade marked

A barricade marked “Government Property – Keep Off” blocks the driveway to the barracks of Camp Gordon Johnston after it closed in 1946.

Little remains of Camp Gordon Johnston, but local citizens and former camp residents still gather from time to time to reminisce about what it was like to train in the sun, sand, and heat around Carrabelle. The Camp Gordon Johnston Association organizes these reunions in cooperation with the American Legion Post at Lanark Village and other community partners.

Learn more about the World War II era in Florida by searching the Florida Photographic Collection. Teachers and students, you’ll find useful resources on the subject in our learning unit.

Florida’s Junior Scrap Army During World War II

During World War II, the enormous demand for steel, aluminum, and other metals led the War Production Board to launch a nationwide campaign to salvage scrap. Everyone from state and local Defense Councils to the Boy Scouts combed local communities for sources of scrap metal that could be melted down and re-purposed for ships, guns, vehicles, and other war materiel.

Part of a poster encouraging housewives to save tin cans for scrap metal. From the papers of the State Defense Council, circa 1940s.

Part of a poster encouraging housewives to save tin cans for scrap metal. From the papers of the State Defense Council, circa 1940s.

As part of this national effort, Florida’s State Defense Council and Department of Education teamed up to develop the Junior Scrap Army program in 1942. State School Superintendent Colin English challenged every pupil in the Sunshine State to collect as much scrap metal as possible and turn it in at their local schools, where it would be weighed. The program was competitive; the schools and individuals collecting the most scrap would be entitled to a prize.

Results from a scrap metal and rubber drive in Pensacola (circa 1942).

Results from a scrap metal and rubber drive in Pensacola (circa 1942).

The enthusiasm exhibited by Florida’s school children in this competition was incredible. One student reportedly was out until nearly midnight on the very last night before the contest deadline with her grandfather’s truck, collecting as much metal as possible to add to her total. In Perry, pupils from a physical education class dug up ice manufacturing equipment that had been discarded and buried nearly twenty years earlier. At least four students collected over a thousand pounds of scrap each, and Polk County reported collecting 375 pounds of old keys alone for re-purposing. The heat of the competition reached even into the highest levels of state government, as Governor Spessard Holland accepted a challenge from California Governor Culbert L. Olson to see which state could collect the most metal on a per capita basis.

Individual top scrappers and representatives from the top scrapping schools visit with former governor Fred P. Cone in Lake City. L to R: Albert W. Thompson, Betty Lou Smith, Gov. Fred P. Cone, Gwendolyn Willcocks, Joseph Thibodeaux, and Allen Shelton, with Dale Maxwell in front (December 1942).

Individual top scrappers and representatives from the top scrapping schools visit with former governor Fred P. Cone in Lake City. L to R: Albert W. Thompson, Betty Lou Smith, Gov. Fred P. Cone, Gwendolyn Willcocks, Joseph Thibodeaux, and Allen Shelton, with Dale Maxwell in front (December 1942).

When the dust settled after a month of scrapping, Green Acres and Loxahatchee schools of Palm Beach County and Cape Florida School of Dade County emerged as the top collecting schools. Each won the right to send a delegate to participate in the dedication and launching of the Liberty Ship Colin P. Kelly, Jr., named after  the Madison County, Florida airman who was among the first to perish in combat after the attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941. The top three individual collectors also earned the right to attend and represent the state. Gwendolyn Willcocks, 15, from Palm Beach High School, personally collected 101,116 pounds of scrap metal. Joining her was Betty Lou Smith, 10, of Coral Gables Elementary School, who collected 156,160 pounds, and Dale Maxwell, 9, of Pahokee, who collected a whopping 202,650 pounds of scrap metal for the drive.

Florida's top scrappers viewing the gold star for fallen hero Colin Kelly, Jr. at his family's church in Madison. L to R: Gwendolyn Willcocks, Betty Lou Smith, Joseph Thibodeaux, Albert W. Thompson, Allen Shelton, and Dale Maxwell (December 1942).

Florida’s top scrappers viewing the gold star for fallen hero Colin Kelly, Jr. at his family’s church in Madison. L to R: Gwendolyn Willcocks, Betty Lou Smith, Joseph Thibodeaux, Albert W. Thompson, Allen Shelton, and Dale Maxwell (December 1942).

The six met in Jacksonville for a tour that included stops in Lake City, Madison, and Tallahassee before moving on to Mobile for the dedication and launch of the U.S. Liberty Ship Colin P. Kelly, Jr. Gwendolyn Willcocks broke the traditional bottle of champagne against the hull while Mary Lou Smith used a hatchet to cut the ship loose and allow it to enter the water for service. Dale Maxwell, whose enormous contribution to the drive made him both the state and national scrap collecting champion, said a few words to the crowd. In describing his triumph, he said, “I didn’t set out to be top collector. I wanted to do my part for the war effort. And I haven’t stopped by any means. I shall continue to collect scrap as long as this war lasts.”

As part of their trip, Florida's top scrappers were treated to a stay at the Governor's Mansion, where they were the guests of Governor and Mrs. Spessard Holland. Here they are pictured gathered around the Governor's desk. L to R: Betty Lou Smith, Albert W. Thompson, Allen Shelton, Joseph Thibodeaux, and Dale Maxwell, with Gwendolyn Willcocks seated (December 1942).

As part of their trip, Florida’s top scrappers were treated to a stay at the Governor’s Mansion, where they were the guests of Governor and Mrs. Spessard Holland. Here they are pictured gathered around the Governor’s desk. L to R: Betty Lou Smith, Albert W. Thompson, Allen Shelton, Joseph Thibodeaux, and Dale Maxwell, with Gwendolyn Willcocks seated (December 1942).

Florida's First Lady, Mary Holland, playing Chinese checkers with her house guests at the Governor's Mansion in Tasllahassee (December 1942). Seated around the table are Gwendolyn Willcocks, Allen Shelton, Mrs. Holland, and Albert W. Thompson (?).

Florida’s First Lady, Mary Holland, playing Chinese checkers with her house guests at the Governor’s Mansion in Tallahassee (December 1942). Seated around the table are Gwendolyn Willcocks, Allen Shelton, Mrs. Holland, and Albert W. Thompson (?).

Allen Shelton is the center of attention during a visit of Florida's top scrappers to the Florida State College for Women (December 1942).

Allen Shelton is the center of attention during a visit of Florida’s top scrappers to the Florida State College for Women (December 1942).

The family of Colin Kelly, Jr. standing in front of the ship to be dedicated to his memory in Mobile, Alabama. From L to R: Emy Kelly (Colin, Jr.'s sister), Mrs. and Mr. Colin Kelly, Sr. (December 1942).

The family of Colin Kelly, Jr. standing in front of the ship to be dedicated to his memory in Mobile, Alabama. From L to R: Emy Kelly (Colin, Jr.’s sister), Mrs. and Mr. Colin Kelly, Sr. (December 1942).

Dale Maxwell, the youngest member of Florida's top scrapper delegation, gives a speech at the launch of the U.S. Liberty Ship Colin P. Kelly, Jr. in Mobile, Alabama (December 1942).

Dale Maxwell, the youngest member of Florida’s top scrapper delegation, gives a speech at the launch of the U.S. Liberty Ship Colin P. Kelly, Jr. in Mobile, Alabama (December 1942).

Gwendolyn Willcocks holding flowers and a bottle of champagne to break against the hull of the U.S. Liberty Ship Colin P. Kelly during its dedication ceremony at Mobile, Alabama (December 1942).

Gwendolyn Willcocks holding flowers and a bottle of champagne to break against the hull of the U.S. Liberty Ship Colin P. Kelly during its dedication ceremony at Mobile, Alabama (December 1942).

This is just one of the many stories of courageous homefront contributions by Floridians during World War II. Search the Florida Photographic Collection for more images relating to the war effort in Florida, and check out our learning unit on the subject.

Most of the photos in this post are from the subject files of the State Defense Council of Florida, an agency charged with preparing Florida and Floridians for the challenges of World War II. The collection (Series 419) is available to researchers at the State Archives in Tallahassee.

 

 

 

Have You Seen the King?

It was a hot Friday afternoon in August, 1956. Elvis Presley had come to town, and Miami’s Olympia Theater was buzzing with chatter from an expectant teenage crowd. The Miami News reported that the first Elvis fan had arrived shortly after midnight for the 3:30pm opening show, followed by thousands of young people, some bringing their breakfast and lunch along for the wait.

The adults weren’t quite so enthusiastic. The News remarked that “Every delinquent kid in town – plus many who aren’t delinquents but are fascinated by a duck-tailed hair-do playing guitar and squirming his hips” would be on hand to catch one of Elvis’ seven stage shows that weekend. Indeed, many a parent criticized what they saw as the crudeness of “Elvis the Pelvis,” but they were powerless to stop their sons and daughters from falling in love with his unique sound and unforgettable stage presence. As one young Miamian was dragged away from the stage after a near-riot following Elvis’ departure, she reportedly begged the policeman, “Just one more look at him, just one!”

Enthusiastic fans at one of seven August 1956 Elvis shows at the Olympia Theater in Miami. Photo courtesy of Chris Kennedy of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and the original photographer, Don Wright).

Enthusiastic fans at one of seven August 1956 Elvis shows at the Olympia Theater in Miami (Photo courtesy of Chris Kennedy of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and the original photographer, Don Wright).

The following photos were taken by photographer Don Wright during Elvis Presley’s August 1956 appearances in Miami, and are currently on loan to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, which is now expanding its research on Presley’s life and career. In these images, Wright managed to capture several fans’ faces, and some of the fans were holding cameras. Florida Memory and the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame are teaming up to see if any of our users can help identify the fans in these photos, or help us locate more photos or videos of Elvis performing in Florida.

Screaming for Elvis at one of his seven August 1956 shows at the Olympia Theater in Miami. Photo courtesy of Chris Kennedy of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and the original photographer, Don Wright).

Screaming for Elvis at one of his seven August 1956 shows at the Olympia Theater in Miami (Photo courtesy of Chris Kennedy of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and the original photographer, Don Wright).

A close-up of the previous image from the front row at the Olympia Theater. Do you know this person? Let us know! (1956)

A close-up of the previous image from the front row at the Olympia Theater. Do you know this person? Let us know! (1956)

Wouldn't it be "swell" to have the movie caught on that camera? Olympia Theater (1956).

Wouldn’t it be “swell” to have the movie caught on that camera? Olympia Theater (Photo courtesy of Chris Kennedy of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and the original photographer, Don Wright – 1956).

 

A crowd of eager fans at the Olympia Theater in Miami, screaming for Elvis (1956).

A crowd of eager fans at the Olympia Theater in Miami, screaming for Elvis (Photo courtesy of Chris Kennedy of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and the original photographer, Don Wright – 1956).

If you or someone you know has photographs from one of the King’s performances in Florida, we’d love to know about it.  Use our Contact Us form to get in touch with us.