The Underground History of Florida Caverns State Park

For the past 74 years, the interpretive cave tours available at the Florida Caverns State Park have made the site one of the Sunshine State’s most unique attractions. Situated about one hour west of Tallahassee in Marianna near the Chipola River, the shimmering limestone caverns of northwest Florida regularly dazzle visitors. Aside from their obvious physical allure, the history of the Florida Caverns further illuminates the evolving social, economic, and environmental landscape of the state. The Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) first developed the caves into a public tourist destination in the late 1930s, but humans have interacted with some of the caverns for much longer. Since officially opening to the public in 1942, the Florida Park Service has dutifully maintained the caverns. As a result of these conservation efforts, generations of spelunkers, hikers, and sightseers have relished the opportunity to  explore the curiosities of Florida’s underground world.

Colored lights give added dimension to the cave formations at Florida Caverns State Park, 2016.

Colored lights give added dimension to the cave formations in the “Cathedral Room” at Florida Caverns State Park, 2016.

The splendid mineral silhouettes inside the Florida Caverns did not form over a matter of years, decades, or even centuries. Rather, they are the result of 38 million years of falling sea-levels, which left previously submerged shells, coral, and sediment in the open air to harden into limestone. For the next several hundred thousand years, droplets of acidic rainwater passed through the ceiling of the porous limestone cave, and over time minerals bunched into icicle-like formations called stalactites. As the stalactites hung from the cavern’s top, water slowly trickled down to create mineral spires, known as stalagmites, on the cavern floor. In many rooms and hallways, the stalactites and stalagmites have joined to form full columns. Glistening draperies, soda straws, and ribbons complement the proliferation of stalactites and stalagmites, creating a distinct living environment for the cave-dwelling flora and fauna.

View of stalactites and stalagmites inside the Florida Caverns. The lowest point in the caverns is 65 feet below sea level, while the highest point is 125 feet above sea level. The temperature in the caverns hovers around 65 degrees at all times, regardless of seasonal fluctuations. Blind salamanders, crayfish, and gray bats live among the underground limestone formations.

View of stalactites and stalagmites inside the Florida Caverns. The lowest point in the caverns is 65 feet below sea level, while the highest point is 125 feet above sea level. The temperature in the caverns hovers around 65 degrees Fahrenheit at all times, regardless of seasonal fluctuations. Blind salamanders, crayfish, and gray bats live among the underground limestone formations.

Archaeological discoveries of pottery sherds and mammoth footprints in several of the caverns predate European settlement in North America. But the site factors into Florida’s more recent history, too. In 1674, for example, Spanish missionary Friar Barreda allegedly delivered a Christian sermon amid the backdrop of the underground wonderland. Prevailing folklore also suggests a group of Seminoles trying to escape Andrew Jackson’s Indian removal expeditions of the early 19th century took refuge in the caverns. Further, the secluded underground openings have reportedly sheltered outlaws, runaways, and mischievous teenagers for centuries.

Program from services commemorating the 274th anniversary of the first Christian services held at the Florida Caverns in Marianna. Florida Park Service Public Relations Files (S. 1951), Folder 62, State Archives of Florida.

Program from services commemorating the 274th anniversary of the first Christian services held at the Florida Caverns in Marianna, 1947. Florida Park Service public relations and historical files (S. 1951), Box 1, State Archives of Florida.

The Florida Caverns remained one of the state’s best kept secrets until the 1930s, when the economic downturn of the Great Depression precipitated the expansion and creation of state and national parks. After President Franklin D. Roosevelt took office in 1933, his administration proposed a “new deal” for United States economy, enacting a series of sweeping measures intended to relieve the financial strain of some 12 million jobless Americans, or nearly a quarter of the workforce. One of those programs was the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC). Nicknamed “Roosevelt’s Tree Army,” the CCC, which fell under the operation of the Florida Board of Forestry, was designed to conduct conservation work, including state park construction, while simultaneously providing employment, education, and training to enrollees. State forest officials spied commercial potential in expanding the state park system, and would ultimately utilize federally funded CCC labor to realize that vision. “They [tourists] soon tire of the races, nightclubs, and man-made recreation. They sit in the lobbies of our hotels wondering what to do with themselves. If a park system were shown on the highway maps and their wonders described in the literature of a state department, the tourists would flock to parks by the thousands,” wrote forester Harry Lee Baker to the Florida State Planning Board in 1934. One year later, the Florida Legislature created the Florida Park Service (FPS), an agency overseen by the Florida Board of Forestry. The FPS would operate in tandem with both the National Park Service and the Internal Improvement Fund. By the close of 1935, seven of Florida’s original state parks came under the control of the FPS, including the Florida Caverns.

CCC workers construct mess hall at the Oleno forestry training camp in Columbia County, Florida, 1935. With the establishment of the Florida Park Service, thousands of unemployed Floridians were put to work by the CCC to develop state parks for public use.

CCC workers construct mess hall at the Oleno forestry training camp in Columbia County, Florida, 1935. With the establishment of the Florida Park Service, the CCC put thousands  of unemployed Floridians to work developing state parks for public use.

In order to make the newly discovered series of caves accessible to tourists, CCC enrollees were paid approximately one dollar per day to work on the project from 1938 to 1942.  Underground, the “gopher gang” removed hundreds of tons of soil and rock to create usable pathways and clearings large enough for people to walk through, while also installing a light and trail system to guide visitors through the caves. Above ground, CCC workers helped construct a visitor center, fish hatchery, and nine-hole golf course. With the onset of America’s involvement in World War II, the federal government discontinued the CCC, and work on the caverns project abruptly stopped. In 1942, the 1,300 acre Florida Caverns State Park officially debuted to the public, charging 72 cents for general admission.

Golfers in play on the Florida Caverns Golf Course, 1947.

Golfers play on the Florida Caverns Golf Course, 1947.

Thousands of visitors descended into the bowels of the “underground wonderland” during its first years of operation. The caves soon emerged as a popular Sunshine State tourist destination during and after WWII. As Florida’s total population more than doubled between 1940 to 1960, the FPS proposed several improvements and expansions to the state park to accommodate more visitors. No expansion issue was more sensitive, however, than the subject of segregated park restrooms for blacks and whites. A reflection of the separate and unequal Jim Crow South, the FPS designed the state parks system in the 1930s with only whites in mind–admission fares necessarily excluded African-Americans.  However, the booming wartime economy of the early 1940s opened more economic opportunity to black Floridians, and in turn, lined their pockets with more disposable income to spend on recreation. Florida Caverns Superintendent Clarence Simpson observed the changing demographic of visitors and agreed that “they [African-Americans] should be given the same service that we accord to anyone else,” but warned that it would be “a grave mistake [to] allow them to use the same rest room.” Segregated bathroom facilities were eventually built for black patrons, and segregation persisted at all of Florida’s state parks until the Civil Rights Act of 1964 effectively outlawed the practice.

Letter dated May 25, 1943 from Superintendent of Florida Caverns, J. Clarence Simpson to FPS Director Lewis Scoggin regarding segregated bathroom facilities. Florida State Parks project files (S. 1270), Box 1, State Archives of Florida.

Letter dated May 25, 1943 from Superintendent of Florida Caverns J. Clarence Simpson to FPS Director Lewis Scoggin regarding segregated bathroom facilities. Florida State Parks project files (S. 1270), Box 1, State Archives of Florida.

In addition to offering integrated bathrooms and impressive guided cave tours, by the mid-1960s, Florida Caverns State Park also boasted new campgrounds, a swimming hole, expanded hiking and biking trails, and a bath house.

Florida Caverns State Park promotion brochure, ca. 1950. State Library of Florida vertical file collection.

A young visitor is pictured standing inside the “Cathedral Room” on the cover of a Florida Caverns State Park promotional brochure, ca. 1950. State Library of Florida vertical file collection.

While perhaps not as well-known as Virginia’s Lurary Caverns or Kentucky’s Mammoth Cave, the eerie calm of the luminescent mineral contours at Florida Caverns State Park consistently draws droves of new and returning visitors each year. The next time you find yourself driving on the historic Highway 90 corridor in northwestern Florida, follow the signs for the caverns at Marianna, and uncover some of Florida’s underground history.

Entrance to Florida Caverns State Park in Marianna, c. 1950.

Entrance to Florida Caverns State Park in Marianna, c. 1950.

Interested in planning a trip to Florida Caverns State Park? Visit the Florida State Parks website for more information.

 

 

 

 

The 1964-1965 New York World’s Fair: Florida on Display

Summertime is well and truly underway here in Florida, and people from all over the world are coming to enjoy what our state has to offer.  In the summers of 1964 and 1965, however, Florida came to them as part of the World’s Fair, held in New York City’s Flushing Meadows Park.

Presided over by the iconic Unisphere, the fair ran for more than a year, from April 1964 to October 1965, with a break for the New York winter.  With the theme “Peace Through Understanding,” the fair was a showcase of the latest and greatest; from cutting edge technology to works of art from all over the world.  Dozens of other countries had a presence, along with many US states and several prominent corporations.  Visitors could marvel at Bell Laboratories’ video phone technology, admire the Ford Mustang – unveiled to the world for the first time at the fair – or sample any number of foreign cuisines.

Florida’s pavilion, rather than looking forward to the wonders of a utopian future, was an exhibition of the progress being made and the pleasures to be had in Florida; potentially on the very same day.  Indeed, visitors could even book a flight south right in the pavilion.  As one promotional video put it, Florida’s pavilion had “pretty girls, orange juice, and jumping porpoises.” In addition, the exhibit boasted shops, works by Floridian artists, and other attractions; all topped by the enormous illuminated orange of the Citrus Tower.

Porpoises performing for a happy audience, the main Florida pavilion is visible in the background.

Porpoises performing for a happy audience, the main Florida pavilion is visible in the background.

Among the attractions was a water-ski show, offered free to the public courtesy of Florida. There were regular showings hosted every day in a large amphitheater adjacent to the pavilion proper.

Among the attractions was a water-ski show, offered free to the public courtesy of Florida. There were regular showings hosted every day in a large amphitheater adjacent to the pavilion proper.

Miss Florida 1965 Carol Blum demonstrates her water skiing ability in the Florida aquadrome.

Miss Florida 1965 Carol Blum demonstrates her water skiing ability in the Florida aquadrome.

There were numerous guest acts, including performances by several Florida high school bands.  Also appearing was a group of Seminole alligator wrestlers who, according to Fair correspondence, “preferred to wrestle very large alligators” and were willing to bring their own to accommodate.  Accounting for all the various exhibits, demonstrations, and shows, Florida’s pavilion was among the largest at the fair.

Florida’s exhibit eventually ranked as the seventh most popular out of more than 150 at the fair by its end. The Florida pavilion only placed behind the likes of General Motors or the Vatican, who had Michelangelo’s Pietà brought to the fair at great expense.  The famous sculpture weighed some twenty thousand pounds including its marble base.  All told, close to fourteen and a half million fairgoers visited the Florida pavilion in the 1964 and 1965 World’s Fair seasons.  Were you or someone you know one of them?  Let us know in a comment!

An International Attraction

It takes about 18 hours and 7,600 miles to fly from Orlando to Beijing. That’s a long haul for most Floridians, but did you know that for ten short years you could go to China without leaving Florida?

Park in Shenzhen, China after which Splendid China in Florida was modeled (2011). Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

Park in Shenzhen, China after which Splendid China in Florida was modeled (2011). Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

Splendid China Florida was a tourist attraction in Citrus Ridge, located just southwest of Orlando near the meeting point of Lake, Orange, Osceola, and Polk counties. The park offered a miniaturized Forbidden City, dances, traditional acrobatics, and other demonstrations of Chinese culture. It was modeled after a park of the same name in Shenzhen, China, across the border from Hong Kong. The owners hoped to promote Chinese culture overseas and tourism to China itself.

Acrobats from Splendid China performing at the Florida Folk Festival (1999).

Acrobats from Splendid China performing at the Florida Folk Festival (1999).

Dragon dance performance at Splendid China theme park (1998).

Dragon dance performance at Splendid China theme park (1998).

Unfortunately, the park never took off. It could not compete with the bigger, flashier theme parks drawing tourists from around the world. The owners tried several strategies to capture a portion of Central Florida’s vast tourist market, but the effort ultimately failed.

After a decade of lackluster attendance, the attraction finally closed its doors in 2003. The structures and gardens remained standing for another ten years, although over time they began to take on the appearance of a Chinese ghost town in the middle of Florida. Skateboarders and thrill-seekers became the closed park’s most frequent visitors, along with photographers looking to document its unusual landscape. A quick Internet search will turn up hundreds of photographs of the crumbling Splendid China park, all poignant reminders of the life cycle experienced by so many of Florida’s tourist attractions over the years.

To learn more about the rise and fall of Splendid China, check out Wenxian Zhang’s 2006 article on the subject in the Florida Historical Quarterly. Also have a look at the State Library’s Tourism in Florida resource guide, which lists related books, journal articles, and digital collections.

Room and Board

During the 19th century, developers, railroad magnates, and other enterprising businessmen peppered Florida with hotels to house the state’s growing number of visitors. These establishments ranged from modest inns to palatial resorts built by the likes of Henry Flagler and Henry Plant. But where could you stay if you couldn’t afford a room in one of these hotels? Or, what if you were traveling for work and just needed a place to crash rather than to be entertained? The answer for many visitors was to stay in a boarding house.

A boarding house in Crescent City, Putnam County (circa 1870s).

A boarding house in Crescent City, Putnam County (circa 1870s).

Boarding houses were the go-to low-cost accommodations for locals and visitors traveling around Florida in the 1800s. They could be standalone businesses, or they might be combined with a post office, a general store, or some other business. Some Floridians even operated boarding houses out of extra rooms in their private homes.

North Miami Avenue in Miami (1896). The building second from the left contained a store owned by T.N. Gautier on the ground floor and a boarding house on the second floor run by Gautier's wife.

North Miami Avenue in Miami (1896). The building second from the left contained a store owned by T.N. Gautier on the ground floor and a boarding house on the second floor run by Gautier’s wife.

McCord family home in Tallahassee, circa 1910. The McCords took in boarders at this time.

McCord family home in Tallahassee, circa 1910. The McCords took in boarders at this time.

Boarding houses were advertised just as widely as hotels, but they had a few differences. The furnishings in the rooms were usually simpler, and there were generally fewer amenities and services. Proprietors often served meals family style, with boarders eating together at a single table rather than in their own private groups. That’s not to say the food was dull – far from it. While Florida’s boarding houses might not have been serving four-course meals with all the trimmings, guidebooks and advertisements reveal that the quality of the food was a critical component of a house’s reputation. Advertisements often referenced the house’s “excellent table,” or listed the fresh foods served daily.

Mrs. Crook's Boardinghouse in Winter Haven (1912).

Mrs. Crook’s Boardinghouse in Winter Haven (1912).

The trade-off for offering limited services, of course, was the lower price tag for a stay at the boarding house. At Fernandina in 1884, for example, a night at the Egmont Hotel cost $4, while a night at most of the town’s boarding houses was only $2. On top of that, many proprietors would cut boarders a deal if they committed to a week’s stay. A $2 difference may seem negligible today, but keep in mind we’re talking about 19th century dollars. Adjusted for inflation, that $2 jump in price for a night at the Egmont represents about a $50 price difference! No wonder so many folks were staying at Florida’s boarding houses when they traveled.

Advertisement for the Hernandez House in St. Augustine, printed on page 104 of H.D. Bicaise, A Guide to the Land of Flowers (Charleston: Parry, Cook & Co., 1878). A copy of this guidebook is available in the State Library's Florida Collection.

Advertisement for the Hernandez House in St. Augustine, printed on page 104 of H.D. Bicaise, A Guide to the Land of Flowers (Charleston: Parry, Cook & Co., 1878). A copy of this guidebook is available in the State Library’s Florida Collection.

Boarding houses remained popular into the 20th century, although new establishments eventually superseded them as the primary low-cost lodging options. Motels and campgrounds became especially popular with automobile owners, who were looking for cheap and convenient options along the roadways.

The Miller family of Toledo, Ohio at a tourist camp in Sarasota (1929).

The Miller family of Toledo, Ohio at a tourist camp in Sarasota (1929).

Do you know of any boarding houses that once existed in your community? When were they in operation? Get in the conversation by commenting below and sharing this post with your friends and family on Facebook and Twitter.

A State Park Under the Sea

One of the greatest strengths of Florida’s state park system is its diversity. Between the caves, springs, towering forests, picture-perfect beaches, and historic structures, there’s a park to suit almost every interest. Heck, Florida is even home to the nation’s first underwater state park, located down in the Florida Keys. Read more »

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!

 

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!

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.

 

It’s Better in the Daylight

It’s happening again. All over the United States, Americans are waking up groggy, mumbling curses at the inventors of Daylight Savings Time. Here at Florida Memory, our coping strategy has been to gulp an extra cup of coffee and think about all the reasons daylight is important to the Sunshine State. After all, Florida didn’t get that nickname for nothing!

Having an adequate daily dose of daylight was particularly critical to the Silver Springs Transportation Company, which operated river cruises between Ocala and Palatka in the early 20th century. One of the company’s most popular cruises was called the “daylight route,” so called because it could get passengers between Ocala and Palatka all before dark in a single day. The route included parts of the Silver, Ocklawaha, and St. Johns rivers.

Read more »

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.