Goober Peas

Peanuts are a tasty Florida treat, whether you prefer them boiled, roasted, or as creamy peanut butter. These tiny legumes have been with us for a long time, and a look into their history reveals lots of surprises.

Boiled Florida peanuts (1988).

Boiled Florida peanuts (1988).

Surprise #1: Peanuts aren’t nuts, at least not technically. Although the familiar peanut species (Arachis hypogaea) has a shell just like other “nuts,” it actually belongs to the same family of plants as garden peas and beans. That’s why you’ll often see peanuts referred to as “goober peas.” The “goober” part originates from an African word for the plant, nguba.

Archaeological evidence suggests the peanut originated in South America before European explorers carried it to other parts of the globe, including the British North American colonies. Virginia farmers cultivated multiple varieties of the plant as early as the 1780s.

During the Civil War, soldiers became familiar with the peanut as a tasty treat while marching across Virginia, and many veterans brought it back to their home states and experimented with crops of their own. The humble peanut even became the subject of one of the war’s most iconic songs, titled “Goober Peas.” Here’s a recording of that song from the Florida Folk Festival, as well as the lyrics to the first verse:

Sittin’ by the roadside on a summer’s day, chatting with my best mates passing time away,
Lying in the shadows underneath the trees, Goodness how delicious, eating goober peas!
Peas! Peas! Peas! Peas! Eatin’ goober peas! Goodness how delicious, eatin’ goober peas!

At first, Florida farmers only grew large crops of peanuts for animal feed and hay, with a small portion of the produce going for roasting or sweet treats like peanut butter and peanut brittle. In the early 20th century, however, two factors emerged that convinced planters of the peanut’s value for other uses.

The first was the widespread devastation to Southern cotton crops caused by the boll weevil. Cotton was valuable for both the fluffy stuff that went into making textiles and the oil that could be pressed from the seeds. When boll weevil infestations began threatening the source of cotton seeds for making oil, the U.S. Department of Agriculture began recommending peanuts as an alternative crop. Like cotton seeds, peanuts express an oil when pressed, which can be used in both lubricants and food-grade salad oils and shortening. Planters hoped peanut oil might keep the oil presses of the South going if the supply of cotton seeds should fail completely.

World War I was a factor as well, causing a jump in the demand for edible oils. As the price of peanut oil began to creep upward, the Pensacola News Journal declared that peanut oil was just as certain a source of wealth as petroleum!

Peanut hay in the process of curing in Holmes County (ca. 1890s).

Peanut hay in the process of curing in Holmes County (ca. 1890s).

The boom in peanut oil prices leveled off after World War I, but a few companies stayed in the game into the 1920s. Brown & Company of Portland, Maine, for example, bought up 64,000 acres of land in the Everglades and tried to establish a processing plant on an island in the middle of Lake Worth in Palm Beach County. The plant didn’t work out so well, but the island is still known as Peanut Island today!

Excerpt of a topographical map showing Peanut Island in the middle of Lake Worth just north of Palm beach and West Palm Beach. Map courtesy of the US Geological Survey (1946).

Excerpt of a topographical map showing Peanut Island in the middle of Lake Worth just north of Palm Beach and West Palm Beach. Map courtesy of the US Geological Survey (1946). Click or tap the map to enlarge it.

While the market price for peanuts may shift from time to time, Floridians seem to have always appreciated their value for entertainment. Newspaper reports from the early 20th century often mention party games involving the tiny legumes. In 1905, for example, young Ethel Crosby of Ocala gave a “peanut party” for her little friends, with all of the festivities involving peanuts in some way. There was a peanut hunt, much like an Easter egg hunt, as well as a “peanut walk,” which required the children to carry as many peanuts as they dared on the blade of a knife and walk as far as possible without dropping them. The Boy Scouts of Troop 3 in Pensacola held a similar contest in 1911, except in their version the boys had to scoop up the peanuts in a spoon held between their teeth and carry them to a distant bucket.

This particular race has enjoyed some serious staying power. Even in recent years, festivals celebrating and promoting agriculture have featured peanut relays of one form or another, like this one from Agriculture Day in 1986:

Representative Irlo

Representative Irlo “Bud” Bronson, Democrat from Kissimmee, passes a peanut to Representative Chance Irvine, Republican from Orange Park, as the two work together for the House of Representatives team during an Agriculture Day competition honoring the peanut industry (1986).

Isn’t it funny how the smallest and most common objects can have such complex histories? Share this post on social media and tell us about your favorite historical tidbit!

 

History Beneath the Waves

There’s an important piece of Florida and United States history located about a mile and half southwest of Pensacola Pass in the Gulf of Mexico. There’s not much to see on the surface, just a couple of rusty cylinders that look as though they might have once been the foundation for a platform or a beacon of some sort. They’re just the tip, however, of something much more significant lying beneath the waves–the final resting place of one of the United States’ oldest battleships, the USS Massachusetts.

A portion of the submerged USS Massachusetts, located southwest of the entrance to Pensacola Bay (1993).

A portion of the submerged USS Massachusetts, located southwest of the entrance to Pensacola Bay (1993). Box 5, Folder 18,  Archaeological Sites and Activities Slide and Video Recordings – Bureau of Archaeological Research (Series S2318), State Archives of Florida.

The Massachusetts (BB-2) was launched in 1893 as part of the United States’ new “Steel Navy.” Naval vessels were becoming faster and more deadly as the technology behind guns and engines improved. Congress realized a strong navy was critical to national security, so in 1890 it authorized the construction of three steel-hulled, armored battleships powered entirely by steam. These ships, termed the Indiana class, included the Indiana, the Massachusetts and the Oregon. The Massachusetts was built by William Cramp and Sons of Philadelphia; the keel was laid on June 25, 1891, and the completed ship was launched on June 10, 1893. Officially commissioned by the Navy in 1896, the battleship was 350 feet long, 69 feet wide at the center and had a draft of 24 feet. Its top speed was 15 knots, and it featured two 13-inch guns and eight 8-inch guns along with smaller armaments.

The USS Massachusetts in harbor (circa 1918).

The USS Massachusetts in harbor (circa 1918).

After being fitted out at Philadelphia, the Massachusetts was assigned to the Navy’s North Atlantic fleet and spent several years traveling up and down the Eastern Seaboard on maneuvers. The ship’s first military action came during the Spanish-American War in 1898. On May 31 of that year, the Massachusetts  joined the Iowa and New Orleans in firing on the Spanish warship Cristóbal Colón off the coast of Santiago, Cuba. The Massachusetts missed out on the rest of the ensuing battle, having been forced to steam over to Guantanamo Bay to refuel. On July 4, the ship helped sink the Spanish cruiser Reina Mercedes and later steamed over to Puerto Rico to help transport troops during the U.S. occupation of the island.

The so-called

The so-called “black gang” of the USS Massachusetts, nicknamed for their blackened faces and clothing resulting from long days shoveling coal in the ship’s boiler room (circa 1918).

The Massachusetts had a relatively short service period, coming along in a time when naval technology was improving rapidly and older ships quickly became obsolete. It did have its high points, however. It was one of the first ships to have a permanent wireless telegraph system aboard, the installation being supervised directly by the inventor of the wireless telegraph, Guglielmo Marconi. During a European tour in 1911 it marked the coronation of King George V and Queen Mary of England with a 21-gun salute on behalf of the United States. The following year, the Massachusetts had the honor of offering a similar salute for President William Howard Taft during a review of the fleet at New York City.

The USS Massachusetts band (circa 1918).

The USS Massachusetts band (circa 1918).

The Massachusetts was decommissioned in 1914 (actually for the second time), but the outbreak of World War I led naval authorities to put it back into service as a gunnery practice ship for reserve crews training off the Atlantic coast. The ship returned to Philadelphia after the war, where it was decommissioned permanently and struck from the official Navy List. With no more missions to complete, the Navy offered the Massachusetts to the War Department, which decided to use it for target practice for coastal defenses near Pensacola. In January 1921, the Navy towed the ship around the tip of Florida and anchored it just outside the entrance to Pensacola Bay. The first attempt to scuttle the ship backfired when naval authorities realized the spot they had chosen was too shallow, and the ship had to be painstakingly refloated and moved to deeper water.

Map showing the location of the USS Massachusetts in relation to Pensacola and Santa Rosa Island. Included in an informational brochure on the USS Massachusetts published by the Florida Department of State, Division of Historical Resources in 2013.

Map showing the location of the USS Massachusetts in relation to Pensacola and Santa Rosa Island. Included in an informational brochure on the USS Massachusetts published by the Florida Department of State, Division of Historical Resources in 2013.

Meanwhile, the Army set up coastal artillery pieces at Fort Pickens on Santa Rosa Island and Fort Barrancas on the mainland and aimed them at the sunken ship. For 12 days they fired on the Massachusetts, stopping periodically to study the damage done by different kinds of ammunition shot from various angles. By the end of the month, the tests were complete, and the ship was abandoned with parts still protruding from below the waves of the Gulf.

A diver explores part of the wreckage of the USS Massachusetts (1993).

A diver explores part of the wreckage of the USS Massachusetts (1993). Box 5, Folder 18,  Archaeological Sites and Activities Slide and Video Recordings – Bureau of Archaeological Research (Series S2318), State Archives of Florida.

Despite having been underwater for nearly a century, the USS Massachusetts has been an uncommonly useful shipwreck. During World War II, student aviators from Naval Air Station Pensacola used the ship for target practice, and parts of its superstructure were harvested for urgently needed scrap metal. It was declared a Florida Underwater Archaeological Preserve in 1993 and has become a popular site for both diving and fishing. Amberjack, cobia, grouper and snapper are just a few of the game fish that make their home in the decaying hull of the Massachusetts.

Looking for more information and photos relating to Florida shipwrecks? Try searching the Florida Photographic Collection, and visit the Florida Museums in the Sea website, a fun, easy way to learn more about Florida’s twelve Underwater Archaeological Preserves.

The Vine That Ate the South

If you’ve spent much time driving around North and Central Florida, chances are good that you’ve seen vines take over a few trees and power poles. It happens. Plenty of vines like Virginia creeper and wild grapevine love Florida’s climate and are all too happy to climb up a tree or pole to get a little closer to the sun. One vine in particular, however, has developed a reputation for being almost evil in its quest to grow and thrive, choking out anything that stands in its way. Kudzu (Pueraria thunbergiana) has in recent decades been drubbed as “the green menace” and “the vine that ate the South,” with tendrils that allegedly grow so fast they can outwalk a human. While we doubt kudzu really has nefarious intentions, it certainly is an invasive plant, and it has a history almost as complex as its bewildering carpet of vines and leaves.

Kudzu has overtaken this field near Lamont in Jefferson County (2018).

Kudzu has overtaken this field near Lamont in Jefferson County (2018).

Kudzu is native to Asia, where both Japanese and Chinese farmers have used it for centuries as food for livestock and ground cover to prevent erosion. It most likely first came to the United States in 1876, when representatives of the Japanese empire brought along a few cuttings to show off in their exhibit at the Centennial International Exposition in Philadelphia. The vines were hardy and the leaves were attractive, so visitors were delighted to take home a few plants for ornamental use. Southerners appreciated kudzu’s potential as an erosion control agent, and soon it was sprouting in valleys and gullies all over the Carolinas, Georgia, Alabama, and Mississippi.

A kudzu leaf, photographed off South Barber Road near Lamont in Jefferson County (2018).

A kudzu leaf, photographed off South Barber Road near Lamont in Jefferson County (2018).

While kudzu may have possibly entered Florida before 1900, it really burst onto the scene just after the turn of the 20th century, thanks to the diligent boosterism of a Chipley photographer and planter named Charles Earl Pleas. An Indiana native, Pleas and his wife, Lillie, had grown kudzu near their home to serve as a shade vine. When the plant began to creep out onto the lawn–as kudzu tends to do–Pleas dug it up and threw it onto a trash heap near the barn. Determined to survive, the vines took root and began to cover the trash pile and the nearby building.

Then, something unexpected happened. Pleas noticed that all kinds of farm animals, from hogs to horses, seem to enjoy eating the vine. He wrote the U.S. Department of Agriculture to find out if kudzu was known to be poisonous, and the agency responded that it was not, although they also doubted livestock would eat the plant. Seeing that kudzu’s potential as forage had not yet been realized, Pleas and his wife launched a veritable kudzu crusade, promoting the vine as a miracle solution to the South’s long-standing need for a cheap, hardy yearlong food crop for livestock.

Pleas wrote glowingly about kudzu for newspapers and pamphlets, praising its high nutritional value and the ease with which it could be cultivated. It could grow up to a foot a day in early summer, for a total of up to 60 feet of new growth in a single growing season. Soon others in Florida, including State Chemist Rufus E. Rose, were promoting kudzu as both a superior feed crop and an instant solution to erosion. And if the vine overgrew its welcome? “It is an easy matter to get rid of Kudzu if desired,” wrote Edward B. Eppes of Tallahassee in 1913. New plants only sprouted from the crowns, he pointed out, so mowing down the crowns with a plow during the heat of summer would be enough to kill the plant dead. “For this reason,” he wrote, “there is no danger of Kudzu ever becoming a pest.”

Cover of a pamphlet titled "Soil Improving Crops," distributed by the Florida Department of Agriculture in 1948. The image features a field and tree overtaken by kudzu which, in the context of soil conservation, actually had some positive aspects. The State Library's State Document Collection contains many books and pamphlets on soil conservation efforts throughout the 20th century.

Cover of a pamphlet titled “Soil Improving Crops,” distributed by the Florida Department of Agriculture in 1948. The image features a field and tree overtaken by kudzu which, in the context of soil conservation, actually had some positive aspects. The State Library’s State Documents Collection contains many books and pamphlets on soil conservation efforts throughout the 20th century.

For a while, Eppes’ evaluation was spot-on. Floridians and their neighbors throughout the South used kudzu as feed and as ground cover to hold the soil in place on hillsides and in gullies. The U.S. Soil Conservation Service began officially recommending it to farmers in 1935, and the Civilian Conservation Corps planted innumerable cuttings along public roadways and railroad embankments. As late as 1944, the federal government paid farmers to cultivate kudzu, hoping it would both preserve the soil and make money for struggling American farmers still reeling from the effects of the Great Depression.

Kudzu vines growing on an embankment along a railroad near Tallahassee (1961).

Kudzu vines growing on an embankment along a railroad near Tallahassee (1961).

By the 1960s, however, the vine’s reputation had taken a dive. The Pensacola News Journal noted that it had a new nickname– the “cuss you” vine–because it had turned out to have some unfortunate qualities. Yes, kudzu was a good cover crop, but turn your back for just a moment and it might overtake another planted field, and even the barn beyond it! If conditions were right, it could even choke out young pine trees, destroying valuable sources of lumber and pulpwood. The vine snaked its way into everything, taking over unoccupied dwellings, gardens and even utility poles, occasionally shorting out electrical lines. In 1970, the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which had earlier been one of kudzu’s biggest cheerleaders, declared it a common weed and began experimenting with means for eradicating it.

Local and state officials in Florida did what they could to stem kudzu’s green tidal wave as well. Santa Rosa County passed an ordinance in 1996 imposing fines on property owners who allowed kudzu vines to creep onto their neighbors’ land. Hillsborough County opted to use herbicides to beat back the vines. Tallahassee’s Parks and Recreation Department contracted with a sheep farmer to bring hundreds of lambs down to Florida to chow down on the woody growth.

Kudzu still covers millions of acres of territory in the southeastern United States, but is now under somewhat better control. Some people have even used the vine for basket weaving, confections and kudzu cigarettes! Most Floridians, however, prefer to keep the so-called “green menace” as far away as possible.

Woman weaving a basket from kudzu vines at Tallahassee Market Days (1986).

Woman weaving a basket from kudzu vines at Tallahassee Market Days (1986).

What are some of the most unusual plants in your Florida community? Let us know by leaving us a comment, and don’t forget to share this post with your friends and relatives!

Making Miami Modern

The Giller Building, located at 975 West 41st Street in Miami Beach, was officially added to the National Register of Historic Places on March 29, 2018. Built in 1957, the structure is named for its architect and first occupant, Norman Myer Giller, who made the building into a focal point for the architectural style he helped to make popular, Miami Modern.

Giller Building, located at 975 W 41st Street in Miami Beach. Photo courtesy of Max Imberman (2017).

Giller Building, located at 975 W 41st Street in Miami Beach. Photo courtesy of Max Imberman (2017).

Norman Giller was born in 1918 in Jacksonville but spent much of his childhood in Miami Beach and Washington, DC. He worked for a Washington architect right out of high school before taking a position with the U.S. Navy in Key West. With World War II on the horizon, Giller was transferred to the Army Corps of Engineers’ offices in Jacksonville to help design buildings for military bases in Florida and Georgia. Up to this point, his training had come on the job rather than from school, but Army rules required him to seek an architecture degree. Giller complied and graduated from the University of Florida in 1945.

Norman Giller (left) and Al Sutton (right) in Miami Beach (1944).

Norman Giller (left) and Al Sutton (right) in Miami Beach (1944).

After the war, Giller opened up his own architectural firm in Miami Beach. Business was booming–the war had forced most construction projects to the back burner, but once peace was restored the demand for new buildings skyrocketed. Even as a young architect just starting out on his own, Giller quickly landed more than a hundred clients. “The phone would ring,” he later recalled. “I’ve got a piece of property and I want to build an apartment building, I want to build a house, or I want to build some stores.” In those busy early days, Giller remembered having seven associates working on a single table to draw up plans.

Record of Registered Architects maintained by the Secretary of State (Series S1195). Norman Giller held certificate #1515. State Archives of Florida.

Record of Registered Architects maintained by the Secretary of State (Series S1195). Norman Giller held certificate #1515. State Archives of Florida.

From the beginning of his career, Giller was an innovator, even when it came to the technical details of design. Once during the war, the Army assigned him to build housing for a base in South Florida, and while the plans called for heating units, there was no plan for air-conditioning. Giller read up on a central heat and air-conditioning system that would do both jobs for one cost and convinced the military to use it. He was also one of the first architects to use PVC plumbing rather than traditional metal pipes, which tended to corrode and fail quicker when exposed to salt air and coastal soils.

Giller designed everything from nightclubs to banks to synagogues, but he is best remembered for his work on the hotels and motels that helped make Miami Beach a world-class tourist destination in the postwar era. He later noted that what architectural historians now call “Miami Modern” didn’t seem like anything special at the time. “Everybody was just designing what we called contemporary architecture of the time,” he said. “When you’re doing that, you’re not saying, ‘Gee, I want to design a [Miami Modern] building or an Art Deco building.'”

The Carillon Hotel in Miami Beach, designed by Norman M. Giller (circa 1960).

The Carillon Hotel in Miami Beach, designed by Norman M. Giller and built in 1955 (photo circa 1960).

Miami Modern had its own look and feel, however. It reflected the optimism of post-World War II America, combined with an abiding faith in progress and reverence for Miami’s tropical qualities. Architects designing in this style used vivid colors, curved lines, glass walls, glass tile, colorful Formica surfaces and floating staircases to transport the visitor into the hopeful future many Americans felt was already coming their way. Giller brought this style to bear on large hotels such as The Carillon, as well as many smaller establishments of “motel row,” including the Thunderbird and Ocean Palm motels in Miami Beach. Most of these retained the traditional two-story floor plan–the four-story Thunderbird being a notable exception–but Giller took steps to incorporate some of the features that made his larger projects more exciting and comfortable. He eliminated interior hallways, instead having guests reach their rooms using covered walkways with the waves of the Atlantic Ocean crashing in the background. Brilliantly colored and whimsically shaped facades attracted the tourist’s attention from the highway, while the same shapes and colors repeated throughout the rooms and common areas.

View of the Thunderbird Resort Motel on Miami Beach, designed by Norman Giller. This promotional brochure includes images from throughout the building, illustrating Giller's innovative architectural techniques (State Library Ephemera Collection).

View of the Thunderbird Resort Motel on Miami Beach, designed by Norman Giller. This promotional brochure includes images from throughout the building, illustrating Giller’s innovative architectural techniques. Click or tap the image to enlarge it (State Library Ephemera Collection).

The Giller Building is an adaptation of this style for an office environment. Giller built the original four-story structure in 1957 to house his growing architectural firm and a few additional tenants. The construction of the nearby Julia Tuttle Causeway in 1961 inspired Giller to expand the building with a six-story addition for more offices and tenants. The entire edifice is a celebration of the Miami Modern style that Giller helped promote, including floating staircases, glass tile mosaics on the exterior, and plenty of plate glass doors and windows.

Floating staircase inside the Giller Building (2017).

Floating staircase inside the Giller Building. Photo courtesy of Max Imberman (2017).

Norman Myer Giller passed away in 2008, but monuments to his architectural contributions can still be found across Florida and throughout the Western Hemisphere. He designed motels in Key West, Jacksonville, Georgia, New Jersey, and even Canada, government buildings at Kennedy Space Center, and public facilities throughout Latin America. He was heavily involved in local civic affairs, chaired the South Florida chapter of the American Institute of Architects and received a number of awards and other honors for his work.

Is there a building in your Florida town that qualifies for listing on the National Register of Historic Places? Visit the Division of Historical Resources’ website to find out more about submitting a nomination!

Researching State and County Officers

Do you have an ancestor who served in public office at the county or state level? Are you trying to determine who was sheriff or tax collector or county judge at a certain point in your county’s history? Good news! The State Archives can help you get some answers!

One of the primary responsibilities of the secretary of state (or territory prior to 1845) is to keep track of who has been officially appointed or elected to each office, both for the state and its various counties. This information is documented in several kinds of records here at the State Archives, which can come in handy if you’re researching a local history topic or the life of an ancestor who was a public servant.

To explain the kinds of records we have available and how to use them to research a specific person, let’s start with an example. Let’s say you know you have an ancestor named J.W. Applegate who lived from around the 1830s to about 1919, and you’ve always heard he was either a member of the school board or the superintendent of public instruction in Clay County, but you don’t know exactly when.

 

Step 1: Consult the State and County Officer Directories (Series S259 and S1284).

The easiest way to begin is to look for the person in the State and County Officer Directories. These are a series of bound ledgers containing lists of county and state officials. Series S259 covers the Territorial Era and the early years of Florida’s statehood, while Series S1284 runs roughly from 1845 to about 1989, overlapping slightly with Series S259. Each entry lists the officer’s name, date of commission, election or appointment, and remarks explaining how their term of office ended. Usually their term simply expired according to law, but sometimes the person resigned, died, moved away from the state or was removed from office by the governor. After about 1870, the volumes also list the person’s post office address, which can be very handy if you’re tracking down an ancestor who gave the census takers the slip! Here’s an example of what the ledgers look like:

Volume 7 of the State and County Officer Directories (Series S1284).

Volume 7 of the State and County Officer Directories (Series S1284).

Returning to our example, let’s look for J.W. Applegate. The volumes in Series S259 and S1284 are arranged chronologically, so let’s look at volumes from when he was at about the right age for public service, maybe his 30s and 40s. Lo and behold! Here we find him listed in Series S1284, Volume 7, which covers the period from 1871 to 1889. It looks like he actually held more than one office during this period:

Page from Volume 7 of Series S1284 showing commission data from officers of Clay County in the 1870s. J.W. Applegate shows up with two different commissions, one as county treasurer and one as Superintendent of Public Instruction.

Page from Volume 7 of Series S1284 showing commission data from officers of Clay County in the 1870s. J.W. Applegate shows up with two different commissions, one as county treasurer and one as superintendent of public instruction (Click the image to enlarge).

Just from this one record, we can see that J.W. Applegate held two commissions in the 1870s, one as superintendent of public instruction and one as county treasurer. We also can see that he lived in Green Cove Springs at the time. For his commission as superintendent of public instruction, we get the date of his actual commission, as well as the day his written oath of office was filed with the Secretary of State. For his term as county treasurer, we get a little more. Since county treasurers had to be bonded, we can see the date his bond was received by the Secretary of State. In both cases, we get the length of time he was to serve, verification that he had paid his taxes, and some information about how his term ended. Applegate’s term as county treasurer expired according to law, meaning someone was elected to take his place. He resigned, however, from his position as superintendent of public instruction, and in this case we don’t get the date that occurred.

What else can we learn?

 

Step 2: Find the person’s commission.

In many cases, the State Archives has more than just an index entry documenting a person’s public service. We also usually have a copy of the person’s commission, their signed oath of office, and a copy of their bond if it was required by law for them to have one.

Let’s start with the commission. This is simply the governor’s official notice to a state or county officer that they are confirmed in office and can begin exercising their duties. Here’s the one J.W. Applegate received when he became superintendent of public instruction for Clay County in 1874:

J.W. Applegate's commission as Superintendent of Public Schools for Clay County, in Volume 4 of the Secretary of State's Record of Cmmissions (Series S1285), State Archives of Florida.

J.W. Applegate’s commission as superintendent of public instruction for Clay County, in Volume 4 of the Secretary of State’s Record of Commissions (Series S1285), State Archives of Florida.

Commissions for public officers were recorded in different ways over time, so tracking one down can take some digging. Here are the catalog records for the record series where most commissions may be found:

Series S1285: Commissions for State and County Officers, 1845-1900
Series S1286: Commissions for State Appointed Officers, 1898-1964, 1969-78
Series S1287: Commissions for County Appointed Officers, 1901-1951
Series S1288: Commissions for County Elected Officers, 1898-1963, 1969-78, 1989-2004
Series S1289: Commissions for Officers Elected to Ad Interim Positions, 1906-1935
Series S1290: Commissions for Senate-Confirmed Officers, 1913-1963
Series S623: Commissions for Judges, 1935-1942

If you’re looking for a commission that falls outside these categories, contact the State Archives Reference Desk for further assistance.

 

Step 3: Find the person’s oath and bond (if applicable).

All public officials typically had to sign an oath swearing to uphold the state constitution and discharge the duties of their office to the best of their ability in accordance with the law. The signed oaths were filed in the office of the secretary of state, and many are available in the State Archives’ collections. Here, for example, is the one J.W. Applegate signed after he was elected superintendent of public instruction for Clay County in 1874.

Oath of Joseph W. Applegate, Superintendent of Public Instruction for Clay County (1874), in Box 3, folder 2, Oaths and Bonds of State and County Officers (Series S622), State Archives of Florida.

Oath of J.W. Applegate, superintendent of public instruction for Clay County (1874), in Box 3, Folder 2, Oaths and Bonds of State and County Officers (Series S622), State Archives of Florida.

Additionally, in some cases state law required a person to be bonded if he was going to be handling money or financial transactions on behalf of the county. Applegate was not required to be bonded for his position as superintendent of public instruction, but he did need a bond to be county treasurer, and here it is:

Bond of Joseph W. Applegate, County Treasurer - Clay County (1873) in Box 3, folder 2, Oaths and Bonds of State and County Officers (Series S622), State Archives of Florida.

Bond of J.W. Applegate, county treasurer – Clay County (1873) in Box 3, Folder 2, Oaths and Bonds of State and County Officers (Series S622), State Archives of Florida.

 

Most oaths and bonds for county and state officers between 1845 and the mid-20th century are found in Series S622, with a few exceptions. Oaths and bonds for notaries who held office between 1845 and 1897, for example, are in Series S16.

 

Step 4: Check for related documentation about the person’s service.

While the county courthouse is your best bet for finding records relating to the work a person did while serving in a county office, the State Archives sometimes has a few additional helpful documents. In J.W. Applegate’s case, for example, we see from his entry in the State and County Officer Directory that he resigned his post as superintendent of public instruction, although we’re not given a date. Sometimes we can get a few clues as to why a person may have resigned from their position by determining the date of the resignation and checking to see if their letter of resignation to the governor has survived.

There are two main ways to find out when a person resigned from a county or state office. One is to look at the State and County Officer Directory and see if the secretary of state’s office made a note in the “Remarks” column dating the event. In Applegate’s case, we only get the fact he resigned. The second method is to look for the governor’s acceptance of the resignation. Luckily, governors from 1868 to 1975 kept track of all the resignations they accepted in a single set of volumes contained in Series S260. The 10 handwritten volumes in the series are essentially in chronological order and many have indexes.

Those records can tell us when a person resigned, but what about why? For that information, the best source is the officer’s own explanation in a letter of resignation. Resignation letters can be found in one of several places depending on the time period. For mid-to-late 19th century cases like our friend J.W. Applegate, the best place to start is Series S1326which includes letters of resignation written to the governor and filed by the secretary of state, as well as notices from the governor that he had removed an official by executive authority. This series is far from exhaustive, but it contains some interesting insights into 19th century politics and the lives of public servants from that era, which we explored in a recent post titled ‘I Quit!!!’ In the case of Mr. Applegate, no letter of resignation was available to document his decision to quit the role of superintendent of public instruction, but there is a letter from the governor announcing his decision to remove Applegate from his other job as county treasurer:

Letter from Governor George Franklin Drew to Secretary of State William D. Bloxham announcing several removals from office for Clay County (January 11, 1877). Found in Box 1, folder 3 of Resignations and Removals (Series S1326), State Archives of Florida.

Letter from Governor George Franklin Drew to Secretary of State William D. Bloxham announcing several removals from office for Clay County (January 11, 1877). Found in Box 1, folder 3 of Resignations and Removals (Series S1326), State Archives of Florida.

Even though this document doesn’t give us a clear reason for Applegate’s departure from either the office of county treasurer or superintendent of public instruction, we can use a little historical context to make an educated guess. Notice the date of this removal notice from Governor Drew – January 11, 1877. Drew had just been voted into office as the first Democrat to serve as governor since the end of the Civil War. Applegate, as well as everyone else named in the letter, had been appointed by Drew’s Republican predecessors during Reconstruction.  The political divide between the two major parties was acrimonious during this period, and upon taking office Drew took every opportunity he could to remove his political opponents from power. This caused, as you can imagine, a considerable amount of paperwork in the form of removal notices and new commissions, oaths and bonds, which are well documented in the State Archives collections. Considering J.W. Applegate was removed at the same time as the entire Clay County Board of Commissioners right after Drew took office, he was almost certainly part of this purge. Additional research in the papers of Governor Drew or local sources in Clay County would help verify this hypothesis.

Researching in These Records

The records described in this blog are all open for public research here at the State Archives, or you can contact the State Archives Reference Desk to verify an officer’s dates of service or get copies of their commission, oath, or bond if it has survived. When you call or email, make sure you include the person’s full name, the county they served in, the office you think they served in, and as close as possible to the dates they would have served. If you aren’t sure about the dates, have the person’s birth and death dates ready – that will at least narrow down the search. Consult the State Archives’ fee schedule to find out the cost of receiving copies or scans.

Florida’s First Lady at War

World War II was an all-encompassing event for Floridians who lived through it. Between calls for military service, blackouts, food and fuel rationing, and the retooling of industries to feed supplies and equipment to soldiers on the front, no man, woman or child was left unaffected. That extended to Florida’s first family as well. Governor Spessard Lindsey Holland was only about a year into his administration when the U.S. entered World War II, and naturally it became a defining feature of his tenure as the state’s chief executive. But Governor Holland wasn’t the only member of his household who went all out to support the war effort. His wife, Mary Agnes Groover Holland, played a vital role as well.

First Lady Mary Groover Holland breaks a bottle of champagne against the hull of the USS Shasta, built by the Tampa Shipbuilding Company (July 9, 1941).

First Lady Mary Groover Holland breaks a bottle of champagne against the hull of the USS Shasta, an ammunition ship built by the Tampa Shipbuilding Company (July 9, 1941).

Even before the United States officially entered the war, Mrs. Holland supported the Allies through humanitarian efforts such as the Bundles for Britain program. This arm of the British War Relief Society gathered donations of medical supplies, clothing, food and other essentials and sent them to Britain, which was at that time bearing the brunt of Hitler’s assault on Western Europe. In March 1941, Mrs. Holland visited the headquarters of the Bundles chapter at the Florida State College for Women to inspect the work being done there by the students and faculty. When she learned that some of the young women had not yet learned how to knit, she took a seat and put on a demonstration.

First Lady Mary Holland shows Norma Pennoyer of Coconut Grove how to knit (1941).

First Lady Mary Holland shows Norma Pennoyer of Coconut Grove how to knit (1941).

Once the United States was officially in the war and the federal government ramped up its efforts to mobilize the home front, Mary Holland used her position as Florida’s first lady to give civilian defense efforts a little extra publicity. When the State Defense Council organized drives to collect scrap metal for recycling into war materiel, she searched high and low in the Governor’s Mansion for items to contribute. She also hosted a very important delegation of Floridians connected with the scrapping effort – schoolchildren who had won a statewide contest to collect the most scrap metal. Six children were selected at the end of that contest to take part in the christening of a Liberty ship in Mobile named for Colin P. Kelly Jr. of Madison, who had been one of the first U.S. airmen to perish in combat after the attack on Pearl Harbor. While en route to Mobile, the children stopped off in Tallahassee and visited the Governor’s Mansion, where they had the opportunity to explore the governor’s desk and play Chinese checkers and darts with Mrs. Holland.

Florida's First Lady, Mary Holland, playing Chinese checkers with her house guests at the Governor's Mansion in Tasllahassee (December 1942). Seated around the table are Gwendolyn Willcocks, Allen Shelton, Mrs. Holland, and Albert W. Thompson (?).

First Lady Mary Holland playing Chinese checkers with her house guests at the Governor’s Mansion in Tallahassee (December 1942). Seated around the table are Gwendolyn Willcocks, Allen Shelton, Mrs. Holland, and Albert W. Thompson (?).

Mrs. Holland’s efforts to recruit women for the Women’s Army Corps (WACs) were perhaps her most important contribution. In September 1943, Governor Holland appointed his wife chairman of the All-States WAC Recruiting Campaign for Florida, challenging her to enlist 1,000 women into the program. Mrs. Holland worked closely with the State Defense Council to appoint recruiters in each county and regularly attended WAC events to encourage the enlistees. “This is our war job – the task that we women can undertake in support of our fighting men,” she wrote in a letter to recruiters. “We cannot let them down.”

First Lady Mary Holland participates in the unveiling of a memorial to Colin P. Kelly, Jr. in Madison (June 16, 1944).

First Lady Mary Holland participates in the unveiling of a memorial to Colin P. Kelly Jr. in Madison (June 16, 1944).

Mary Holland’s contributions are just one example of the patriotic service to community and country that Florida women rendered during World War II. Check out our World War II in Florida exhibit, as well as the Florida World War II Heritage Trail, established by the Florida Department of State.

 

The Walking Senator

In the parlance of American politics, when someone is up for election to a public office, we say that she or he is running for that office. In 1970, however, a young state senator from Lakeland named Lawton Chiles decided he’d rather walk.

Then-State Senator Lawton Mainor Chiles, Jr. walks along a Florida highway during his campaign for the U.S. Senate (1970).

Florida State Senator Lawton Mainor Chiles Jr. walks along a Florida highway during his campaign for the U.S. Senate (1970).

Lawton Mainor Chiles Jr. was a Florida native, born in Lakeland in 1930 and educated at the University of Florida (UF). He served in the United States Army as an artillery officer during the Korean War before returning to UF for law school. Chiles graduated with his law degree in 1955 and opened up a practice in his hometown. Just three years later, at the age of 29, Chiles won a seat in the Florida House of Representatives, where he served through 1966, when he was elected to the Florida Senate.

Representatives Don Fuqua (left) and Lawton Chiles (right) looking over a bill during the 1961 legislative session in Tallahassee.

Representatives Don Fuqua (left) and Lawton Chiles (right) looking over a bill during the 1961 legislative session in Tallahassee.

But Chiles had his sights set even higher. In 1969, he announced his decision to run for the U.S. Senate seat being vacated by veteran statesman Spessard Holland the next year. Holland had been a fixture in Florida politics for decades, having served as a state senator in the 1930s and then governor during most of World War II (1941-1945). His U.S. Senate career had begun the very next year in 1946. After serving nearly 25 years in that capacity, he would certainly leave big shoes for his successor to fill.

Chiles believed he was up to the task, but he had some obstacles to overcome. Polls showed that only about four percent of Florida’s 2.7 million voters knew who he was. That problem would become even more pressing when former Governor C. Farris Bryant entered the race against Chiles for the Democratic nomination. Chiles needed voters to get to know him and his ideas if he was to have a shot at even making it to the general election. Moreover, he needed to get this publicity on a tight budget. As a younger, lesser-known candidate whose political career had mainly focused on one specific part of the state, Chiles lacked the far-reaching fundraising network that some of his opponents could draw from.

That’s where the idea for a statewide walking campaign came in. Rhea Chiles, Lawton’s wife, hatched the plan, according to later recollections from their son Bud. She suggested it at a strategy session at the couple’s home in Lakeland on March 12, 1970. A number of friends and political allies were skeptical and counseled against the idea. It took Chiles less than a day, however, to decide that a walking campaign was exactly what he would do. He explained that the concept dovetailed perfectly with the principles he laid out in announcing his decision to run for office–his determination to be a “working candidate” and talk with real everyday Floridians and learn about their desires, concerns and ideas.

Cover of a brochure published by Lawton Chiles' 1970 Senate campaign to explain Chiles' decision to

Cover of a brochure published by Lawton Chiles’ 1970 Senate campaign to explain Chiles’ decision to “walk” rather than “run” for office (State Library of Florida Campaign Literature Collection). Click or tap the image to view the complete brochure.

Chiles headed up to the Florida Panhandle and began looking for a logical spot to begin the walk. He and his supporters decided on Century, a small town in Escambia County, north of Pensacola on the Florida-Alabama line. The plan was to start in Century and end up all the way down in Key Largo, stopping for 60 days in Tallahassee for the 1970 spring legislative session. Chiles would walk the route six days per week and rest on the seventh. A camper would follow him with supplies and a place to rest, eat and sleep along the way.

Chiles waves to bystanders gathered to see him enter town during his 1970 walking campaign.

Chiles waves to bystanders gathered to see him enter town during his 1970 walking campaign.

The walk began on March 17, and it quickly became clear that Chiles had definitely gotten one thing correct: Floridians had a lot to talk about with this man who wanted to become their next U.S. Senator. Chiles reported having conversations with people on everything from the price of doing business as a small farmer to the war in Vietnam to school integration to the backlog of work remaining to be done on Interstate 10 through the Panhandle. And Chiles didn’t typically have to find people to talk to – they came to him. Campaign officials encouraged Floridians to walk alongside the candidate to share their ideas, and many did. Some even cooked meals for the campaign or hosted community events to welcome the Chiles caravan into town. The day-to-day events of Chiles’ journey are well-documented, both in newspaper articles and progress reports published by the campaign, copies of which are now in the State Library’s Campaign Literature Collection and available on Florida Memory. This map shows the route Chiles took from Century to Key Largo in pink, with some criss-crossing in the middle of the state. Click the map to zoom in on parts of the route.

A 1970 Official State Highway Map showing the route of Lawton Chiles' 1,003-mile walk between Century in the Panhandle to John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park near Key Largo. Map courtesy of the Florida Department of Transportation.

A 1970 Official State Highway Map showing the route of Lawton Chiles’ 1,003-mile walk between Century in the Panhandle to John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park near Key Largo. Map courtesy of the Florida Department of Transportation.

Naturally, this method of campaigning had some pitfalls. Pop-up rain showers often forced Chiles to stop and change clothes throughout the day, and motorists didn’t always keep a safe distance as they passed him on the highway. The walking itself was taxing, and Chiles reported getting “stove up” like an old racehorse after just a few days on the road. His legs and feet gradually became more accustomed to the demanding task at hand, but that didn’t stop Floridians from showing their concern. People constantly asked him about his feet, and they sometimes brought out home remedies for blisters or underwear or other “helpful” gifts. One person gave Chiles a giant ball of twine for him to unwind as he went along so he would be able to find his way home.

Lawton Chiles walking in the Springtime Tallahassee parade (1970).

Lawton Chiles walking in the Springtime Tallahassee parade (1970).

Chiles’ journey across the state came to an end on August 19, 1970, when he walked into the John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park in Key Largo. He had walked 1,003 miles in 91 days, going through five pairs of boots and losing twelve pounds and three inches from his waistline. He told a Miami Herald reporter who joined him for the last mile or so that he could hardly believe it was really over. “I wonder what I’m going to do tomorrow,” he said.

As it turned out, Chiles was about to have plenty to do. He qualified for a runoff with fellow Democratic candidate Farris Bryant, and clinched the Democratic nomination two weeks later on September 29. President Richard Nixon himself came to Florida to campaign for the Republican challenger, William Cramer, but ultimately Chiles came out ahead on Election Day and won a seat in the U.S. Senate. He would serve for three terms as senator (1971-1989) before returning to state government for two terms as governor (1991-1998).

Governor Lawton Chiles and First Lady Rhea Chiles in Tallahassee (1991).

Governor Lawton Chiles and First Lady Rhea Chiles in Tallahassee (1991).

Lawton Chiles died December 12, 1998, just three weeks before the end of his final term as governor. In a homage to the unique campaign that had introduced him to so many Floridians in 1970, Chiles’ funeral procession retraced part of the route of his walking tour, starting in Century and ending in Tallahassee, where his casket lay in state in the Old Capitol prior to his funeral. The Florida Legislature further honored Chiles’ memory by designating the entire route of Chiles’ 1970 walking campaign as the “Lawton Chiles Trail.” The route is now marked with signs depicting one of the most iconic artifacts of that journey–a well-worn pair of walking boots. Those boots, by the way, are on display at the Florida Historic Capitol Museum as part of the museum’s permanent collection.

One of many signs marking the "Lawton Chiles Trail" designated by the 1999 Florida Legislature. This one appears on State Highway 100 just outside of Lake Butler (Photo courtesy of the author).

One of many signs marking the “Lawton Chiles Trail” designated by the 1999 Florida Legislature. This one appears on State Highway 100 just outside of Lake Butler (Photo courtesy of the author).

Search the Florida Photographic Collection for more pictures illustrating Florida’s colorful political history, and check out the State Library’s Florida Governors bibliography to find related books and other resources.

Water Witching

After reading The Wizard of Oz or watching the film adaptation, you may have come away thinking that witches and water don’t mix. Not so! In fact, people have been “witching” for water, oil, gold and other hidden things for thousands of years.

'Water witcher' Don Thompson of Clearwater at the 1977 Florida Folk Festival in White Springs.

‘Water witcher’ Don Thompson of Clearwater at the 1977 Florida Folk Festival in White Springs.

So-called water witching is the practice of locating a source of underground water using a simple tool, usually a Y-shaped object called a dowsing rod or divining rod. The traditional dowsing rod is often made from a local tree or bush, but some water witchers use brass, copper, nylon or even re-purposed objects like clothes hangers and wire.

Water witching has a long history, some even applying the term to the Biblical Moses striking a rock with his staff and causing water to flow from it. African cave paintings from 6,000-8,000 years ago found in the Atlas Mountains appear to depict water witching, and references to the practice appear in the ancient writings of Indian, Chinese, Egyptian and Persian thinkers. Evidence suggests dowsing first appeared in Europe in the 16th century, as dowsers attempted to divine sources of certain minerals. As Europeans began making their way to North America, they brought dowsing with them, and soon the practice became ingrained in the popular imagination as a legitimate way to prospect for water.

The procedure for water witching is deceptively simple. The operator holds the dowsing rod or other divining tool with palms facing up, thumbs outward and the tip of the rod pointing upward. As the water witcher walks along, the presence of underground water “pulls” the tip of the rod downward, allegedly with enough force in some cases to twist the bark on the handles of the rod. Science has yet to account for this phenomenon, but those who practice water witching and believe in its legitimacy say it’s all about the skill of the witcher. “You can either do it or you can’t do it,” longtime Florida Folk Festival director Thelma Boltin once said of it. Plenty of people certainly tried their hand at it while visiting the festival, with guidance from professional water witchers like Lonnie Morgan of White Springs and Don Thompson of Clearwater.

Here’s a brief audio clip of Lonnie Morgan explaining the art of water witching at the Florida Folk Festival in 1963, with some commentary from Thelma Boltin:

https://www.floridamemory.com/fpc/memory/blog/images/2018/waterwitching.mp3

From recording T77-140, Florida Folklife Collection (Series S1578), State Archives of Florida.

Water witcher Lonnie Morgan of White Springs holding a dowsing rod at the Florida Folk Festival in 1958.

Water witcher Lonnie Morgan of White Springs holding a dowsing rod at the Florida Folk Festival in 1958.

Dowsing rods have also come in handy for treasure hunters looking for other hidden goodies, like gold and silver coins and other objects. In the photo below, for example, we see a man using a dowsing rod to search for lost items on a beach in Pensacola. Whatever your thoughts about the merits of dowsing, you have to admit it’s less cumbersome than carrying around a metal detector!

Man hunting for treasure on a beach near Pensacola (1961).

Man hunting for treasure on a beach near Pensacola (1961).

In at least a few cases, dowsing rods have been at the center of much bigger, more dramatic Florida treasure hunts. George B. Mobley of Green Cove Springs made the news on several occasions in the 1940s and early 1950s with his divining rod and fantastic stories of buried Spanish pirate gold. In 1945 and again in 1948, Mobley got permission from city officials in Green Cove Springs to dig for treasure under a busy city street. He was bonded to ensure the damage to public property would be repaired, but Mobley was confident his venture would produce many times the value of what the repairs would cost.

Treasure hunter George B. Mobley and the

Treasure hunter George B. Mobley and his “money finding” device in Green Cove Springs (1948).

Both times, Mobley’s digs encountered natural obstacles, mainly the encroachment of water and quicksand into the shaft. As the 1948 dig grew deeper and still nothing was found, reporters repeatedly asked him if he might have made a mistake. “No sir,” he told the United Press, “it’s down there and as soon as we get all this muck out of the hole we’re going to dig it right up.” At one point during the excavation, Mobley decided to take his “money finding” divining rod into the open shaft to get a fresh reading on the gold to see how much farther his workers could expect to dredge. Mobley, at that time in his early 80s, was in no shape to go alone, so he sat on the lap of his chief contractor, J.T. Conway, as a crane lowered them both down into the hole.

Contractor J.T. Conway holds treasure hunter George B. Mobley on his lap as a crane lowers them both into an open shaft in Green Cove Springs. Mobley is seen holding his

Contractor J.T. Conway holds treasure hunter George B. Mobley on his lap as a crane lowers them both into an open shaft in Green Cove Springs. Mobley is seen holding his “money finding” device on the end of a divining rod (1948).

Mobley’s treasure hunt ended without much to show for the work. Although the team brought up a few metallic items they claimed could be connected with buried pirate treasure, they did not find the gold bars or coins they had believed were waiting for them. “The gold’s there all right,” Mobley said, “but now I think it’s gold dust instead of gold bars or coins and the dust has been mixed with the sand. We just couldn’t find it.”

While dowsing rods and similar devices haven’t proven very effective at pointing out sources of gold, water witching is still alive and well in the 21st century. In fact, there’s still an active American Society of Dowsers with chapters right here in Florida!  The U.S. Geological Survey and the National Ground Water Association both point out that the philosophy behind dowsing doesn’t stand up to scientific scrutiny, yet they continue to field questions about it from the public, and both groups have found it necessary over the years to publish leaflets addressing the practice.

What kinds of treasure have you discovered in your corner of the state? Leave us a comment, and don’t forget to share this blog with your friends on Facebook or Twitter.

 

I Quit!!!

Did you know the State Archives of Florida holds records documenting the service of virtually every county official ever commissioned in the state’s history? All those judges, sheriffs, county commissioners, justices of the peace, tax assessors and such have to be officially commissioned before they really have the job, and the paperwork from that process generally ends up here at the State Archives, permanently preserved as part of Florida’s official records.

The records come in several forms, including written oaths, bonds, certificates of commission and directories used by government agencies to see who was doing which job in each of Florida’s counties. These documents are valuable for genealogists and local historians, since it’s possible to use them to make lists of a county’s officers dating back to territorial days. Also, some of the records are more narrative in nature and can tell us a bit about what it was like to be a public servant in Florida at a given time.

This is an example of one of the Secretary of State's directories of county and state officers (Series 1284). These directories run from 1845 to 1997, and a separate series (Series 259) covers the territorial era.

This is an example of a page from one of the Secretary of State’s directories of county and state officers (Series S1284). This one happens to be for officers commissioned for Polk County in the late 1870s and early 1880s. These directories run from 1845 to 1997, and a separate series (Series S259) covers the territorial era.

Resignation letters are one of the best kinds of records for conducting this type of research. Many of them are very short, polite and formulaic, saying something like “I hereby tender my resignation as Justice of the Peace for ….. County, but thank you for the honor of serving, etc. etc.” Other resigning officers are a little more descriptive, revealing either something about their lives or about conditions in their community that led them to give up their office. Whether you’re researching the history of an individual or the community they served in, this can be very helpful information!

In some cases, especially in the 19th century, people resigned from county offices because they just didn’t realize what they were getting themselves into. Many smaller offices like justice of the peace or constable were appointed in those days instead of elected, and often there wasn’t much competition for them. A group of neighbors would convince someone they trusted to serve, and then send in a petition for that person to get the commission. There’s a certain rustic democratic quality to this method, but it did sometimes result in officers who weren’t totally prepared for what was coming. Take for example the case of C.P. Murdock, a Methodist minister who resigned from his post as justice of the peace in Jefferson County in 1881. He told Governor George F. Drew he wouldn’t mind serving as a notary public, but the justice system just wasn’t for him. “I find that the ill will and strife which not infrequently attends little petty lawsuits,” he wrote, “are not compatible with my feelings as a Minister of the Gospel.”

Letter from Charles P. Murdock to Governor William D. Bloxham, resigning his position as justice of the peace in the area near Williamsburg (now called Aucilla) in Jefferson County (1881). Box 1, folder 8, Letters of resignation and removals from office (Series 1326), State Archives of Florida.

Letter from Charles P. Murdock to Governor William D. Bloxham, resigning his position as justice of the peace in the area near Williamsburg (now called Aucilla) in Jefferson County (1881). Box 1, folder 8, Letters of resignation and removals from office (Series S1326), State Archives of Florida.

D.W. Lister had a similar issue over in Lafayette County in 1880. In his resignation letter, he explained to Governor Drew that he took the office “not knowing what kind of county I was in as I had just arrived to it.” He wrote that he found it impossible to both exercise his duties as a justice of the peace and live in harmony with his neighbors, the same people he would be called by duty to prosecute for crimes like petit larceny, public drunkenness, etc. “While I am ready to admit it is impossible to please all,” he wrote, “I fail in a grate [sic] measure to please any.”

Letter from D.W. Lister to Governor George Franklin Drew, resigning his position as justice of the peace for Lafayette County (1880). Box 1, folder 9, Letters of resignation and removals from office (Series 1326), State Archives of Florida.

Letter from D.W. Lister to Governor George Franklin Drew, resigning his position as justice of the peace for Lafayette County (1880). Box 1, folder 9, Letters of resignation and removals from office (Series S1326), State Archives of Florida.

Some officials simply didn’t realize what kind of work was involved with the job. Adam Young, a farmer from Suwannee County, resigned his post as collector of revenue in 1876 after a new formula for calculating the sharing of tax money between the county and state threw him for a loop. “I find myself incompetent to attend to the duties required of me by the new system,” he wrote to Governor Marcellus Stearns. “Making reports and keeping the books requires a better mathematician than I am.”

Letter from Adam Young to Governor Marcellus Lovejoy Stearns, resigning his position as collector of revenue for Suwannee County (1876). Letters of resignation and removals from office (Series 1326), State Archives of Florida.

Letter from Adam Young to Governor Marcellus Lovejoy Stearns, resigning his position as collector of revenue for Suwannee County (1876). Letters of resignation and removals from office (Series S1326), State Archives of Florida.

Many county officers resigned their offices because they moved away from the area and could no longer serve the county or the part of the county they were assigned to. This was an especially common issue before the arrival of the automobile. In at least a few cases, however, it wasn’t the officer who moved, but the county itself! That’s what happened to Alden N. Sibley, a notary public for Sumter County. In 1887, he wrote to Governor Edward A. Perry resigning his commission and asking for a new one because, as he put it, his part of the county around Astatula had been “cut off” to form Lake County. Governor Perry obliged and ordered that Sibley receive the proper commission.

Letter from Alden N. Sibley of Astatula to Governor Edward Ayleworth Perry, resigning as a notary public (1887). Letters of resignation and removals from office (Series 1326), State Archives of Florida.

Letter from Alden N. Sibley of Astatula to Governor Edward Ayleworth Perry, resigning as a notary public (1887). Letters of resignation and removals from office (Series S1326), State Archives of Florida.

Sometimes resignations occurred as a matter of routine, either because a new governor had taken office or a new law had passed changing the nature of the position, or sometimes because the office had been eliminated. When Samuel McInnis of Hamilton County received a letter from Secretary of State Samuel McLin asking for his resignation as justice of the peace, McInnis wasn’t too bothered. In fact, he responded with a polite resignation letter and even a poem:

“Your Honor” no more to be called
But plain, simple Mister to be.
No more to the Court House be hauled
Nor grieve for the loss of a fee.

The “fee” refers to the fact that justices of the peace received a portion of the court costs associated with their efforts to try minor cases.

Letter from Samuel McInnis to Secretary of State Samuel B. McLin, resigning his office as justice of the peace for Hamilton County (1875). Letters of resignation and removals from office (Series 1326), State Archives of Florida.

Letter from Samuel McInnis to Secretary of State Samuel B. McLin, resigning his office as justice of the peace for Hamilton County (1875). Letters of resignation and removals from office (Series S1326), State Archives of Florida.

What kinds of historical gems could you find in records documenting the service of public officials from your county? That’s the exciting part of archival research – you never know what’s likely to turn up until you look. Check out the following records series for more information on some of the documents we have illustrating the service of county officials, and plan a visit to the State Archives in Tallahassee!

 

Series S1284: State and County Directories, 1845-1997

Series S259: Lists of Territorial, State, and County Officers, 1827-1923

Series S622: Oaths and Bonds of Public Officials, 1845-2004

Series S1326: Resignations and Removals from Public Office, 1844-1904

 

A Brush with the Black Death

If you thought bubonic plague only caused epidemics in medieval Europe, think again! Pensacola experienced an outbreak of the infamous disease in 1920 that resulted in at least seven deaths. The episode turned out to be a transitional moment for public health in the city, as local, state and federal officials took action to prevent future attacks.

A schooner loading lumber in Pensacola Harbor, ca. 1900. Ships like this one may have been the source of the rats (and fleas) that transmitted the bubonic plague to humans during the outbreak of 1920.

A schooner loading lumber in Pensacola Harbor, ca. 1900. Ships like this one may have been the source of the rats (and fleas) that transmitted the bubonic plague to humans during the outbreak of 1920.

Bubonic plague is caused by the bacterium Yersinia pestis, typically spread by infected fleas on small rodents like mice or rats. Vaccines don’t do much to prevent the plague, but it responds well to several kinds of antibiotics. Unfortunately, those medicines were not around in the 14th century when the bubonic plague struck Europe, resulting in the deaths of somewhere between 30 and 60 percent of the population. The term “Black Death” is often used to describe this European outbreak, likely a reference to the dark lesions infected patients would develop under the skin as a result of internal bleeding. In reality, people at that time usually called the epidemic the “Big Death” or “Great Mortality.” After a series of later historians continued to use “Black Death” instead, however, the name stuck.

Bites from fleas like this one are typically responsible for transmitting the bubonic plague to humans.

Bites from fleas like this one are typically responsible for transmitting the bubonic plague to humans. Image courtesy of the University of Florida’s Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences.

The bubonic plague didn’t die with the Middle Ages. Outbreaks have occurred in every century since the Black Death, including as recently as 2017 in Madagascar. The plague outbreak in Pensacola was discovered by local physician Dr. Herbert Lee Bryans in June 1920 when one of his patients became very suddenly ill and delirious with fever. When the patient also developed a telltale “bubo” (a swollen and darkened gland infected by plague bacteria) near his groin, Bryans suspected something unusual and contacted the state bacteriologist, Dr. Fritz Albert Brink. After personally examining the patient, Brink quickly diagnosed the disease as the bubonic plague.

The World War I service card of Dr. Herbert Lee Bryans, the physician who first sounded the alarm in the Pensacola outbreak of plague in 1920.

The World War I service card of Dr. Herbert Lee Bryans, the physician who first sounded the alarm in the Pensacola outbreak of plague in 1920. Dr. Bryans served in the U.S. Army Medical Corps and was briefly on detached duty with the British Royal Army Medical Corps in England, Belgium and France. Click to enlarge the image.

To verify his suspicions, Brink took samples from the bubo, which he then injected into two guinea pigs. He also prepared slides to view under a microscope. All tests confirmed his original diagnosis. The guinea pigs quickly developed symptoms of plague and died, and the slides revealed bacteria consistent with Yersinia pestis. 

To stop the disease from spreading further, its source needed to be identified quickly. Bryans’ patient had not left Pensacola or been aboard a ship anytime recently, which ruled out the possibility that he had brought the disease into the city from someplace else. Still, several more cases appeared in June 1920. Since the modern bubonic plague generally cannot spread from person to person, this meant the source of infection had to be the fleas infesting local rodents.

Public health officials blamed rodents like this rat for harboring the fleas that transmitted the plague bacteria to humans.

Public health officials blamed rodents like this rat for harboring the fleas that transmitted the plague bacteria to humans.

Florida’s State Board of Health sprung into action, with support from the U.S. Public Health Service. The state officials already had a laboratory in Pensacola at the corner of Palafox and Cervantes streets, which became the control center for the eradication effort. Federal health authorities also brought in Hamilton, a mobile laboratory train car, to assist. The human plague victims were isolated and those who consented were treated with serum. Out of 10 total cases, seven victims died.

Flyer urging Pensacola citizens to cooperate with public health officials to help end the bubonic plague outbreak (1920).

Flier urging Pensacola citizens to cooperate with public health officials to help end the bubonic plague outbreak (1920). Box 1, Folder 22, Florida Health Notes Photographs (Series 917).

Meanwhile, city, state and federal authorities launched an all-out effort to eradicate the rodents responsible for harboring the infected fleas. The public health experts captured, examined and disposed of over 35,000 rats and mice from June 1920 to July 1921, carefully studying the fleas that came with them. The program’s final report gives 211 as the largest number of fleas found on a single rat, although the average was closer to about 10. City officials encouraged the public to do their share by trapping rats, covering them in oil to kill the fleas and turning them in to the public health experts for processing.

Map showing the locations of rats and humans found to be infected with bubonic plague bacteria. Both categories of infected cases are numbered in order of their discovery.

Map showing the locations of rats and humans found to be infected with bubonic plague bacteria. Both categories of infected cases are numbered in order of their discovery. Box 1, Folder 9, State Board of Health Subject Files (Series 900).

Wherever rats infected with plague bacteria were found, a team followed behind to clean up whatever conditions had made the property attractive to them. The eradication program ultimately used 1,228 pounds of cyanide and 1,854 pints of sulphuric acid to fumigate buildings. The team also demolished seven houses and hauled 280 truckloads of trash and debris to the city dumps. The city government did its part to prevent future rodent infestations by passing new ordinances requiring business owners and residents to ratproof their buildings. Plank sidewalks, which offered rats and mice a convenient space to live, were outlawed and replaced with stone, brick or concrete. Under the new laws, incoming ships had to attach rat shields to their mooring lines, and ramps and gangplanks leading from the ship to the wharf had to be taken up when not in use.

Pensacola’s brush with the bubonic plague was brief, but it still cost the city seven lives. Local citizens took the matter seriously, however, and acted quickly in ways that ultimately made Pensacola a safer, healthier place to live and work.

If you enjoyed reading about this episode in the history of Florida’s public health, check out our online exhibit, Pestilence, Potions, and Persistence: Early Florida Medicine.

Sources:

John Kelly. The Great Mortality: An Intimate History of the Black Death, the Most Devastating Plague of All Time. New York: HarperCollins, 2005.