The “Swami of the Swamp”: Dick Pope and Florida’s Cypress Gardens

Cypress Gardens, one of Florida’s earliest and most famous themed attractions, has been capturing the imaginations of visitors for over seventy years. Originally opened by visionary promoter Dick Pope and his wife Julie in the mid-1930s, the gardens featured acres of blooming flowers, trees, and shrubbery, along with aquatic stunt shows and boat tours.

A bridge at Cypress Gardens, one of the most frequently photographed angles (circa 1950s).

A bridge at Cypress Gardens, one of the most frequently photographed angles (circa 1950s).

Although the beauty of the gardens alone makes them a Florida treasure, the story of how Cypress Gardens came to be is an equally valuable part of the rich history of Florida tourism. The land was little more than a swamp when founder Dick Pope acquired it, but Pope’s cunning business mind combined with a little luck to make the whole production come off beautifully. As Pope once told author Norman Vincent Peale, his motto was to “think big about everything.”

The

The “Swami of the Swamp” himself, Dick Pope, Sr (1966).

The idea to build a botanical garden for tourists came to Pope during a rough patch in his life. In the 1910s and 1920s, he and his brother Malcolm had been heavily involved in aquatic stunts and boat racing, as well as developing promotions for outboard motor companies like Johnson Motors. As the Great Depression took hold, however, demand for his services dropped, and Pope found himself looking for other projects. He was riding with his wife Julie in their car one day when a magazine article caught his eye. A man in Charleston, South Carolina had built up an impressive set of gardens on his estate, and had had success getting tourists to pay a small admission charge to visit. Dick Pope decided he could do something similar in Winter Haven, Florida, where he had spent much of his childhood and teenage years.

A view of Lake Eloise, where Dick Pope built Cypress Gardens in the 1930s (photo circa 1960s).

A view of Lake Eloise, where Dick Pope built Cypress Gardens in the 1930s (photo circa 1960s).

Pope quickly bought up several acres of land and a shuttered boat club on Lake Eloise and began preparing them for service as a botanical garden. The labor necessary to achieve this was extensive, of course, but Pope had a few ideas up his sleeve. He approached the local commission charged with managing the canals connecting Lake Eloise with the neighboring bodies of water, and convinced its board to invest $2,800 in his project, which he called “a community park.” He also incorporated the new attraction as a non-profit organization so he could apply for funding from the Works Progress Administration to construct it. After touring the area in a boat with Dick Pope explaining his plans, representatives from the WPA signed off on the project, and soon Dick Pope had a group of federal relief workers busy clearing brush, improving canals, and laying out walkways to serve the new gardens.

A postcard depicting one of the many canals at Cypress Gardens (circa 1940s).

A postcard depicting one of the many canals at Cypress Gardens (circa 1940s).

It wasn’t long before local and federal officials realized that this was much more a private venture than a community park, and the WPA and the local canal commission withdrew their support. Pope was jokingly labeled the “Swami of the Swamp” and the “Maharaja of Muck” for his manipulative handiwork, but he remained determined to open Cypress Gardens. He reorganized the business and began the planting process with the help of gardener Vernon Rutter of Tennessee. Julie Pope was heavily involved as well, as her husband admitted that he “didn’t know an azalea from a carrot” in those early days. Pope also enlisted the assistance of photographer Robert Dahlgren to ensure that the gardens were laid out in such a way that no matter which direction a camera was pointed, the photograph it captured would be appealing.

Every bend in the path brought a new burst of floral color at Cypress Gardens (1967).

Every bend in the path brought a new burst of floral color at Cypress Gardens (1967).

Cypress Gardens officially opened on January 24, 1935. Pope pulled every string in his arsenal of connections to get photographs of the gardens placed in newspapers and magazines across the country. He even managed to get the new attraction featured in several films, which added to the publicity. He invited beauty queens, movie stars, aquatic stunt performers – anyone who might draw attention to Cypress Gardens. Over time, the gardens would host a wide array of distinguished guests, including Bette Davis, Joan Crawford, President John F. Kennedy, and King Hussein of Jordan. Even the Shah of Iran came once to water-ski on the lake. Asked about the honor of hosting the Shah, Pope quipped, “There’s no business like Shah business.”

Dick Pope (right) with Governor Claude Kirk (left) at Cypress Gardens. Pope served on a number of commissions to promote Florida tourism during his career (photo 1967).

Dick Pope (right) with Governor Claude Kirk (left) at Cypress Gardens. Pope served on a number of commissions to promote Florida tourism during his career (photo 1967).

One of many aquatic stunt shows at Cypress Gardens (circa 1970s).

One of many aquatic stunt shows at Cypress Gardens (circa 1970s).

Cypress Gardens remained successful in the coming years, although changes in tourism and demographics began taking their toll by the early 1970s. Gas prices and shortages, the arrival of larger parks like Walt Disney World, and the tendency of families to make shorter, more location-specific trips cut into the attraction’s market share. Dick Pope and his son, Dick Pope, Jr., tried to adjust to meet the challenge, but found it impossible to catch up. The attraction changed hands several times before finally closing in 2009. The gardens themselves have been preserved as part of a new attraction called Legoland.

Dick Pope passed away in 1988, but his contributions to Florida tourism are honored in several lasting tributes. The University of Central Florida’s Institute for Tourism Studies is named for him, and in 2014 Cypress Gardens was added to the National Register of Historic Places.

Have you ever been to Cypress Gardens? Tell us about your experiences by commenting on our post. Also, search the Florida Photographic Collection to find more photos of your favorite Florida tourist attractions.

The Lewis Plantation

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Blanche, the cook at

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

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

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

 

 

Greetings from Florida!

Happy National Tourism Day! Whether you just want to lay out on the beach, see Mickey and Minnie, or take a walk through the past, Florida is the perfect vacation destination.

When you’re here, make sure to tell your loved ones how much fun you’re having, and show off a little by sending a postcard! We’ve chosen some of our favorites from the Postcard Collection! Do you have a favorite?

Florida - the sunshine state

Florida – the Sunshine State

 

When the Yankees come to Florida

When the Yankees come to Florida

 

Bathing beauties on the beach in Florida

Bathing beauties on the beach in Florida

 

Greetings from Florida

The Box of Oranges I Promised you from the Sunshine State, Florida

 

 

Enjoying "The Pause that Refreshes" underwater at Silver Springs.

Enjoying “The Pause that Refreshes” underwater at Silver Springs

 

Tropical beauty in McKee Jungle Gardens

Tropical beauty in McKee Jungle Gardens

 

Where humans are caged and monkeys run wild

Where humans are caged and monkeys run wild

 

 

 

 

Blue Crabbing… in the Ocala National Forest?

Nestled in between lakes Kerr and George in Marion County near Ocala is a somewhat unusual attraction called Salt Springs. The name says it all: in this picturesque pool of roughly 190 by 130 feet, four vents in the limestone floor emit spring crystal clear water with a slight salinity owing to the presence of sodium, magnesium, and potassium salts in the underground passages below.

View of salt Springs in Marion County, Florida (1941)

View of salt Springs in Marion County, Florida (1941)

The saltiness of the water has not deterred many visitors, as Salt Springs has long been one of the foremost attractions of the Ocala National Forest. The water discharged from the springs travels about four miles down a broad run into the northwest corner of Lake George, providing excellent opportunities for boating and fishing, which locals and visitors alike have long enjoyed.

Boys in a small boat near the vents at Salt Springs (1941).

Boys in a small boat near the vents at Salt Springs (1941).

Youth canoeing near Salt Springs (circa 1970).

Youth canoeing near Salt Springs (circa 1970).

Unlike most Florida springs, however, Salt Springs is home to another fun activity – crabbing. The salinity of the water allows blue crab to live in this aquatic habitat, despite it being over an hour’s drive from either coast. As a consequence, many people have enjoyed visiting the springs as much for gathering this favorite Florida delicacy as for the swimming. Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings, famed Florida author and winner of the Pulitzer Prize for The Yearling, was a frequent visitor to the springs to collect the main ingredient for Crab a la Newburg, one of her favorite recipes.

Women sitting above a crab storage bin at Salt springs (circa 1960s).

Women sitting above a crab storage bin at Salt springs (circa 1960s).

 

A couple showing off their blue crab catch at Salt Springs (circa 1960s).

A couple showing off their blue crab catch at Salt Springs (circa 1960s).

The connection between Rawlings and Salt Springs goes even farther, as several buildings near Salt Springs were used by Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Studios during the filming of The Yearling.

Barn near Salt Springs used in the production of the film adaptation of Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings' The Yearling (circa 1940).

Barn near Salt Springs used in the production of the film adaptation of Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings’ The Yearling (circa 1940).

House and gasoline pump on property near Salt Springs used in the production of the film adaptation of Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings' The Yearling (1940).

House and gasoline pump on property near Salt Springs used in the production of the film adaptation of Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings’ The Yearling (1940).

 

Florida Memory has a wealth of resources relating to Florida’s renowned natural springs.  Type the name of your favorite Florida spring into the search box above to learn more.   We also have a number of photographs depicting the life and work of author Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings.