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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Sugar is almost as ubiquitous in Florida history as it is in the American diet. For centuries, settlers have taken advantage of Florida’s favorable climate to grow sugar cane for home use or commercial profit.
Sugar cane has been cultivated in Asia since ancient times, but its use in the West was limited until about the 18th century. Honey was the sweetener of choice in Europe before that time. When Europeans began colonizing the Americas during the Age of Discovery, sugar cane was one of the plants they brought to cultivate.
Florida’s first major sugar cane operations arrived while the British had possession of the territory in the 1700s. Florida’s new owners were optimistic about the possibilities for building great profitable plantations along the St. Johns River, and colonial authorities handed out large grants of land to British subjects willing to try their hand at planting.
Denys Rolle and Dr. Andrew Turnbull were among the British planters who attempted to grow sugar cane on their Florida estates. Remains of Turnbull’s operation at New Smyrna are still visible today.
The United States took possession of Florida in 1821. As planters from Virginia and the Carolinas began moving into North Florida, they were anxious to cultivate new and profitable crops that would solidify their fortunes and those of the new territory. Settlers such as future Florida Governor Thomas Brown, William Wirt, William Nuttall, John and Robert Gamble, and William Bailey invested large sums of money in the equipment necessary to grow cane plants and extract the sugar.
Their enthusiasm notwithstanding, these early cane growers faced a major problem. The longer sugar cane stays in the ground, the better the sugar it produces. The plant is, however, highly susceptible to freezing. When sugar cane freezes, its ability to produce crystallized sugar is diminished. North Florida cane growers consequently faced something of a guessing game when deciding the right time to harvest their sugar crops. Over time, the risks associated with growing cane became too great for most planters to invest much money in the venture. Many plantations continued to produce smaller amounts of sugar cane for home and local use, but large-scale cultivation of sugar cane was for the most part abandoned by 1840.
Although sugar cane failed as a major cash crop in the 19th century, its presence in Florida pioneer culture at that time was constant and critical. Even if a freeze were to stunt the growth of a cane crop, the plants could still be processed to extract the cane juice, which could then be made into molasses, rum, or cane syrup. These products became staples in the average Florida household.
The act of cutting the cane and extracting the juice was in itself a vital part of local culture, especially in sparsely populated areas. These tasks required a great deal of labor, best accomplished by a community effort. Consequently, many families would hold “cane grindings,” which combined the work of cane processing with the excitement of a communal celebration. The cane would be stripped and fed into a simple machine that crushed it, squeezing out the juice, which was channeled into a waiting vat or barrel. The juice would then be boiled into the various sugar products. There was usually a large meal involved, and sometimes singing and dancing. In a time when homesteads were typically miles apart, this was one of the best ways to get families (expecially the young people) together for a good time. There’s no way to know how many Florida marriages began with a simple “How do you do” at an old-fashioned cane grinding.
Sugar cane began to come back into the picture as a commercial enterprise around the turn of the twentieth century. As settlers ventured farther south along the Florida peninsula, they finally encountered areas that either rarely or never suffered from frost. These conditions would best serve large-scale sugar cane production. Developers prepared the terrain for cultivation by diverting rivers and draining large tracts of land, including parts of the Everglades. By the 1920s, the sugar industry was up and running in earnest. The industry received a boost in the 1960s when the federal government banned the importation of Cuban sugar, which had previously been a significant source of the product for the U.S. Today, sugar cane is a multi-billion dollar industry in Florida, producing about 2 million tons of raw sugar annually.
Have you ever been to a cane grinding? Do you remember sugar cane growing somewhere near where you grew up? Tell us about it on Facebook or in the comments section below. Also, search the Florida Photographic Collection to find more photos of sugar cane production.
If you get very far off the interstate in Florida, you’re likely to drive past a cow pasture or two. Say what you will about the American West, but Florida has been in the cattle industry for centuries. Many aspects of the business have changed over time, of course. Perhaps the most profound change has been the fence that separates you and your car from those cows as you drive past.
A hundred years ago, the idea of fencing the open range was widely considered dangerous to the cattle industry, and any farther back than that it was simply unthinkable. By the 1950s, however, legislators had passed a law requiring cattle owners to confine their animals. This transformation of public opinion on cattle fencing was rooted in the transformation of Florida itself.
Until the early 20th century, most cattle owners did not fence their cows at all. They allowed the animals to wander the open range, going wherever they could find the best grass. Vast tracts of land were still held at this time either by the state or by absentee owners who made no effort to prevent cattle ranchers from using their property for range purposes. Stamping the cows with unique brands allowed the owners to distinguish their cattle from everyone else’s. When it was time to move the cattle to market or pen the new calves up for branding, the cattle workers would round up the animals, often with the aid of cattle dogs, and drive them to wherever they needed to go. This was a particularly beneficial system for smaller cattle operations, who often didn’t have much land of their own. With a smaller population and less development, the open range system allowed all cattle owners to take advantage of Florida’s expansive territory.
As Florida’s population expanded and railroads and automobiles became more common, modernity came increasingly into conflict with the open range method. Trains and cars often encountered cows on their respective roadways, sometimes with fatal results. Additionally, sometimes cows wandered into towns or homesteads and made nuisances of themselves. Many Floridians began calling for a “fence law” to require cattle owners to confine their cows. Some cattle owners were unopposed to this, especially those who owned more valuable “blooded” cattle. A number of other ranchers depended on the free range system to have enough land to feed and water their cows. They saw the prospect of a fence law as a serious threat.
The debate could be nasty at times. As property owners began fencing their land to manage the movements of the cows, some disgruntled fence opponents would cut the wires or shoot the cows the fence was meant to contain. The state enacted laws to punish fence cutters, but the perpetrators were often difficult to catch. One cattleman went to extreme measures and tied live rattlesnakes up near all of his fence posts to prevent his wires from being cut!
On June 7, 1949, Governor Fuller Warren approved Senate Bill 34, which finally enacted a law requiring livestock owners to keep their animals off the public roadways. Cattle owners who did not comply faced stiff fines, and potential liability for damages caused by free roaming cows.
Be sure to check out our Florida Cattle Ranching photo exhibit for more images relating to this historic Sunshine State industry!
The threat of hurricanes and tropical storms is an inescapable part of living in Florida. To experience their wrath is to confront head-on the brutal power of Nature. Ask around, and many Floridians will be able to name the larger ones they’ve witnessed or heard of. Betsy, Donna, Andrew, and Charley usually make the list.
Some of Florida’s most destructive hurricanes, however, hit the state long before the National Weather Service began assigning names to tropical cyclones. One of the deadliest of these remains known to history only as the Okeechobee Hurricane of 1928.
Even with their inland location, the settlements surrounding Lake Okeechobee were vulnerable to flooding and storm surge. The lake itself was highly unstable, rising and falling by as much as a foot in a matter of hours depending on regional rainfall. Despite the danger, farmers coveted the land surrounding Okeechobee for the moist black soil it provided. To make the area viable for agriculture, canals and dirt levees were used to hold back the waters and reclaim the flood plain for planting. By the 1920s, avocados, citrus, sugar cane, and other crops filled thousands of acres in the region.
Occasional levee breaches and flooding reminded residents that their protection from the Okeechobee waters was tenuous at best. In September 1928, the lake was already high owing to heavy recent rains. When reports began coming in over the radio that a serious storm was lashing Puerto Rico, however, many locals decided they didn’t have much to worry about. If the levees and canals had performed their duties thus far, they would be just fine. And who knew? The storm wasn’t even guaranteed to come their way.
But it did. About 7:00pm on the evening of September 16th, what would become known as the Okeechobee Hurricane roared ashore near West Palm Beach packing winds of up to 145 miles per hour. Moving northwest across the state, the storm pushed the swollen waters of Lake Okeechobee against its banks. The earthen dams design to hold back the lake failed, sending a wall of water through the communities of Belle Glade, Pahokee, and Chosen. High winds ripped roofs from buildings, while flood waters either lifted entire houses up and carried them away or caused them to disintegrate completely.
When morning came, the scene was one of unimaginable loss. Entire portions of towns were flattened or mangled. Property damage amounted to about 25 million dollars, but the cascading costs of the catastrophe would be felt for years to come. Worse still was the human cost. At least two thousand people perished in the flood, but the exact number was difficult to determine. Bodies were found in ditches, in trees, anyplace the swirling waters might have carried them. Farmers reported finding the skeletons of the hurricane’s victims in their fields even years later.
Accounting for everyone and burying the dead was one of the most pressing matters in the first few days after the storm passed, but it was difficult work. The storm victims’ remains deteriorated quickly under the punishing Florida sun, making identification increasingly impossible. At first, carpenters quickly assembled simple wooden coffins to receive the dead, but the number of bodies was too great. Eventually, workers were forced to load bodies onto trucks, and they were taken to mass graves in West Palm Beach. One grave was dug for whites, another for African Americans. Eventually, even this method was insufficient, and the workers turned to cremation as the only means available to dispatch the deceased with dignity. Meanwhile, survivors came together to bid their friends, neighbors, and loved ones goodbye in a mass funeral at West Palm Beach.
President-elect Herbert Hoover visited the Okeechobee region shortly after the hurricane to survey the damage, and upon taking office he tasked the Army Corps of Engineers with helping to prevent the disaster of 1928 from recurring. The State, for its part, created the Okeechobee Flood Control District to cooperate with federal agencies. A new series of dikes, floodways, and gates emerged to handle future flooding, although for years this was a work in progress. In the 1960s, the Army Corps of Engineers spearheaded the construction of the Herbert Hoover Dike, which now almost completely encloses Lake Okeechobee. Former President Hoover spoke at the dedication.
Hurricane season begins June 1st and lasts until November 30th. For more information on how to prepare yourself, your family, and your home for a tropical storm, check out the Florida Division of Emergency Management’s website at floridadisaster.org.
For more on historic Florida hurricanes, visit our Hurricanes photo exhibit on Florida Memory.
Cube it, slice it, shred it, juice it, grill it, cook it. Pineapples are a delicious treat or compliment to any dish. Today, many people think of Hawaii as the pineapple capital of the United States, but did you know pineapples were cultivated in Florida before Hawaii was even a U.S. territory?
The earliest pineapple cultivation in Florida started in Key West in the 1860s. Benjamin Baker, known as “King of Wreckers” for his engagement in the business of salvaging ships, grew pineapples on Plantation Key, typically shipping them by schooner to New York, Baltimore and Philadelphia. Around the same time, a Mr. Brantley was producing pineapples on Merritt Island.
By 1899, the industry had expanded rapidly, thanks in part to the southward extension of the Florida East Coast Railway. Pineapple plantations could be found across Florida, including in Lee, Volusia and Orange counties. Despite freeze issues, there were an estimated 1,325 acres of pineapple plantations in Florida, producing 95,442 crates of fruit.
Though the industry seemed to be on the rise, troubles began around 1908. Although Florida growers produced over 1.1 million crates of pineapples that year, Cuba produced 1.2 million crates and flooded the market. Cuba could also ship pineapples at a cheaper rate than Florida. And there was more…
In 1910, portions of crops along Indian River plantations began to show signs of failing. A “red wilt” was rotting the roots of the pineapple plants, causing them to die. The disease quickly spread to entire fields. Add to that a lack of proper fertilizer due to World War I in Europe and freezes in 1917 and 1918, and the industry seemed to have disappeared.
R.A. Carlton, an agricultural agent for the Seaboard Air Line railway attempted to revive pineapple production in Florida in the 1930s, but the industry was never able to fully recover.
What is your favorite way to enjoy a delicious pineapple? Tell us about it by leaving a comment!
No, there’s no typo in the title of today’s blog. For several decades, northern Florida was home to thousands of acres of tung trees. Tung nuts, the fruit of these trees, contain an oil that could be used in paints, varnishes, inks, and even some medicines. The tree was imported from China, where it had been grown commercially for centuries. After a period of trial and error, Florida growers were able to cultivate the trees and produce thousands of tons of tung nuts per year.
For all the largesse it would later bring to the Sunshine State, the origins of the industry were humble. In 1905, the United States Department of Agriculture imported 200 pounds of tung nuts from China and planted them in Chico, California as an experiment. Of the seedlings that resulted, the U.S.D.A. sent several hundred to agricultural experiment stations around the country, especially in the South, where the climate was most similar to that of the Yangtze valley in China.
Five of the tung seedlings ended up in the possession of the superintendent of the old City Cemetery in Tallahassee, who in turn gave them to William H. Raynes, who managed a small estate off Miccosukee Road. Raynes planted the five seedlings in November 1906 and tended them closely, yet by the spring of 1907 all but one had died, and the one was badly damaged in a storm. Raynes cut the tree back, and in the ensuing years it began producing a considerable number of tung nuts. Eventually, this tree would produce the first complete bushel of tung nuts grown in North America.
In 1913, Raynes sent a bushel of shelled tung seeds to the Educational Bureau of the Paint Manufacturers’ Association of the United States, which was then able to extract over two gallons of useable oil. The potential for a new lucrative industry was clear, and more investors began taking interest. Soon the trees were appearing in Levy, Clay, Jefferson, Okaloosa, and other counties. Tung processing factories emerged in Altha, Capps, Compass Lake, Gainesville, Lloyd, and Monticello. The American Tung Oil Association, formed in 1924 by a group of paint and varnish manufacturers with familiar names like Sherwin-Williams, Valspar, and DuPont, encouraged the growth of the new industry and funneled money into it.
National and international events spurred the tung growers onward. The arrival of the Great Depression left many Floridians out of work and hungry for the kind of jobs a healthy tung industry could provide. Across the Pacific, China’s ability to produce and ship tung oil was curtailed by the Japanese invasion of Manchuria in 1931, and harassment of ports like Shanghai. U.S. producers had an excellent opportunity to fill the void with tung oil made at home. Enthusiasm for the industry in Florida was high. There was even a “Tung Blossom Festival” in Gainesville in the 1930s, featuring games and a parade of decorated floats. In 1931 alone, the parade featured over 70 entries and 13 lady contestants vying for the title of “Tung Oil Queen.”
During World War II, the U.S. military’s demand for tung oil products sky-rocketed, which proved to be both a boon and a curse to the industry in Florida. While it kept the factories busy, the continual shortage of oil led experts to favor research into synthetic substitutes. In the postwar years, tung oil consumption fell off as other substances took its place. Freezes, devastating hurricanes, and an overall decline in purchases of tung oil products all but killed off the industry over the next few decades.
Despite its sagging fortunes over the past few decades, the tung tree may yet have a role to play in Florida’s economy. A small number of growers are experimenting with tung oil production, including in Leon County. What will be the outcome of this experiment? Well, as the saying goes, that’s the question on every… tongue, at least here at Florida Memory.
Do you recall seeing tung trees blooming in years gone by? Do you know of tung trees still living in Florida? Share with us by leaving a comment, and don’t forget to share our post using Facebook or Twitter.
The British only owned Florida for a brief moment (1763-1783), but during that time they did take a stab at turning the territory into a productive colony. In 1764, the British Parliament set aside £500 (British pounds sterling) as a bounty for cultivating silk, cotton, and indigo in East Florida, and authorized generous land grants for citizens who stepped forward to develop these industries.
Dr. Andrew Turnbull, a Scotsman and a physician, convinced a number of his wealthy friends in Britain to take advantage of these offers and start a new colony in East Florida. Turnbull planned to employ a number of Greeks from Asia Minor as laborers for his new venture. He chose a Greek labor force because he felt they would be more accustomed to the warm climate they would encounter in Florida, and because he believed he would be able to convince a good number of them to leave the Ottoman Empire, where labor conditions were tough. Turnbull’s knowledge of the eastern Mediterranean was considerable. He had spent a number of years as a British consul in the Ottoman Empire, and had married the daughter of a Greek merchant at Smyrna in Greece.
In 1766 and 1767, Turnbull and two of his business associates, Sir William Duncan and Sir Richard Temple, acquired land grants of 20,000 acres each, which Turnbull was to select from unclaimed lands in East Florida. After a brief stay in St. Augustine, Turnbull sailed southward along the Atlantic coast past what we now call Ormond and Daytona beaches, and entered Mosquito Inlet, where he encountered an attractive region dotted with large magnolia, live oak, and bay trees. The Scotsman was delighted with what he saw, and decided to make this the site of his new colony. He named it New Smyrna in honor of his wife’s birthplace and the homeland of his future Greek labor force.
Turnbull crossed the Atlantic once again to secure more land and the assistance of the government in setting up the new colony. The British government took a considerable interest in New Smyrna, providing money for transporting laborers and developing infrastructure. In the spring of 1767, Turnbull sailed into the Mediterranean to hire workers for his new enterprise. He encountered unexpected resistance from the Ottomans over his plan to hire away Greek workers, so he made stops in southern Italy and Minorca to pick up more. By the time Turnbull finally sailed for East Florida, he had about 1,500 workers under contract, mostly Minorcans. These settlers would be indentured servants. In return for their passage to New Smyrna, the laborers would be required to work for a period of years, and then they would be entitled either to a plot of land in East Florida or passage back to their home country.
By the end of the summer in 1768, Turnbull and his workers were settled in at New Smyrna, and the process of clearing the land and preparing it for cultivation was underway. The work was difficult, and a number of workers died from disease and as a result of raids by Native Americans in the area. The New Smyrna venture did eventually produce good crops, however, and for a few years all appeared to be working in good order. Turnbull’s relationship with his laborers deteriorated as the years went by, on account of poor working conditions and the harsh practices of his overseers. In 1777, the laborers marched northward to St. Augustine to complain to Governor Patrick Tonyn, who provided them with shelter.
The colonists decided to stay in St. Augustine, which brought an end to the plantation at New Smyrna. Shortly afterward in 1783, the Spanish retook Florida as part of the Treaty of Paris, and Andrew Turnbull moved to Charleston, South Carolina. The New Smyrna venture had ended, but the colonists continued to live in East Florida, mostly along the Atlantic coast of northeastern Florida. The Florida Photographic Collection contains several photos depicting Minorcan foodways and other traditions that have lived on into our own era, living legacies of the New Smyrna Minorcans’ journey across the Atlantic over two centuries ago.
Search Florida Memory for more images depicting Minorcan traditions still alive and well in Florida!
Watermelons are the perfect summer treat! Juicy, refreshing, and delicious all summer long – watermelon deserves a day all to itself.
July is National Blueberry Month! According to the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), an estimated 17,100,000 pounds of blueberries were produced in Florida in 2012.