Florida’s habit of booming and busting stretches far back, much farther than the land boom of the 1920s many Floridians already know about. One of the most controversial busts happened shortly after Florida became a U.S. territory.
No, there’s no typo in the title of today’s blog. For several decades, northern Florida was home to thousands of acres of tung trees. Tung nuts, the fruit of these trees, contain an oil that could be used in paints, varnishes, inks, and even some medicines. The tree was imported from China, where it had been grown commercially for centuries. After a period of trial and error, Florida growers were able to cultivate the trees and produce thousands of tons of tung nuts per year.
Every day, knowingly and more often unknowingly, we cross boundaries. We drive from one county into the next, we step across property lines, and we move in and out of the corporate limits of cities and towns. Visitors to Tallahassee’s recently renovated Cascades Park frequently cross a very important Florida boundary, now marked with an impressive new monument. It’s Florida’s own prime meridian, the initial point in the grid on which virtually all land surveying in the Sunshine State is based.
Initiating a system for identifying and selling land was a high priority for Florida’s earliest leaders. Settlers would be unlikely to take a chance establishing themselves in the new territory if there wasn’t a way to ensure the security of their title to the land they purchased. By the time Florida became a U.S. territory, the federal government already had a go-to method for measuring out new land. Called the Public Land Survey System, it called for the new territory to be divided into six-mile squares called townships, which were each further divided into 36 smaller one-mile squares called sections. Land grants for businesses, homesteaders, or government entities could then be sold off by the section or parts thereof.
The first step in laying out a township grid was to select a spot for it to start. When the order came down in 1824 for the surveying process to begin in Florida, the Surveyor General appointed for the territory, Robert Butler, had not yet arrived. Furthermore, territorial governor William Pope Duval was away from Tallahassee in conference with local Native Americans. Territorial Secretary George Walton, then, had the honor of selecting the location. How he made his selection is not precisely known, although some interesting stories have emerged over time. Probably the most popular version holds that while transporting a stone monument to the designated site it fell off its wagon about 200 yards short of its destination. Because of its immense weight, the legend explains, the stone was too heavy to put back onto the wagon, and consequently it was left where it fell and that became the point of beginning for Florida’s township grid. The story has a nice ring to it, but evidence suggests that the point was originally marked with a wooden stake, not a stone.
After the original point was established, surveyors began the lengthy process of establishing a north-south meridian and an east-west base line, dividing the territory into quadrants. The southeast quadrant contains the vast majority of Florida’s territory, as it includes the entire peninsula. As more townships were surveyed out in relation to these lines, the General Land Office began granting land to homesteaders and other buyers. The original point of beginning for the grid remained fairly obscure for the rest of the nineteenth century. In 1891, the City Commission of Tallahassee passed a resolution asking the General Land Office to establish a more elaborate monument marking the spot. The GLO gave orders for such a monument to be installed, and a local surveyor named John Cook identified a point on which to set it. This monument, however, for some reason appears never to have been placed. The one that existed before the Cascades Park renovation was erected by the Florida Legislature in 1925.
Today, Florida’s prime meridian is proudly displayed as a valuable historic site. Cascades Park was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1971, in part due to the presence of the prime meridian marker. When Cascades Park was renovated, the old 1925 concrete monument was removed and taken to the headquarters of the Florida Surveyors and Mappers Society in Tallahassee. The new monument, installed flush with the surrounding walking space, has been incorporated into an elaborate plaza that emphasizes the importance of the point for all of Florida.
The 1950s were in many ways a prosperous time for the United States. The population was booming, the national economy was on the upswing, and more consumers were gaining access to goods and services that enriched their families’ lives. Just under the surface, however, lay growing concerns about the possibility of nuclear war between the highly polarized eastern and western blocs in the Cold War. When the Soviet Union detonated its first atomic device in 1949, U.S. policymakers and concerned citizens alike pressed for more preparedness for a potential nuclear blast within U.S. territory. The national Office of Civilian (Civil) Defense in Washington took on the primary role in developing programs to educate the public about the potential nuclear threat and coordinate local, state, and national efforts to prepare for it. In Florida, state government was highly involved as well.
One of the main concerns was how to ensure the survival of the largest number of citizens possible during the actual nuclear attack. Although the images and reports coming from witnesses to the earlier Hiroshima and Nagasaki atomic bomb sites were less than reassuring, scientists and officials held out hope that an atomic blast was survivable if citizens were properly prepared and adequate fallout shelters were available. Consequently, civil defense agencies at the local, state, and national level began identifying existing structures that could be designated as fallout shelters, and planned for more to be built. Private citizens also began building fallout shelters of their own. An entire industry developed around providing consumers with the materials necessary to construct and supply these structures.
Aside from sheltering the population, governments also had to think about maintaining order during a disaster. In the event of a nuclear attack, state officials would need to be able to communicate with law enforcement and local governments across the state to coordinate their efforts once the attack was over. To ensure that the state government would remain functional during a nuclear emergency, Florida’s civil defense authorities established fallout shelters under both the governor’s mansion and the capitol building, complete with supplies of drinking water, food, and other necessities.
Some shelters, such as this one planned for the Collins Building on Gaines Street in Tallahassee, never made it past the blueprint stage.
Thankfully, aside from a few drills and the drama of the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962, these shelters were never needed for their intended purpose. Many were later remodeled for storage or other purposes. A few still remain, however, and they remind us of how seriously the danger of nuclear war commanded the attention of Floridians living during the Cold War.
Do you know of a former fallout shelter still in existence somewhere in Florida? Did you ever participate in a drill that involved going into one of these shelters? Tell us about your experience by leaving a comment.
With its candy-striped awnings and ornate art glass dome, Florida’s old capitol is an architectural reflection of a bygone era, as well as an excellent example of a grassroots historic preservation effort. For over a century, the building served elements of all three branches of government. Over time, however, Florida outgrew its capitol, and in 1977 a new twenty-two story building was erected just behind it. The old capitol building was first slated for demolition, but when Tallahassee locals discovered the state’s intent to raze one of the oldest landmarks in the city, the Historic Tallahassee Preservation Board quickly mobilized a resistance, urging Floridians to preserve their history and “Save the Capitol!”
Perhaps some 1970s legislators were blind to the important symbol of a democratic state government, but from 1839 until 1977, the old capitol bore witness to numerous important milestones in Florida’s history. Two years after establishing Tallahassee as the capital of the sparsely populated Florida territory in 1824, three log cabins were built for conducting government business. But by the following decade, the territory seemed destined for statehood, and Governor Richard Keith Call asked the legislature for a larger space in 1839. The new brick and mortar statehouse proved a worthwhile investment when it was completed in 1845. In that same year, Florida became the twenty-seventh state to join the Union and first elected governor, William Dunn Moseley, was sworn into office beneath the new capitol’s east portico, commencing the state’s history.
In an effort to accommodate a growing state government, Florida’s capitol underwent a series of structural changes. However, its current appearance was restored to honor the 1902 work of Frank Pierce Milburn, who added a stately copper dome.
Further renovations occurred in 1923, 1936, and 1947. Despite physical alterations, the capitol remained a firm symbol of democracy as Florida’s political landscape continued to evolve into the twentieth century.
However, by the early 1970s it was clear that Florida government had outgrown its Tallahassee headquarters. Thus, the 1972 Legislature appropriated funds for a new, mammoth capitol complex, intending to destroy the old capitol after finishing the project. When it finally opened in 1977, a faction of politicians, including Governor Reubin Askew and House Speaker Donald Tucker, remained in favor of the original demolition plan, but an unexpected backlash would challenge the proposed action.
Nancy Dobson, a historian and Director of the Historic Tallahassee Preservation Board, spearheaded the opposition, enlisting the support of Secretary of State Bruce Smathers. Soon, legislators, academics, and the interested public began expressing their indignation over the idea of eliminating such a significant historical landmark. “If the political powers within the state decide to destroy the building in which they themselves have a sentimental and historical involvement, what will be their attitude toward other preservation efforts in the state with which they may have little or no personal relationship?” Dobson questioned.
Like many other historic preservation campaigns, the race to save the Capitol was led primarily by female activists. Their work culminated in an event orchestrated by Mrs. Bruce Smathers. On March 30, 1978 “Save the Capitol Night,” hosted guests at the site for music, tours, and an opportunity to sign a petition in favor of preservation. Kicking off the festivities, a local folk band performed on the steps, encouraging audiences to “save that grand old southern lady on the hill.” Ultimately, the campaign was a success, and the old capitol, restored to its 1902 appearance, opened as a public museum in 1982.
On March 4, 1824, Governor William P. Duval designated Tallahassee as the capital of the Florida territory.
The map above, published by Norris, Wellge & Company in 1885, provides a bird’s-eye view of the city fifty years after its designation as capital of the Florida territory. According to a census taken in 1825, 996 peopled lived in Leon County. The city’s population at that time probably did not exceed 200.
By 1890, Leon County’s population reached nearly 18,000, while the city limits contained about 2,200 residents. Like many other communities in the late 19th century South, the majority of Tallahassee’s population lived in the rural areas surrounding the city.
In 2017, the city of Tallahassee is home to roughly 190,000 people, with a metropolitan area population of about 378,000.
The African-American photo identification event, held yesterday at the State Archives, was a great success. Several folks from the community helped us identify images of African-American life in Tallahassee from the 1950s and 1960s. Special thanks to Althemese Barnes and the John G. Riley House and Museum for helping to organize this important event!
Over one hundred images were identified. For example, we learned that future NFL star and Chicago Bears legend Willie “The Wisp” Galimore (far right) appears in this photo along with three still unidentified Florida A&M football players.
… And this photograph of Griffin Junior High School beauty queens, including Althemese Barnes (passenger seat), Founding Executive Director at the John G. Riley House & Museum.
In commemoration of Black History Month, this series of blog posts highlights African-American history in Florida.
On February 13, 1960, Patricia Stephens (later Due) and other local CORE members held the first of several sit-ins at department store lunch counters in downtown Tallahassee.
On February 20, students from Florida A&M University (FAMU) and Florida State University (FSU) held another, larger sit-in at the Woolworth’s lunch counter in downtown Tallahassee. When they refused to leave, 11 were arrested and charged with “disturbing the peace by engaging in riotous conduct and assembly to the disturbance of the public tranquility.” Several of the students chose “jail over bail” and remained in police custody while their story circulated around the country and garnered additional support for the movement.
In the months and years that followed, additional demonstrations and picketing took place at downtown stores and theaters in Tallahassee and elsewhere in Florida. The participants in these events were the “Foot Soldiers for Change” who worked tirelessly to defeat segregation in the United States.
To learn more, see Glenda Alice Rabby, The Pain and the Promise: The Struggle for Civil Rights in Tallahassee, Florida (University of Georgia Press, 1999).
Stop by the lobby of the R.A. Gray Building (500 South Bronough Street) in Tallahassee during the month of February to see our photographic exhibit: “Images of the Civil Rights Movement in Tallahassee, 1956-1963.”
Presented in recognition of Black History Month, and in commemoration of the 50th anniversary of the Civil Rights Act, the images featured in the exhibit honor only a few of the many events and individuals critical to the Civil Rights Movement in Tallahassee.
The above photograph shows the first of several sit-ins held at department stores in downtown Tallahassee. Seated and wearing dark glasses is prominent activist and local Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) organizer Patricia Stephens (later Due).
The above photograph was taken on the day Tallahassee Police arrested 260 FAMU students for protesting in front of the segregated Florida Theater.
This series highlights antebellum cases from the files of the Florida Supreme Court and its predecessor, the Florida Territorial Court of Appeals.
In 1850, the Florida Supreme Court considered the case City of Tallahassee v. Justus R. Fortune. The case came to the state’s highest court on appeal from Leon County. It centered on the responsibility of an incorporated body, in this case the City of Tallahassee, for maintaining a public road within its boundaries.
Justus R. Fortune was a resident of Tallahassee. According to the case file, he operated a tin shop along a city-maintained road and owned at least one horse. On October 3, 1848, Fortune lent his horse to George W. Hutchins, who borrowed the animal for an unspecified purpose.
When Hutchins finished his business and returned the horse, he hitched it to a post near Fortune’s tin shop in the customary fashion. At some point, the horse broke loose from the hitching post and escaped. A thorough search of the surrounding area failed to recover the animal.
The next day, Fortune discovered the horse, badly injured, at the bottom of a ditch that crossed the city road adjacent to his property. The horse later died. He blamed the City of Tallahassee for failing to maintain the regularly-traveled public thoroughfare, as evidenced by the “nuisance” ditch, which had resulted in the death of his horse. Fortune sought to recover $125 from the city as compensation for his loss.
Fortune’s case against the city rested on language contained within Tallahassee’s Act of Incorporation. According to the Act, the city had both the power and the responsibility to “prevent and remove nuisances” within its corporate limits. In this case, the section of road in question existed firmly within city limits, and therefore, Tallahassee officials had the responsibility to provide for its maintenance.
Fortune’s legal representation cited various U.S. court cases from other states and English Common Law as precedent for upholding the principal that the City of Tallahassee bore responsibility for maintaining the road and answering for accidents such as that which befell Fortune’s horse. The court agreed: “…that the City of Tallahassee was guilty of a nonfeasance in permitting the nuisance mentioned…to remain…”
The only brief point of contention was whether Fortune had taken all necessary and deliberate care to protect his property. Could he be to blame for not better securing his horse? Whether Hutchins could be charged with negligence did not become an issue.
The court found that: “…if a person should go headlong with his beast upon a nuisance, which (with ordinary care) he might have avoided, he ought not to have damages for his loss in consequence of his own recklessness.” The court determined that citizens daily hitched their horses and other animals throughout the town along public roads. Sometimes these animals escaped. But, these escapes were certainly accidental occurrences, instead of widespread negligence.
This case established important precedent in Florida law, following English Common Law and decisions made by courts in other states. Overtime, the responsibility (and liability) of incorporated settlements to maintain public property within their boundaries extended far beyond roads to include all types of infrastructure, and even persons employed by cities and towns on official business. Cases like Fortune form the legal basis for the rights of citizens to make cities and towns responsible for maintaining public works and other manifestations of taxpayer-funded infrastructure within corporate limits.