One of the greatest strengths of Florida’s state park system is its diversity. Between the caves, springs, towering forests, picture-perfect beaches, and historic structures, there’s a park to suit almost every interest. Heck, Florida is even home to the nation’s first underwater state park, located down in the Florida Keys. Read more
“Big Oak is really big.”
Someone once wrote these profound words on the back of a photograph to describe what may be one of the oldest single living things in the entire city of Jacksonville. “Big Oak,” now known as “Treaty Oak,” is an enormous Southern live oak tree (Quercus virginiana) estimated to be well over two centuries old. It’s located in Jacksonville’s Jessie Ball duPont Park, parts of which were once known as the Dixieland Amusement Park. Read more
In the early 20th century, visitors to Lake City in Columbia County were often encouraged to visit the local gardens owned by an African-American woman known as “Aunt Aggie.” The plants were nice enough: calycanthus, oleander, crepe myrtle, spirea, wild azaleas, and at least eight varieties of roses. But that’s not what made the garden unique.
What made Aunt Aggie’s garden such a popular place to visit were the thousands of creatively arranged animal bones that decorated the space. For years, Aggie Jones and her husband Jenkins collected the bones of various animals, allowed them to dry and bleach out in the sun, and then arranged them into trellises, gateways, arches, flower bed borders, and other structures. Skulls topped many of these unusual features.
Aggie and Jenkins Jones had both been born into slavery. Aggie came to Florida in 1844 with her owner, Elijah Mattox, who built a plantation near present-day Rose Creek in Columbia County. After Aggie was emancipated following the end of the Civil War, she continued to work for the Mattox family until she moved to Lake City. She bought property from one of her employers, Louise Cathey, in Lake City in 1883. It was on this property that Aunt Aggie began constructing her gardens.
So why the bones? There’s no clear answer, really. Bone meal is an excellent fertilizer; maybe this was part of Aggie’s motivation. Maybe it was just a bit of creative flair. At any rate, the “bone garden” became a popular tourist spot for travelers passing through Lake City by railroad or automobile. A pamphlet describing the garden says it was also a popular “lovers’ retreat.” Visitors would sometimes write their names and addresses on the bones – perhaps one of Florida’s most unusual guest books. Plants and fresh vegetables were almost always available for sale.
Time changes all things, and with Aunt Aggie’s garden it was no different. Aggie Jones died in 1918, and her garden and home were subsequently demolished to make way for a school. All that remains now are a handful of postcards and photographs, plus a few recollections written down by various visitors to Aunt Aggie’s mysterious creation.
What is the most unusual tourist attraction you’ve ever seen? Let us know by commenting below, or commenting on our Facebook page!
Several Florida counties bear the names of great leaders in state or national politics, such as Jefferson, Washington, Pasco, and Duval counties. Others are named for fallen soldiers, such as Bradford and (Miami-)Dade counties. Barron Gift Collier, for whom Collier County in Southwest Florida is named, was neither a war hero nor a great statesman. He did, however, have an inspiring vision for Florida’s southern Gulf coast, which he worked to make into a reality.
Barron Gift Collier was born March 23, 1873 in Memphis, Tennessee. He quit school at the age of 16 to go to work, and in ten years’ time had made his first million. Advertising was Collier’s specialty. He started out convincing freight shippers to use the Illinois Central Railroad between Chicago and New Orleans. Before long, he had moved on to producing advertisements for the interior and exterior of streetcars. He made his money by obtaining franchises from the streetcar companies to do all of their advertising. At the zenith of his career, Barron Collier had 70 offices in cities across the United States managing these franchises.
It was one of these deals that helped introduce Collier to South Florida. After the advertising mogul signed a new contract with a streetcar company president in Chicago named John Roach, Roach invited Collier down to Florida to visit his vacation home on Useppa Island. Collier was instantly smitten with the island, and ended up buying it from John Roach for $100,000 in 1911. Roach had developed a tarpon fishing resort on the island called the Useppa Inn; Collier expanded the facilities and made the inn into the anchor point of a new chain of luxury resorts on Florida’s Gulf coast.
Collier envisioned much more than coastal luxury for Southwest Florida. He began buying up the holdings of several large land companies, and by 1924 he owned more than a million acres. He turned his attention to the Tamiami Trail, which had been under construction for several years by 1922 when the State of Florida ran out of funds to finish the section crossing the Everglades. Collier offered to finance the road’s completion, so long as the State Legislature would move forward with plans to divide the vast territory of Lee County and create a new county for the Naples area. The Legislature complied, and named the new county Collier in honor of Barron Collier’s contributions to the development of the region.
When the Great Depression arrived, Barron Collier’s fortunes took a dive like so many others, although he still believed in the growth potential of Southwest Florida. In the 1930s, Collier struck oil at Sunniland, 12 miles south of Immokalee. In a few years Sunniland and neighboring oil fields were producing millions of barrels of oil annually.
Barron Collier died in New York in 1939 following an illness. His legacy in Southwest Florida is captured in the stretch of Tamiami Trail (now U.S. 41) that still uses the same path to cross the Everglades, as well as in the many developments he initiated in Naples and other nearby communities.
This is just one of many local Florida stories extracted from the collections of the State Library & Archives of Florida. If you’re interested in local history, consider searching our catalogs for relevant information, and then plan a visit! Go to info.florida.gov to learn more.
It was 1964. More and more of Brevard County’s Merritt Island was being developed by NASA to build the nation’s first “moonport.” On the edge of all this futuristic construction, however, stood the fading remains of a majestic old house. Its octagonal rotundas gave it a rather unique appearance for Florida, and locals even called it a castle. Dummitt Castle, to be exact.
This structure was a real anachronism in a place dedicated to launching Florida and the United States into the Space Age. The damage done by years of neglect and vandalism didn’t help. Local historians and preservationists hoped, however, that somehow the old house could be saved.
As it turned out, convincing the right people of Dummitt Castle’s historic value was the easy part. The house and its surroundings were part of a story that dates back to the Spanish colonial era. In 1807 or so, Colonel Thomas Dummitt (originally spelled Dummett) of the British Marines sailed past Merritt Island while on his way to St. Augustine. According to local legend, Colonel Dummitt and his son smelled wild orange blossoms as they passed through. They were curious, but they had already had big plans to develop a plantation farther north.
In 1825, Dummett purchased the plantations of John Bunch and John Addison, the former of which included a sugar mill. These plantations had been built on land near the Halifax River, which the Spanish granted to Bunch and Addison prior to the United States’ acquisition of Florida in 1821.
When Colonel Dummett’s son Douglas came of age, his interests turned to citrus. He acquired a significant amount of land through the Florida Armed Occupation Act of 1842, owing to his military service during the Second Seminole War. He established an orange grove on North Merritt Island, budding trees from wild sour-orange trees from St. Augustine and sweet-orange trees from New Smyrna. The resulting hybrid was particularly hardy as it managed to withstand even the Great Freeze of 1894-95. The Dummitt, Indian River, and Enterprise seedless varieties of oranges are descended from this lineage.
Douglas Dummett eventually grew old and passed away, but his orange grove continued to impress visitors and provide stock for new citrus ventures. In 1881, the property was sold to an Italian duke, Eicole Tamajo, Duke of Castlellucia. The duke and his wife decided to upgrade the living quarters of the grove, and so they built what was later known as Dummitt Castle. A penciled notation under one of the staircases explained that the architect was J.J. Conwar of New York, and that the structure was completed on December 15, 1881. Building materials for the house came in part from timbers off a shipwrecked vessel that met its demise off Daytona Beach.
The United States government acquired the property some years after the duke and duchess had died, and it eventually became part of the massive 90,000-acre plot reserved for the nation’s space program at Cape Canaveral. Given the historical significance of the old house and the surrounding orange grove, locals felt something ought to be done to preserve this unique relic of Brevard County’s past. The house, alternately called either “Dummitt Castle” or the “Duke’s Castle,” was moved in 1964 to nearby Parrish Park, just east of Titusville, with help from the Brevard County Historical Society.
Unfortunately, Dummitt Castle burned in 1967 before it could be turned into a museum. Brevard County is home, however, to a number of other excellent historic sites and museums. Visit the Brevard County Historical Commission’s Historic Landmarks page to learn more.
And on Florida Memory, you can always find images of historic sites in Brevard County and across the state by searching the Florida Photographic Collection. You might also be interested in learning more about the Spanish Land Grants, one of which eventually passed into the Dummett family’s possession.
It doesn’t take a genius to realize map-making has come a long way since the early 19th century. Today’s Floridians would also likely agree that it shouldn’t take a genius to know where Miami-Dade County ought to be on a map of the Sunshine State. If that’s the case, then how in the world did THIS happen?
That’s right – in 1838, at least one mapmaker believed Dade County was supposed to be on Florida’s Gulf Coast north of Tampa Bay instead of down in South Florida on the Atlantic Coast where we would expect it to be. All jokes aside, the error in this case was probably only partly to do with the mapmaker’s wits and smarts. Some of the confusion likely resulted from the events leading up to Dade County’s establishment in 1836.
Prior to 1836, all of the land in what is now Miami-Dade County was part of Monroe County, which at that time contained everything south of an irregular line running from Charlotte Harbor on the Gulf coast, down to Lake Okeechobee (then called Lake Macaco) and down the course of the Hillsboro River to the Atlantic. When the territorial legislature met in January 1836, the representatives drew up a bill to create a new county using some of this expansive territory. Legislative records show that no representatives voted against the bill, not even Richard Fitzpatrick, Monroe County’s delegate.
The name didn’t provoke much debate either. Seven days before the legislative session convened, two companies of U.S. troops led by Major Francis Dade had fought one of the most violent battles of the Second Seminole War, in which Major Dade and a number of his men were killed. The legislators consequently agreed to name the new county “Dade” as a memorial to the fallen commander.
Here’s where our mapmaker may have gotten into trouble. Since the new county was supposed to be a memorial to Major Dade, perhaps he thought it was supposed include the site of the late commander’s final battle. There was also a fort in the area that had just been renamed Fort Dade in the major’s memory – perhaps this was a contributing factor. It’s tough to say for sure. Even had this been the mapmaker’s thinking, Dade’s Battlefield is actually located more to the east in present-day Sumter County. More importantly, the act creating Dade County clearly situates it in the southeastern corner of the peninsula.
We may never know the full story behind Dade County’s short-lived Gulf coast career, but it’s one of those humorous little mistakes that help remind us that the historical actors we study were human beings. The history we learn from them wasn’t predetermined – it involved a multitude of individual decisions, actions, and even a few missteps.
This unusual map is one of over 1,700 individual items in the Florida Map Collection housed at the State Library in Tallahassee. Visit library.florida.gov to search the Library Catalog. If you want to limit your search to just maps, choose “Florida Map Collection” from the drop-down menu below the search box.
If you know someone with a unique name like Beglasia or Hazelwonder or Plutochose, today (March 3rd) is the day to celebrate. It’s National Unique Name Day, and here at Florida Memory we’re thinking about unique place names across the Sunshine State.
Hillsborough County, for example, is home to the great port city of Tampa, but it’s also home to a variety of smaller communities with some very unique names. From Wimauma to Welcome to Reason to Balm, we’re fascinated with these local place names and their origins. To celebrate National Unique Name Day, we’ve selected two communities for a closer look: Picnic and Fort Lonesome.
Picnic has been showing up on Florida maps at least since the 1880s. A former resident, Mrs. Bernice West, once told columnist Nixon Smiley of the Miami Herald that the settlement had once been called Hurrah, just like the Hurrah Creek that flows into the Alafia River near the site. West explained that the name “Hurrah” wasn’t meant to mean the cheer, but an Indian word with a different meaning.
At any rate, Hurrah acquired a neighbor sometime in the 1870s or 1880s called Picnic. Local historians explain that Picnic got its name from the local habit of having picnics and fish fries on the flat land lying at the convergence of Hurrah Creek and the Alafia River. It is unclear whether Hurrah and Picnic existed at the same time. By 1880, however, the name “Picnic” won out for the area’s new post office founded by George W. Colding.
The territory surrounding Picnic, Florida was engaged in two key industries in the early 20th century: turpentine and phosphates. At the start of this period, the community was surrounded by extensive tracts of longleaf pine trees, which could be tapped for their valuable resin. Several companies set to work extracting this substance from the trees and distilling it into turpentine.
This profitable business employed hundreds of local workers, but over time the area’s resources were depleted. As turpentine companies began selling off their land, phosphate companies moved in behind them to extract more wealth from under the ground. By 1930, the majority of Picnic’s residents were either farming or employed in the phosphate mines.
That brings us to Fort Lonesome, located just south of Picnic on County Road 39. Contrary to the name, there was never a fort there, at least not one called Fort Lonesome. There are several local legends explaining how the name came about, but the best explanation dates back to a serious crisis in the Central Florida citrus industry in the 1920s.
In April 1929, state officials announced that Florida was suffering from an infestation of Ceratitis capitata, better known as the Mediterranean fruit fly. The larvae of this pest burrow into the fruits of citrus trees and other deciduous trees, ruining it in the process. To combat the problem, the Florida Department of Agriculture cooperated with other state and federal authorities in an extensive program of eradication. Part of this program meant inspecting all vehicles traveling in and out of the affected area to ensure that no infested fruit left the region to spread the epidemic.
One inspection station was located at what is now the corner of County Road 39 and State Road 674 in Hillsborough County, just south of Picnic. The National Guardsmen manning the station didn’t have much traffic to look forward to, as most of the industrial action had quieted down in this section by 1930. To express his feelings about his assignment, one of the inspectors allegedly hung up a sign reading “Fort Lonesome.” The spot has never been incorporated, but the Florida Department of Transportation still posts signs on State Road 674 marking its location.
What is the most unique Florida place name in your county? What is the origin of that name? Today is a great day to do some research on the subject. Need help? Visit info.florida.gov to learn more about using the resources of the State Library and Archives for your next foray into studying Florida history and culture.
It’s getting close to Valentine’s Day, and thoughts of love are in the air here at the State Library and Archives. As a tribute to Valentine’s Day, we’ve searched our collections and found several stories from across Florida history that demonstrate the power of love and the special memories it creates. Today, we look at Coral Castle, an impressive but unusual structure in Miami-Dade County made entirely of enormous blocks of coral rock. The story of how one man single-handedly engineered this massive undertaking is perhaps one of saddest yet most remarkable tales of unrequited love in Florida’s history.
It all began in 1913 when a man named Edward Leedskalnin of the European country of Latvia was jilted by his betrothed, generally thought to be the beautiful 16-year-old Agnes Skuvst. The day before their wedding, Scuvst called off the engagement, saying the ten-year age difference between her and Leedskalnin made him too old for her.
Edward was heartbroken. He left Latvia, never to return, and sailed to Canada. He traveled around North America for several years before finally arriving in Florida around 1918. He purchased an acre of land in Florida City and began carving large pieces of stone furniture out of chunks of coral. He later explained to visitors that he hoped Agnes, who he referred to as “Sweet Sixteen,” would someday come to Florida to join him and make use of these pieces.
In 1936, as more people began moving to the Florida City area, Leedskalnin moved his creations to a 10-acre plot near Homestead. There, he arranged them within an enclosure of coral walls, creating themed “rooms” of solid stone furniture. There was a bedroom, a bathroom, a dining room, a children’s play area, and even a “throne room” with large solid-stone rocking chairs for himself, “Sweet Sixteen,” and a small child.
The mystery in all of this is that Leedskalnin managed to do all of the labor involved with creating these masterpieces by himself. The furniture bears no discernible tool marks, and the elements of the castle intended to move do so with very little effort. The solid-stone rocking chairs Leedskalnin created could be rocked even by a small child, and the 9-foot front gate could be opened with the push of a finger. The design of the chairs and other furniture provided adequate comfort, save for one chair, located behind the coral “thrones” he had created for himself and his lost love. Leedskalnin liked to joke that this chair was reserved for the mother-in-law he never had.
Scientists and engineers have studied the designs closely, even using computers, but they cannot account for how Leedskalnin did it. Nothing in the designs is impossible, per se, just extremely precise. And let’s not forget that these pieces of furniture were made from blocks of solid rock, some of which weighed as much as half a ton apiece. When Leedskalnin was in the process of building or moving the pieces, he insisted on being completely alone. When asked about his methods, Leedskalnin would often crypitcally reply either that he understood the “secret of the Pyramids,” or that to move large stone was easy if one only knew how.
For years, Edward Leedskalnin personally managed his creation as a tourist attraction called Rock Gate Park, charging ten cents a head for admission. In 1951, he died without leaving a will, whereupon the property fell to a nephew from Michigan named Harry. The property changed hands several more times over the years, acquiring the catchy name “Coral Castle.” It was added to the national Register of Historic Places in 1984.
In 1983, the manager of Coral Castle told a reporter he had learned that Leedskalnin’s “Sweet Sixteen” was alive and knew about the massive stone monument built in her honor. To his knowledge, however, she had never seen it. So far as we know, she and Leedskalnin never communicated. Clearly, however, the heartbroken Edward got his point across. His undying (if unrequited) love for his “Sweet Sixteen” is to this day still embodied in the massive stone magnificence of his creations.
Lighthouses in the Florida Keys have a tough task to manage. The area is not only strewn with coral reefs and shoals, but is also a favorite highway for destructive hurricanes and other storms. The lighthouse at Sand Key, the southernmost lighthouse in the United States, has been in operation since 1827, and has borne witness to much of this action over the years.
Sand Key is little more than a wisp of sand peeking out above the waves in the Florida Straits. It is located about six nautical miles southwest of Key West, with an excellent view of major shipping lanes through the vicinity. Congress originally passed up Sand Key for a lighthouse station when it began appropriating money for new lights in the region. Acts in 1822 and 1824 funded lighthouses at Cape Florida, Carysford Reef, the Dry Tortugas, and one of the Sambo Keys, but nothing for Sand Key.
Naval authorities still favored a light here, and Congress finally appropriated $16,000 in 1826 for a brick lighthouse and buildings for a resident light keeper and supplies. The light was completed and lit the following year, with John and Rebecca Flaherty as the keepers.
The Flaherty family kept the Sand Key Lighthouse into the mid-1830s. John died in 1830, but Rebecca continued as the lighthouse keeper until she remarried and eventually moved back north.
Hurricanes did extensive damage to the island and the lighthouse in the 1830s and 1840s. In October 1846, one storm completely demolished the lighthouse and swept away much of the island itself. Six people, including two children, perished in the tempest.
Congress appropriated money in 1847 for a replacement lighthouse. Meanwhile, the 140-ton ship Honey was employed as a “lightship,” a floating beacon anchored near where the lighthouse would normally have been.
The new lighthouse was completed in 1853, and featured Florida’s first Fresnel lens. The lens had been displayed at the Crystal Palace Exhibition in New York before it was shipped to Florida for installation. It was lit for the first time on July 20, 1853.
The new Sand Key lighthouse was much stronger than the traditional conical brick building it replaced. The shaft of the lighthouse was a cast-iron pile, supported by a frame of iron beams. Over 450 tons of iron went into its construction.
A series of hurricanes in the ensuing decades made every attempt to undo this new feat of engineering. In October 1865, a storm destroyed every building on the island except the lighthouse itself. In October 1870, a pair of hurricanes delivered enough damage to require $20,000 worth of repairs. Additional hurricanes struck the island directly in 1874, 1875, 1909, and 1910.
Sand Key’s exposure to the elements certainly made its keepers cautious, but there were also positive elements to life on the island. Key West was only a day’s sail away, and residents often came over to Sand Key to have picnics. Fishermen also stopped off to visit and sell their wares.
Although the island was small and offered little shelter from the wind and rain, terns frequently chose Sand Key to lay their eggs. The lighthouse keepers and Key West residents considered these a tasty treat, and collected them often. Plume hunters also came to Sand Key to hunt egrets and herons for their feathers, which were in high demand as decorations for ladies’ hats. The American Orinthological Union attempted to stop these practices by hiring “bird wardens” to watch over the animals. Eventually, the birds took matters into their own hands and stopped visiting Sand Key altogether.
The Coast Guard acquired the lighthouse at Sand Key in 1939, and automated its lamp in 1941 using an acetylene gas system. A live-in keeper was no longer required. Instead, Coast Guard personnel traveled to the island a few times a year to refill the fuel tanks.
With no one keeping watch over the island, the lighthouse suffered a great deal of vandalism over the years. Parts of the old keeper’s quarters fell into disrepair. A major renovation effort in 1989 restored much of the old lighthouse’s former lustre, but in November of that year the project was almost fatally derailed when a fire damaged the structure. Nearly a decade was spent restoring the lighthouse, but it resumed service on August 11, 1999.
For more photos of Florida’s historic lighthouses, search the Florida Photographic Collection.
What lighthouses have you visited in Florida? Tell us about your experiences by leaving a comment below or sharing on Facebook!
We at Florida Memory like to think every part of Florida is a little piece of Heaven, mosquitoes and sand gnats notwithstanding. One forest in the Florida Panhandle, however, has earned a reputation for being just the opposite. We’re referring, of course, to Tate’s Hell State Forest, a dense section of mostly virgin growth on the eastern side of the Apalachicola River in Liberty and Franklin counties.
Tate’s Hell is known for the thickness of its foliage and the swampiness of its terrain. Several rare plant species make their homes here, including the thick-leaved water willow, Florida bear grass, and Chapman’s butterwort. Rare animal species found here include the gopher tortoise, bald eagle, and Florida black bear.
One of the most peculiar living assets of Tate’s Hell is its stands of “dwarf cypress,” also called “miniature cypress” or “hat rack cypress.” Like most cypress trees, they can live to be hundreds of years old. Unlike their bald cypress cousins, however, dwarf cypress trees generally never grow more than 15 feet tall.
So it’s got a few bears and it’s a little swampy. Was that really enough to give the place such a rotten nickname? You might not think so after a short visit, but getting lost in Tate’s Hell for a few days might change your mind.
That’s what happened to Seab Tate, a farmer and trapper living along the Apalachicola River in the 1870s. According to local legend, Tate entered the forest with his dogs, a rifle, and a hunting knife to go after a panther that had been killing off his livestock. He quickly became lost in the dense jungle-like growth. Different versions of the legend provide different details as to what happened while Tate was wandering around in the swamp, but suffice it to say the insects, predators, and punishing landscape took their toll. At last, ten days after losing his way, Tate staggered from the miry forest near Carrabelle and into the path of two locals passing by. The strangers reported that Tate was covered with mud and scratches, and that his hair had turned pure white. When they asked the man where he had been, Tate replied, “In Hell!” and collapsed dead at their feet.
The legend of Tate’s predicament may have lent the place an unfortunate name, but with the right equipment Tate’s Hell is excellent for camping, fishing, or boating. A total of 35 miles of rivers, streams, and creeks are available for use, along with several primitive campsites. Fishing and hunting are both permitted in the forest, within guidelines set by the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission. Visit the official website of Tate’s Hell State Forest for more details.
AND, don’t forget to search the Florida Photographic Collection for images of your favorite Florida state parks and forests!