Fort Lonesome Was No Picnic

If you know someone with a unique name like Beglasia or Hazelwonder or Plutochose, today (March 3rd) is the day to celebrate. It’s National Unique Name Day, and here at Florida Memory we’re thinking about unique place names across the Sunshine State.

Hillsborough County, for example, is home to the great port city of Tampa, but it’s also home to a variety of smaller communities with some very unique names. From Wimauma to Welcome to Reason to Balm, we’re fascinated with these local place names and their origins. To celebrate National Unique Name Day, we’ve selected two communities for a closer look: Picnic and Fort Lonesome.

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

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

Picnic has been showing up on Florida maps at least since the 1880s. A former resident, Mrs. Bernice West, once told columnist Nixon Smiley of the Miami Herald that the settlement had once been called Hurrah, just like the Hurrah Creek that flows into the Alafia River near the site. West explained that the name “Hurrah” wasn’t meant to mean the cheer, but an Indian word with a different meaning.

At any rate, Hurrah acquired a neighbor sometime in the 1870s or 1880s called Picnic. Local historians explain that Picnic got its name from the local habit of having picnics and fish fries on the flat land lying at the convergence of Hurrah Creek and the Alafia River. It is unclear whether Hurrah and Picnic existed at the same time. By 1880, however, the name “Picnic” won out for the area’s new post office founded by George W. Colding.

The territory surrounding Picnic, Florida was engaged in two key industries in the early 20th century: turpentine and phosphates. At the start of this period, the community was surrounded by extensive tracts of longleaf pine trees, which could be tapped for their valuable resin. Several companies set to work extracting this substance from the trees and distilling it into turpentine.

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

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

This profitable business employed hundreds of local workers, but over time the area’s resources were depleted. As turpentine companies began selling off their land, phosphate companies moved in behind them to extract more wealth from under the ground. By 1930, the majority of Picnic’s residents were either farming or employed in the phosphate mines.

Hand mining phosphates (1900).

Hand mining phosphates (1900).

That brings us to Fort Lonesome, located just south of Picnic on County Road 39. Contrary to the name, there was never a fort there, at least not one called Fort Lonesome. There are several local legends explaining how the name came about, but the best explanation dates back to a serious crisis in the Central Florida citrus industry in the 1920s.

Mediterranean Fruit Fly (circa 1950s).

Mediterranean Fruit Fly (circa 1950s).

In April 1929, state officials announced that Florida was suffering from an infestation of Ceratitis capitata, better known as the Mediterranean fruit fly. The larvae of this pest burrow into the fruits of citrus trees and other deciduous trees, ruining it in the process. To combat the problem, the Florida Department of Agriculture cooperated with other state and federal authorities in an extensive program of eradication. Part of this program meant inspecting all vehicles traveling in and out of the affected area to ensure that no infested fruit left the region to spread the epidemic.

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

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

One inspection station was located at what is now the corner of County Road 39 and State Road 674 in Hillsborough County, just south of Picnic. The National Guardsmen manning the station didn’t have much traffic to look forward to, as most of the industrial action had quieted down in this section by 1930. To express his feelings about his assignment, one of the inspectors allegedly hung up a sign reading “Fort Lonesome.” The spot has never been incorporated, but the Florida Department of Transportation still posts signs on State Road 674 marking its location.

What is the most unique Florida place name in your county? What is the origin of that name? Today is a great day to do some research on the subject. Need help? Visit info.florida.gov to learn more about using the resources of the State Library and Archives for your next foray into studying Florida history and culture.