In 2014, Florida Memory digitized the returns of Florida’s 1845 statehood election. They explain who voted in each precinct, which offices each voter voted for, and whether their qualifications as a voter were challenged at the time of the election. Each return also contains the election officials’ certification of the results.
On the surface, that doesn’t sound like much information. To a genealogist, however, these
documents can be a real treasure. First of all, voters were assigned to precincts based on
where they lived. So, if you locate an ancestor in these returns, you can determine with
some degree of certainty the county and precinct in which that ancestor lived as of May 26,
1845, when the election was held.
Excerpt from an election return from Sopchoppy Precinct in Wakulla County. Click on the image to view the full return.
But there’s more. To have voted in the statehood election in 1845, a voter would have to
have been at least 21 years of age, and would have to have lived in Florida for at least
two years to vote for statewide officers. This can be very helpful information if you have
what we call a “mystery” ancestor, whose details are so obscure you may not even know which
generation they belong to.
It also helps if you are looking to be certified as a descendant of a “Florida Pioneer”
through the Florida State Genealogical Society. To obtain a state-level “Florida Pioneer Descendant”
certificate from the Society, you must demonstrate that you descend from someone who
settled in Florida before it became a state in 1845. In theory, any person who voted in this election would legally have had to live in Florida for some time prior to statehood. Other evidence may be necessary to receive a certificate from the Society; consult their website for details.
The documents have their drawbacks, of course. Women, persons under 21, and African-
Americans do not appear in the collection, as they were not permitted to vote at this time. Finding an ancestor using this source, however, can be the first step in locating many more.
Do you have ancestors who voted in the 1845 statehood election in Florida? Tell us about it by leaving a comment below, or by sharing this blog on Facebook!
Imagine it’s October 1861. You’re a Confederate soldier from Florida, encamped along Pensacola Bay. One afternoon, your commander says to get your equipment together and prepare for a night attack against Wilson’s Zouaves on Santa Rosa Island.
Fine, you say, but what in the world is a zouave?
Portrait of Brevet Brigadier General William Wilson, commander of the Sixth New York Volunteers, also known as “Wilson’s Zouaves.” Note that Wilson’s attire here is not that of traditional zouave soldiers (circa 1860s).
In this particular case, the Zouaves were soldiers from the 6th New York Volunteer Infantry, which had been sent to the Pensacola area to defend United States military installations, including forts McRee, Pickens and Barrancas.
The term zouave is French, first used to identify regiments in the French Army populated by recruits from the Zouaoua tribe in Algeria. The first French zouaves appeared in 1831, and were distinguished by their unique uniform. The soldiers wore open-fronted jackets with baggy trousers, often colored red.
Wilson’s Zouaves, named for Brevet Brigadier General William Wilson, were organized in New York City. The “Zouaves” title appears to have been more of a nickname in this case, as images of the 6th New York Volunteers show its members dressed in standard military uniforms. The regiment left New York in June 1861 aboard the steamer Vanderbilt and headed for Pensacola Bay.
Map (click to enlarge) showing Fort Pickens and the encampment of the Sixth New York Volunteers, also known as Wilson’s Zouaves. Included as an illustration in Gouverneur Morris, The History of a Volunteer Regiment, being a succinct account of the organization, services, and adventures of the Sixth Regiment New York Volunteers Infantry, known as Wilson Zouaves (1891). This rare book is part of the Florida Collection at the State Library.
In Florida, an uneasy peace had settled between the Union forces stationed at Fort Pickens and the Confederates holding the mainland along Pensacola Bay. The Confederates had sunk several vessels in the channel leading from Pensacola Bay to the Gulf of Mexico, to stave off a large-scale Union invasion. The federals had retaliated by setting fire to a large dry dock and other naval repair facilities in the area. They also burned the Confederate blockade runner Judah as it sat anchored in the harbor.
Camp of the Sixth New York Volunteers on Santa Rosa Island (1861).
By this time, Wilson’s Zouaves were encamped on Santa Rosa Island, just east of Fort Pickens. General Braxton Bragg, at that time commander of Confederate forces in Pensacola, ordered an assault on the Union-held fort. General Richard Anderson had responsibility for carrying out the attack. Just after midnight on October 9, 1861, Anderson and a force of 1,200 Confederate soldiers crossed Pensacola Bay in two steamers and landed on Santa Rosa Island, far east of the Zouaves’ camp. Anderson divided his men into three columns and began marching west toward the New Yorkers.
The Sixth New York was indeed surprised by Anderson’s tactics. The camp was awakened when some of its pickets fired their guns in warning, and the Union soldiers put up a fight, but ultimately they fell back to Fort Pickens.
Image depicting the battle between the Sixth New York Volunteers (Wilson’s Zouaves) and Confederate forces under General Richard Anderson on Santa Rosa Island (1861).
Once Anderson’s attack began, Union commanders were able to send for reinforcements, which eventually forced the Confederates to retreat to the mainland. Fort Pickens remained in Union control, as it would until the end of the war. Wilson’s Zouaves, in the meantime, continued to serve in the Gulf region. Some companies stayed close to Pensacola, while others were sent to Louisiana.
For more information, check out our learning unit on Florida in the Civil War in the Online Classroom. Also, don’t forget the 150th anniversary of the Battle of Natural Bridge is coming up on March 6, 2015. The Florida Memory Blog will feature historical documents relating to the battle throughout the week of March 2-6.
At this very moment, two 15th-century Spanish caravels are tied up at St. Marks about 20 miles south of Tallahassee. Most folks will recognize their names – the Niña and the Pinta – because these were two of the ships used by Christopher Columbus and his crew to sail that proverbial ocean blue in 1492.
You can put down the phone, though – there’s no need to raise the alarm. The Spanish haven’t come for a third colonial occupation of Florida. Rather, these ships are replicas created by the Columbus Foundation as floating museums dedicated to educating the public about Christopher Columbus and the ships he used to explore parts of the Western Hemisphere.
The Columbus Foundation’s replicas of Christopher Columbus’ ships Nina and Pinta. Photo courtesy of the Columbus Foundation.
The two ships and their crews are currently on a tour of the Gulf Coast and the Atlantic Seaboard this winter and spring. At each port of call, they offer tours of the ships, which describe how the ships were sailed in the 15th century, what life was like for the sailors, and how the ships operate today in their replica form.
The Niña and the Pinta will remain in port at St. Marks until February 22nd, and will then sail on to Marco Island, where they will be in port from February 27th to March 1st. The ships will be anchored at Vero Beach on the Atlantic Coast from March 6-11, and then at Ponce Inlet from March 13-17. These dates are subject to change, of course – we recommend you visit the Columbus Foundation’s website at thenina.com for full details about the ships, their schedule, and tours.
With this fine-looking pair of Spanish caravels in port so close by, we at the State Library and Archives cannot help but think about some of the excellent resources we hold from the Spanish colonial era, several of which are available through Florida Memory. The oldest object in the State Archives, for example, is a 1589 map depicting the English privateer Sir Francis Drake’s 1586 raid on St. Augustine. This hand-colored map is the earliest-known depiction of a European settlement in what is now the United States. It was created by Baptista Boazio, an Italian cartographer working for the English at this time.
Baptista Boazio’s map of Sir Francis Drake’s 1586 raid on St. Augustine. This is the oldest item held by the State Archives of Florida (1589).
The Archives also holds a large collection of original records used by settlers to defend their titles to their land following the official transfer of Florida to the United States in 1821. One of the conditions of the treaty between Spain and the U.S. was that the United States government would honor existing land grants given by the Spanish Crown. The U.S. Board of Land Commissioners was established in 1822 to review claims and verify titles to these land grants, which claimants supported through deeds, correspondence, maps, and other materials establishing their ownership. These dossiers of material were retained by the Commission, and are now in the possession of the State Archives. The colorful maps and drawings alone make the collection worth a look, but for families with ties to these original claimants they can be great for genealogical research as well. Florida Memory has digitized the Spanish Land Grant collection in its entirety, and the images are available online.
Map from the land grant of John Bolton, part of the collection of Spanish land grants at the State Archives of Florida (Series 990). These grants are also available in digital form on Florida Memory.
Students of the Spanish colonial era will also find the East Florida Papers a very useful resource. A complete copy of the original records of East Florida held by the Library of Congress is available at the State Archives, along with an index. The documents include an index to Royal Decrees, financial records, and correspondence between Spanish officials on matters such as runaway slaves, the militia, religious authorities, and the transfer of the Florida Archives to the United States. The collection’s catalog record contains a fuller description of the contents.
It’s said that absence makes the heart grow fonder. The experience of Floridian Confederate soldier Albert Symington Chalker and his sweetheart Martha Bardin certainly illustrates the point well. Albert and Martha (or “Mattie”) were from Middleburg in Clay County. Either before or during the Civil War, they became acquainted, and the long-distance courtship that followed produced one of the most heart-warming series of letters held by the State Archives of Florida.
Albert Chalker to Martha Bardin, May 8, 1864. This is the earliest letter in the Chalker Collection held by the Archives (Collection M72-11).
In his first letter to Bardin (that we have), Chalker describes what it was like to arrive at Camp Finegan near present-day Lake City, and how the soldiers went about setting up their tents and equipment with an air of joviality. Chalker, however, was missing his dear sweetheart:
“I am sitting here alone thinking how hapy I might be if I was with my dear Mattie. Yes, if I was with you this evening I would be hapy. I did not know what it was to love, or how much I loved you untill now. I will quit writeing in this tone for I fear I am getting two sentimental, and you will think I am crazy.”
Chalker continued to write letters to Mattie through the end of the war, almost always saying he had no interesting news to share, although he does indeed provide some interesting tidbits about the everyday life of a Confederate soldier in Florida. He often ended his letters with bits of poetry. Some of the verses appear to come from established poets of the day, such as Bayard Taylor and Edward Everett. The origins of some of the poems are unknown. Either way, Chalker attempted to make up for his absence by writing the most loving bits of verse he could find into his messages. Here’s one poem that appears to have been taken from the text of a Valentine’s Day card from 1840:
Excerpt of Albert Chalker’s letter to Martha Bardin, November 20, 1864 (Collection M72-11, State Archives of Florida).
Fondly love my heart is beating With affection warm and true to thee; And timely I would send this greeting Where I fain would wish to be.
Martha did her share of writing as well. In one letter, she chides Albert for not writing as much as he should:
Martha Bardin to Albert Chalker, January 18, 1865 (Collection M72-11, State Archives of Florida).
“I have written to you before nearly two weeks since, and have not heard a word from you yet. Now for your scolding. I want to know why it is you have not written. Have I offended you in any way? If so let me know and not keep me in suspense as I am. I sometimes think you have gone home sick or to the hospital or that I said something in my last letter you did not like, and sometimes I think like the Dutch man’s boy.”
We can be sure this was quite gentle criticism, because this Florida love story has a very happy ending. Albert Chalker was honorably paroled on May 17, 1865 after Florida’s Confederate forces formally surrendered to General Edward M. McCook of the United States. He returned to Clay County and married Martha Ann Bardin in December 1865. Martha’s father, William Sims Bardin, gave his Middleburg residence to the couple as a wedding gift. Albert and Martha Chalker settled and remained there for the rest of their lives. Albert Chalker served for 17 years as Middleburg’s postmaster, and as tax collector for Clay County from 1881 to 1885. He was also a prominent businessman, and operated both a private ferry on the south prong of Black Creek and a general store in Middleburg.
The historic Clark-Chalker House at 3891 Main Street in Middleburg, Clay County (circa 1988).
Don’t forget to check out the rest of the letters from this romantic exchange in the Albert S. Chalker Papers. Happy Valentine’s Day!
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).
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).
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).
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).
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.
Most folks know a little something about the name Stetson. Many recognize the name as belonging to a particular style of hat. Many Floridians are also aware of Stetson University, one of the state’s premier institutions of higher learning. But how are these things connected? To answer that question, we need to take a look at the early history of DeLand, Florida.
A very busy Rand McNally map showing DeLand and the surrounding area (1882). From the Florida Map Collection of the State Library of Florida.
The settlement went by the name “Persimmon Hollow” for a number of years, owing to the large number of persimmon trees that grew wild in the area. In March 1876, baking powder manufacturer Henry Addison DeLand of New York and his brother-in-law O.P. Terry, traveled south to visit this as-yet undeveloped piece of Florida. Terry had bought up acreage around Persimmon Hollow to start an orange grove.
DeLand was impressed with what he saw. The only way to easily reach Persimmon Hollow at that time was by steamboat, but that could be changed. The terrain, he believed, was highly favorable for agriculture. DeLand and Terry set out to build up a large citrus growing operation, with a new town as the center of activity.
Plan of the new Town of DeLand, drawn up by D.D. Rogers in 1883. The map shown is a reproduction of the original, now in the possession of the State Library of Florida.
DeLand returned to Persimmon Hollow in October 1876, ready to get to work. Area residents voted in December to name the new town “DeLand” in his honor. A post office was established in 1877, and the town was officially incorporated in 1882.
Group portrait at the DeLand family home in DeLand. Standing third from the left is Henry A. DeLand. His wife Helen DeLand is standing third from the right (photo circa 1880s).
Henry DeLand’s vision for the town revolved around the citrus industry, but he also gave considerable attention to education and culture. In 1884, he contributed $10,000 to construct DeLand Academy, which was chartered in 1887 by the Legislature as DeLand University. DeLand and the original trustees hoped the school would put their town on the map as “the Athens of Florida,” a real nucleus of higher education in the state.
DeLand Hall, the first academic building at DeLand University, which later became Stetson University (photo circa 1885).
DeLand faithfully supported his namesake university, providing equipment and extra money to cover its deficits. DeLand’s own finances, however, took a turn for the worse in 1886. That year, Florida suffered a serious freeze that destroyed much of the orange crop in the area around DeLand and Volusia County. Henry DeLand had always told the people who purchased land from him that he would buy the land back if they were unsatisfied with it. After the freeze, a number of orange growers asked DeLand to make good on his offer and, true to his word, he did.
This, of course, was a detrimental blow to DeLand’s personal fortune, and he was essentially ruined. Rather than start over in Florida, Henry DeLand returned to New York and resumed his earlier career as a baking powder manufacturer.
Meanwhile, DeLand University needed a benefactor. That’s where John B. Stetson enters the story. Stetson, who had created a very large and successful hat business in Philadelphia by this time, had spent time in Central Florida and became acquainted with John F. Forbes, president of DeLand University. Stetson contributed a significant amount of funding to the school, and was a founding member of the Board of Trustees. In 1889 he became president of the board.
John Batterson Stetson, founding trustee and major donor to DeLand (later Stetson) University (photo circa 1900 – not taken after 1906).
The Trustees began thinking of renaming the university in honor of its sustaining donor. Stetson declined the honor at first, arguing that Henry DeLand’s contributions in founding the school and nurturing it in its early years earned him the honor. The Trustees insisted, however, and so the school became known as the John B. Stetson University from 1889 onward. Since 1951, “Stetson University” has been the official title for most purposes.
Another nod to Stetson’s influence can be found in its athletic teams, which are known as the “Hatters.”
You can find a wealth of images relating to the history of Florida’s institutions of higher learning on Florida Memory. Visit the Florida Photographic Collection and search for your favorite school!
Florida’s pioneer settlers faced a number of hardships when they first arrived, but that didn’t stop them from having a little fun every now and then. Rural families often lived a few miles apart from one another, but they would come together when one of them had a major project that needed to be done. Fodder pulling, which involved pulling the leaves off corn stalks for use as food for the stock animals, was one such task. Others included splitting rails and rolling logs to a home site for a new cabin. No matter what the day’s work entailed, once everyone was finished the families often enjoyed a good hearty meal and a little music and dancing. In North Florida, these informal parties were known as “frolics.”
Example of a typical Cracker cabin, this one being located in Wakulla County (photo 1941).
Frolics were simple, of course, but imagine how much fun they must have been for young folks living so far apart from one another! Dancing was frowned upon if not entirely forbidden by a number of the prominent churches in pioneer Florida, but it happened nonetheless. Perhaps as a compromise, much of the dancing resembled what we would call square dancing, where the participants followed a prescribed set of moves rather than pairing off and dancing however they pleased. One favorite was the cotillion, which involved eight persons, four of each sex. Someone would call the steps as the musicians played, and the dancers would react accordingly. W.T. Cash, Florida first State Librarian and an early resident of Taylor County, remembered some of these steps in the cotillion:
“Honor your partner! Lady on the left! Balance all! All promenade!”
And when it was time for the dance to end:
“Right hands to your partners, gents to the center, and ladies to your seats!”
A fiddler (circa 1880s).
The fiddle and harmonica were the main instruments used in making the music, and the musicians were usually just folks in the neighborhood who had picked up their craft from a relative or friend. The instruments, Cash reported, rarely cost more than about $10.
When they weren’t playing the more upbeat dancing tunes, the musicians drew from a wealth of folk songs that most of the party-goers would have known by heart. Songs like “Arkansas Traveler,” “Hell after the Yearling,” “The Girl I Left Behind Me,” “Cindy,” and “Turkey in the Straw” were popular numbers in North Florida.
The Florida Folklife Collection holds many recordings of these traditional songs being played by celebrated folk artists. Click on the Play button below to hear “Turkey in the Straw,” played by Telleta Arwell and Mary Ann Bows at the 1987 Florida Folk Festival. The lyrics follow.
Note: This is one of those songs with a hundred different variations; we’ve just chosen a few of our favorite verses.
Turkey in the straw, hee haw haw! Turkey in the hay, hey hey hey! Roll ‘em up and twist ‘em up a high tuck a-haw, And hit ‘em up a tune called Turkey in the Straw!
As I was a-goin’ on down the road, With a tired team and a heavy load, I cracked my whip and the leader sprung, I said Hey! Hey! to the wagon tongue.
I came to the river and I couldn’t get across, So I paid five dollars for a big bay hoss, Well he wouldn’t go ahead, and he wouldn’t stand still, So he went up and down like an old saw mill!
Well I met this catfish comin’ down the stream, I said, ‘Mr. Catfish, what do you mean?’ Caught Mr. Catfish by the snout, Turned Mr. Catfish wrong side out!
With so much distance in between families, folks had to get every bit of enjoyment they could out of these gatherings. They often lasted far into the night. One musician, remembering these days, commented that after a night of playing the harmonica at a frolic his mouth hurt so bad he couldn’t laugh for a week!
If this kind of folk music gets you tapping your feet, we recommend you check out our Audio section for more recordings from the Florida Folk Festival, as well as Florida Memory Radio, our 24-hour Internet radio station.
Also, if you don’t have a copy of our bluegrass and old-time music CD, “Look A-Yonder Comin’,” contact us and we’ll send you a complimentary copy.
Front cover of “Look A-Yonder Comin’, a collection of bluegrass and old-time string band music from the Florida Folklife Collection.
New Year’s Day is a holiday in itself, but New Year’s Day 1888 was especially sweet for
Ormond Beach. That’s because it was opening day for the grand Ormond Hotel, a grand resort
for wealthy Northerners looking to escape the chilly winters back home.
Hotel Ormond – Ormond Beach (1900).
The name “Ormond” had been associated with the area since James and Emanuel Ormond had
settled a 2,000-acre plantation called “Damietta” in the area during the late Spanish
colonial era. In the 1870s, a group of men from New Britain, Connecticut arrived to seek a
place for establishing a colony of workers from their business, the Corbin Lock Company. At
first they named the area after their hometown, but they decided to change the name to
something more reminiscient of local history. The first post office named Ormond appeared
in 1880, and by 1886 the settlement was a stop along the new St. Johns & Halifax Railroad.
The hotel did not perform well in its first two years, but its location and potential lured
the interest (and money) of developer Henry Flagler. He bought the hotel in 1890 and began
a major expansion project that added three wings, a swimming pool, a casino, a pavilion and
a pier extending out over the Halifax River. The hotel quickly became one of the star
attractions along Flagler’s Florida East Coast Railway.
Excerpt of a map of the Florida East Coast Railway system featuring Ormond and the Ormond Hotel (1917).
Like Flagler’s other hotels, the Ormond was a playground for those with enough money to
enjoy it. Activities included horseback riding, wooded excursion paths, bicycling (which
was then still quite new), sailing and fishing. When the automobile arrived on the scene,
the Ormond gained a new favorite activity: driving and racing along the packed sands of the
Ranson E. Olds in his Olds Pirate race car on Ormond Beach (circa 1896).
The Ormond enjoyed considerable popularity during the heyday of the Flagler hotels, playing host at various times to the Rockefellers, the Astors, the Vanderbilts and a number of other famous personalities. John D. Rockefeller liked the place so much he bought the house across the street in 1917 and spent the winters there until his death in 1937.
The hotel changed hands several times in the second half of the twentieth century. On November 24, 1980 the structure was added to the National Register of Historic Places. It was destroyed in 1992 to make way for condominiums, but the original 21-foot wooden cupola is now displayed in Fortunato Park near the Halifax River.
The Ormond Hotel in 1982, surrounded by a growing Ormond Beach community.
If you ever find yourself in Northeast Florida looking for a pleasant route for driving, we recommend State Road 16 between Green Cove Springs and Starke. There’s not much traffic, the scenery is nice, and you’ll pass through a remarkable relic of Florida history called Penney Farms. At first glance, the town bears the usual hallmarks of a North Florida village – large shade trees, wood-frame houses, and a historical marker here and there. Read one of those markers, however, and you’ll learn that Penney Farms was a planned community, developed from scratch in the 1920s by the department store tycoon J.C. Penney himself.
Aerial view of Penney Farms in Clay County (1940).
James Cash Penney came to prominence as a pioneer in the chain store movement in the early years of the 20th century. He opened the first J.C. Penney Store in Kemmerer, Wyoming, and by 1912 had over 30 stores, mainly operating in the West. By 1924, Penney was making over a million dollars annually, which enabled him to pursue a number of philanthropic causes.
In 1922, J.C. Penney purchased 120,000 acres of farmland in Clay County near Green Cove Springs, just east of the St. Johns River. He intended to develop a model farming community, structured similarly to the J.C. Penney department store chain. Just as the chain’s directors held stock in the company, farmers would earn interest in Penney Farms by raising crops and purchasing additional interest in the land with the proceeds of their labor.
Cattle scales used at Penney Farms (1931).
So who did the farming at Penney Farms? Not just anyone. Persons interested in claiming a tract of land at the new community had to fill out an application. Many of the questions pertained to the applicant’s moral character and religious affiliations. A promotional brochure provided a list of characteristics wanted by the company. Penney Farms wanted young to middle-aged men, preferably married, “willing to take advice from others,” and affiliated with some church. The use of “intoxicants or cigarettes” was strictly prohibited. The application asked the prospective farmer to send in a photo of himself or his family if possible, as well as the names and addresses of three persons who could testify to his character.
Application to occupy a farm at Penney Farms – from a promotion brochure dated 1927. Click to enlarge.
By 1927, Penney Farms boasted 20,000 cleared acres, 300 buildings, a general store, a post office, a garage and machine shop, a canning factory, a boarding house, a dairy farm, and 3,000 range cattle. Demonstration plots provided pecans, Satsuma oranges, persimmons, pears, grapes, peppermint, and vegetables. The J.C. Penney-Gwinn Institute of Applied Agriculture had its headquarters on the property, where it provided practical and theoretical training in agriculture and homemaking for the families living at Penney Farms.
View of a main street in Penney Farms’ residential section (circa 1920s).
But there was more to Penney Farms than just farming. J.C. Penney chose to also make this the site for another of his philanthropic endeavors, the J.C. Penney Foundation Memorial Community. This retirement community was built especially for retired ministers and other Christian workers and their wives. The community included 22 furnished apartment buildings, along with the Penney Memorial Chapel. The community was dedicated to the memory of J.C. Penney’s parents.
View of the J.C. Penney Foundation’s memorial community for retired ministers, Christian workers, and their wives (1958).
Penney Memorial Chapel at Penney Farms (1936).
The arrival of the Great Depression slowed the development of Penney Farms considerably. Penney himself lost almost all of his personal wealth, and was forced to borrow against his life insurance policies to help his company make payroll. He sold off most of the property comprising Penney Farms, leaving only about 200 acres. He deeded this land to his foundation’s Memorial Community, which he gave to the Christian Herald Foundation to run. In 1971, it became the self-sustaining Penney Retirement Community, Inc., and in 1999 it was added to the National Register of Historic Places. Many of the farmers who had relocated to the area to participate in Penney’s planned community either bought land or continued working in some capacity in the area. The town of Penney Farms is still incorporated, and as of the 2010 Census it had a population of 749.
Aerial view of the Penney Memorial Chapel and surrounding buildings (circa 1947).
Nobody lays out their welcome mat like Florida. The Sunshine State plays host to millions of visitors each year – 94.7 million in 2011 alone, according to official statistics. Every guest is important, but when the President of the United States comes to stay, you can imagine the press coverage goes up a few clicks.
The same holds true for the President-elect, as the 1921 visit of President-elect Warren Gamaliel Harding demonstrates. Harding, a Republican Senator from Ohio, had just defeated Governor James M. Cox, also of Ohio, in a landmark election fought mainly over the World War I policies of President Woodrow Wilson. With the November 1920 election ended and the weather turning colder, Harding decided to take a much-needed vacation in Florida.
Harding arrived in St. Augustine to a hearty welcome from the locals. Security measures were much more relaxed in those days, and the newspapers reported that Harding shook hands with people all the way through the train station before motoring off to the Ponce de Leon Hotel. There, he met with Senator Joseph Sherman Frelinghuysen of New Jersey, who planned to take Harding aboard his personal 90-foot houseboat, the Victoria, for a cruise down the Florida coast.
Senator Joseph S. Frelinghuysen’s houseboat, the Victoria, near Rockledge (1921).
The houseboat party included Frelinghuysen, Harding, and a number of close Harding confidants, including Senator Albert Fall of New Mexico, former Ambassador to Mexico Henry Fletcher, George Christian (Harding’s private secretary), and Harding’s campaign manager, Harry M. Daugherty.
For two weeks, Harding divided his time between relaxing and meeting some of his new Floridian constituents. While calling at Daytona, the President-elect attended a patriotic pageant given by the local citizens. He turned down an official reception at Miami, but invited officers from the local Masonic Lodges and the American Legion to meet him in front of his cottage at the Flamingo Hotel. The Miami News reported that Harding shook hands and greeted each person individually before making a brief address.
President-elect Warren G. Harding greets his new constituents in Miami (1921).
When he wasn’t meeting with the locals, President-elect Harding kept busy with two main amusements: fishing and golfing. The Victoria had been stocked with tackle well before he arrived, and Harding took advantage of the boat’s lazy cruise southward to fish for amber-jack, sail-fish, and even barracuda. When the Victoria was in port, Harding and his cohorts hit whatever golf links were closest.
President-elect Warren G. Harding playing golf at Miami Beach (1921).
Harding ended his Florida vacation in early February and began preparing for his inauguration and his program for bringing “normalcy,” as he called it, to the United States. Once President, the Ohioan would return to Florida several times. That should come as no surprise, of course. You know what they say about getting Florida sand in your shoes. Once it’s there, you can’t help but come back.
Warren G. Harding reeling in a fish off the Florida coast. The original photo is undated; it could have been from any of Harding’s trips to Florida between 1921 and 1923.
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