Researching the Homefront

Today’s post is part of the Florida Department of State’s Victory Florida campaign to commemorate the contributions of Floridian men and women to winning World War II. Help us get the word out by sharing this and other related posts on social media using the hashtag #VictoryFL.

Americans nationwide are preparing to celebrate the 70th anniversary of the end of World War II. The weekend of August 14-16 will mark the 70th anniversary of Japan’s announcement that it would surrender, while September 2nd will be the anniversary of the formal ending of hostilities.

Bird's eye view of the Victory Club of the Florida State College for Women in Tallahassee, standing in a

Bird’s eye view of the Victory Club of the Florida State College for Women in Tallahassee, standing in a “V for Victory” formation (1942).

Over 248,000 Floridians, including more than 50,000 African Americans, served in the military during the war, while the state itself served as a year-round training center with over 170 military installations. Florida’s population grew by leaps and bounds during and after the war, as many former military personnel decided to make the Sunshine State their permanent home.

It goes without saying that Florida’s military contributions to the war were vital, but Floridians on the homefront also played an essential role in achieving victory. Citizens from all walks of life – men and women, whites and African Americans, city dwellers and rural folks – poured countless hours into civilian defense programs designed to keep Florida safe and prepared for any possibility. They took stock of food, water, and medicine supplies, organized carpools and child care services for working mothers, planned recreational activities for the men and women in uniform, and even helped watch the skies and seas for signs of the enemy.

Scrap metal collection was a vital homefront program. Seen here are several Floridians in Pensacola with a large collection of scrap metal and rubber (circa 1943).

Scrap metal collection was a vital homefront program. Seen here are several Floridians in Pensacola with a large collection of scrap metal and rubber (circa 1943).

This organizational chart demonstrates the breadth of the projects undertaken by the State Defense Council and its local branches. Shown here are the various state committees, along with the organizations with which they cooperated (Box 14, Series 419 - State Defense Council Records, State Archives of Florida).

This organizational chart demonstrates the breadth of the projects undertaken by the State Defense Council and its local branches. Shown here are the various state committees, along with the organizations with which they cooperated (Box 14, Series 419 – State Defense Council Records, State Archives of Florida). Click to enlarge.

Many of these programs were administrated by Florida’s State Defense Council, a state-level counterpart of the national Office of Civilian Defense. Each county had its own defense council, with committees assigned to take on various tasks associated with civilian defense. Because these entities answered to the State Defense Council, many of their records have been preserved at the State Library and Archives in Tallahassee in Record Series 419. For the local historian working on a history of a particular Florida community or county, these records can be invaluable for understanding how local leaders helped meet the serious challenges of World War II. Genealogists may also find it interesting to learn how various relatives participated in civilian defense work. Here are some examples of the kinds of records available:

 

Personnel Lists & Organizational Charts

Each county and many cities had their own defense councils, administrated by community leaders and supported by hundreds of local volunteers. Many of the committee chairpersons were required to submit oaths of allegiance before their appointments to local leadership positions would be confirmed by the state and made official by the Governor. The local council also had to notify the state if there were any changes in personnel as the war progressed. All of this activity was documented through correspondence and lists of essential defense council leaders. Local and family historians can use this information to determine who was in charge of each area of civilian defense work during the war in a given community.

A leadership roster from the Dixie County Defense Council, showing who was in charge of the various committees. This sort of roster is available for most counties in Florida (Box 16, Series 419 - State Defense Council Records, State Archives of Florida).

A leadership roster from the Dixie County Defense Council, showing who was in charge of the various committees. This sort of roster is available for most counties in Florida (Box 16, Series 419 – State Defense Council Records, State Archives of Florida).

Chart suggesting a method for organizing civilian defense volunteers. Note that the chart provides alternative arrangements for areas with varying population density (Box 14. State Defense Council Records - Series 419, State Archives of Florida).

Chart suggesting a method for organizing civilian defense volunteers. Note that the chart provides alternative arrangements for areas with varying population density (Box 14. State Defense Council Records – Series 419, State Archives of Florida).

 

Local Programs & Advertisements

Local defense councils, especially those in Florida’s larger cities, designed intricate programs to handle basic needs like child care for working mothers, transportation, and spreading information about air raid drills, blackouts, and other safety measures. Many of the child care centers, supply distribution points, and other agencies created during the war disappeared quickly after victory, leaving little trace of their existence. The records in Series 419 can help local historians piece together what these entities were doing, where they were doing it, and who was in charge.

Example: Leaflet describing wartime child care services in Duval County established by the local school board and the Duval County Defense Council (Box 16, Series 419 – State Defense Council Records, State Archives of Florida.

 

Another example:

Flyer produced by the Dade County Defense Council encouraging citizens to volunteer (Box 12, State Defense Council Records - Series 419, State Archives of Florida).

Flyer produced by the Dade County Defense Council encouraging citizens to volunteer (Box 12, Series 419 – State Defense Council Records, State Archives of Florida).

 

Correspondence

While much of the correspondence between the State Defense Council and the local defense councils consists of routine business, some of the letters contain excellent descriptions of the work being done, and of the challenges local leaders faced in getting the supplies they needed, the information they wanted, and so on. These letters are a must for anyone working on the history of civilian defense work in a Florida community. Here is an example of one such letter to the State Defense Council from Mrs. C.C. Codrington of Lake City, who had volunteered to chair a local campaign to recruit women into the Women’s Army Corps. She describes speaking to local civic clubs about her work, working with local theater managers to show informative films, and starting work in the local high school library. Mrs. Codrington’s oath of allegiance was enclosed with the letter.

Source: Box 12, Series 419 – State Defense Council Records, State Archives of Florida.
These are only a few examples of the many gems to be found in the records of the State Defense Council at the State Archives of Florida. If you or someone you know is working on a history of your Florida community during World War II, visit us and have a look. More information on Series 419 may be obtained from the Archives Online Catalog, or you may contact the State Archives directly by email at Archives@dos.myflorida.com or by phone at (850)-245-6719.

Also, don’t forget to share this post with friends or family who may be interested in learning more about Florida’s World War II contributions. Use the hashtag #VictoryFL to help more people find this and other related posts!

When Dade County Was On the Gulf Coast

It doesn’t take a genius to realize map-making has come a long way since the early 19th century. Today’s Floridians would also likely agree that it shouldn’t take a genius to know where Miami-Dade County ought to be on a map of the Sunshine State. If that’s the case, then how in the world did THIS happen?

An 1838 map of Florida showing Dade County incorrectly on the Gulf Coast, just north of Tampa Bay (Florida Map Collection, State Library).

An 1838 map of Florida showing Dade County incorrectly on the Gulf Coast, just north of Tampa Bay (Florida Map Collection, State Library).

That’s right – in 1838, at least one mapmaker believed Dade County was supposed to be on Florida’s Gulf Coast north of Tampa Bay instead of down in South Florida on the Atlantic Coast where we would expect it to be. All jokes aside, the error in this case was probably only partly to do with the mapmaker’s wits and smarts. Some of the confusion likely resulted from the events leading up to Dade County’s establishment in 1836.

Prior to 1836, all of the land in what is now Miami-Dade County was part of Monroe County, which at that time contained everything south of an irregular line running from Charlotte Harbor on the Gulf coast, down to Lake Okeechobee (then called Lake Macaco) and down the course of the Hillsboro River to the Atlantic. When the territorial legislature met in January 1836, the representatives drew up a bill to create a new county using some of this expansive territory. Legislative records show that no representatives voted against the bill, not even Richard Fitzpatrick, Monroe County’s delegate.

The name didn’t provoke much debate either. Seven days before the legislative session convened, two companies of U.S. troops led by Major Francis Dade had fought one of the most violent battles of the Second Seminole War, in which Major Dade and a number of his men were killed. The legislators consequently agreed to name the new county “Dade” as a memorial to the fallen commander.

Historical markers at Dade Battlefield Historic State Park near Bushnell in Sumter County (circa 1950s).

Historical markers at Dade Battlefield Historic State Park near Bushnell in Sumter County (circa 1950s).

Here’s where our mapmaker may have gotten into trouble. Since the new county was supposed to be a memorial to Major Dade, perhaps he thought it was supposed include the site of the late commander’s final battle. There was also a fort in the area that had just been renamed Fort Dade in the major’s memory – perhaps this was a contributing factor. It’s tough to say for sure. Even had this been the mapmaker’s thinking, Dade’s Battlefield is actually located more to the east in present-day Sumter County. More importantly, the act creating Dade County clearly situates it in the southeastern corner of the peninsula.

We may never know the full story behind Dade County’s short-lived Gulf coast career, but it’s one of those humorous little mistakes that help remind us that the historical actors we study were human beings. The history we learn from them wasn’t predetermined – it involved a multitude of individual decisions, actions, and even a few missteps.

This unusual map is one of over 1,700 individual items in the Florida Map Collection housed at the State Library in Tallahassee. Visit library.florida.gov to search the Library Catalog. If you want to limit your search to just maps, choose “Florida Map Collection” from the drop-down menu below the search box.

Use the drop-down menu below the search box on the State Library's catalog to narrow your search.

Use the drop-down menu below the search box on the State Library’s catalog to narrow your search.

 

A County Governed by an Island

Thomas Paine once argued for American independence from Great Britain by declaring it was absurd for a continent to be governed by an island. Curiously enough, similar arrangements have occurred in Florida, albeit on a smaller scale and lacking the part about absurdity. Monroe County, for example, is headquartered at Key West, but possesses a great deal of territory on the mainland. If you count Amelia Island as a true island, you could say the same for Nassau County. What many folks don’t realize is that Dade County was once governed from an island as well.

A portion of J.H. Colton's 1853 Map of Florida showing Indian Key and vicinity.

A portion of J.H. Colton’s 1853 Map of Florida showing Indian Key and vicinity.

It’s hard to imagine Dade County without Miami at the center of its government, but that is indeed how it began. When the Legislative Council established Dade County with the Governor’s approval on January 28, 1836, it included all of the Florida Keys from Bahia Honda Key to the mainland. It also included a large chunk of the peninsula, with boundaries running from Cable Sable on the Gulf Coast north to Lake Okeechobee and then southeast to the Hillsborough River and the Atlantic Coast. Indian Key, which is located roughly between the Upper and Lower Matecumbe keys, became the inaugural county seat.

Aerial view of Indian Key (circa 1990s).

Aerial view of Indian Key (circa 1990s).

Indian Key might be small, but surely you’ve heard what they say about dynamite in small packages. The island was already inhabited, primarily by people associated with a wrecking business belonging to a man named Jacob Houseman. The Keys were notorious for their shipwrecks, and men like Houseman made a living from salvaging their cargoes. In 1828, Houseman petitioned Congress to make Indian Key an official United States port of entry. His supporting documentation claimed there were 47 people living on the island: 21 white and 26 black.

An image from Herper's New Monthly Magazine (1870-71).

An image from Harper’s New Monthly Magazine (1870-71).

A serious calamity befell Indian Key during the Second Seminole War. On August 7, 1840, Seminole Indians attacked the island, killing several of its inhabitants and burning the buildings. With the county seat destroyed and abandoned, local government of Dade County essentially ceased. In 1841, the territorial legislature adjusted the jurisdiction of the Monroe County Superior Court so it could handle most of the cases arising in Dade County. The acting clerk of the Dade County Court wrote the governor apologetically in 1843, explaining that he had deviated from the law a great deal in conducting elections that year. The county seat was vacant, he explained, and hardly anyone was around to vote, let alone supervise a poll or canvass the results. Using his own money, then, the acting clerk procured a book, canvassed the votes, and made out the returns himself.

The legislature voted to legalize the clerk’s actions, but the lawmakers realized that something more had to be done. With Indian Key devoid of people or facilities for carrying on the administration of the county, the local government needed a new location. On March 9, 1844, the legislature voted to move the seat of Dade County to Miami, where it remains today.

Map of Indian Key (1840).

Map of Indian Key (1840).

Indian Key is now reserved as a state park. Visitors can take a boat or kayak out to the island when the waves are calm. Park officials have recreated parts of the original street grid, and interpretive markers explain the unique history of the island.

Florida’s Barefoot Mailmen

The next time your computer takes a few extra seconds to send an email message, just be thankful you didn’t have to hand-deliver it yourself. Be especially grateful you didn’t have to deliver it by walking sixty miles barefoot in the blazing Florida sun.

That challenging scenario was a reality for the first men to carry mail between what is now Palm Beach and Miami. The United States Postal Service established a route between these two points in the 1880s, but the “route” was only on paper. It certainly didn’t follow a railroad, road, or even a trail. None of these existed at the time. The only reliable trail from Hypoluxo near Lake Worth to Miami and Biscayne Bay lay along the Atlantic coast.

One of six panels in a mural commemorating the barefoot mailmen of South Florida. The mural hangs in the West Palm Beach post office on Olive Avenue (photo circa 1950).

One of six panels in a mural commemorating the barefoot mailmen of South Florida. The mural hangs in the West Palm Beach post office on Olive Avenue (photo circa 1950).

Hence the barefoot mailman. The Postal Service hired mail carriers to walk the mail down from Hypoluxo to Miami, using the firmer sand along the beach as a highway. Shoes were more hindrance than help, so the barefoot mailmen simply didn’t use them. The entire expedition took about a week, the carrier leaving Monday morning and returning Saturday evening. He was typically issued a tin pail, a cup, hard biscuits, coffee, a hatchet, and some matches, all of which he carried along with the mail in a sack slung over one shoulder.

Excerpt of an 1883 map showing official postal routes through Florida. No route connected Miami with the Lake Worth region at this time. Instead, mail for Miami had to come from Galveston, New Orleans, Tampa, or Cedar Key via Key West. The "barefoot" route along the Atlantic coast shortened the time required to deliver mail to Miami.

Excerpt of an 1883 map showing official postal routes through Florida. No route connected Miami with the Lake Worth region at this time. Instead, mail for Miami had to come from Galveston, New Orleans, Tampa, or Cedar Key via Key West. The “barefoot” route along the Atlantic coast shortened the time required to deliver mail to Miami.

The trip required crossing several rivers and inlets. Carriers stashed boats near all of the crossings so they could get across safely without damaging the mail. Sometimes other travelers would accompany a carrier so they too could use the boats.

One of these crossings was the scene of a most unfortunate tragedy. James “Ed” Hamilton, a young mail carrier, was headed for Miami in October 1887 when he discovered that the boat he normally used to cross the Hillsboro Inlet was tied up on the opposite side. He secured his mailbag in a tree, removed his clothing, and apparently attempted to swim the inlet and retrieve the boat. What happened next is uncertain, but young Hamilton met his end, possibly carried out to sea by a current or attacked by an alligator. He was never seen again. His memory is honored by a memorial plaque at Pompano and a six-panel mural by artist Stevan Dohanos entitled “Legend of James Edward Hamilton, Mail Carrier,” which hangs in the West Palm Beach post office.

Another panel from the Olive Avenue post office mural in West Palm Beach, this one depicting James Edward

Another panel from the Olive Avenue post office mural in West Palm Beach, this one depicting James Edward “Ed” Hamilton rowing his boat carefully past a few alligators (photo circa 1950).

In late 1892, contractors completed the first county-maintained road between Lantana and Lemon City along the coast. The U.S. Postal Service ended the “barefoot” route the next year. Interest in the tradition of the barefoot mailman lives on, however. Theodore Pratt, an author of Florida fiction who lived in the Lake Worth area, penned a successful novel called The Barefoot Mailman in 1943. Columbia Pictures made the story into a movie in 1951, starring Robert Cummings, Terry Moore, Jerome Courtland, and John Russell.

Actress Terry Moore during the filming of Columbia Pictures' film adaptation of Thedore Pratt's The Barefoot Mailman (1951).

Actress Terry Moore during the filming of Columbia Pictures’ film adaptation of Thedore Pratt’s The Barefoot Mailman (1951).

Search the Florida Photographic Collection for more images relating to the early days of Miami, Palm Beach, and other cities along Florida’s Atlantic coast. And don’t forget to share your favorites on Facebook or Pinterest!