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
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.
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.
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.
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!
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.
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.
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:
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.
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!
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.
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.
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.
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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.
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!
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!
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.
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.
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.”
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.
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.
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 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.
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.
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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.