Passing through Punta Rassa on the way to or from Sanibel Island on Florida’s Gulf coast, you just don’t see many cows these days. It’s mostly condos, marinas, and businesses. That’s a big leap from how things used to be, as anyone familiar with the history of Florida’s cattle industry can tell you. For a good portion of the 19th century, Punta Rassa was a favored port for shipping cattle to Cuba. 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
One curious aspect of Florida history is the recurring theme of booms and busts the state has experienced over the decades. We hear often about booms and busts in land sales, but commercial enterprises have had their own business cycles. One lesser known industry that was critical to Florida’s economy in the late 19th and early 20th centuries was the mining of phosphates. 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!
Florida has a peculiar way of bringing people together. Families come here for vacations, businesses come to set up shop, and sometimes Florida is even the setting for reunions between friends both new and old. One of the most iconic examples of this is the friendship between inventors Henry Ford and Thomas Edison. The two men came from different generations and lived in different places, but they spent many a winter living next door to one another in sunny Fort Myers of Florida’s Gulf coast.
Ford and Edison met for the first time in 1886 at the annual convention of the Association of Edison Illuminating Companies in New York City. At a banquet held at the Oriental Hotel on Long Island, someone pointed the young Henry Ford out to Edison and explained that Ford had developed a gasoline engine. Edison immediately began asking Ford questions about the design. As the young man described his creation, Edison excitedly banged his fist on the table and exclaimed that Ford had the right idea. Steam and electric cars (at that time) had too many insurmountable drawbacks, but gasoline-powered engines could make the automobile a feasible sell for the average consumer. Ford later explained that up to that time no one had given him any encouragement. To hear this enthusiastic approval from one of the world’s greatest inventors was invaluable.
Edison was first attracted to Florida a year before this chance meeting with Ford. While vacationing at St. Augustine, he was encouraged to visit the southwestern portion of the state, which at that time was generally reached by traveling to Cedar Key by rail, and then to Punta Rassa by steamer. Edison made the journey, with some difficulty, and was delighted with the area. Even better, he learned that giant bamboo grew naturally around Fort Myers. Edison had been using bamboo filaments for his early incandescent bulbs, but so far only fibers from specific Japanese bamboo species had been good enough to use. Perhaps the bamboo around Fort Myers, which was originally introduced to Florida from Japan, would make a good substitute. In a matter of days, Edison made the decision to buy up land in the area and set up a home and laboratory.
Meanwhile, Edison maintained his friendship with Henry Ford. In 1913, the Fords and Thomas Edison spent a vacation at the home of naturalist John Burroughs. The group had such a wonderful time that Edison decided to invite the Fords and Burroughs down to Fort Myers. The arrival of this party was a grand event for the small, sleepy town, as you might imagine. Every single automobile owner in town (all 31 of them) escorted the visitors to Edison’s winter home.
Henry Ford enjoyed himself so much at Fort Myers that he decided to purchase a winter home there as well. In 1916, the property adjoining the Edison home came up for sale, and he purchased it for $20,000. Ford called this property “the Mangoes” after all of the mango trees growing there. These had been brought from Key West by Dr. William Hanson in the 1880s.
The Fords and the Edisons began enjoying most of their winters together at Fort Myers. They spent their days exploring the barrier islands, including Sanibel, Captiva, and Pine islands, camping in the Everglades or along the Caloosahatchee River, and even square dancing on the pier to phonographic records. The two inventors also spent time doing what inventors do best – tinkering. Improving America’s source of natural rubber was one joint project – Ford experimented with planting rubber trees on his property, while Edison attempted to make rubber from goldenrod plants.
Thomas Edison died in 1931, and Henry Ford’s trips to Florida became less frequent. The legacy of the friendship these two men shared has, however, been enshrined by historians and preservationists. The Edison and Ford homes are now open to the public as museums, including Edison’s laboratory and gardens. One popular feature is Edison’s vast collection of phonographs, pictured below.
How has Florida helped bring people together in your own life or community? Share with us by leaving a comment below or by posting this blog to Facebook!
Of all the kinds of parties you can have – toga parties, foam parties, hurricane parties – an air party might seem the silliest. But that’s exactly the sort of celebration many of Florida’s major communities were throwing in the 1930s, when commercial aviation and air tourism were still in their infancy.
Officials in both the private and public sectors had recognized by this time that aviation offered Florida a marvelous opportunity. Distance, as one observer put it, just didn’t mean as much anymore when a trip that had once taken days could now be accomplished in a few hours. To encourage Florida’s growth as a destination for air tourism, state and local governments teamed up with private businesses to host air races, air parties, and other events. These efforts had two objectives: to sell Florida as a tourist destination by air to the rest of the country, and to convince Floridians of the worthiness of investing in better aviation infrastructure.
Air cruises, usually sponsored by chambers of commerce, aeronautical clubs, and other civic groups, were some of the most unique events. These were typically open to any “sportsman pilots” or private aviators who wanted to attend. The pilots would fly their planes from airport to airport along a chain of host cities, enjoying receptions, races, and other activities along the way. Here’s an example itinerary from the Second Annual Florida State Air Cruise:
The towns along the route would often extend privileges to the visiting pilots at their local country clubs, hotels, and restaurants. In some cities – Orlando we know for sure – the pilots received fuel and oil at wholesale prices as an incentive. The local chambers of commerce often arranged ground transportation as well, and local groups provided opportunities for hunting, fishing, swimming, boating, and other favorite Florida pastimes.
These groups were typically quite intimate, but their activities were highly visible and helped introduce a large number of people to the possibilities of aviation. A little more time, plus some help from World War II, saw Florida criss-crossed with busy commercial air routes and a whole new sector to its thriving tourist industry.
Interested in aviation or a related Florida industry? The State Library & Archives has a wide variety of books, ephemera, photographs, and manuscript collections touching on these subjects. The program and itinerary from this blog post, for example, came from a collection of papers belonging to William C. Lazarus, who once directed the Aviation Division of the State Road Department and helped organize a number of “air parties.” Search our catalogs to find out what we have on your favorite topic in Florida history!
Not everyone thinks of the Sunshine State as being cow country, but in reality Florida has been in the cattle business for about five centuries. When Juan Ponce de Leon arrived on his final mission to Florida in 1521, he brought Spanish Andalusian cattle with him to help provision the growing settlement he hoped to establish on Florida’s Gulf coast. Even after the settlement failed, the cattle remained and multiplied.
By the time Florida became a United States territory in 1821, Spanish, British, and Native American Floridians had all taken part in developing the region’s cattle industry. Most of the cattle raised in Florida were what we would call “Cracker cows” or “scrub cattle. They roamed freely over the open range. When cattlemen needed to round them up, they would go out on horseback and “pop” them out of the woods with the aid of trained cattle dogs and whips.
With no fences separating one cattleman’s territory from that of another, you can imagine that the herds tended to mingle. This could produce some nasty disputes among the owners, especially when one of them believed the mingling might have been “assisted” by a fellow cattleman.
The solution? Marks and brands. A “mark” or “earmark” was a pattern of cuts and crops made on the ears, while a “brand” was a symbol stamped on the cow’s flank using a hot iron.
Beginning in the 1820s, each Florida county had an official in charge of recording the various marks and brands used by the cattlemen to differentiate their cows from everyone else’s cows. The State Archives of Florida holds a number of records relating to this practice, including a book of marks and brands from Escambia County dating back to 1823.
In the earliest days, the vast majority of cattlemen branded their cattle with one or two letters on one flank or the other, as this record indicates:
Later on, some cattlemen became a bit more creative. This was in part to make it more difficult for their brands to be altered or confused. Here we see a particularly fitting brand recorded by William and John Bell in 1866.
For all the mullet connoisseurs out there, this next brand ought to bring out a chuckle. Perhaps the William Murphy who recorded it was also a fan of this North Florida favorite:
This book of marks and brands is just one of many, many local government records held by the State Archives of Florida. If you’re considering a project on a Florida community, try searching the Archives and Library catalogs for relevant holdings, or contact us to learn more. We’ll be glad to hear from you!
During the American Civil War (1861-65), Florida faced serious shortages of many consumer items that were normally obtained through trade. Clothing, weapons, ammunition, hardware, and even salt became scarcer and scarcer as the Union Navy encircled the Florida coastline with a blockade. What limited trade items could be obtained were generally funneled to the front lines for soldiers’ use.
These privations were tough, especially the lack of food, arms, ammunition, and metal goods. Sometimes, however, the best illustrations of history come from the tiniest details. Want to see a great example of how strapped Florida’s citizens were for certain supplies during the Civil War? Look at their writing!
The words written on a historical document are certainly very useful, but sometimes how they are written, what they are written on, and what they are written with can be just as important for learning something new about the past. Take this document, for example:
This letter was written August 24th 1863 by a man named Julius, who was stationed at Legare’s Point on James Island near Charleston, South Carolina. You’ll notice right off that he wrote the letter in two directions, at right angles so as to be as readable as possible. He italicized his handwriting, which also increased the readability of the letter.
Why go to all this trouble? The answer is simple – as the war grew longer, paper and stationery supplies grew increasingly tight throughout the Confederacy. This was particularly true for soldiers on the front like Julius, who were often away from towns for long periods at a time. Although there were paper mills in the South in the 1860s, most letter-writing paper still had to be imported. The paper produced in the South was generally quite coarse, almost like craft paper. With the blockade in place, good stationery was difficult to obtain. Accordingly, folks “made do” with what they had. Throughout the collections of the State Library & Archives, we see examples of “cross-writing” like that above, as well as re-using paper and even using envelopes to write messages.
A lack of paper wasn’t the only challenge facing Floridians and other Southerners wanting to drop a line to someone during the war. Ink supplies also ran low, which led some citizens to turn to older natural sources. Long-time State Librarian Dorothy Dodd’s papers contain recollections from Floridians who reported using nutgalls and pomegranate skins to produce ink.
Tallahassee resident Susan Bradford Eppes confirms in her diary that her family was forced to find substitutes for ink, although she reports that it blotted and faded easily. This widespread substitution likely explains why the writing in some of the Civil War-era documents at the State Library & Archives is so faded, even when much older letters can still be read easily.
The State Library & Archives collectively hold a wealth of information about Florida in the Civil War. Diaries, letters, government reports and documents, military records, and other primary sources are available, as are books and periodicals relating to the Civil War era. If you’re looking for information about a Civil War-era ancestor, the Library’s genealogy section is a great place to get started.
What would you do if you were Governor of Florida for a day? Attend a Cabinet meeting, check in on some state agencies, have a brainstorming session with a few state officials? One Fort Lauderdale youth had the opportunity to do just that back in 1962 during the administration of Governor Farris Bryant. It all started when Rita Mae Brown wrote to the Governor asking if she could shadow him as part of a “Senior Work Day,” in which she and her classmates were to be “hired” by local businesses for a day to learn about various careers.
Governor Bryant wrote back and said that this would be impossible, not because he didn’t like the idea, but because he would be in Japan at the time Rita proposed to come. Bryant suggested she come to Tallahassee anyway and serve as his stand-in.
And so she did. Rita Brown, 17, packed her bags and took her first airplane ride to Tallahassee that April to take her place as Governor for a day. She met with State Superintendent of Public Instruction Thomas D. Bailey, who took her to the Executive Office of the Governor for a chance to sit at Farris Bryant’s desk and be photographed by Pulitzer Prize-winning photographer Frank Noel of the Associated Press.
Bailey then escorted young Rita to a Cabinet meeting, where she caught up on the latest discussions on stone crab conservation and the fate of Forman Field down in Fort Lauderdale. She toured the Florida Development Commission and the State Road Department, including its “vast array of IBM machines,” as Rita later put it.
Rita’s “term” as Governor of Florida was short, but she made a full report to Governor Farris Bryant after she returned home. We recently found it in Bryant’s administrative correspondence (Series 756), which is held by the State Archives of Florida. Here’s an excerpt (check out that signature line!):
Rita took her brief time as Florida’s chief executive quite seriously. In her report, she proposed a program to help keep bright young Floridians in their own state instead of going to look for work and education elsewhere. In his reply, Governor Bryant suggested she contact Superintendent Bailey with her ideas. This she did, outlining what she called her “Sell Florida” campaign:
Bailey liked the idea, and distributed it to the presidents of Florida’s institutions of higher learning, the Florida Development Commission, and other state agencies. Rita herself went on to become a prominent civil rights activist and later an accomplished Emmy-nominated writer. In a way, you could say that both the State of Florida and Rita herself got a lot out of that one day governorship. Makes you wonder what a little mentoring might do for an eager young person in your own life, doesn’t it?
The State Library & Archives holds the keys to many interesting stories like that of young Rita Mae Brown. We encourage you to explore Florida Memory and browse our catalogs at info.florida.gov to learn more.
On April 7, 1865, Florida governor Abraham K. Allison wrote to Confederate president Jefferson Davis of “my painful duty to announce the death of His Excellency John Milton, late Governor of the State of Florida.” Allison informed Davis that the “melancholy event” occurred on April 1, 1865, at Milton’s plantation in Jackson County, Florida. What Allison did not relay to his president, who was enduring his own “melancholy event” in flight before victorious Union armies, was the probable cause of Milton’s death—suicide.
Milton’s governorship was the most dramatic and difficult in the history of the state. Inaugurated on October 7, 1861, he inherited a weak Confederate state with growing dissension. The lengthening war and the likelihood of Northern invasion demoralized loyal Confederates while heartening Florida Unionists. Criticized by the legislature, which sought to weaken his authority, and largely ignored by the Confederate government, which spared Florida few troops and weapons, Milton worked tirelessly to strengthen Florida’s defenses and secure supplies for the home front. At the same time, he remained steadfast in his loyalty to the Confederate States and its president, Jefferson Davis, whom he championed even as the South faced certain defeat. A staunch defender of secession and slavery, Milton could not envision or support a reunited and emancipated nation.
On the morning of April 1, 1865, as Union armies prepared to enter Richmond, Governor Milton arrived at his plantation, Sylvania, in Jackson County. Although distressed and exhausted, Milton’s trip from Tallahassee was not unusual. He often journeyed between the capital and Sylvania to see to the welfare of his wife and children and take care of plantation business. Soon after his arrival, the governor entered his study and a shot exploded. William Henry Milton, the governor’s oldest son, discovered his father’s body, which had sustained a shotgun blast to the head.
The earliest reports of Milton’s death pointed to suicide. Worn down by work and deeply depressed by the inevitability of Confederate defeat, Milton probably took his own life; however, without any eyewitness or evidence of a suicide note history cannot be certain—later family accounts claimed the shooting was accidental. Whether a suicide or not, Milton’s demise has come to symbolize the death of Confederate Florida.
For Governor Allison’s letter to Jefferson Davis see page 189 of Governor John Milton’s letterbook, 1863-1865, part of Record Group 101, Series 32, State Archives of Florida. The details of Milton’s death are reexamined in Ridgeway Boyd Murphree, “Rebel Sovereigns: The Civil War Leadership of Governors John Milton of Florida and Joseph E. Brown of Georgia, 1861-1865,” Ph.D. dissertation, Florida State University, 2006.