Remembering Astronaut John Glenn

Today the State Archives of Florida remembers John Glenn. Glenn passed away on December 8th, 2016 at the age of 95.

John Glenn in Tallahassee (February 15, 1984).

John Glenn in Tallahassee (February 15, 1984).

Glenn led a remarkable life full of accomplishment. After serving as a highly decorated Marine Corps pilot in WWII and Korea, he set the transcontinental flight speed record in 1957. Glenn set further records after joining the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) as a test pilot in 1959. During his time at NASA, Glenn was the first American to orbit Earth in 1962 and the oldest person to travel to space when he returned with the Space Shuttle program in 1998, at the age of 77. Glenn also served from 1977 to 1999 as United States Senator for his home state of Ohio.

A parade welcoming astronaut John Glenn at Cocoa Beach after he became the first American to orbit the Earth (February 23, 1962).

A parade welcoming astronaut John Glenn at Cocoa Beach after he became the first American to orbit the Earth (February 23, 1962).

Glenn and his fellow Project Mercury astronauts, the “Original Seven,” were the United States’ best hope against the Soviet Union in the space race. The group of test pilots accomplished many firsts from the Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, including the first American in space (Alan Shepard) and John Glenn’s monumental trip around the Earth.

The Original Seven Mercury astronauts with a U.S. Air Force F-106B jet aircraft. Glenn is third from the left.

The Original Seven Project Mercury astronauts with a U.S. Air Force F-106B jet aircraft. Glenn is third from the left.

The achievements of Glenn and his fellow pioneers bolstered American interest in NASA and space exploration. Their work propelled NASA through the Apollo program, the Moon landing, and the Space Shuttle program, cementing the place of space exploration in the minds of young Americans for years to come.

A Merritt Island Beach Palace

It was 1964. More and more of Brevard County’s Merritt Island was being developed by NASA to build the nation’s first “moonport.” On the edge of all this futuristic construction, however, stood the fading remains of a majestic old house. Its octagonal rotundas gave it a rather unique appearance for Florida, and locals even called it a castle. Dummitt Castle, to be exact.

Dummitt Castle after it was relocated to Parrish Park near Titusville in Brevard County (circa 1965).

Dummitt Castle after it was relocated to Parrish Park near Titusville in Brevard County (circa 1965).

This structure was a real anachronism in a place dedicated to launching Florida and the United States into the Space Age. The damage done by years of neglect and vandalism didn’t help. Local historians and preservationists hoped, however, that somehow the old house could be saved.

As it turned out, convincing the right people of Dummitt Castle’s historic value was the easy part. The house and its surroundings were part of a story that dates back to the Spanish colonial era. In 1807 or so, Colonel Thomas Dummitt (originally spelled Dummett) of the British Marines sailed past Merritt Island while on his way to St. Augustine. According to local legend, Colonel Dummitt and his son smelled wild orange blossoms as they passed through. They were curious, but they had already had big plans to develop a plantation farther north.

In 1825, Dummett purchased the plantations of John Bunch and John Addison, the former of which included a sugar mill. These plantations had been built on land near the Halifax River, which the Spanish granted to Bunch and Addison prior to the United States’ acquisition of Florida in 1821.

A map from the Spanish Land Grant of John Bunch. This land later passed into the possession of Thomas Dummett (Dummitt).

A map from the Spanish Land Grant of John Bunch. This land later passed into the possession of Thomas Dummett (Dummitt).

When Colonel Dummett’s son Douglas came of age, his interests turned to citrus. He acquired a significant amount of land through the Florida Armed Occupation Act of 1842, owing to his military service during the Second Seminole War.  He established an orange grove on North Merritt Island, budding trees from wild sour-orange trees from St. Augustine and sweet-orange trees from New Smyrna. The resulting hybrid was particularly hardy as it managed to withstand even the Great Freeze of 1894-95. The Dummitt, Indian River, and Enterprise seedless varieties of oranges are descended from this lineage.

Douglas Dummett eventually grew old and passed away, but his orange grove continued to impress visitors and provide stock for new citrus ventures. In 1881, the property was sold to an Italian duke, Eicole Tamajo, Duke of Castlellucia. The duke and his wife decided to upgrade the living quarters of the grove, and so they built what was later known as Dummitt Castle. A penciled notation under one of the staircases explained that the architect was J.J. Conwar of New York, and that the structure was completed on December 15, 1881. Building materials for the house came in part from timbers off a shipwrecked vessel that met its demise off Daytona Beach.

The United States government acquired the property some years after the duke and duchess had died, and it eventually became part of the massive 90,000-acre plot reserved for the nation’s space program at Cape Canaveral. Given the historical significance of the old house and the surrounding orange grove, locals felt something ought to be done to preserve this unique relic of Brevard County’s past. The house, alternately called either “Dummitt Castle” or the “Duke’s Castle,” was moved in 1964 to nearby Parrish Park, just east of Titusville, with help from the Brevard County Historical Society.

Visitors take in Dummitt Castle at its new location in Parrish Park near Titusville in Brevard County (1967).

Visitors take in Dummitt Castle at its new location in Parrish Park near Titusville in Brevard County (1967).

Unfortunately, Dummitt Castle burned in 1967 before it could be turned into a museum. Brevard County is home, however, to a number of other excellent historic sites and museums. Visit the Brevard County Historical Commission’s Historic Landmarks page to learn more.

And on Florida Memory, you can always find images of historic sites in Brevard County and across the state by searching the Florida Photographic Collection. You might also be interested in learning more about the Spanish Land Grants, one of which eventually passed into the Dummett family’s possession.