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.