Some Trees Have Knees

If someone asked you to name something that lives for centuries, can grow over a hundred feet tall, and can have dozens of knees, what would you say it was? It might sound like some hideous creature, but most Floridians would know it’s actually the majestic bald cypress.

A cypress swamp in Palmdale (1961).

A cypress swamp in Palmdale (1961).

The bald cypress (Taxodium distichum) is a familiar sight near Florida’s many lakes, rivers, creeks, swamps, and springs. The trees generally take their time to grow, but that’s not really a problem for a cypress. They can live for hundreds of years. The Senator, a bald cypress that grew near Longwood in Seminole County until it was tragically burned in 2012, was estimated to be about 3,500 years old at the time of its death. (More on the Senator Tree here).

Tourists holding hands around the Senator Tree in Longwood (circa 1930).

Tourists holding hands around the Senator Tree in Longwood (circa 1930).

One of the bald cypress’ most unusual characteristics is its “knees.” The knees are conical growths protruding up from the root system that radiates out from the tree’s trunk. They often have a knobby, knee-like appearance at the top. Their function is unknown, although studies suggest they may help the cypress absorb oxygen and remain stable in loose wet soils.

Cypress trees and knees at Fisheating Creek in Glades County (circa 1980s).

Cypress trees and knees at Fisheating Creek in Glades County (circa 1980s).

Cypress root system, photographed in Collier County (1978).

Cypress root system, photographed in Collier County (1978).

Cypress wood has long been admired for its beautiful grain, durability, and the ease with which it can be shaped and cut for building purposes. In the early 20th century, logging companies bought up vast tracts of land and cut much of the bald cypress growing in Florida swamps. The hearts of these trees, some of which were likely approaching a millenium in age, were sawed into lumber and marketed as “tidewater cypress.” The cypress industry is still in business, although the supply of available trees has dwindled considerably. Many cypress stands are now part of publicly owned protected wetlands.

Men sitting on a particularly large cypress log transported by train to the Burton-Swartz Lumber Company mill in Perry (1926).

Men sitting on a particularly large cypress log transported by train to the Burton-Swartz Lumber Company mill in Perry (1926).

As for the knees, they too have been a prized commodity. Their distinctive shape, natural broad base, and easy carvability make them perfect for creating figurines, birdhouses, and other small knick-knacks. Tom Gaskins of Palmdale, Florida made a career out of carving and shaping cypress knees for sale. He developed a Cypress Kneeland museum in Palmdale, featuring a collection of carved, peeled, and otherwise altered knees, plus a catwalk zig-zagging through an actual cypress swamp.

Along the path, visitors could see some of Gaskins’ experimental methods for shaping the knees as they grew. At various times, he tried flattening the knees with weights and carving designs into them so that the wooden flesh of the knees would grow around the cuts. Gaskins passed away in 1998, and the Cypress Kneeland Museum closed in 2000.

Tom Gaskins, artist and owner of the Cypress Kneeland attraction in Palmdale (1987).

Tom Gaskins, artist and owner of the Cypress Kneeland attraction in Palmdale (1987).

One of Tom Gaskins' creations (1987).

One of Tom Gaskins’ creations (1987).

Cypress trees and their unusual knees are just one of the features that make Florida a unique environment and all the more interesting. Which of Florida’s distinctive characteristics is your favorite? Share this post on social media or leave a comment below and get the conversation started!

Cypress sentinels watch over Lake Eloise in Polk County at sunset (1980).

Cypress sentinels watch over Lake Eloise in Polk County at sunset (1980).

Aunt Aggie’s Unusual Garden

In the early 20th century, visitors to Lake City in Columbia County were often encouraged to visit the local gardens owned by an African-American woman known as “Aunt Aggie.” The plants were nice enough: calycanthus, oleander, crepe myrtle, spirea, wild azaleas, and at least eight varieties of roses. But that’s not what made the garden unique.

Aunt Aggie's

Aunt Aggie’s “Bone Yard” garden in Lake City (circa 1910).

What made Aunt Aggie’s garden such a popular place to visit were the thousands of creatively arranged animal bones that decorated the space.  For years, Aggie Jones and her husband Jenkins collected the bones of various animals, allowed them to dry and bleach out in the sun, and then arranged them into trellises, gateways, arches, flower bed borders, and other structures. Skulls topped many of these unusual features.

Agnes Jones, also known as

Agnes Jones, also known as “Aunt Aggie,” in her unusual bone-decorated garden in Lake City (circa 1908).

Aggie and Jenkins Jones had both been born into slavery. Aggie came to Florida in 1844 with her owner, Elijah Mattox, who built a plantation near present-day Rose Creek in Columbia County. After Aggie was emancipated following the end of the Civil War, she continued to work for the Mattox family until she moved to Lake City. She bought property from one of her employers, Louise Cathey, in Lake City in 1883. It was on this property that Aunt Aggie began constructing her gardens.

So why the bones? There’s no clear answer, really. Bone meal is an excellent fertilizer; maybe this was part of Aggie’s motivation. Maybe it was just a bit of creative flair. At any rate, the “bone garden” became a popular tourist spot for travelers passing through Lake City by railroad or automobile. A pamphlet describing the garden says it was also a popular “lovers’ retreat.” Visitors would sometimes write their names and addresses on the bones – perhaps one of Florida’s most unusual guest books. Plants and fresh vegetables were almost always available for sale.

Aunt Aggie with a visitor in her garden (circa 1915).

Aunt Aggie with a visitor in her garden (circa 1915).

Time changes all things, and with Aunt Aggie’s garden it was no different. Aggie Jones died in 1918, and her garden and home were subsequently demolished to make way for a school. All that remains now are a handful of postcards and photographs, plus a few recollections written down by various visitors to Aunt Aggie’s mysterious creation.

What is the most unusual tourist attraction you’ve ever seen? Let us know by commenting below, or commenting on our Facebook page!

 

A Tribute to Lost Love

It’s getting close to Valentine’s Day, and thoughts of love are in the air here at the State Library and Archives. As a tribute to Valentine’s Day, we’ve searched our collections and found several stories from across Florida history that demonstrate the power of love and the special memories it creates. Today, we look at Coral Castle, an impressive but unusual structure in Miami-Dade County made entirely of enormous blocks of coral rock. The story of how one man single-handedly engineered this massive undertaking is perhaps one of saddest yet most remarkable tales of unrequited love in Florida’s history.

A postcard depicting Coral Castle in Homestead (circa 1950s).

A postcard depicting Coral Castle in Homestead (circa 1950s).

It all began in 1913 when a man named Edward Leedskalnin of the European country of Latvia was jilted by his betrothed, generally thought to be the beautiful 16-year-old Agnes Skuvst. The day before their wedding, Scuvst called off the engagement, saying the ten-year age difference between her and Leedskalnin made him too old for her.

Edward was heartbroken. He left Latvia, never to return, and sailed to Canada. He traveled around North America for several years before finally arriving in Florida around 1918. He purchased an acre of land in Florida City and began carving large pieces of stone furniture out of chunks of coral. He later explained to visitors that he hoped Agnes, who he referred to as “Sweet Sixteen,” would someday come to Florida to join him and make use of these pieces.

Ed Leedskalnin sitting in one of his carved coral chairs at Coral Castle, then called Rock Gate Park (between 1923 and 1936).

Ed Leedskalnin sitting in one of his carved coral chairs at Coral Castle, then called Rock Gate Park (between 1923 and 1936).

In 1936, as more people began moving to the Florida City area, Leedskalnin moved his creations to a 10-acre plot near Homestead. There, he arranged them within an enclosure of coral walls, creating themed “rooms” of solid stone furniture. There was a bedroom, a bathroom, a dining room, a children’s play area, and even a “throne room” with large solid-stone rocking chairs for himself, “Sweet Sixteen,” and a small child.

The mystery in all of this is that Leedskalnin managed to do all of the labor involved with creating these masterpieces by himself. The furniture bears no discernible tool marks, and the elements of the castle intended to move do so with very little effort. The solid-stone rocking chairs Leedskalnin created could be rocked even by a small child, and the 9-foot front gate could be opened with the push of a finger. The design of the chairs and other furniture provided adequate comfort, save for one chair, located behind the coral “thrones” he had created for himself and his lost love. Leedskalnin liked to joke that this chair was reserved for the mother-in-law he never had.

A young visitor at Coral Castle in Homestead (1963).

A young visitor at Coral Castle in Homestead (1963).

Scientists and engineers have studied the designs closely, even using computers, but they cannot account for how Leedskalnin did it. Nothing in the designs is impossible, per se, just extremely precise. And let’s not forget that these pieces of furniture were made from blocks of solid rock, some of which weighed as much as half a ton apiece. When Leedskalnin was in the process of building or moving the pieces, he insisted on being completely alone. When asked about his methods, Leedskalnin would often crypitcally reply either that he understood the “secret of the Pyramids,” or that to move large stone was easy if one only knew how.

For years, Edward Leedskalnin personally managed his creation as a tourist attraction called Rock Gate Park, charging ten cents a head for admission. In 1951, he died without leaving a will, whereupon the property fell to a nephew from Michigan named Harry. The property changed hands several more times over the years, acquiring the catchy name “Coral Castle.” It was added to the national Register of Historic Places in 1984.

Front of a brochure for Coral Castle - part of the State Library's Florida Ephemera Collection (circa 1960s).

Front of a brochure for Coral Castle – part of the State Library’s Florida Ephemera Collection (circa 1960s).

In 1983, the manager of Coral Castle told a reporter he had learned that Leedskalnin’s “Sweet Sixteen” was alive and knew about the massive stone monument built in her honor. To his knowledge, however, she had never seen it. So far as we know, she and Leedskalnin never communicated. Clearly, however, the heartbroken Edward got his point across. His undying (if unrequited) love for his “Sweet Sixteen” is to this day still embodied in the massive stone magnificence of his creations.

The Lewis Plantation

With summer on the way and the school year coming to a close for many districts, Floridians can expect an uptick in the number of tourists coming into the state to enjoy its many natural and man-made attractions. Over the years, Florida has been home to a wide variety of tourist attractions, some beautiful, some exotic, and some that would be quite shocking if they were around today.

The front gate of the Lewis Plantation (1930s).

The front gate of the Lewis Plantation (1930s).

The Lewis Plantation, a tourist stop just south of Brooksville on U.S. 41 in Hernando County, falls squarely into the last category. After operating for a number of years merely as one of Florida’s many turpentine distilleries, its owner, Pearce Lewis, hit upon a scheme in the 1930s to tap into the booming tourist industry. After making a few adjustments to the buildings and adding a few vintage objects, Lewis rebranded the distillery as an “authentic” antebellum plantation, and invited visitors to come see what life had been like in the South before slavery was abolished. So far, this may not sound too different from most other historic plantation sites and museums, but with the Lewis Plantation there was a twist. Because Lewis already had dozens of workers, mostly African-American, operating the turpentine distillery on the site, he decided to incorporate them into the tourist attraction, so that his employees doubled as reenactors of antebellum slavery.

The Lewis Plantation turpentine still near Brooksville (circa 1930s).

The Lewis Plantation turpentine still near Brooksville (circa 1930s).

For a nominal fee (fifteen cents in the early days) visitors to the Lewis Plantation could take a tour of the grounds in a mule-drawn wagon. Along the way, they could see the actual homes where the African-American employees lived, which were mostly without electricity or running water. Newspaper accounts of the tour commented cheerily on the quaintness of these scenes, noting how closely they resembled what life must have looked like in the slave quarters of the South’s antebellum plantations. Although it was something of an anachronism, the tour usually included a trip to the distillery, where the people who lived in these ramshackle houses carried out the tedious process of extracting turpentine from the sap of nearby stands of pine trees.

Employees of the Lewis Plantation on the porch of a home on the grounds (circa 1940s).

Employees of the Lewis Plantation on the porch of a home on the grounds (circa 1940s).

Along the way, the tour guide would often stop and have one of the African-American employees tell a story to the visitors. “Uncle Doug” Ambrose, born into slavery in 1860 just before the outbreak of the Civil War, was one of the more popular storytellers, and was at one time featured in the popular Ripley’s “Believe It or Not” column. The entertainment also sometimes included singing from some of the employees, some of whom were organized into a “harmony quartet.”

“Uncle Doug” Ambrose, born into slavery just before the Civil War, at the Lewis Plantation (circa 1940s).

The Lewis Plantation had other amenities, including overnight lodging and a restaurant called “The Plantation Kitchen.” Blanche, an African-American woman who did the cooking during most of the attraction’s lifetime, was described in advertisements as being the “personality” of the kitchen, dressed as a typical antebellum African-American “mammy.” In the souvenir shop nearby, visitors could purchase tradition plantation handicrafts, as well as “pine perfume” and miniature barrels of rosin, a by-product of the turpentine distillation process.

“The Plantation Kitchen,” the restaurant of the Lewis Plantation (circa 1930s).

Blanche, the cook at

Blanche, the cook at “The Plantation Kitchen,” the restaurant located at the Lewis Plantation. Blanche is standing outside the main building that housed the restaurant and gift shop (circa 1940s).

Although the Lewis Plantation did very well for a number of years, its days were numbered as the tides of history continued to shift. The labor-intensive process of extracting turpentine from pine sap gave way to other methods, and the idea of reenacting slavery as a tourist attraction was increasingly disturbing to Floridians and visitors alike. By the 1960s, the Lewis Plantation had faded away. Some of the buildings still remain at the old site, although they are overgrown with weeds. Only a handful of postcards, placards, and photographs remain to remind us of the vibrant if somewhat unusual institution that once operated there.

Did you ever visit the Lewis Plantation? How about another “unusual” roadside tourist attraction in Florida? If so, we want to hear about it. Leave a comment, or email us your story.