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.

Light colored phosphate pebbles embedded in

Light colored phosphate pebbles embedded in “matrix” (1915).

Phosphorus is a crucial element in fertilizers. Credit for discovering it generally goes to a German alchemist named Hennig Brand, who first isolated the substance from urine in 1669. Later scientists found the same element in bone and guano, and determined that it played a significant role in the lives of plants, animals, and people.

Phosphorus was favored as a fertilizer as early as the 19th century, but it could be expensive to produce. Phosphorus does not naturally occur as a free element; it must be extracted from other substances. Guano was an early preferred source, but supplies were limited. That all changed in the 1880s when beds of phosphate-enriched rock were discovered in parts of the United States, especially South Carolina and Florida.

1913 Map of Florida showing phosphate deposits - Florida State Geological Survey.

1913 Map of Florida showing phosphate deposits – Florida State Geological Survey. Florida Map Collection, State Library.

A real Florida boom resulted. In 1888, an estimated 1,000 tons of phosphate rock were shipped from the state. By 1892, that amount had increased to 354,327 tons. Prospectors descended on Florida from the Panhandle to the Everglades, piercing the sand with long probes that collected soil samples from deep within the ground in hopes of finding traces of valuable phosphate rock. These hopeful explorers had all sorts of superstitions to guide them. Some said the height or shape of a pine tree was a good indicator of phosphates below the ground. Others swore there was a certain variety of grass that only grew over rich phosphate deposits.

A phosphate prospecting crew (1913).

A phosphate prospecting crew (1913).

It wasn’t long before large companies, bankrolled in part by Northern capital, began buying up land and extracting phosphate rock. The State of Florida established a Board of Phosphate Commissioners in 1891 to supervise the activities of these companies. A series of their records (Series 22) is available for research at the State Archives of Florida, by the way.

Early pick and shovel phosphate mining near Dunnellon (1889).

Early pick and shovel phosphate mining near Dunnellon (1889).

Two preferred methods for mining phosphate quickly developed. “Land pebble” mining involved extracting phosphate directly from the ground either by hand or by using dredging equipment. Also, some Florida rivers, most notably the Peace River that empties into Charlotte Harbor and the Gulf of Mexico, contained large beds of phosphate material washed in from the surrounding watershed. Some companies used pumps and suction pipes to extract this “river pebble” phosphate from the water and strain out the surrounding sand. In both land pebble and river pebble mining, the material would be taken to a processing plant, where it would be refined, dried, and sent off to market.

Painting depicting the Florida Phosphate Mining Company dredge at work on the Peace River (circa 1890s).

Painting depicting the Florida Phosphate Mining Company dredge at work on the Peace River (circa 1890s).

Elevator and drying works at the Peace River Phosphate Company's plant near Arcadia (circa 1910s).

Elevator and drying works at the Peace River Phosphate Company’s plant near Arcadia (circa 1910s).

The impact of the phosphate industry on Florida was immense. Production increased steadily during the twentieth century, so that by 1956 the state’s mining companies were putting out over 10 million short tons of phosphate per year. In the early days, entire towns were formed around phosphate companies. Polk and Hillsborough counties offer a few memorable examples, including “Pebble,” “Bone Valley,” and “Phosphoria.” Concerns about the environmental impact of phosphate mining, especially strip mining, have led to changes in the extraction process. It is still, however, an important Florida industry, one that provides a number of much-needed jobs and economic growth.

Excerpt from a 1902 Cram map showing a portion of Polk and Hillsborough counties, including several sites named for their role in the phosphates industry. Note "Pebble," "Bone Valley," and "Phosphoria."

Excerpt from a 1902 Cram map showing a portion of Polk and Hillsborough counties, including several sites named for their role in the phosphates industry. Note “Pebble,” “Bone Valley,” and “Phosphoria.” Florida Map Collection, State Library.

What Florida industry has most affected your community? Tell us about it by commenting below or sharing this post with your friends and neighbors on 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!