The Vine That Ate the South

If you’ve spent much time driving around North and Central Florida, chances are good that you’ve seen vines take over a few trees and power poles. It happens. Plenty of vines like Virginia creeper and wild grapevine love Florida’s climate and are all too happy to climb up a tree or pole to get a little closer to the sun. One vine in particular, however, has developed a reputation for being almost evil in its quest to grow and thrive, choking out anything that stands in its way. Kudzu (Pueraria thunbergiana) has in recent decades been drubbed as “the green menace” and “the vine that ate the South,” with tendrils that allegedly grow so fast they can outwalk a human. While we doubt kudzu really has nefarious intentions, it certainly is an invasive plant, and it has a history almost as complex as its bewildering carpet of vines and leaves.

Kudzu has overtaken this field near Lamont in Jefferson County (2018).

Kudzu has overtaken this field near Lamont in Jefferson County (2018).

Kudzu is native to Asia, where both Japanese and Chinese farmers have used it for centuries as food for livestock and ground cover to prevent erosion. It most likely first came to the United States in 1876, when representatives of the Japanese empire brought along a few cuttings to show off in their exhibit at the Centennial International Exposition in Philadelphia. The vines were hardy and the leaves were attractive, so visitors were delighted to take home a few plants for ornamental use. Southerners appreciated kudzu’s potential as an erosion control agent, and soon it was sprouting in valleys and gullies all over the Carolinas, Georgia, Alabama, and Mississippi.

A kudzu leaf, photographed off South Barber Road near Lamont in Jefferson County (2018).

A kudzu leaf, photographed off South Barber Road near Lamont in Jefferson County (2018).

While kudzu may have possibly entered Florida before 1900, it really burst onto the scene just after the turn of the 20th century, thanks to the diligent boosterism of a Chipley photographer and planter named Charles Earl Pleas. An Indiana native, Pleas and his wife, Lillie, had grown kudzu near their home to serve as a shade vine. When the plant began to creep out onto the lawn–as kudzu tends to do–Pleas dug it up and threw it onto a trash heap near the barn. Determined to survive, the vines took root and began to cover the trash pile and the nearby building.

Then, something unexpected happened. Pleas noticed that all kinds of farm animals, from hogs to horses, seem to enjoy eating the vine. He wrote the U.S. Department of Agriculture to find out if kudzu was known to be poisonous, and the agency responded that it was not, although they also doubted livestock would eat the plant. Seeing that kudzu’s potential as forage had not yet been realized, Pleas and his wife launched a veritable kudzu crusade, promoting the vine as a miracle solution to the South’s long-standing need for a cheap, hardy yearlong food crop for livestock.

Pleas wrote glowingly about kudzu for newspapers and pamphlets, praising its high nutritional value and the ease with which it could be cultivated. It could grow up to a foot a day in early summer, for a total of up to 60 feet of new growth in a single growing season. Soon others in Florida, including State Chemist Rufus E. Rose, were promoting kudzu as both a superior feed crop and an instant solution to erosion. And if the vine overgrew its welcome? “It is an easy matter to get rid of Kudzu if desired,” wrote Edward B. Eppes of Tallahassee in 1913. New plants only sprouted from the crowns, he pointed out, so mowing down the crowns with a plow during the heat of summer would be enough to kill the plant dead. “For this reason,” he wrote, “there is no danger of Kudzu ever becoming a pest.”

Cover of a pamphlet titled "Soil Improving Crops," distributed by the Florida Department of Agriculture in 1948. The image features a field and tree overtaken by kudzu which, in the context of soil conservation, actually had some positive aspects. The State Library's State Document Collection contains many books and pamphlets on soil conservation efforts throughout the 20th century.

Cover of a pamphlet titled “Soil Improving Crops,” distributed by the Florida Department of Agriculture in 1948. The image features a field and tree overtaken by kudzu which, in the context of soil conservation, actually had some positive aspects. The State Library’s State Documents Collection contains many books and pamphlets on soil conservation efforts throughout the 20th century.

For a while, Eppes’ evaluation was spot-on. Floridians and their neighbors throughout the South used kudzu as feed and as ground cover to hold the soil in place on hillsides and in gullies. The U.S. Soil Conservation Service began officially recommending it to farmers in 1935, and the Civilian Conservation Corps planted innumerable cuttings along public roadways and railroad embankments. As late as 1944, the federal government paid farmers to cultivate kudzu, hoping it would both preserve the soil and make money for struggling American farmers still reeling from the effects of the Great Depression.

Kudzu vines growing on an embankment along a railroad near Tallahassee (1961).

Kudzu vines growing on an embankment along a railroad near Tallahassee (1961).

By the 1960s, however, the vine’s reputation had taken a dive. The Pensacola News Journal noted that it had a new nickname– the “cuss you” vine–because it had turned out to have some unfortunate qualities. Yes, kudzu was a good cover crop, but turn your back for just a moment and it might overtake another planted field, and even the barn beyond it! If conditions were right, it could even choke out young pine trees, destroying valuable sources of lumber and pulpwood. The vine snaked its way into everything, taking over unoccupied dwellings, gardens and even utility poles, occasionally shorting out electrical lines. In 1970, the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which had earlier been one of kudzu’s biggest cheerleaders, declared it a common weed and began experimenting with means for eradicating it.

Local and state officials in Florida did what they could to stem kudzu’s green tidal wave as well. Santa Rosa County passed an ordinance in 1996 imposing fines on property owners who allowed kudzu vines to creep onto their neighbors’ land. Hillsborough County opted to use herbicides to beat back the vines. Tallahassee’s Parks and Recreation Department contracted with a sheep farmer to bring hundreds of lambs down to Florida to chow down on the woody growth.

Kudzu still covers millions of acres of territory in the southeastern United States, but is now under somewhat better control. Some people have even used the vine for basket weaving, confections and kudzu cigarettes! Most Floridians, however, prefer to keep the so-called “green menace” as far away as possible.

Woman weaving a basket from kudzu vines at Tallahassee Market Days (1986).

Woman weaving a basket from kudzu vines at Tallahassee Market Days (1986).

What are some of the most unusual plants in your Florida community? Let us know by leaving us a comment, and don’t forget to share this post with your friends and relatives!

Water Witching

After reading The Wizard of Oz or watching the film adaptation, you may have come away thinking that witches and water don’t mix. Not so! In fact, people have been “witching” for water, oil, gold and other hidden things for thousands of years.

'Water witcher' Don Thompson of Clearwater at the 1977 Florida Folk Festival in White Springs.

‘Water witcher’ Don Thompson of Clearwater at the 1977 Florida Folk Festival in White Springs.

So-called water witching is the practice of locating a source of underground water using a simple tool, usually a Y-shaped object called a dowsing rod or divining rod. The traditional dowsing rod is often made from a local tree or bush, but some water witchers use brass, copper, nylon or even re-purposed objects like clothes hangers and wire.

Water witching has a long history, some even applying the term to the Biblical Moses striking a rock with his staff and causing water to flow from it. African cave paintings from 6,000-8,000 years ago found in the Atlas Mountains appear to depict water witching, and references to the practice appear in the ancient writings of Indian, Chinese, Egyptian and Persian thinkers. Evidence suggests dowsing first appeared in Europe in the 16th century, as dowsers attempted to divine sources of certain minerals. As Europeans began making their way to North America, they brought dowsing with them, and soon the practice became ingrained in the popular imagination as a legitimate way to prospect for water.

The procedure for water witching is deceptively simple. The operator holds the dowsing rod or other divining tool with palms facing up, thumbs outward and the tip of the rod pointing upward. As the water witcher walks along, the presence of underground water “pulls” the tip of the rod downward, allegedly with enough force in some cases to twist the bark on the handles of the rod. Science has yet to account for this phenomenon, but those who practice water witching and believe in its legitimacy say it’s all about the skill of the witcher. “You can either do it or you can’t do it,” longtime Florida Folk Festival director Thelma Boltin once said of it. Plenty of people certainly tried their hand at it while visiting the festival, with guidance from professional water witchers like Lonnie Morgan of White Springs and Don Thompson of Clearwater.

Here’s a brief audio clip of Lonnie Morgan explaining the art of water witching at the Florida Folk Festival in 1963, with some commentary from Thelma Boltin:

https://www.floridamemory.com/fpc/memory/blog/images/2018/waterwitching.mp3

From recording T77-140, Florida Folklife Collection (Series S1578), State Archives of Florida.

Water witcher Lonnie Morgan of White Springs holding a dowsing rod at the Florida Folk Festival in 1958.

Water witcher Lonnie Morgan of White Springs holding a dowsing rod at the Florida Folk Festival in 1958.

Dowsing rods have also come in handy for treasure hunters looking for other hidden goodies, like gold and silver coins and other objects. In the photo below, for example, we see a man using a dowsing rod to search for lost items on a beach in Pensacola. Whatever your thoughts about the merits of dowsing, you have to admit it’s less cumbersome than carrying around a metal detector!

Man hunting for treasure on a beach near Pensacola (1961).

Man hunting for treasure on a beach near Pensacola (1961).

In at least a few cases, dowsing rods have been at the center of much bigger, more dramatic Florida treasure hunts. George B. Mobley of Green Cove Springs made the news on several occasions in the 1940s and early 1950s with his divining rod and fantastic stories of buried Spanish pirate gold. In 1945 and again in 1948, Mobley got permission from city officials in Green Cove Springs to dig for treasure under a busy city street. He was bonded to ensure the damage to public property would be repaired, but Mobley was confident his venture would produce many times the value of what the repairs would cost.

Treasure hunter George B. Mobley and the

Treasure hunter George B. Mobley and his “money finding” device in Green Cove Springs (1948).

Both times, Mobley’s digs encountered natural obstacles, mainly the encroachment of water and quicksand into the shaft. As the 1948 dig grew deeper and still nothing was found, reporters repeatedly asked him if he might have made a mistake. “No sir,” he told the United Press, “it’s down there and as soon as we get all this muck out of the hole we’re going to dig it right up.” At one point during the excavation, Mobley decided to take his “money finding” divining rod into the open shaft to get a fresh reading on the gold to see how much farther his workers could expect to dredge. Mobley, at that time in his early 80s, was in no shape to go alone, so he sat on the lap of his chief contractor, J.T. Conway, as a crane lowered them both down into the hole.

Contractor J.T. Conway holds treasure hunter George B. Mobley on his lap as a crane lowers them both into an open shaft in Green Cove Springs. Mobley is seen holding his

Contractor J.T. Conway holds treasure hunter George B. Mobley on his lap as a crane lowers them both into an open shaft in Green Cove Springs. Mobley is seen holding his “money finding” device on the end of a divining rod (1948).

Mobley’s treasure hunt ended without much to show for the work. Although the team brought up a few metallic items they claimed could be connected with buried pirate treasure, they did not find the gold bars or coins they had believed were waiting for them. “The gold’s there all right,” Mobley said, “but now I think it’s gold dust instead of gold bars or coins and the dust has been mixed with the sand. We just couldn’t find it.”

While dowsing rods and similar devices haven’t proven very effective at pointing out sources of gold, water witching is still alive and well in the 21st century. In fact, there’s still an active American Society of Dowsers with chapters right here in Florida!  The U.S. Geological Survey and the National Ground Water Association both point out that the philosophy behind dowsing doesn’t stand up to scientific scrutiny, yet they continue to field questions about it from the public, and both groups have found it necessary over the years to publish leaflets addressing the practice.

What kinds of treasure have you discovered in your corner of the state? Leave us a comment, and don’t forget to share this blog with your friends on Facebook or Twitter.

 

A Brush with the Black Death

If you thought bubonic plague only caused epidemics in medieval Europe, think again! Pensacola experienced an outbreak of the infamous disease in 1920 that resulted in at least seven deaths. The episode turned out to be a transitional moment for public health in the city, as local, state and federal officials took action to prevent future attacks.

A schooner loading lumber in Pensacola Harbor, ca. 1900. Ships like this one may have been the source of the rats (and fleas) that transmitted the bubonic plague to humans during the outbreak of 1920.

A schooner loading lumber in Pensacola Harbor, ca. 1900. Ships like this one may have been the source of the rats (and fleas) that transmitted the bubonic plague to humans during the outbreak of 1920.

Bubonic plague is caused by the bacterium Yersinia pestis, typically spread by infected fleas on small rodents like mice or rats. Vaccines don’t do much to prevent the plague, but it responds well to several kinds of antibiotics. Unfortunately, those medicines were not around in the 14th century when the bubonic plague struck Europe, resulting in the deaths of somewhere between 30 and 60 percent of the population. The term “Black Death” is often used to describe this European outbreak, likely a reference to the dark lesions infected patients would develop under the skin as a result of internal bleeding. In reality, people at that time usually called the epidemic the “Big Death” or “Great Mortality.” After a series of later historians continued to use “Black Death” instead, however, the name stuck.

Bites from fleas like this one are typically responsible for transmitting the bubonic plague to humans.

Bites from fleas like this one are typically responsible for transmitting the bubonic plague to humans. Image courtesy of the University of Florida’s Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences.

The bubonic plague didn’t die with the Middle Ages. Outbreaks have occurred in every century since the Black Death, including as recently as 2017 in Madagascar. The plague outbreak in Pensacola was discovered by local physician Dr. Herbert Lee Bryans in June 1920 when one of his patients became very suddenly ill and delirious with fever. When the patient also developed a telltale “bubo” (a swollen and darkened gland infected by plague bacteria) near his groin, Bryans suspected something unusual and contacted the state bacteriologist, Dr. Fritz Albert Brink. After personally examining the patient, Brink quickly diagnosed the disease as the bubonic plague.

The World War I service card of Dr. Herbert Lee Bryans, the physician who first sounded the alarm in the Pensacola outbreak of plague in 1920.

The World War I service card of Dr. Herbert Lee Bryans, the physician who first sounded the alarm in the Pensacola outbreak of plague in 1920. Dr. Bryans served in the U.S. Army Medical Corps and was briefly on detached duty with the British Royal Army Medical Corps in England, Belgium and France. Click to enlarge the image.

To verify his suspicions, Brink took samples from the bubo, which he then injected into two guinea pigs. He also prepared slides to view under a microscope. All tests confirmed his original diagnosis. The guinea pigs quickly developed symptoms of plague and died, and the slides revealed bacteria consistent with Yersinia pestis. 

To stop the disease from spreading further, its source needed to be identified quickly. Bryans’ patient had not left Pensacola or been aboard a ship anytime recently, which ruled out the possibility that he had brought the disease into the city from someplace else. Still, several more cases appeared in June 1920. Since the modern bubonic plague generally cannot spread from person to person, this meant the source of infection had to be the fleas infesting local rodents.

Public health officials blamed rodents like this rat for harboring the fleas that transmitted the plague bacteria to humans.

Public health officials blamed rodents like this rat for harboring the fleas that transmitted the plague bacteria to humans.

Florida’s State Board of Health sprung into action, with support from the U.S. Public Health Service. The state officials already had a laboratory in Pensacola at the corner of Palafox and Cervantes streets, which became the control center for the eradication effort. Federal health authorities also brought in Hamilton, a mobile laboratory train car, to assist. The human plague victims were isolated and those who consented were treated with serum. Out of 10 total cases, seven victims died.

Flyer urging Pensacola citizens to cooperate with public health officials to help end the bubonic plague outbreak (1920).

Flier urging Pensacola citizens to cooperate with public health officials to help end the bubonic plague outbreak (1920). Box 1, Folder 22, Florida Health Notes Photographs (Series 917).

Meanwhile, city, state and federal authorities launched an all-out effort to eradicate the rodents responsible for harboring the infected fleas. The public health experts captured, examined and disposed of over 35,000 rats and mice from June 1920 to July 1921, carefully studying the fleas that came with them. The program’s final report gives 211 as the largest number of fleas found on a single rat, although the average was closer to about 10. City officials encouraged the public to do their share by trapping rats, covering them in oil to kill the fleas and turning them in to the public health experts for processing.

Map showing the locations of rats and humans found to be infected with bubonic plague bacteria. Both categories of infected cases are numbered in order of their discovery.

Map showing the locations of rats and humans found to be infected with bubonic plague bacteria. Both categories of infected cases are numbered in order of their discovery. Box 1, Folder 9, State Board of Health Subject Files (Series 900).

Wherever rats infected with plague bacteria were found, a team followed behind to clean up whatever conditions had made the property attractive to them. The eradication program ultimately used 1,228 pounds of cyanide and 1,854 pints of sulphuric acid to fumigate buildings. The team also demolished seven houses and hauled 280 truckloads of trash and debris to the city dumps. The city government did its part to prevent future rodent infestations by passing new ordinances requiring business owners and residents to ratproof their buildings. Plank sidewalks, which offered rats and mice a convenient space to live, were outlawed and replaced with stone, brick or concrete. Under the new laws, incoming ships had to attach rat shields to their mooring lines, and ramps and gangplanks leading from the ship to the wharf had to be taken up when not in use.

Pensacola’s brush with the bubonic plague was brief, but it still cost the city seven lives. Local citizens took the matter seriously, however, and acted quickly in ways that ultimately made Pensacola a safer, healthier place to live and work.

If you enjoyed reading about this episode in the history of Florida’s public health, check out our online exhibit, Pestilence, Potions, and Persistence: Early Florida Medicine.

Sources:

John Kelly. The Great Mortality: An Intimate History of the Black Death, the Most Devastating Plague of All Time. New York: HarperCollins, 2005.

 

 

How’s Your Head, Governor Drew?

Can you guess which Florida governor weighed 185 pounds, had a brain 23¼ inches in diameter and was reportedly an uncommonly good judge of character? Stumped? To be fair, we wouldn’t have known either, had he not taken the time to consult a phrenologist while visiting New York in 1867. We recently came across the phrenologist’s report in this governor’s family papers and made it available on Florida Memory.

Cover of a phrenological character reading of George Franklin Drew, conducted by phrenologist Nelson Sizer on March 11, 1867 in New York City.

Cover of a phrenological character reading of George Franklin Drew, conducted by phrenologist Nelson Sizer on March 11, 1867 in New York City. Click the image to view the entire report.

Phrenology was a pseudo-science popular mainly in the early 19th century. Its founders, German physicians Franz Joseph Gall and Johann Spurzheim, claimed it was possible to determine the size and mental capacity of a person’s brain based on the bumps and indentations on the outside of the head. Phrenologists, who soon popped up on both sides of the Atlantic, would take measurements of a person’s head, note the places where it seemed to either be bulging or denting, and then write a report explaining the person’s character. The assumption was that every area of the brain covered a different aspect of personality and behavior. The more brain matter you had in a particular region, the more pronounced the corresponding trait would be.

Diagram illustrating the various

Diagram illustrating the various “faculties” of the brain, according to phrenologists.

Now a bit about Governor Drew. George Franklin Drew was born August 6, 1827, in New Hampshire, and got his start as a machinist’s apprentice in Massachusetts. At the age of 20, he moved to Columbus, Georgia, and started up his own machine shop before turning to the lumber industry. When the Civil War broke out in 1861, Drew opposed secession, which didn’t sit well with some of his neighbors, and he spent most of the war confined in Savannah.

Portrait of George Franklin Drew, likely taken during his administration as Florida's 12th state governor (1877-1881).

Portrait of George Franklin Drew, likely taken during his administration as Florida’s 12th state governor (1877-1881).

After the war, Drew originally intended to move with his family to Brazil, but he only made it as far south as Suwannee County, Florida, where he invested his remaining fortune in timber land and a sawmill. He later moved his operation to Ellaville in Madison County, and built what was then believed to be the largest sawmill in the South.

Drew Lumber Company sawmill on the Suwannee River at Ellaville (ca. 1875).

Drew Lumber Company sawmill on the Suwannee River at Ellaville (ca. 1875).

It was during this era of his life that Drew visited New York City, probably on business, and happened to stop by the Fowler and Wells Phrenological Cabinet, a museum with plaster casts of heads and skulls and all kinds of memorabilia associated with the phrenology movement. While there, he received a full phrenological workup from Nelson Sizer, professor of “mental science” in the American Phrenological Institute and associate editor of the American Phrenological Journal. Sizer’s report on Drew was lengthy, but here are a few of the characteristics he “discovered” in the future governor while examining his head:

  • He was a good judge of character.
  • He appreciated people of principle and expected others to practice what they preached.
  • He liked to eat. Sizer wrote, “You have a strong appetite, which should be regulated.”
  • He was eager to be respected.

Sizer also offered Drew some advice, mainly regarding his diet:

  • Avoid pork and pastry and “highly seasoned things.”
  • Don’t use tobacco.
  • Eat lean beef and tart fruits and cut down on butter and sugar.

Sizer’s report was vague, but his overall positive view of Drew’s talent for business and management seemed to ring true. Drew’s lumber operations continued to grow, and he expanded into railroads and the mercantile trade as well. In 1870, he became chairman of the Madison County Commission, and in 1876 Florida’s Democratic Party nominated him for governor. The election results were close in both the presidential and gubernatorial elections that year. The initial returns gave the governorship of Florida to the incumbent, Marcellus Stearns, but a Supreme Court-mandated recount revealed George Franklin Drew as the winner. Drew served one term as governor, the first Democrat to hold that office since Florida had been readmitted to the Union after the Civil War. His administration effectively ended Reconstruction in Florida, and no Republican would again occupy the governor’s mansion until Claude Kirk took office in 1967.

Governor Drew's signature, in this case applied to a legislative act establishing a game hunting season. Volume 69, Acts and Resolutions of the Legislature (Series 222), State Archives of Florida.

Governor Drew’s signature, in this case applied to a legislative act establishing a game hunting season. Volume 69, Acts and Resolutions of the Legislature (Series 222), State Archives of Florida.

Shortly after returning to private life, Drew sold off his lumbering interests and moved to Jacksonville, where he spent the remainder of his days. On September 24, 1900, Drew’s wife Amelia experienced a stroke, which the former governor described in a letter to their daughter Vannie. “We have lived together so many years,” he wrote, “that I don’t care to live after she is taken away.” Drew meant what he said. Two hours after Amelia died on September 26th, Governor Drew himself collapsed and died. The local newspaper diagnosed the cause as simply a broken heart.

Governor George Franklin Drew's final letter, written to his daughter Vannie on September 24, 1900. Drew Family Papers (M82-8), State Archives of Florida.

Governor George Franklin Drew’s final letter, written to his daughter Vannie on September 24, 1900.

Looking for more information about Florida’s governors? Try searching the Florida Photographic Collection or Selected Documents!

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. 

Some Issues Are Eternal: Keeping the City “in a sanitary condition”

In the 1890s, the City of Tallahassee had a dedicated health officer, a merchant and contractor named Mathew F. Papy (1834-1904), who sent meticulous reports of the condition of the city during his tenure. He was responsible for sanitation as well as health issues, so his reports reflect activities such as clearing sewers, garbage removal, closing open privies, the quality of fish and meat offered at market, and disposing of dead livestock.

In one of these reports is the details of a problem that greatly concerned him: the use of the alley between the Ball Brothers Bar Room and Mr. Levy’s store as a privy. In his report of November 30, 1891, he wrote:

“Your Honor’s attention is called to the Alley between Ball Brothers Bar Room and Mr. Levy’s store, some action should be taken at once by the Council to stop the Alley from being used as a urine Deposit for the public, by either having the same closed up, or positive instruction given to Ball Brothers to stop using the same for a Urine Deposit, I have much trouble in Keeping that place in good condition, and have to watch it very closely, the disagreeable odor which comes from that place at times, is positively Horrible, and I therefore hope the Council will take some action to abate the nuisance.”

Mathew F. Papy’s report about the alley between Ball Brothers Bar Room and Mr. Levy’s store being used as a privy, dated November 30, 1891. City of Tallahassee records 1885 – 1965, Series L 9, Box 36, 1891 Folder 1.

An unhealthy nuisance indeed! There is no mention of the alley in reports for several years, but then in December of 1896, the problem either returned or had not been resolved:

“It again becomes my Duty to Report the Ally between Mr. Julius Ball’s Bar Room and Mr. Lively’s Warehouse in a Bad condition, and it is impossible for me to have it kept in a Sanitary condition, Mr. Ball has a Barrell in the Ally for the public to deposit their Urine in, and most of them use the ground instead of the Barrell, when the Bll is full, I cannot get it taken away. It is a Nuisance, and I beg that you bring the matter before the Council as I have reported him several times to the Mayor. He has promised to do better, but has not done so.”

Papy’s report about the alley between Mr. Julius Ball’s Bar Room and Mr. Lively’s Warehouse and the issue of public urination in that alleyway, dated November 30, 1891.City of Tallahassee records 1885 – 1965, Series L 9, Box 36, 1896.

The Council took note of the issue, as seen in the memo to the mayor. The problem was possibly resolved as the alley behind Ball Brothers is not mentioned again.

“That the Mayor be notified that the City Health Officer reports that certain sections of the Sanitary Ordinances are being constantly violated and that he is powerless to correct nuisances without his Cooperation and that it is the sense of the City Council that he investigate & act promptly upon all…

…complaints made by the City Health Officer”

Memo sent to the mayor regarding the unsanitary alleyway. City of Tallahassee records 1885 – 1965, Series L 9, Box 36, 1896.

Memo sent to the mayor regarding the unsanitary alleyway. City of Tallahassee records 1885 – 1965, Series L 9, Box 36, 1896.

At the time, Levy’s store was located on Monroe Street, and the Ball Brothers’ saloon was very likely located on Jefferson Street a few doors down in downtown Tallahassee. While the original buildings have been replaced, there is still an alley running through the middle of that block called Gallie Alley. Mr. Papy might well be satisfied by its sanitary condition today.

Photograph of Gallie Alley taken by the author on February 16, 2017.

Gallie Alley runs through the middle of the block between College Avenue and South Adams Street in downtown Tallahassee, much as it has for over one hundred years.

All in Good Time

It’s smart to plan for the future, but it’s also possible to take that mantra to extremes. Calvin Phillips, an  architect who lived in Tallahassee in the early 20th century, is a good example. You see, in the months leading up to his death in November 1919, Phillips spent most of his time building his own mausoleum.

Calvin Phillips' mausoleum in Oakland Cemetery in Tallahassee (1960).

Calvin Phillips’ mausoleum in Oakland Cemetery in Tallahassee (1960).

This might seem a bit out of the ordinary, but Calvin Phillips was no ordinary man. A few bits of evidence suggested to his contemporaries that he had done great things in his lifetime. His purpose for coming to Tallahassee and the details of his earlier life, however, are mostly shrouded in mystery even today.

Census records indicate that Calvin C. Phillips was born around 1834 in Massachusetts. He trained as an architect and lived in New York for some portion of his adult life. His architectural work was honored by medals from the Pennsylvania State Agriculture Society and the “Exposition Universelle” of 1889, which were brought to Florida by his daughter after his death.

In 1907, for unknown reasons, Calvin Phillips moved to Tallahassee. He had been married, and had at least one living daughter, but no family members joined him in his new home. In fact, he lived mostly as a hermit, seeing very few people and hardly ever going out into public. He built a home at 815 South Macomb Street, and erected a large clock tower at one end of the building. Tallahasseeans who met Phillips recalled that the architect was almost obsessed with the concept of time, which would explain the rather imposing structure.

Home of Calvin Phillips at 815 S. Macomb Street in Tallahassee, including the clock tower (circa 1960s).

Home of Calvin Phillips at 815 S. Macomb Street in Tallahassee, including the clock tower (circa 1960s).

 

Close-up of the clock tower attached to Calvin Phillips' home in Tallahassee (1967).

Close-up of the clock tower attached to Calvin Phillips’ home in Tallahassee (1967).

Apparently, he was equally obsessed with the end of his own time. In 1919, Calvin Phillips began constructing a mausoleum in what is now Oakland Cemetery in Tallahassee. He was over eighty years old by this point, and according to eyewitnesses he would spend his frequent breaks sitting inside the mausoleum that would one day serve as his own tomb. One contemporary said Phillips described this practice as his way of “getting used to his new home.”

Calvin Phillips’ sense of time proved mysterious right up to the end. He finished the mausoleum in November 1919, just days before he passed away. According to his wishes, he was buried in a cherry-wood coffin he himself constructed, and placed in the tomb he had spent so many of his final days creating.

Remains of Calvin Phillips' home in Tallahassee (circa 1974).

Remains of Calvin Phillips’ home in Tallahassee (circa 1974).

Calvin Phillips’ property eventually passed into the possession of Mr. and Mrs. Henry M. Blaine, who in turn gave the house and clock tower to the Florida Heritage Foundation. Efforts to restore the unusual landmark proved prohibitively expensive, and it was torn down in the 1980s. Phillips’ mausoleum still stands in Oakland Cemetery, a lasting monument to his unique contribution to Tallahassee’s architectural history.

Articles from the Tallahassee Democrat were instrumental in reconstructing this story. Did you know  the State Library of Florida has microfilm editions of many Florida newspapers going as far back as before the Civil War? Search the State Library’s online catalog or contact the Reference Desk for details.

Fort Lonesome Was No Picnic

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.

Excerpt of the Florida Department of Transportation's Official Highway Map showing the location of Picnic and Fort Lonesome in eastern Hillsborough County (2014).

Excerpt of the Florida Department of Transportation’s Official Highway Map showing the location of Picnic and Fort Lonesome in eastern Hillsborough County (2014).

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.

Turpentine workers dipping resin from a collection cup (left) and scraping

Turpentine workers dipping resin from a collection cup (left) and scraping “cat-faces” (right). Photo circa 1890s.

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.

Hand mining phosphates (1900).

Hand mining phosphates (1900).

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.

Mediterranean Fruit Fly (circa 1950s).

Mediterranean Fruit Fly (circa 1950s).

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.

Florida National Guard personnel inspect a truck for fruit affected by the Mediterranean fruit fly (circa 1929). Photo courtesy of the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services.

Florida National Guard personnel inspect a truck for fruit affected by the Mediterranean fruit fly (circa 1929). Photo courtesy of the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services.

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.

A Tribute to Lost Love

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.

A postcard depicting Coral Castle in Homestead (circa 1950s).

A postcard depicting Coral Castle in Homestead (circa 1950s).

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.

Ed Leedskalnin sitting in one of his carved coral chairs at Coral Castle, then called Rock Gate Park (between 1923 and 1936).

Ed Leedskalnin sitting in one of his carved coral chairs at Coral Castle, then called Rock Gate Park (between 1923 and 1936).

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.

A young visitor at Coral Castle in Homestead (1963).

A young visitor at Coral Castle in Homestead (1963).

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.

Front of a brochure for Coral Castle - part of the State Library's Florida Ephemera Collection (circa 1960s).

Front of a brochure for Coral Castle – part of the State Library’s Florida Ephemera Collection (circa 1960s).

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.

The Wakulla Swamp Volcano

Floridians know their state isn’t made up just of sandy beaches. There are swamps, sandhills, prairies, and in some places rolling hills that seem more appropriate in a state farther north. It’s nice to have a little variety, of course, but what would you say if we told you Florida once had its very own volcano?

Model Melody May in front of the volcano at Jungle Land in Panama City (1966).

Model Melody May in front of the volcano at Jungle Land in Panama City (1966).

No, not that volcano. A real one, a natural volcano like Mount St. Helens. For generations, people swore they could occasionally see a dark column of smoke rising up out of the forests southeast of Tallahassee. It was too much smoke to come from a single campfire or some industrial process. The smoke was thicker, blacker, more ominous. Folks nicknamed the phenomenon the “Wakulla Volcano,” even though some bearings indicated it was located in extreme southern Jefferson County in Township 4 South, Range 3 East, somewhere near what’s now known as the “Gum Swamp” section of the St. Marks Wildlife Refuge.

The swamps in southern Wakulla and Jefferson counties are some of the most beautiful, although they can be difficult to access (photo 1971).

The swamps in southern Wakulla and Jefferson counties are some of the most beautiful, although they can be difficult to access (photo 1971).

Local wisdom has it that stories of the volcano were around even when Native Americans occupied the area. The legend became particularly popular in the late 19th century, when a variety of newspapers and magazines carried stories about the mysterious Wakulla Volcano and its possible explanations. Some said it was some sort of beacon established by pirates. During the Civil War, some believed it might be a signal used by deserters hiding out in the swamps to communicate with the ships of the Union blockade. Moonshiners, hermits, giant pine trees struck by lightning, and Native Americans were all suggested at one time or another as the source of the thick black smoke.

Moonshine stills like this one from Miami could produce a lot of smoke depending on what was used to fuel the fire. Some believed this explained the mysterious Wakulla Swamp Volcano (photo 1925).

Moonshine stills like this one from Miami could produce a lot of smoke depending on what was used to fuel the fire. Some believed this explained the mysterious Wakulla Swamp Volcano (photo 1925).

The Wakulla Swamp Volcano seemed to close up shop after the 1886 Charleston Earthquake, which was felt across Middle Florida. Some folks assumed whatever geological formation had opened up to produce the smoke had been closed by the shaking of the ground. Others continued looking for answers, even into the 20th century. As scientific knowledge about the geological formation of Florida became more advanced, notions of an actual volcano became less popular. The best explanation State Librarian W.T. Cash could provide when asked about the volcano in the 1930s was that a mass of peat or vegetation must have caught fire and smoldered, creating the smoke. Marshes and peat bogs do occasionally experience this sort of slow, smoldering fire, although for it to continue burning for so long would be unusual.

A core sample of peat taken by the Florida Geological Survey using the brass cylinder on the right. Peat can become dry and flammable, and some believed this explained the mysterious Wakulla Swamp Volcano (photo 1944).

A core sample of peat taken by the Florida Geological Survey using the brass cylinder on the right. Peat can become dry and flammable, and some believed this explained the mysterious Wakulla Swamp Volcano (photo 1944).

We may never know what was causing that enigmatic black column of smoke rising above the trees. We can be thankful, however, that whatever it was didn’t destroy the forest in that area, because St. Marks Wildlife Refuge is a stunning piece of natural Florida territory. We at Florida Memory recommend you visit sometime!