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.

 

 

How’s Your Head, Governor Drew?

Can you guess which Florida governor weighed 185 pounds, had a brain 23¼ inches in diameter and was reportedly an uncommonly good judge of character? Stumped? To be fair, we wouldn’t have known either, had he not taken the time to consult a phrenologist while visiting New York in 1867. We recently came across the phrenologist’s report in this governor’s family papers and made it available on Florida Memory.

Cover of a phrenological character reading of George Franklin Drew, conducted by phrenologist Nelson Sizer on March 11, 1867 in New York City.

Cover of a phrenological character reading of George Franklin Drew, conducted by phrenologist Nelson Sizer on March 11, 1867 in New York City. Click the image to view the entire report.

Phrenology was a pseudo-science popular mainly in the early 19th century. Its founders, German physicians Franz Joseph Gall and Johann Spurzheim, claimed it was possible to determine the size and mental capacity of a person’s brain based on the bumps and indentations on the outside of the head. Phrenologists, who soon popped up on both sides of the Atlantic, would take measurements of a person’s head, note the places where it seemed to either be bulging or denting, and then write a report explaining the person’s character. The assumption was that every area of the brain covered a different aspect of personality and behavior. The more brain matter you had in a particular region, the more pronounced the corresponding trait would be.

Diagram illustrating the various

Diagram illustrating the various “faculties” of the brain, according to phrenologists.

Now a bit about Governor Drew. George Franklin Drew was born August 6, 1827, in New Hampshire, and got his start as a machinist’s apprentice in Massachusetts. At the age of 20, he moved to Columbus, Georgia, and started up his own machine shop before turning to the lumber industry. When the Civil War broke out in 1861, Drew opposed secession, which didn’t sit well with some of his neighbors, and he spent most of the war confined in Savannah.

Portrait of George Franklin Drew, likely taken during his administration as Florida's 12th state governor (1877-1881).

Portrait of George Franklin Drew, likely taken during his administration as Florida’s 12th state governor (1877-1881).

After the war, Drew originally intended to move with his family to Brazil, but he only made it as far south as Suwannee County, Florida, where he invested his remaining fortune in timber land and a sawmill. He later moved his operation to Ellaville in Madison County, and built what was then believed to be the largest sawmill in the South.

Drew Lumber Company sawmill on the Suwannee River at Ellaville (ca. 1875).

Drew Lumber Company sawmill on the Suwannee River at Ellaville (ca. 1875).

It was during this era of his life that Drew visited New York City, probably on business, and happened to stop by the Fowler and Wells Phrenological Cabinet, a museum with plaster casts of heads and skulls and all kinds of memorabilia associated with the phrenology movement. While there, he received a full phrenological workup from Nelson Sizer, professor of “mental science” in the American Phrenological Institute and associate editor of the American Phrenological Journal. Sizer’s report on Drew was lengthy, but here are a few of the characteristics he “discovered” in the future governor while examining his head:

  • He was a good judge of character.
  • He appreciated people of principle and expected others to practice what they preached.
  • He liked to eat. Sizer wrote, “You have a strong appetite, which should be regulated.”
  • He was eager to be respected.

Sizer also offered Drew some advice, mainly regarding his diet:

  • Avoid pork and pastry and “highly seasoned things.”
  • Don’t use tobacco.
  • Eat lean beef and tart fruits and cut down on butter and sugar.

Sizer’s report was vague, but his overall positive view of Drew’s talent for business and management seemed to ring true. Drew’s lumber operations continued to grow, and he expanded into railroads and the mercantile trade as well. In 1870, he became chairman of the Madison County Commission, and in 1876 Florida’s Democratic Party nominated him for governor. The election results were close in both the presidential and gubernatorial elections that year. The initial returns gave the governorship of Florida to the incumbent, Marcellus Stearns, but a Supreme Court-mandated recount revealed George Franklin Drew as the winner. Drew served one term as governor, the first Democrat to hold that office since Florida had been readmitted to the Union after the Civil War. His administration effectively ended Reconstruction in Florida, and no Republican would again occupy the governor’s mansion until Claude Kirk took office in 1967.

Governor Drew's signature, in this case applied to a legislative act establishing a game hunting season. Volume 69, Acts and Resolutions of the Legislature (Series 222), State Archives of Florida.

Governor Drew’s signature, in this case applied to a legislative act establishing a game hunting season. Volume 69, Acts and Resolutions of the Legislature (Series 222), State Archives of Florida.

Shortly after returning to private life, Drew sold off his lumbering interests and moved to Jacksonville, where he spent the remainder of his days. On September 24, 1900, Drew’s wife Amelia experienced a stroke, which the former governor described in a letter to their daughter Vannie. “We have lived together so many years,” he wrote, “that I don’t care to live after she is taken away.” Drew meant what he said. Two hours after Amelia died on September 26th, Governor Drew himself collapsed and died. The local newspaper diagnosed the cause as simply a broken heart.

Governor George Franklin Drew's final letter, written to his daughter Vannie on September 24, 1900. Drew Family Papers (M82-8), State Archives of Florida.

Governor George Franklin Drew’s final letter, written to his daughter Vannie on September 24, 1900.

Looking for more information about Florida’s governors? Try searching the Florida Photographic Collection or Selected Documents!

Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in Florida

April 4, 2018, marks the 50th anniversary of the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., a towering figure in the history of civil rights activism. Florida Governor Rick Scott directed the flags on public buildings throughout the state to be flown at half-mast, and proclaimed the day as Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. 50th Anniversary Remembrance Day.

Reactions to Dr. King’s killing in 1968 were swift and widespread, as his many followers took to the streets to vent their frustration over the loss of such a powerful force for peaceful change. For many civil rights activists in Florida, this loss was personal. King had not only inspired them but in some cases had directly supported or even personally participated in their mission to banish segregation from the Sunshine State.

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. (ca. 1960s)

Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. (ca. 1960s)

One example of this is the notice Dr. King took of a group of African-American students who were jailed in 1960 for staging a sit-in at the Woolworth’s lunch counter in Tallahassee. Patricia and Priscilla Stephens, students at Florida A&M University and founders of the Tallahassee chapter of the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) were instrumental in organizing the protests and were among the students arrested. They were charged with civil disobedience and ordered to pay a $300 fine or spend 60 days in jail. Eight students, including the Stephens sisters, chose to go to jail rather than pay the fine, underscoring their assertion that their cause was just.

This “jail-in” attracted significant media attention, and supportive letters and telegrams began arriving from across the nation, including a telegram from Dr. King. Using local Tallahassee civil rights activist Rev. C.K. Steele as an intermediary, Dr. King urged the students to “remember that unearned suffering is redemptive. Going to jail for a righteous cause is a badge of honor and a symbol of dignity.” Here is the complete message, one of many digitized as part of the Stephens Sisters Jail-In Papers on Florida Memory:

Transcript of a telegram from Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. to Rev. C.K. Steele of Tallahassee, conveying a message to the eight students jailed in Tallahassee for staging a

Transcript of a telegram from Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. to Rev. C.K. Steele of Tallahassee, conveying a message to the eight students jailed in Tallahassee for staging a “sit-in” at the segregated Woolworth’s lunch counter in 1960.

Dr. King was more directly involved in a series of protests in mid-1964 in St. Augustine, which was then preparing to celebrate its 400th anniversary. Racial unrest had been on the upswing for over a year, stemming from ongoing segregation in the city, and especially from local officials’ near-complete exclusion of African-Americans from the celebration planning process. The Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) began directly supporting local civil rights activists in St. Augustine in the spring of 1964, with Dr. King himself arriving in May to rally the protesters. He was arrested on June 11 along with fellow civil rights leader Ralph Abernathy when the two men requested service at a segregated restaurant. King was subsequently moved to the Duval County jail, where he reportedly said to one African-American employee, “Hello, sister. I’ve been in fifteen jails, but this is the first time that I have been treated like a hog.” King was eventually released, but he was arrested at least twice more that same month during his stay in St. Augustine. The protests King and the SCLC helped organize were not in vain. The episode helped galvanize support for the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which was before Congress at that moment, and was signed into law by President Lyndon Johnson on July 2.

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. in the back of a police car after facing the St. Johns County grand jury in June 1964.

Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in the back of a police car after facing the St. Johns County grand jury in June 1964.

St. Augustine’s arrest records for June 30, 1964. The entry for Dr. King’s arrest is located near the bottom of the page.

When Dr. King was assassinated on April 4, 1968, reactions in Florida ranged from quiet memorials to passionate demonstrations and rioting. Local and state officials acted quickly to restore the peace, but they also gave a nod of respect to King’s fervent belief in the power of peaceful protest. Governor Claude Kirk issued a statement directing the flags on public buildings in Florida to be flown at half-mast for two days to honor the passing of both Dr. King and a Tallahassee man who died when a firebomb was thrown into his family’s grocery store during tense demonstrations the day before. “Every Floridian has a choice,” Kirk wrote. “It is whether to turn to the advocates of violence and insurrection for leadership, or to renew our commitment to equal opportunity and racial justice through peaceful means.”

News release from Governor Kirk asking Floridians to display flags at half-mast from April 5-7, 1968, in memory of Martin Luther King Jr.

King’s legacy extends far beyond the annual celebration of his birthday in January or the many streets and highways named in his honor. For Floridians, including both veterans of the civil rights movement and young people just now learning about its history, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. still stands out as an example of tireless leadership and determination to fulfill the promise of equality and freedom for all Americans.

The Old Stagecoach Line

Imagine you wanted to take a trip to Tampa this weekend. How would you get there? Would you travel by car, by airplane, or maybe by bus? If we were living a hundred years ago, you might even choose to go by steamship or by train. Now imagine a time when none of those forms of transportation were an option for most destinations. How did people get around Florida in those days? One option was to take the stagecoach line.

Illustration of a stop along the stagecoach line on the King's Road, from Charles W. Bockelman's The King's Road to Florida (1975).

Illustration of a stop along the stagecoach line on the King’s Road in northeastern Florida, from Charles W. Bockelman’s The King’s Road to Florida (1975).

The stagecoach lines in Florida started out as routes for the U.S. Postal Service, which needed to establish good roads for transporting mail from place to place. Railroads and steamships carried the mail whenever possible, but for many frontier post offices in the interior these simply weren’t available yet.

Travelers needed good roads as much as letters did, and over time the Postal Service began turning its routes over to private companies, which built more comfortable horse-drawn coaches to carry both mail and passengers between communities. One of the earliest examples of this was the Concord Stagecoach Line, which connected Tampa and Palatka. The Concord was later purchased by Hubbard L. Hart, who operated steamships along the St. Johns and Ocklawaha rivers. As steamboat and railroad transportation became more widely available, stage lines were often integrated into the companies that operated them, connecting Florida’s main traffic routes with even the smallest communities.

Broadside announcing Hubbard Hart’s management of the old Concord Stagecoach Line (1855).

Stagecoach lines were a professional affair like modern bus or air lines, with tickets and schedules and regular routes. The ride, however, was anything but smooth. Florida’s rough and varied terrain made any cross-state journey difficult and lengthy. Primitive unpaved roads permitted speeds of only a few miles per hour, and crossing rivers often involved waiting for ferries. Most trips took multiple days, with passengers staying in hotels or boarding houses along the way. The Concord stage line between Tampa and Palatka, for example, stopped at Ocala and Melendez (modern-day Brooksville) overnight.

The stagecoach lines were a handy option for early travelers, but their time grew short once the railroad appeared on the scene. Florida was slow to exploit the “iron horse” at first, but after the Civil War railroads began criss-crossing the state, rendering many of the old stage routes obsolete. Trains simply carried mail and passengers faster and more efficiently than horse-drawn carriages.

A few relics of the stagecoach era can still be found here and there around Florida. Several counties have roads with names like “Old Post Road” or “Stagecoach Road” indicating where stage lines once operated. One community near Wesley Chapel even has the name “Stagecoach Village.” The old Concord Stage Line ran through the area a few miles away, and an explanatory historical marker is located along one of the main streets.

Historical marker for the Concord Stagecoach Road. Photo courtesy of Jeff Miller of the West Paco Historical Society.

Historical marker for the Concord Stagecoach Road. Photo courtesy of Jeff Miller of the West Paco Historical Society.

What former highways pass through your Florida community? Get the conversation started by posting a comment or sharing this post on Facebook or Twitter!

The Great Jacksonville Fire of 1901

The morning of Friday, May 3, 1901, dawned like any other late spring day in Jacksonville. Men and women went to work, children went to school, and soon the city was humming with its usual bustle of activity. By one o’clock that afternoon, however, the lazy calm would erupt into the most destructive disaster of the city’s history. A fire strengthened by favorable winds, dry conditions, and a path laden with wooden buildings would rage through Jacksonville, destroying thousands of buildings and millions of dollars in property.

View of Jacksonville's riverfront before the Great Fire (1894).

View of Jacksonville’s riverfront before the Great Fire (1894).

It all started at the Cleaveland Fibre Factory near the corner of Beaver and Davis streets in the LaVilla neighborhood. Workers had been busily laying moss out to dry in the sun when the noon whistle sang out to announce lunch. They made their way to the shade of the trees to eat, leaving the moss unattended. Normally, a few men would stick around to make sure no ashes or embers from the surrounding neighborhood made their way to the drying fibers, but on this day the lack of wind made such precaution seem unnecessary.

Spanish moss drying on racks - similar to the situation that led to the Great Jacksonville Fire (photo 1946).

This Spanish moss drying operation is similar to the one that started the Great Jacksonville Fire (photo 1946).

Then one of the workers noticed a small glowing spot in the moss and went over to investigate. Finding that the moss had somehow caught fire in several places, he called for help, but a deadly chain of events was already in motion. The wind, which had stayed quiet all morning, suddenly came to life, sending burning bits of moss closer and closer to the shed where the company’s stock of dried fibers was stored. The building ignited and was quickly engulfed in flames, flinging burning embers into the surrounding area. More buildings caught fire, and before long Chief T.W. Haney of the Jacksonville Fire Department sounded a general alarm.

Flames consume one of Jacksonville's Methodist churches, likely the one at the corner of Duval and Newnan street (1901).

Flames consume one of Jacksonville’s Methodist churches, likely the one at the corner of Duval and Newnan street (1901).

 

By this time the whole of Jacksonville knew something was wrong. Even if they hadn’t heard the clanging of the fire engine bells, residents could already see a distant cloud of smoke billowing upward and working its way east over the neighborhoods. Families closer to the fire sprang into action, piling household goods into wagons and driving them away from the growing conflagration. Eager to help their neighbors, some people took their belongings only a few blocks away before unloading them and returning. Many of these possessions would later go up in flames before their owners could collect them.

Jacksonville’s fire department fought the blaze valiantly, but neither the wind nor technology was on their side. The fire marched steadily eastward, consuming block after block of wooden structures. Sidewalks, bricks, and concrete structures glowed red with heat and cracked or exploded. Columns of thick smoke rising from the burning city were reportedly seen from as far away as Raleigh, North Carolina.

Residents flee with their belongings as the fire progresses eastward (1901).

Residents flee with their belongings as the fire progresses eastward (1901).

Residents took shelter in the recently completed city armory, the Windsor Hotel, and the county courthouse, but eventually even those buildings had to be evacuated. Depending on their location, people hurried to get across either Hogan’s Creek or the St. Johns River to safety, the fire closing in behind them. At one point, the fire turned southward, trapping the massive crowd waiting at the Market Street Wharf to be transported across the St. Johns River. Desperate to get away from the approaching flames, many residents jumped into the water. This scene, which at the time was thought to have resulted in an enormous loss of life, was dubbed the “Market Street Horror.” Miraculously, despite widespread destruction of property, only seven persons are believed to have lost their lives in the blaze.

Map showing the path of the Great Jacksonville Fire of 1901. Reprinted in Carolina Rawls, The Jacksonville Story: A Pictorial Record of a Florida City (1950).

Map showing the path of the Great Jacksonville Fire of 1901. Reprinted in Carolina Rawls, The Jacksonville Story: A Pictorial Record of a Florida City (1950). Click the map to enlarge it.

By nightfall, the wind had died down, and the fire was running out of fuel. A total of 2,368 buildings and 466 acres of city territory had been burned to the ground. Twenty-three churches, ten hotels, and every single public building except one federal office structure was destroyed. National Guard troops rallied to the scene to preserve law and order, but the city itself was practically deserted. Nearly 10,000 people had lost their homes, and were forced to take up temporary residence in tents sent to Florida by the United States government.

Looking southeast down Forsyth Street at the destruction from the Great Jacksonville Fire of 1901.

Looking southeast down Forsyth Street at the destruction from the Great Jacksonville Fire of 1901.

Church Street after the Great Fire of 1901.

Church Street after the Great Fire of 1901.

Jacksonville recovered quickly from the Great Fire of 1901. Just six months after the disaster, the city played host to the Florida State Fair, and in 1903 residents marked their return to prosperity with an extravagant Gala Week and Trades Carnival. By 1913, 11,000 buildings had been erected to replace the ones consumed by the disaster. Residents and outside observers agreed — Jacksonville was back!

Part of the Jacksonville skyline in 1909, only eight years after the Great Fire destroyed much of the downtown area.

Part of the Jacksonville skyline in 1909, only eight years after the Great Fire destroyed much of the downtown area.