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 “Shocking” Ponce de Leon Hotel

Some things never change, including the American taste for gadgetry and new technology. Today, we fiddle with tablets and powerful cell phones. Barely more than 100 years ago, electricity itself was the bauble of the day. As in our own era, businessmen of yesteryear used the latest technology to attract new customers, especially in the tourist industry. Henry Flagler’s Ponce de Leon Hotel in St. Augustine provides perhaps one of the most humorous examples of how people approach new innovations with a mixture of curiosity and uncertainty.

Ponce de Leon Hotel as seen from the nearby Alcazar Hotel in St. Augustine (circa 1910s).

Ponce de Leon Hotel as seen from the nearby Alcazar Hotel in St. Augustine (circa 1910s).

Flagler built the Ponce de Leon as part of a chain of hotels along his ever-growing Florida East Coast Railway, which was working its way down Florida’s Atlantic Coast. He hoped to induce the wealthy upper crust of northeastern tourists to come down and spend their winters in the mild splendor of the Sunshine State. To do this, the railway would have to be fast and efficient, and the hotels would have to be exquisite. Flagler commissioned New York architects John Carrere and Thomas Hastings to design a veritable palace for his guests to enjoy. The architects sketched out a grand building in the Spanish Renaissance style, and construction began on the morning of December 1, 1885.

Dining room at the Ponce de Leon Hotel in St. Augustine (1891).

Dining room at the Ponce de Leon Hotel in St. Augustine (1891).

The site of the hotel was in itself an innovation. The area had been a marshy waste before Flagler’s engineers began preparing the ground for the foundation. Some observers feared the great Henry Flagler was bound to make a fool of himself by choosing such difficult terrain. Historian Sidney Walter Martin has written that someone once asked Flagler point-blank why he chose the relatively low-lying St. Augustine as the site for his grand palatial hotel. Flagler reputedly replied with a story. There had once been a good, loyal church member, Flagler said, who lived a very sober, pious life, until one day he decided to go off on a drunken spree, and he behaved very badly. When the man’s pastor questioned him about his behavior, he replied, ‘I’ve been giving all my days to the Lord hitherto, and now I’m taking one for myself.’ Flagler explained that in building the Ponce de Leon Hotel in such an unusually difficult location, he was doing much the same.

Parlor room at the Ponce de Leon Hotel (1891).

Parlor room at the Ponce de Leon Hotel (1891).

And once it was finished, who could blame him? The Ponce de Leon was truly a Spanish palace, with courts, nooks for reading and repose, tropical gardens, fountains, towers – everything necessary to impress even the most expensive and luxurious tastes. The hotel opened on January 10, 1888, with a total of 450 sleeping apartments of varying sizes and designs.

View of a fountain through an arch at the Ponce de Leon Hotel in St. Augustine (1930).

View of a fountain through an arch at the Ponce de Leon Hotel in St. Augustine (1930).

Two innovations in the new hotel were of particular curiosity to Flagler’s first customers. Each room was equipped with steam heat, which to many seemed an odd fit for a Florida hotel. The system would not see a great deal of use, of course, but imagine the satisfaction of the guests on the days when it was needed! The other novelty was the presence of electrical lights in every room. Many of Flagler’s guests were not yet acquainted with the concept of having electrical lights in their personal space, let alone being the ones to operate the switches. At first the hotel was forced to hire extra staff to turn the lights off and on for its guests, because they were afraid of being shocked!

Interior view of the Ponce de Leon Hotel at St. Augustine (1959).

Interior view of the Ponce de Leon Hotel at St. Augustine (1959).

Over time, the mystique of electric-lit bedrooms faded, but the hotel itself continued to impress. The Ponce de Leon was one of the few great hotels of its kind to survive the Great Depression. During World War II, the grand building was used as a training center for the Coast Guard. In 1968, it became the center of the newly established Flagler College. It was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1975, and it became a U.S. National Historic Landmark in 2006.

What is your favorite place to visit on Florida’s Atlantic Coast? Fernandina? Miami Beach? Cape Canaveral? We’d like to know. Leave us a comment below or share your Atlantic Coast favorites on our Facebook page.

Postcard depicting Flagler College, formerly the Ponce de Leon Hotel (circa 1960s).

Postcard depicting Flagler College, formerly the Ponce de Leon Hotel (circa 1960s).

Dunlawton Sugar Plantation

Have you ever looked at a Florida landmark and thought about all the things it could tell you if it could speak? Some, admittedly, might have been far enough out of the way that they would have very little to say. Others, like the ruins of the Dunlawton Sugar Plantation near Port Orange in Volusia County, might be a little more chatty.

Ruins of the Dunlawton Sugar Plantation at Port Orange (circa 1920s).

Ruins of the Dunlawton Sugar Plantation at Port Orange (circa 1920s).

The Dunlawton Sugar Plantation and its mill have been around since the final years of Spain’s ownership of Florida. Local historians identify the mill’s original owner as Patrick Dean, who may have received the land as part of a grant from the Spanish Crown. Dean reputedly died during an Indian attack, whereupon his land passed to his sister Cecily, wife of local planter John Bunch. The Bunch family had also obtained land from the Spanish, and were prominent citizens in the area.

A map from the Spanish Land Grant documents of John Bunch, who acquired the Dunlawton mill and plantation after the death of its original owner (1818).

A map from the Spanish Land Grant documents of John Bunch, who acquired the Dunlawton mill and plantation after the death of its original owner (1818).

The land changed hands twice more, eventually entering the possession of Charles Lawton of South Carolina. Lawton named the plantation and mill “Dunlawton,” combining his mother’s maiden name with his own name. Lawton sold the property in 1832 to the Anderson family, who were operating the mill at the start of the Second Seminole War in 1835.

The mill was the scene of an early battle between the Florida militia and the Seminoles in January 1836. Major Benjamin Putnam of the Florida Volunteers led two militia companies to Dunlawton to recapture supplies that had been taken by Seminole raiders. The soldiers happened upon a couple of Seminoles, fired, and soon after found themselves under attack. During the course of the battle, about 120 Seminoles and escaped African-American slaves were involved. The militiamen had been young and inexperienced, and likely underestimated the strength of their adversaries. As Seminole War historian John K. Mahon explains, the Dunlawton skirmish “wakened many volunteers to the fact that they were playing with death.”

Excerpt of an 1836 map showing areas affected by the Second Seminole War. The Battle of Dunlawton is indicated with the note "Battle Jany 18."

Excerpt of an 1836 map showing areas affected by the Second Seminole War. The Battle of Dunlawton is indicated with the note “Battle Jany 18.”

The mill was partially destroyed, but it was rebuilt after the war by a John J. Marshall. The property changed hands several times in the ensuing years, and was used for varying purposes. During the Civil War, several of the kettles used for boiling cane juice were re-purposed by the Confederates for saltmaking. The buildings on the property also sheltered Confederate patrols when the weather became rough.

The Dunlawton property changed hands several more times before being purchased by J. Saxton Lloyd, who had the grounds landscaped and turned into a historic park. He retained the ruins of the sugar processing equipment and surrounded them with flowering shrubbery and other plants.

Postcard of Dunlawton Plantation with machinery and interpretive signage (circa 1940s).

Postcard of Dunlawton Plantation with machinery and interpretive signage (circa 1940s).

Dunlawton had one more major transition in its future. In 1952, J. Saxton Lloyd leased the Dunlawton Sugar Mill Gardens to Dr. Perry Sperber, who envisioned a whole new attraction to draw visitors to the property. He built a train that would carry tourists through the gardens past a series of life-size statues of dinosaurs and other prehistoric creatures. Sperber called the renovated park “Bongoland.” The dinosaurs were popular both as scenery and for photo opportunities!

Children perched atop a concrete Stegosaurus dinosaur at Bongoland (1959).

Children perched atop a concrete Stegosaurus dinosaur at Bongoland (1959).

J. Saxton Lloyd donated the mill ruins and the Dunlawton property to Volusia County in 1963. Since 1988, the gardens have been open to the public and maintained by a non-profit organization called the Botanical Gardens of Volusia, Inc.

Is there a building in your Florida community that has witnessed a lot of historic changes? Tell us about it by leaving a comment here or on our Facebook page. Also, search the Florida Photographic Collection to see if we have photos of it on Florida Memory!

It’ll Cure What Ails Ya!

These days, most of Florida’s visitors come because they want to relax, see some beautiful scenery, or just have fun. In the 19th and early 20th centuries, however, a number of tourists arrived with more pressing business. Many came not on a whim, but with a prescription. That’s right – mosquitoes, heat, and hurricanes notwithstanding, Florida was widely believed to be an excellent place for folks up north to recuperate from a wide range of medical problems.

A warm climate helped give Florida this reputation for healthfulness, but the state was much more than just a sunny spot at the southern tip of the country. It was also home to a number of mineral springs whose cold, clear, and often strongly scented waters were thought to have medicinal properties. As a result, part of the state’s fledgling tourist industry developed around providing facilities for enjoying these springs while living in the lap of luxury. Today we’ll take a look at three North Florida resorts that enjoyed high popularity in the heyday of the mineral spring cure.

Map showing the locations of several mineral spring resorts in North Florida.

Map showing the locations of several mineral spring resorts in North Florida.

Green Cove Springs

Green Cove Springs was one of the first mineral springs to catch on as a vacation destination for the wealthy but unwell. In 1853 a superintendent from a New York asylum for the mentally ill, Dr. Nathan Benedict, moved to Florida and established a hotel at nearby Magnolia Springs. The water emerging from underground at this location smelled strongly of sulfur, which had been infused into the water during its time beneath the surface. The odor might have been a bit strong, but Dr. Benedict advertised the springs as one of the healthiest places in Florida for invalids to regain their vitality.

Stereograph of the original hotel at Magnolia Springs, near Green Cove Springs (circa 1870s).

Stereograph of the original hotel at Magnolia Springs, near Green Cove Springs (circa 1870s).

The Civil War put a damper on Benedict’s business, and he decided to sell the place shortly after the war’s end. The new owners expanded the hotel in 1872 and began building cottages along the St. Johns River. Several more hotels, including the Union, St. Clair, and Clarendon hotels, opened to visitors. Guests at these resorts enjoyed fine dining and lavishly decorated rooms, in addition to the waters of the nearby springs. Brochures recommended taking the water by mouth and by bathing for “Neuralgia, Nervous Prostration, Rheumatism, Liver and Kidney Complaints.”

Bathing pool at Green Cove Springs (circa 1870s).

Bathing pool at Green Cove Springs (circa 1870s).

The Clarendon Hotel, Green Cove Springs (circa 1890s).

The Clarendon Hotel, Green Cove Springs (circa 1890s).

Panacea Mineral Springs

A similar enterprise emerged in the 1890s off to the west near the Ochlockonee River Bay. In 1895, a man named W.C. Tully founded a town called Panacea, named for the supposed curative powers of the small mineral springs located in the area. Tully built a post office and several cottages, and then a hotel.

Panacea Mineral Springs Hotel (circa 1929).

Panacea Mineral Springs Hotel (circa 1929).

While not as large or as prosperous as the resorts at Green Cove Springs, the mineral springs at Panacea had their share of visitors in the early 1900s. In 1901, local entrepreneurs completed a mule-drawn tram line to carry visitors between Sopchoppy and Panacea. The tram was crude and often jumped its tracks, but it remained in service until World War I.

Panacea-Sopchoppy tram car (circa 1900s).

Panacea-Sopchoppy tram car (circa 1900s).

The proprietors began bottling water from the springs and selling it locally and by mail order. One advertisement for Panacea Mineral Springs offered the water at 50 cents per 5-gallon bottle.

One of the springs at Panacea is channeled through a wooden stump to create a fountain (circa 1930).

One of the springs at Panacea is channeled through a wooden stump to create a fountain (circa 1930).

Hampton Springs

One of the longest-lasting mineral spring resorts was located at Hampton Springs in Taylor County, Florida. The property, once known as “Rocky Creek Mineral Springs,” was sold to the Hampton family in 1857, just as Taylor was emerging as an independent county. As with Green Cove Springs, the Civil War and the economic malaise of the ensuing years prevented any immediate development of the site. In 1900, however, the Hamptons formed a corporation with local shareholders, and by 1908 a hotel and bath house were in place.

The Live Oak, Perry & Gulf Railroad ran east and west near the hotel, but this did little to attract visitors from points farther north. J.W. Oglesby, a railroad magnate from Adel, Georgia, recognized the problem and offered to take on Hampton Springs as an investment. In 1915, he and the original shareholders reorganized the springs’ corporation, and Oglesby extended his South Georgia Railroad down into nearby Perry to facilitate better access to the hotel, which he also expanded. By 1920, the Hampton Springs Hotel was one of the finest hotels in the vicinity, with indoor baths, manicured lawns, a golf course, and elaborate facilities for enjoying the waters of the mineral spring.

Front of the Hampton Springs Hotel (circa 1916).

Front of the Hampton Springs Hotel (circa 1916).

As with the Panacea Mineral Springs, the Hampton Springs proprietors sold their water in bottles by mail order. An advertisement from the 1920s offered cases of 12 half-gallon bottles for six dollars, or 5-gallon demijohns for four dollars. Buyers who returned the empty bottles to the springs received a rebate.

An early bath house at Hampton Springs, built in 1906 (photo circa 1916).

An early bath house at Hampton Springs, built in 1906 (photo circa 1916).

Whereas a number of Florida’s mineral spring resorts had faded by the end of the 1920s, Hampton Springs survived until it burned in 1954. Part of its longevity rested on the owners’ willingness to change with the times. As medical experts began discarding “water cures” in favor of more modern methods and prescription drugs, mineral spring resorts as such were not nearly as popular. The facilities, however, were still as luxurious as ever. The trick was to renovate them into something people would want to use.

Toward this end, the owners of Hampton Springs focused on building up their popularity as a golf resort, hunting and fishing lodge, and a wilderness retreat. Promoters referred to Taylor County and the surrounding area as Florida’s “last frontier,” with Hampton Springs as an island of luxury in the middle. This business model extended the life of the resort, which became more like a club in its later years.

The old-style mineral spring resorts are gone now, but the springs they once made available to health-seeking visitors are still around for the most part. They remind us of Florida’s historic reputation as a place of rejuvenation. Sometimes, it seems, a little Florida sunshine (and mineral water) is just what the doctor ordered!

Flagler’s Royal Poinciana Hotel

Henry Flagler opened the Royal Poinciana Hotel in Palm Beach on February 11, 1894 with only 17 guests. The paint was fresh, and the electric lighting was so new it was advertised as a unique amenity. Flagler had built this palace as a winter playground for America’s richest travelers, planting it right off the main line of his Florida East Coast Railway. If they so chose, his guests could conduct their private railway cars right up to the hotel’s entrance.

Royal Poinciana Hotel - Palm Beach (circa 1900).

Royal Poinciana Hotel – Palm Beach (circa 1900).

The 17 original guests must have had a good time, because Flagler expanded the hotel almost immediately after it was opened, increasing its capacity to 1,000 guests. The size of the structure was immense; the Royal Poinciana had over 3 miles of hallways. With the telephone still a rare luxury, hotel employees were obliged to carry messages between guest rooms and the front desk by bicycle. At one point the hotel was reputed to be the largest wooden structure in the world.

Porch of the Royal Poinciana (circa 1920s).

Porch of the Royal Poinciana (circa 1920s).

Flagler spared little if any expense entertaining his wealthy patrons. Guests could play golf, swim in the pool, or listen to the orchestra, which played every day in the hotel pavilion. Guides took those inclined to fish out into the Atlantic, sometimes bringing in dozens of mackerel in a single day’s catch.

Just in case some of the guests found all of this luxury a bit monotonous, the hotel staff occasionally planned special events. In one instance, pictured below, a parade of decorated boats was floated past the hotel for the amusement of its patrons.

A floating parade of decorated boats in front of the Royal Poinciana Hotel at Palm Beach (circa 1900).

A floating parade of decorated boats in front of the Royal Poinciana Hotel at Palm Beach (circa 1900).

To keep the sights, sounds, and smells of Palm Beach as clean as possible, the designers limited the presence of the railroad and automobiles. Also, hotel staff rarely used horses, mules, or other animals to transport supplies or people. The primary modes of transportation on Palm Beach for guests were bicycles and “wheelchairs,” pedi-cabs in our own parlance.

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A “wheelchair” or pedi-cab carrying guests in the vicinity of the Royal Poinciana Hotel (circa 1900).

Running such a complex operation as the Royal Poinciana Hotel naturally required a large and varied labor force. By the time the hotel was up and running Flagler had hired over a thousand workers. He built quarters for them across Lake Worth from the hotel in what is now called West Palm Beach. The employees used rowboats to get to and from work for each shift.

Plumbers and mechanics at the Royal Poinciana Hotel before it opened (1893).

Plumbers and mechanics at the Royal Poinciana Hotel before it opened (1893).

The Royal Poinciana commanded the high-end hospitality market in Palm Beach for a number of years, but even such a sprawling wilderness of luxury as this had its weaknesses. In 1925, the nearby Breakers Hotel burned and was rebuilt. Since it was newer and offered updated amenities, it drew many guests away from the Royal Poinciana. Furthermore, the Okeechobee Hurricane of 1928 badly damaged the north wing of the hotel, shifting part of it off its foundation. The arrival of the Great Depression in 1929 was the final blow. The Royal Poinciana Hotel closed in 1934, and was torn down within a year.

Aerial view of the Royal Poinciana Hotel during its final years (circa 1925).

Aerial view of the Royal Poinciana Hotel during its final years (circa 1925).

The Royal Poinciana Hotel is just one of Florida’s many historic hotels that have come and gone over the years. For more photos of the Royal Poinciana and other palatial buildings, search the Florida Photographic Collection.

 

 

See and Do It All at Floridaland!

By the 1960s, Florida was a tourist’s playground. Any family could find something to do, whether it was to hit the beach, catch a few roller coaster rides at the Miracle Strip, stroll through the lush scenery of Cypress Gardens, or take in the historic sights of Key West or St. Augustine. In Florida, you could do anything. But where could you do everything?

Performing dolphins (or porpises) at Floridaland (1967).

Performing dolphins (or porpoises) at Floridaland (1967).

Floridaland near Sarasota aspired to be that place. The park was located on fifty acres between U.S. Highway 41 and Sarasota Bay. It opened on Christmas Day in 1964, and offered ten distinct attractions for one admission price. From the moment visitors walked through the gates and received greetings from the talking macaws posted there, they had the freedom to explore and take in all kinds of entertainment.

One option was to travel back in time and visit the ghost town attraction, where pistol-packing sheriffs would periodically save the day from robbers and troublemakers. Watching the spectacle was tough work, of course, so the Golden Nugget Saloon was nearby to provide refreshments and a show.

Wild West show at Floridaland's Ghost Town (1960s).

Wild West show at Floridaland’s Ghost Town (1960s).

 

“Miss Kitty” performs in a stage show at the Gold Nugget Saloon at Floridaland (1960s).

Families more interested in modern action could choose to visit one of Floridaland’s many shows featuring trained porpoises. Handlers coaxed these animals into doing almost anything for a couple of fish. They jumped high into the air on cue, jumped through the proverbial hoops, and even donned costumes to delight their patrons. On one occasion, Floridaland officials organized the world’s first known “porpoise to porpoise” long distance call. Moby Dick, one of Floridaland’s porpoise performers, contacted his colleague Keiki at Sea Life Park in Hawaii on May 14, 1965 using a specially designed phone. The two chattered for more than five minutes before hanging up.

Porpoise jumps through a pair of hoops over a trainer's lap at Floridaland (1960s).

Porpoise jumps through a pair of hoops over a trainer’s lap at Floridaland (1960s).

Floridaland's sheriff had a little help from this porpoise, who donned a hat and gun in this stunt (1960s).

Floridaland’s sheriff had a little help from this porpoise, who donned a hat and gun in this stunt (1960s).

Other popular animal attractions included Billy Goat Mountain, Deer Park, and the “nursery.” These were especially popular with the youngsters, as they could feed many of the animals by hand and watch them perform up close and personal.

“Billy Goat Mountain” at Floridaland (1965).

Children bottle-feed Floridaland's youngest residents at the

Children bottle-feed Floridaland’s youngest residents at the “nursery” (1960s).

Floridaland enjoyed great success, enough to convince Holiday Inn to build a hotel near the resort only three years after it opened. There were challenges, however. The tanks containing the park’s trained porpoises drew their water from the surrounding bays, which made them vulnerable to contamination with insecticides and dangerous red tide algae. On at least one occasion, the performing animals had to be removed from their home by stretchers and temporarily placed in the swimming pool of the nearby Holiday Inn. Furthermore, the cost of running such an extensive set of attractions was high. Ultimately, this cost became unsustainable. The owners attempted to bump up gate receipts by adding more rides, gardens, and longer shows, but it was not enough. The park closed on July 2, 1971.

Floridaland's tour train (1965).

Floridaland’s tour train (1965).

Floridaland lasted less than a decade, but its attractions were still enjoyed by many, as today’s photos from the Florida Photographic Collection reveal. What were your favorite Florida tourist attractions to visit when you were growing up? Tell us about it by leaving us a comment below.

Also, if you happen to be in the Tallahassee area on Friday, October 17th, visit the State Archives’ slideshow exhibition entitled “The Golden Age of Florida’s Miracle Strip.” The cycling slideshow will feature over 150 historic images of Panama City Beach and its famed Miracle Strip tourist district from the 1930s through the 1970s. Melody May, a promotional model long associated with the Miracle Strip, will be present, and tourism historian Tim Hollis is scheduled to speak about the history of the tourism industry in the Panama City area. Parking and admission are free, and complementary refreshments with a Florida tourism theme will be provided. The event will last from 6-8pm, and will be located in the lobby of the R.A. Gray Building at 500 S. Bronough St. in Tallahassee. Contact the State Archives at 850-245-6719 with any questions.

 

Welcome to Florida!

Florida was one of the first states to create highway welcome centers, which have now become almost standard across the nation. The establishment of the Dixie Highway routed travelers as far north as Michigan into the state of Florida via a little town called Yulee. Leaders of the growing Florida tourism industry saw this as an excellent opportunity to educate out-of-towners on the many sites and attractions the state had to offer.

Ribbon cutting at opening of hospitality house in Yulee, FL (1949).

Florida’s First Lady, Mrs. Fuller Warren cuts the ribbon at hospitality house opening ceremony – Yulee, Florida (November 4, 1949).

Florida’s first “hospitality house” opened in Yulee in the fall of 1949 on the Georgia-Florida line. Seven more centers followed to greet visitors arriving via US1/301 in Hilliard, US41 near Jennings, US231 near Campbellton, US90 in Pensacola, a marine center in Fernandina Beach, US27 in Havana, and US19 near Monticello.

Tourists at a Florida Welcome Station (October 1955).

Tourists at a Florida Welcome Station (October 1955).

People in front of welcome sign- Havana, Florida (1962).

Unidentified ladies and a man in front of the welcome sign – Havana, Florida (1962).

Although these original facilities have since come and gone, they created a long-standing tradition for offering complimentary orange juice, maps, attraction information, and assistance for tourists with travel inquiries. They also featured picnic and restroom facilities (and anyone who has been on a road trip understands the sanctity and relief of a well placed “restroom” sign).

Tourists receive orange juice at the Welcome Station (1977).

Tourists receive orange juice at the Welcome Station (1977).

Today there are five Official Florida Welcome Centers operated by Visit Florida. They are located on Interstate 10 in Pensacola, US231 near Campbellton, the State Capitol in Tallahassee, Interstate 75 in Live Oak, and Interstate 95 near Jacksonville. Personnel now undergo training to receive a national Information Specialist certification to better serve visitors. Otherwise, not much has changed in the way of good ole’ friendly service you can expect at any one of these stations.

The I-95 welcome station in Yulee, Florida (1977).

Interior of the I-95 welcome station in Yulee, Florida (1977).

Since the first welcome center opened in 1949, the State of Florida has estimated that 90 million visitors have been received, and more than 200 million maps have been distributed. Now that’s a lot of free orange juice!

Florida welcome sign - Tallahassee, Florida (1956).

Florida welcome sign – Tallahassee, Florida (1956).

If you’re traveling through the Sunshine State this summer, be sure to stop at an Official Florida Welcome Center. If you’re stuck at home for the moment, you can still enjoy a bit of Florida by searching for your favorite Sunshine State destinations in the Florida Photographic Collection.

 

Please Pass the Rattlesnake

The diamondback rattlesnake doesn’t exactly enjoy the best reputation among Florida’s wildlife. Generations of Floridians and visitors have been warned of the potentially deadly consequences of its bite, and as a result this venomous reptile is seldom a welcome sight when spotted.

A diamondback rattlesnake in Cedar Key, Florida (2001).

A diamondback rattlesnake in Cedar Key, Florida (2001).

That being said, rattlesnakes have also been a subject of great curiosity, when viewed from a safe distance at least. Eager entrepreneurs have tried in a number of ways to tap into this cautious enthusiasm over the years, including reptile shows, theme parks, reptile-skin gifts and clothing, and even by offering reptile meat as a food item.

George Kenneth End of Arcadia, who founded the Floridian Products Corporation (circa 1930s).

George Kenneth End of Arcadia, who founded the Floridian Products Corporation (circa 1930s).

George Kenneth End of Arcadia, Florida was one such businessman who made a living selling rattlesnakes in any way he could. Around 1930, he was helping his two young sons skin a rattlesnake they had just killed when the idea suddenly struck him to try cooking the meat to see what it would taste like. End found the meat tender and the flavor good, and he began experimenting with it to see how it could best be prepared as a marketable product.

An advertisement for the Floridian Products Corporation, showing a list of prices for its various products (1933).

An advertisement for the Floridian Products Corporation, showing a list of its various products (1933).

The result was the Floridian Products Corporation, Rattlesnake Division. End began selling every part of the snake that might capture the whimsy of a customer, from the skin to the rattles, the fangs, oil made from snake fat, and even live snakes themselves. Among the most popular products was End’s “Genuine Diamondback Rattlesnake with Supreme Sauce,” a canned portion of rattlesnake meat prepared with a sauce of meat stock, mushrooms, and heavy cream. Advertisements recommended serving the meat in pastry shells or on thin slices of toast as an appetizer for cocktails. End and his associates promoted the meat as a delicacy, and encouraged customers to “be the first in your neighborhood to give a rattlesnake dinner.”

A can of George End's famous rattlesnake in supreme sauce (circa 1930s).

A can of George End’s famous rattlesnake in supreme sauce (circa 1930s).

End’s bid for greatness as Florida’s main purveyor of rattlesnake products was successful. He first set up a factory for processing the rattlesnakes in Arcadia, not far from Florida’s Gulf Coast near Port Charlotte and Sarasota. The surrounding territory was largely undeveloped and full of scrub palmetto and other heavy growth, which made it ideal hunting grounds for the snake hunters who captured rattlesnakes to bring to End for processing. Later, as business picked up, End moved his main operation to Tampa, where he established his own “Rattlesnake Cannery and Emporium” in a two-story building at the corner of Bridge Street and Gandy Boulevard. In addition to processing the snakes, he also put on shows for visitors, who gasped in amazement as he and his associates handled the live rattlers and “milked” them to obtain the venom for medical purposes. End even managed to obtain permission to operate a post office at the site, naturally called “Rattlesnake.” Tourists were only too happy to send mail from this location, since it bore the unique “Rattlesnake, Fla.” postmark.

The original headquarters of the Floridian Products Corporation in Arcadia. Pictured out front are representatives of Elks Magazine, who were on their annual goodwill tour around the United States (circa 1933).

The original headquarters of the Floridian Products Corporation in Arcadia. Pictured out front are representatives of Elks Magazine, who were on their annual goodwill tour around the United States (circa 1933).

End’s success stemmed in part from the novelty and allure of his product, but his skills as a promoter were none too shabby. In addition to his “Rattlesnake” post office and attractive stop-over for tourists, he also at times took to the road to promote his products. Anyone who partook of a rattlesnake meal was furthermore entitled to membership in one of End’s reptile-related “clubs,” and would receive a membership card with their order. No doubt many a tourist left Florida proudly credentialed as a member of the “Reptile Science League,” the “Ancient Epicurean Order of Rattling Reptile Revelers,” or the “Subtle Society of Snake Snackers.”

A membership card for George K. End's "Rattling Reptile Revelers," obtainable with the purchase of a can of End's rattlesnake with supreme sauce. This card was found in the collection of longtime Florida folklorist Stetson Kennedy at the State Archives of Florida (circa 1933).

A membership card for George K. End’s “Rattling Reptile Revelers,” obtainable with the purchase of a can of End’s rattlesnake with supreme sauce. This card was found in the collection of longtime Florida folklorist Stetson Kennedy at the State Archives of Florida (circa 1933).

As the shadow of World War II emerged on the horizon at the start of the 1940s, George End was threatened with the loss of his most vital helpers in the rattlesnake industry, the young men of soldiering age who went out and actually caught the snakes. Unfazed, he reputedly claimed that Rattlesnake, Florida would “go on to bigger things and better things, in spite of hell, Hitler, and high water.”

He was almost right. On July 27, 1944, End was working with a six-foot rattler that had just arrived at his headquarters when the snake struck at his right hand between his thumb and forefinger. For all the time George End had spent working with deadly rattlesnakes, he had never in his life been snakebitten before, but once was enough. He administered anti-venom to himself, but it was ineffective. He died in a matter of hours.

The Rattlesnake, Fla. post office and the emporium at Bridge Street and Gandy Boulevard closed down eventually, and End’s rattlesnake empire began to fade into memory. Mrs. End sold the cannery equipment along with its patents and formulas to herpetologist Ross Allen, whose Reptile Institute at Silver Springs, Florida served as both a tourist attraction and a site for anti-venom research.

Ross Allen milking a rattlesnake for its venom, which could then be used to create anti-venom and conduct research (circa 1940s).

Ross Allen milking a rattlesnake for its venom, which could then be used to create anti-venom and conduct research (circa 1940s).

George End’s rattlesnake attraction was one of a multitude of Florida tourist spots whose peculiar nature and humble origins make them treasures of the history of the Sunshine State. What kinds of tourist attractions do you remember from Florida’s past? Did any of them have to do with snakes or other reptiles? Post a comment below and share your story!

In a State of Kitschiness: Jungle Land and Alvin’s Island

The early Miracle Strip along Panama City Beach was, and is, traditionally known for its outlandish attractions designed to entertain visitors to the Florida Gulf Coast. One such attraction was Jungle Land. Originally begun as housing for a roadside zoo attraction in the mid-1960s, the oversized artificial volcano reflected the whimsical architecture of reinforced stucco and concrete that was beginning to dot the coast.

Jungle Land Attraction in Panama City (1966).

Jungle Land Attraction in Panama City (1966).

Owner Val Valentine hired young women dressed (more or less) in full “Jungle Jane” gear to serve as tour guides leading visitors on a “dangerous” (again, more or less) tour through a winding cave to the center of the structure. Along the way, people could peek through holes in the cavern’s walls to get a glimpse of the “lava” bubbling at the core. Valentine also had the volcano fully stocked with smoke pots to emit smoke and flame from the opening which could be seen from quite a distance. Wild animals were kept at the center of Jungle Land and were trained by his “cave girls” to put on various performances for the tourists.

Women with Parrots at Jungle Land (1969).

Women with Parrots at Jungle Land (1969).

Although Jungle Land has since disappeared as a roadside attraction in Panama City, you can still experience the original, volcano-like structure which now houses Alvin’s Island Magic Mountain store. Venturing inside is a lot like walking into a colorful stalactite wonderland lined with plush dolphins and wholesale puka shell wind chimes. Nestled further into the center of the building (below the floor with the bathing suit cover-ups), you can find live alligators. Sometimes a trainer is on hand to give customers a chance to meet and greet these native reptiles.

Model Melody May posing in front of volcano at the Jungle Land attraction in Panama City (1966).

Model Melody May posing in front of volcano at the Jungle Land attraction in Panama City (1966).

The area may have lost an icon of kitsch when Jungle Land shut its doors for good in the early 1980s, but Alvin’s Island has rather historic roots in the area as well. Alvin Walsingham, founder of the Alvin’s Island chain, sought to cater to the booming tourist and souvenir business that was coming to define Panama City’s Miracle Strip. In 1981, he purchased the defunct Jungle Land volcano and opened a branch of his chain as the Magic Mountain store.

Alvin's Island Ad (circa 1980s). Courtesy of Tim Hollis.

Alvin’s Island Ad (circa 1980s). Courtesy of Tim Hollis.

Walsingham built onto to the volcano, ensuring that the new additions matched the existing rock-like structure. The store has since cut back on allowing the volcano to erupt, but has also tried to maintain the original pseudo-Polynesian and tropical theme that Valentine had envisioned. Today there are several Alvin’s Island locations in the Florida panhandle, including in Destin and Fort Walton Beach. The crown jewel, of course, is still the Magic Mountain Store!

Alvin's Island Magic Mountain Store (2013). Courtesy of Tim Hollis.

Alvin’s Island Magic Mountain Store (2013). Courtesy of Tim Hollis.

See our photo exhibit entitled Roadside Attractions in Florida for more images of sites like Alvin’s Island.

When Disney Came to Florida

Walt Disney World, the epicenter of the Disney entertainment empire and a vacation destination for millions of visitors each year, has been a thriving part of Florida tourism since 1971. But how did it get here? Walt Disney had already been operating Disneyland in Anaheim, California with great success since 1955. Practically every major city in the United States and many others around the world had invited Disney to bring his creativity to their vicinity, but for years Walt had appeared content to stick to one location and use Disneyland as the laboratory for his ideas. Yet by the late 1960s he had selected a swampy patch of ground just outside Orlando and Kissimmee to build what would become one of the world’s most popular places to visit.

A view of Cinderella's Castle, one of the hallmark features of Disney's Magic Kingdom (circa 1970s).

A view of Cinderella’s Castle, one of the hallmark features of Disney’s Magic Kingdom (circa 1970s).

In reality, Walt Disney had been eying possible locations for another theme park since the late 1950s. While Disneyland had been a resounding hit so far, the East Coast crowd had not taken to visiting as often as Disney and his team hoped they would. The solution, they believed, was to build a park in the east. Several potential projects were sketched out, including one in New Jersey, one in St. Louis, and even one in the Palm Beach area. Each of these possibilities fell through for various reasons, but over time Walt Disney’s attention settled on Florida as the most promising place for a new Disney attraction. Early in 1963, Disney gathered up a small team of trusted associates and sent them to Florida to locate between five and ten thousand acres of land for the new park. The project was kept secret at this stage, because Disney believed if word got loose that he was in the market for land in Central Florida, speculation would raise land prices sky-high. Consequently, the Florida project was referred to among the Disney inner circle as “Project X” or “Project Future.”

An aerial view of the Disney property near Orlando and Kissimmee prior to the park's opening (1967).

An aerial view of the Disney property near Orlando and Kissimmee prior to the park’s opening (1967).

Disney himself assisted in selecting the land near Orlando and Kissimmee. Locating the new park at the center of the state rather than on the coast eliminated some of the risk of damage from hurricanes, as well as the direct competition from the beaches themselves for visitors’ time. “We’ll create our own water,” he reportedly said. Once he had decided on the Orlando location, Disney worked with local representatives to buy up parcels of land using a series of nine “front” companies with names like the Latin-American Development & Management Corporation and the Reedy Creek Ranch, Inc. By the middle of 1965, Disney had purchased over 27,000 acres for just over five million dollars.

A group of Disney representatives inspecting the company's new property near Orlando and Kissimmee. The man at center in a dark sweater and glasses is Roy Disney, Walt Disney's brother (circa 1965).

A group of Disney representatives inspecting the company’s new property near Orlando and Kissimmee. The man at center in a dark sweater and glasses is Roy Disney, Walt Disney’s brother (circa 1965).

Disney representatives looking over a map while inspecting the Disney property fronting Lake Buena Vista (circa 1965).

Disney representatives looking over a map while inspecting the Disney property fronting Lake Buena Vista (circa 1965). Roy Disney is second from left.

As the planning continued, it became increasingly difficult to keep the project a secret. By the autumn of 1965, the press had called out Disney’s land purchases, and Walt and his associates decided to go public with their plans. Governor Haydon Burns confirmed the Disney rumors as early as October 24th, but his office worked with the folks at Disney to plan a formal press conference for November 15th at the Cherry Plaza Hotel in Orlando to make the official announcement. Dubbed “Disney Day” by the Florida Development Commission and various state officials, Governor Burns called it “the most significant day in the history of Florida.” Burns’ staff sent scores of invitations to media outlets, chambers of commerce, and local officials from around the state to dramatize the occasion. Walt Disney and his brother Roy sat on either side of Governor Burns as he explained to the many reporters and cameras how much the new attraction would mean to Florida. He predicted a fifty percent increase in tourism, as well as new tax revenue that would bring prosperity to the entire region.

Walt Disney, Governor Haydon Burns, and Roy Disney at a press conference announcing plans to build a Disney resort in Florida. The conference was held at the Cherry Plaza Hotel in Orlando (November 15, 1965).

Walt Disney, Governor Haydon Burns, and Roy Disney at a press conference announcing plans to build a Disney resort in Florida. The conference was held at the Cherry Plaza Hotel in Orlando (November 15, 1965).

 

Watch a clip from the press conference below, or click here to view the full conference video.

At the press conference, Walt Disney spoke only in broad generalities about what he intended to do at the new park. Considering how much secrecy had surrounded the land purchases, some might have easily believed he was purposely concealing his plans. In reality, his vague description owed mostly to the fact that very little had been definitely decided at that point about what Walt Disney World would actually look like. Walt hadn’t even set foot on the property yet; he would do that for the first time the next morning.

Even as late as 1969, there was still some question as to what Walt Disney World would look like when finished. This is an artist's concept of an aspect of Disney World, possibly EPCOT (1969).

Even as late as 1969, there was still some question as to what Walt Disney World would look like when finished. This is an artist’s concept of an aspect of Disney World, possibly EPCOT (1969).

After the announcement, however, the project moved swiftly. Disney “Imagineers” and other designers began sketching out the various parts of the new Florida resort, while contractors began preparing the actual site. The complexity of the new undertaking required a great deal of cooperation between the Disney corporation and governments at the state and local level. On May 12, 1967, Governor Claude Kirk signed into law new legislation creating the Reedy Creek Improvement District and two municipalities within it, Bay Lake and Reedy Creek (later renamed Lake Buena Vista). Situating the Disney property within these new entities enabled the company to develop the resort with a greater measure of independence regarding taxation and land use restrictions.

Governor Claude Kirk (left) shakes hands with Roy Disney (right) after signing new legislation facilitating the development of Walt Disney World (May 12, 1967).

Governor Claude Kirk (left) shakes hands with Roy Disney (right) after signing new legislation facilitating the development of Walt Disney World (May 12, 1967).

Walt Disney World opened on October 1, 1971 with two hotels and the Magic Kingdom theme park. Over the years new attractions emerged, including EPCOT, Hollywood Studios, Disney’s Animal Kingdom, and a wide variety of hotels and other amenities. Walt Disney, the man whose dream gave shape to the project, sadly did not live to see his masterpiece completed. Disney passed away in December of 1966, well before the park opened. As Walt himself once explained, however, the world of Disney entertainment was much bigger than Disney the man or his ambitions. “I only hope that we don’t lose sight of one thing,” he once said, “that it was all started by a mouse.”

Mickey Mouse greets several children at the Magic Kingdom, part of Walt Disney World (1977).

Mickey Mouse greets several children at the Magic Kingdom, part of Walt Disney World (1977).

What are your favorite memories from visiting Walt Disney World? Were you around to see the opening? Tell us about your experiences by leaving a comment below!