Funny Business on Pigeon Key

As you drive along the Seven Mile Bridge on U.S. 1 heading south toward Key West, you’ll notice a small island off to the right around Mile Marker 45. The old Overseas Highway, parts of which are still in use for one purpose or another, runs right down to it. Like much of the scenery in that part of Florida, the place looks like it belongs on a postcard. And, well, it is on a number of postcards. None of them, however, mention the shadier episodes in the island’s past.

Postcard depicting Pigeon Key, with the original Overseas Highway running across it. The postmark on the reverse side of the card was from 1940.

Postcard depicting Pigeon Key, with the original Overseas Highway running across it. The postmark on the reverse side of the card was from 1940.

Pigeon Key was a critical center of activity during the construction of Henry Flagler’s Oversea Railroad linking Key West with the Florida mainland. The island served as a camp for hundreds of workers, and was converted to a maintenance base once the railway was completed in 1912.

Construction workers' camp belonging to the Florida East Coast Railway on Pigeon Key (circa 1910).

Construction workers’ camp belonging to the Florida East Coast Railway on Pigeon Key (circa 1910).

The railway was a boon to the Florida Keys, of course, but not long after the road was completed, automobile enthusiasts began clamoring for the freedom to make their own way to Key West in their new machines. In 1933, the State Legislature created the Overseas Road and Toll Bridge District and authorized it to construct a toll road connecting Lower Matecumbe Key and Big Pine Key. This would complete the automobile route from Key West to the Florida mainland. The new commission studied several possibilities for building the route, but the option they selected came about completely by accident.

On September 2, 1935, the infamous Category 5 Labor Day Hurricane struck the Florida Keys, causing widespread destruction. Portions of the Florida East Coast Railway were destroyed, and the railway company ended up choosing to abandon its tracks across the Florida Keys rather than rebuild. The Overseas Road and Toll Bridge District saw an opportunity. Using a $3.6 million loan from the Public Works Administration, the commission purchased the tracks between Big Pine and Lower Matecumbe keys and refitted them with concrete decking and side rails. The newly completed highway opened on July 4, 1938.

Converting the Florida East Coast Railway to the Overseas Highway between Big Pine Key and Lower Matecumbe Key. Note that a few crossties are still visible in the image here (1937).

Converting the Florida East Coast Railway to the Overseas Highway between Big Pine Key and Lower Matecumbe Key. Note that a few crossties are still visible in the image here (1937).

Converting the tracks of the Florida East Coast Railway into a new bridge for automobiles in the Florida Keys (circa 1937).

Converting the tracks of the Florida East Coast Railway into a new bridge for automobiles in the Florida Keys (circa 1937).

Once the road was built, the idea was that the Overseas Road and Toll Bridge District would repay the federal loan using tolls collected for travelers using the new bridges. That’s where Pigeon Key comes in. The District established a headquarters building and maintenance base on the small island, with a small access road connecting it with the highway. Much of the business relating to maintenance, toll collection, and other matters was handled here.

Aerial view of Pigeon Key (1954).

Aerial view of Pigeon Key (1954).

As you might imagine, a gig working for the toll district in this island paradise was a nice assignment. Over time, however, some began to suspect it was a little too nice. In March 1954, the Miami Daily News began publishing a series of stories outlining activities at Pigeon Key that were raising a few eyebrows. The general manager of the toll authority, for example, was in the process of building a new real estate development north of Marathon, including a two-story home with a yacht basin for himself. This seemed awfully opulent for a man making $550 a month. The general manager refused the Miami Daily News reporters access to the District’s files at Pigeon Key, so they conducted research in the public financial records archived at Tallahassee.

What they found suggested something was deeply wrong about how the District’s funds were being spent. Expenses for the island headquarters included rabbit, squab, steaks selling at $1.77 a pound (in 1954, remember), bar supplies, and a variety of other expensive food items. The general manager also had at his disposal a cabin cruiser, a state-paid housekeeper and maid, and a $60,000 swimming pool. There was also evidence that state-owned property was being sold to persons connected with members of the District, and that District officials had tampered with the legal bidding process for contracts. Auditors later determined there were contracts let for work that was never completed, or for which the state was overcharged. Thousands of dollars’ worth of building supplies were unaccounted for. On the recommendation of the State Road Board chairman, Cecil Webb, Acting Governor Charley Johns launched an investigation, and charges were brought against several of the persons connected with the corruption at Pigeon Key. Johns liquidated the Overseas Road and Toll Bridge District later in 1954, and all of its assets were transferred to the State Road Board.

The story has a happy ending, fortunately. In 1964, the University of Miami Marine Laboratory leased the island from the state and began using it as a base for scientific investigations. Today, the island is operated as a historical site and marine science learning center by the Pigeon Key Foundation, a non-profit organization. The Overseas Highway has long since been rebuilt, and now passes south of the island rather than directly over it. The old span, however, still connects the island to the new Seven Mile Bridge and U.S. 1. The old bridge is only open to foot traffic, however. Most visitors reach the island by ferry.

Postcard depicting Pigeon Key, with both the old and new Overseas Highway spans visible. The bridge at right is the currently used span, while the one at left connects Pigeon Key with the main highway (circa 1990s).

Postcard depicting Pigeon Key, with both the old and new Overseas Highway spans visible. The bridge at right is the currently used span, while the one at left connects Pigeon Key with the main highway (circa 1990s).

For more photos of the Florida Keys, search the Florida Photographic Collection!

Richard Ervin and the Gradualist Approach to Desegregation

On May 12, 1955, Florida Attorney General Richard Ervin submitted an amicus curiae brief to the United States Supreme Court proposing a gradual approach to school integration. The court had just recently ruled in the case of Brown v. Board of Education in May 1954 that racially segregated schools were unconstitutional.

Headline in the Tallahassee Democrat, the day the U.S. Supreme court issued its opinion that separate schools were inherently unequal and therefore unconstitutional (17 May 1954). State Archives of Florida, Florida Memory.

Headline in the Tallahassee Democrat, the day the U.S. Supreme court issued its opinion that separate schools were inherently unequal and therefore unconstitutional (17 May 1954). State Archives of Florida, Florida Memory.

The court chose to shelve the case for a year, citing a need for further study on how best to implement the decision. Sensing an opportunity to preserve segregation, acting Florida Governor Charley Johns enlisted the expertise of Attorney General Ervin, State Superintendent of Education Thomas D. Bailey, and Florida State University sociologist Lewis Killian to compile a report outlining the “practical problems involved [with desegregation] and recommendations” for implementation.  The Florida Cabinet approved a $10, 000 budget for the study, which began in the summer of 1954.  Killian began by seeking the opinions of elected officials, journalists, educators, and police chiefs on the subject. Approximately 8,000 surveys reached a biracial sample of community leaders, with a total response rate of fifty one percent.

Atty. Gen. Richard Ervin (left), with Rep. Ben Hill Griffin of Polk County (right). Griffin was chairman of a committee devising legislation allowing parents to withdraw their children from integrated schools  (1959). State Archives of Florida, Florida Memory

Atty. Gen. Richard Ervin (left), with Rep. Ben Hill Griffin of Polk County (right). Griffin was chairman of a committee devising legislation allowing parents to withdraw their children from integrated schools (1959). State Archives of Florida, Florida Memory

The responses from African-Americans revealed several prevalent fears associated with desegregating Florida’s public schools, including “withdrawal of white children from the public schools, the maintenance of discipline in mixed classes by Negro [sic.] teachers, refusal to employ Negro teachers for mixed schools, and difficulty in obtaining white teachers” as the “outstanding potential problems found to be expected.” White responses emphasized similar concerns over such matters as maintaining discipline in mixed classrooms, questionable cooperation of white parents, and violent outbreaks.  In a telling statistic, seventy-five percent of African-American participants supported the Brown ruling and believe the majority of whites did also.  In contrast, a similar percentage of whites thought blacks largely supported segregation. Armed with Killian’s results, Attorney General Ervin made a strong case for gradualism. After a year of delay, the United States Supreme Court reconvened in spring 1955 to clarify the federal enforcement of desegregation in a session aptly nicknamed Brown II.  The court considered the research of ten states regarding school desegregation, lauding Attorney General Ervin’s brief as a particularly strong resource. On May 31, 1955, after much deliberation, the justices handed down their decision.  The court mandated that compliance with the Brown decision should occur with “a prompt and reasonable start,” carried out with “all deliberate speed.”  The vague language coupled with Ervin’s push for gradualism foreshadowed the long battle for school desegregation in post-Brown Florida.

The slow pace of social change in Florida prompted many African-Americans to take action. In the above picture, dated 1962, young men and women stand outside the Florida Theatre in Tallahassee, calling on white America to reevaluate racial segregation. Eight years after the Brown decree only a handful of school districts in Florida were desegregated. Miami-Dade was the first in 1959. State Archives of Florida, Florida Memory.

The slow pace of social change in Florida prompted many African-Americans to take action. In the above picture, dated 1962, young men and women stand outside the Florida Theatre in Tallahassee, calling on white America to reevaluate racial segregation. Eight years after the Brown decree only a handful of school districts in Florida were desegregated. Miami-Dade was the first in 1959. State Archives of Florida, Florida Memory.

 

 

It’s National Barbecue Month!

Aside from a few showers here and there, the weather has been awfully pleasant lately, and that has us thinking about all sorts of outdoor activities, especially picnics and barbecues. May is National Barbecue Month, and we couldn’t think of a better way to celebrate than to review the role of these delicious social occasions in Florida’s past.

Barbecue at the home of J.D. Hysler in Jacksonville (circa 1950s).

Barbecue at the home of J.D. Hysler in Jacksonville (circa 1950s).

Barbecue is a treat for Floridians of all ages. Pictured here is 8-month-old Mary Odum enjoying a plate of food during a dedication ceremony for several new tobacco warehouses in Jasper (July 1947).

Barbecue is a treat for Floridians of all ages. Pictured here is a group of people enjoying plates of food during a dedication ceremony for new tobacco warehouses in Jasper (July 1947).

The concept of getting a large group of folks together for a good meal outdoors is timeless, and some of our earliest photographs in the Florida Photographic Collection are of Floridians enjoying picnics and barbecues with friends, family, churches, and communities.

Barbecuing meat at a picnic for the Masons in Kissimmee (June 24, 1886).

Barbecuing meat at a picnic for the Masons in Kissimmee (June 24, 1886).

A barbecue picnic, complete with oysters (circa 1870s).

A barbecue picnic, complete with oysters (circa 1870s).

Group portrait at a barbecue in Eustis. Seated in front to the right is Herbert John Webber, a horticulturist whose pioneering field work at a Eustis field lab helped stimulate the citrus industry in that area (October 12, 1903).

Group portrait at a barbecue in Eustis. Seated in front to the right is Herbert John Webber, a horticulturist whose pioneering field work at a Eustis field lab helped stimulate the citrus industry in that area (October 12, 1903).

A mid-winter barbecue at Oldsmar (circa 1920s).

A mid-winter barbecue at Oldsmar (circa 1920s).

Anytime can be the right time for a barbecue, but special occasions make a particularly good excuse to fire up the grill. Florida communities have often celebrated groundbreaking ceremonies, anniversaries of momentous events, and dedications of new buildings and structures with large barbecues and picnics.

Barbecue is ready to serve at this Tin Can Tourist convention at Arcadia in DeSoto County (circa 1920s).

Barbecue is ready to serve at this Tin Can Tourist convention at Arcadia in DeSoto County (circa 1920s).

Harold Colee, longtime vice-president of the Florida State Chamber of Commerce, accepting a plate of barbecue at a Tree Farm event in Taylor County (April 3, 1947).

Harold Colee, longtime vice-president of the Florida State Chamber of Commerce, accepting a plate of barbecue at a Tree Farm event in Taylor County (April 3, 1947).

Men cutting ribs in preparation for a barbecue celebrating the opening of the John E. Mathews Bridge over the St. Johns River in Jacksonville. In the center is Lou Bono, founder of the original Bono's Barbecue in Jacksonville (March 1953).

Men cutting ribs in preparation for a barbecue celebrating the opening of the John E. Mathews Bridge over the St. Johns River in Jacksonville. In the center is Lou Bono, founder of the original Bono’s Barbecue in Jacksonville (March 1953).

Preparing racks of ribs for a barbecue celebrating the opening of the John E. Mathews Bridge over the St. Johns River in Jacksonville (March 1953).

Preparing racks of ribs for a barbecue celebrating the opening of the John E. Mathews Bridge over the St. Johns River in Jacksonville (March 1953).

 

Preparations for a barbecue celebrating the dedication of the Jim Woodruff Dam at Chattahoochee (1957).

Preparations for a barbecue celebrating the dedication of the Jim Woodruff Dam at Chattahoochee (1957).

Barbecues have also had a close connection with Florida politics. Candidates have long used them as a way to rub shoulders with their constituents during campaigns, to celebrate victories, and sometimes even to celebrate Election Day itself. Politics being what they are, these occasions were at times marked with a little roughhousing between the partisans for each candidate. Ellen Call Long described one such Election Day incident in her book Florida Breezes:

“Around the square, people gathered in knots; candidates or their friends made speeches, and all was good humor and sociability, but these culminated with the barbecue, and as whiskey circulated, many a proud-stepping sovereign of the morning yielded his sceptre to King Barleycorn; and there were uproarious haranguers of what American citizens can’t and won’t submit to; and there were fist fights, and consequent bruised heads, with blacked eyes; and oh, those “sons of the soil” that were so gallant, so solemn in that early day – we must spare them, for I dare say there was at home many a ‘sullen dame, gathering her brows like gathering storm, nursing her wrath to keep it warm.’”

Thankfully, in more recent times the barbecues associated with Florida politics have been much tamer, as these photos demonstrate.

Governor Fuller Warren checking a slab of meat as it roasts on a barbecue pit during the festivities celebrating his inauguration as Florida's 30th governor (January 4, 1949).

Governor Fuller Warren checking a slab of meat as it roasts on a barbecue pit during the festivities celebrating his inauguration as Florida’s 30th governor (January 4, 1949).

A crowd of 35,000-40,000 people in line for barbecue at festivities celebrating the inauguration of Florida's 30th governor, Fuller Warren (January 4, 1949).

A crowd of 35,000-40,000 people in line for barbecue at festivities celebrating the inauguration of Florida’s 30th governor, Fuller Warren (January 4, 1949).

Governor Charley E. Johns (center, in dark coat and hat) shakes hands during a campaign barbecue event. Johns had become governor upon the death of Governor Dan McCarty, but the state Supreme Court ruled he would have to win a special election to continue in the office. LeRoy Collins would eventually win this election (1954).

Governor Charley E. Johns (center, in dark coat and hat) shakes hands during a campaign barbecue event. Johns had become governor upon the death of Governor Dan McCarty, but the state Supreme Court ruled he would have to win a special election to continue in the office. LeRoy Collins would eventually win this election (1954).

So what are you waiting for? Celebrate National Barbecue Month by planning your own barbecue with friends or family. If you’re looking for a great place to do it, check out the Florida State Parks website to find out more about the 161 park facilities operated by the State of Florida.

Also, have a look at the Florida Park Service photograph collection.

WTVJ Miami Airs First Broadcast (March 1949)

In March 1949, WTVJ, Florida’s first television station, began broadcasting from the humble confines of the Capitol Theater in Miami. In its first year, the station covered everything from hurricanes to the annual Orange Bowl football game.

Left to right: George Thurston, Keith Leslie and Bill Tucker, WTVJ news crew

Left to right: George Thurston, Keith Leslie and Bill Tucker, WTVJ news crew

WTVJ accomplished many firsts in Florida’s television history, including the first female sportscaster, Jane Chastain, and the first African-American broadcast journalist in South Florida, C.T. Taylor.

The film clip below features the first televised political debate in Florida, between Governor Charley Johns and his opponent in the 1955 gubernatorial election, LeRoy Collins.