The Dreaded Yellow Jack

Yellow fever, also known as the “yellow plague” or the “yellow jack,” was one of the most dangerous and dreaded diseases prevalent in Florida during the 1800s. The disease is viral, spread primarily by the Aedes aegypti mosquito, but this knowledge was not widely known until the 20th century. In the meantime, epidemics often broke out in Florida during the summer months, especially in cities. Read more »

On the Border, Part II

This is the second installment of a two-part series on border disputes in Florida history. If you missed reading the first blog, click here to read it.

Last week, we looked at John Houston McIntosh, a borderland Floridian whose life reflected the tensions that sometimes cropped up along the Florida-Georgia border before Florida was a United States possession. Today, we look at an even more profound border conflict in Florida history, one that took almost a century to settle completely. Read more »

On the Border, Part I

Situated as it is between the Gulf of Mexico and the Atlantic Ocean, you wouldn’t immediately think of Florida as having had many boundary disputes. During the Spanish colonial era, however, the Florida-Georgia border was the setting for a number of dramatic quarrels between the Spanish and their neighbors to the north. These events are reflected in the lives of the people who lived near the border, especially when they had business dealings on both sides. Read more »

Family History on the Farm

Sometimes the best genealogical information comes from truly unexpected sources. The State Archives of Florida holds records from a wide variety of state agencies, many of which have had direct contact with the state’s citizens over the years. As a result, many of the records document the specific locations of specific individuals at specific times, which can be a big help for folks tracing their family trees. Read more »

Old Punta Rassa

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 »

Jacksonville’s “Treaty Oak”

“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 »

A Twist of ‘Phate

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 »

Aunt Aggie’s Unusual Garden

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.

Aunt Aggie's

Aunt Aggie’s “Bone Yard” garden in Lake City (circa 1910).

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.

Agnes Jones, also known as

Agnes Jones, also known as “Aunt Aggie,” in her unusual bone-decorated garden in Lake City (circa 1908).

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.

Aunt Aggie with a visitor in her garden (circa 1915).

Aunt Aggie with a visitor in her garden (circa 1915).

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!


A Grand Florida Friendship

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.

Henry Ford (left) and Thomas Edison (right) sitting on a pier at Punta Rassa (1925).

Henry Ford (left) and Thomas Edison (right) sitting on a pier at Punta Rassa (1925).

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.

Man stands in front of giant bamboo plant (circa 1890s).

Man stands in front of giant bamboo plant (circa 1890s).

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.

Pictured (L to R) are Thomas Edison, John Burroughs, and Henry Ford in Fort Myers (1913).

Pictured (left to right) are Thomas Edison, John Burroughs, and Henry Ford in Fort Myers (1913).

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.

Henry Ford's winter home, called

Henry Ford’s winter home, called “The Mangoes” (1991).

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's laboratory at his home in Fort Myers (circa 1950s).

Thomas Edison’s laboratory at his home in Fort Myers (circa 1950s).

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.

Visitors to the Ford-Edison Museum view Thomas Edison's vast collection of phonographs (1966).

Visitors to the Ford-Edison Museum view Thomas Edison’s vast collection of phonographs (1966).

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!

Let’s Have An Air Party

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.

Program from Orlando's Second Annual "Air Party," January 1935 - Box 1, folder 1, William C. Lazarus Papers (Collection M82-133), State Archives of Florida.

Program from Orlando’s Second Annual “Air Party,” January 1935 – Box 1, folder 1, William C. Lazarus Papers (Collection M82-133), State Archives of Florida.

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.

Army planes fly over the timing stand at the Sixth Annual All-American Air Races (1934).

Army planes fly over the timing stand at the Sixth Annual All-American Air Races (1934).

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:

Itinerary for the Second Annual Florida State Air Cruise (1935) - Box 1, folder 1, William C. Lazarus Papers (Collection M82-133), State Archives of Florida.

Itinerary for the Second Annual Florida State Air Cruise (1935) – Box 1, folder 1, William C. Lazarus Papers (Collection M82-133), State Archives of Florida.

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.

Pilot Harold Neumann with

Pilot Harold Neumann with “Miss Chevrolet” in Miami (1936).

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!