The Grapefruit League

Some people celebrate the beginning of spring because it brings warmer weather and blooming flowers. Other folks are just glad it’s time for major-league baseball to get started! Here in Florida, our baseball season begins a little earlier than it does in most of the rest of the country, because more than a dozen professional ball clubs come here to do their spring training. This tradition has been going on for more than a century now and has earned itself a uniquely Floridian nickname–the Grapefruit League.

Brooklyn Dodgers doing calisthenics during spring training in Vero Beach (1949).

Brooklyn Dodgers doing calisthenics during spring training in Vero Beach (1949).

The Washington Capitols were most likely the first professional ball club to do their spring training in Florida. They spent three weeks in Jacksonville in 1888 practicing for the upcoming season on a field near Confederate Park. The Capitols finished last in the National League that year, so we might reasonably question whether they got their money’s worth out of the trip, but at least the weather was probably better than it would have been back home. At any rate, the Capitols started a trend. The Philadelphia Phillies spent two weeks in Jacksonville the following year, and more teams followed. By 1920, four major league teams were regularly training in Florida; at the end of that decade the number was up to ten. That’s not counting the number of minor league teams that came either to train or to make their permanent home here.

Major League baseball players at Stetson University in DeLand. L to R: Chicago Cubs pitcher Lew Richie, Boston Braves outfielder Jim Murray, Chicago Cubs catcher Jimmy Archer and Chicago Cubs outfielder and first baseman Bill Hinchman (1913).

Major League baseball players at Stetson University in DeLand. L to R: Chicago Cubs pitcher Lew Richie, Boston Braves outfielder Jim Murray, Chicago Cubs catcher Jimmy Archer and Chicago Cubs outfielder and first baseman Bill Hinchman (1913).

The exact origin of the name “Grapefruit League” is a little uncertain, but most historians attribute it to an event during the Brooklyn Dodgers’ spring training in Daytona Beach in 1915. According to one version of the story, outfielder and notorious prankster Casey Stengel threw a Florida grapefruit at his manager, Wilbert Robinson, which earned spring training its nickname. Other versions involve an airplane and an aviatrix named Ruth Law, who Stengel convinced to fly low over the Dodgers’ practice field and throw out a baseball, which the outfielder bet that his manager couldn’t catch. Law agreed to her part of the scheme, and Robinson accepted the bet, but when the pilot made her flyover, she threw out a large grapefruit instead of a baseball, splattering Wilbert Robinson in the face. Apparently Ruth had flown up without bringing a baseball with her, so she went for what seemed like the next best thing. Far-fetched? Maybe so, but by the 1920s the name “Grapefruit League” was widely used in the press to describe spring training in Florida.

Leaflet containing the 1963 Florida Grapefruit League schedule of exhibition games. Click or tap the image to see the complete leaflet.

Leaflet containing the 1963 Florida Grapefruit League schedule of exhibition games. Click or tap the image to see the complete leaflet.

Spring training typically lasts about 6-8 weeks. Players work on fundamentals like batting, fielding, bunting and sliding to fine tune their methods and strengthen their bodies before competitive play begins. Managers and coaches watch the players closely as they work to see who will do the best job in each position and who ought to make the team’s final roster. It’s also a good opportunity to give the fans a taste of what they can expect to see during the regular season. Teams play a series of exhibition games during spring training, drawing big crowds eager to get a sneak peek of their favorite players or the newest recruits. This has historically made for some interesting headlines, considering most of the spring training towns don’t have ball teams of their own. In 1928, for example, the Philadelphia Athletics played the St. Louis Cardinals in Avon Park, the Philadelphia Phillies in Winter Haven and the Boston Braves in Fort Myers!

Babe Ruth at bat in a spring training exhibition game in Miami (1920).

Babe Ruth at bat in a spring training exhibition game in Miami (1920).

Early on, Florida towns recognized the potential benefits of hosting spring training and began taking steps to lure the major league teams their way. In 1913, a group of Tampa baseball enthusiasts raised more than $4,000 to entice the Chicago Cubs to train in their city.  The Cubs enjoyed their experience and ended up signing a contract with the city to return for the next five years. A little farther south, Bealls department store founder and baseball enthusiast Robert M. Beall, Sr. convinced the St. Louis Cardinals to relocate their spring training operation to Bradenton in the 1920s. The team joined forces with the city to construct a $2,000 stadium at McKechnie Field, which opened in 1923. Soon towns across the state were competing to win the winter business of America’s baseball clubs, promising newer and better fields and guaranteed gate receipts for exhibition games. One of the newest spring training facilities is CoolToday Park in North Port in Sarasota County, completed in 2019. The project cost $140 million, $21.2 million of which came from Sarasota County, with another $4.7 million coming from North Port’s city coffers.

Cincinnati Reds exhibition game at Al Lopez Field in Tampa (ca. 1970).

Cincinnati Reds exhibition game at Al Lopez Field in Tampa (ca. 1970).

Florida communities have long been willing to invest this kind of money in the spring training business because it generally comes with a big payoff. A team’s expenditures can reach into the millions of dollars during their month-long stay in the state. After all, it takes a small army of coaches, managers and support staff to keep the operation going, and they all have to eat, sleep and spend their off-time somewhere. Then there are the fans–thousands of them who come to watch their favorite ball teams in the exhibition games. Many are local baseball enthusiasts, but plenty of fans come from out of state to get an early look at the players and speculate on how the final rosters will shake out. All of this enthusiasm for baseball translates into valuable tourist income for the cities that host a team for spring training.

Fans getting autographs from members of the St. Louis Cardinals during spring training in St. Petersburg (1977).

Fans getting autographs from members of the St. Louis Cardinals during spring training in St. Petersburg (1977).

Florida’s state government has recognized this reality for a long time as well and actively encourages the state’s spring training industry. Every year since 1947, for example, the governor has hosted a “Baseball Dinner” for the teams and the press representatives who travel with them. The state has also advertised exhibition game schedules to help visiting fans plan their trip to the Sunshine State.

Program for Governor Millard Caldwell's Second Annual Baseball Dinner, held at the Tampa Terrace Hotel on March 20, 1948. Click or tap the image to see the complete program.

Program for Governor Millard Caldwell’s Second Annual Baseball Dinner, held at the Tampa Terrace Hotel on March 20, 1948. Click or tap the image to see the complete program.

Don’t forget to share this post with the baseball fans among your friends and family, and include your favorite memory involving baseball in Florida!

 

 

Susan’s Journey

Have you ever passed by a beautiful old house, a rusty car or a sailboat up on blocks and wondered, ‘What was that thing like when it was new? Who used it, and what did they use it for?’

The staff members of the Florida Merchant Marine Survey must have had that feeling in 1938 or so when they happened upon the dry-rotting remains of the Susan, a 14.7-foot fishing sloop sitting in the sun in a vacant lot in Key West. The point of their survey, designed as a relief work project during the Great Depression, was to compile the history of boats and shipping in Florida and publish a book out of it. The book never came to pass, but the staff still managed to take lots of photos and measurements of historic boats up and down the Florida coast and to trace their histories by talking with locals. They had their work cut out for them with the Susan; her story ended up stretching back more than a century!

Technical Drawings of the Sloop Susan, ca. 1938 (Series 2382, State Archives of Florida). Click or tap the image to enlarge it.

Technical Drawings of the Sloop Susan, ca. 1938 (Series S2382, State Archives of Florida). Click or tap the image to enlarge it.

The Susan, which likely started out its life either with a different name or no name, was originally built in the Bahamas in 1830 by a farmer living on Current Island, just northeast of Nassau. According to the information gathered by the Florida Merchant Marine Survey, the boat cost about $150 to build, and was made from a combination of pine and oak, with iron fittings. The builder designed Susan for fishing, but in practice he used the boat to carry home produce from his fields on a neighboring island.

Excerpt from Colton's Map of the West Indies (1855), showing the location of the Bahamas in relation to Florida. The approximate location of Current Island is indicated by the red arrow. Click or tap the image to view a zoomable version of the complete map.

Excerpt from Colton’s Map of the West Indies (1855), showing the location of the Bahamas in relation to Florida. The approximate location of Current Island is indicated by the red arrow. Click or tap the image to view a zoomable version of the complete map.

By 1860, the farmer had gotten involved with the pineapple trade, and business was booming. He decided to build himself a larger boat, and he sold the Susan to John Alden, a commercial fisherman in Nassau. Alden operated the boat for 18 years before selling her to a wealthy resident of Nassau named “Tinky” Sturrup, who mainly wanted a vessel to use for exploring the nearby islands.

Deck plan of the Susan drafted by Henry Lechner of the Florida Merchant Marine Survey, circa 1938 (Series 2382, State Archives of Florida). Click or tap the image to view a larger version.

Deck plan of the Susan drafted by Henry Lechner of the Florida Merchant Marine Survey, circa 1938 (Series 2382, State Archives of Florida). Click or tap the image to view a larger version.

A violent storm in 1895 prompted Sturrup to give up pleasure boating, and he sold the vessel to John Francis Pierce, Jr. of Key West for $100. Pierce was a commercial fisherman who had lost two of his own boats in the same storm that shook up Mr. Sturrup. It also appears that the two men may have known each other prior to the sale. John Francis Pierce was born in the Bahamas, and his brother in law was Robert G. Sturrup. It is unclear whether Robert was the “Tinky” who had acquired the boat from John Alden. At any rate, Pierce sailed the boat back to Key West by himself and used it for years to fish for grouper, yellowtail and snapper. It’s also likely that Pierce was the man to actually name the boat Susan. His wife, who was also born in the Bahamas, was named Susan A. Pinder.

During this latter phase of the boat’s life, Susan performed admirably under some tough conditions. A number of strong storms battered Key West in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, but none managed to seriously damage the sloop, not even the 1909 hurricane that destroyed 400 structures and killed at least 17 people, including men working on Flagler’s Over-the-Sea Railway. As the water began to rise ahead of that storm, Pierce floated the Susan three blocks up Petronia Street near his home and tied her down. When the skies cleared, buildings had been smashed and the streets were filled with debris, but the old sloop was fine to continue its service.

West end of Caroline Street in Key West after the 1909 hurricane.

West end of Caroline Street in Key West after the 1909 hurricane.

John Francis Pierce, Jr. died in 1922, and the 92-year-old Susan passed to his son, Ernest, who continued to use the boat for commercial fishing. The vessel was finally beginning to show its age, however, and in 1925 it was hauled onto shore and stored in a vacant lot, where it remained until the Florida Merchant Marine Survey discovered it in the 1930s.

The Susan is just one of many vessels from all over the state that were carefully documented by the Florida Merchant Marine Survey. The State Archives holds many of the records produced in the process, including short histories, pen and ink sketches, schematic drawings and deck plans, and a partial census of registered boats in service in 1938. Take a look at the collection to see if your Florida county is represented!

A Place Called Spuds

When we think of potatoes, we often think of Idaho. Years of good marketing have helped us make that connection in our minds. But would you believe that Florida also has a long history of potato farming? It’s true! Potatoes have been an especially popular crop in northeastern Florida around Palatka and Hastings. One community in St. Johns County was so enthusiastic about growing the tasty tuber that it adopted a very potato-ish name, Spuds.

Excerpt of a tourist map of St. Johns County showing Spuds and other communities between the Florida East Coast Railway and the St. Johns River (ca. 1940). Click or tap the image to view the complete map.

Excerpt of a tourist map of St. Johns County showing Spuds and other communities between the Florida East Coast Railway and the St. Johns River (ca. 1940). Click or tap the image to view the complete map.

The community was originally called Holy Branch and populated by several families of Minorcans, descendants of workers brought to Florida in the 1700s by a Scotsman, Dr. Andrew Turnbull, to work on his plantation at New Smyrna (details on that here). A post office was first established at Holy Branch in 1886, with Albert I. Rogers as postmaster.

Excerpt from an 1892 map by Rand, McNally & Company showing Holy Branch, later known as Spuds, in St. Johns County. Click or tap the image to view the complete map.

Excerpt from an 1892 map by Rand, McNally & Company showing Holy Branch, later known as Spuds, in St. Johns County. Click or tap the image to view the complete map.

In the 1880s, a railroad line opened between East Palatka and St. Augustine, which helped open up the region for industry and large-scale agriculture. By the early 20th century, truck farming – especially potato farming – was a major industry in the area, and the population had ticked up to about 120. Joseph Minton, who came from one of the more prominent local potato-farming families, applied for a new post office in 1911, and decided to give the community a new name – Spuds.

Group of men grading potatoes (1920s).

Group of men grading potatoes for marketing (1920s).

But potatoes weren’t the only product in town – far from it. While lots of acreage around Spuds had been cleared for truck farming, there was still plenty of virgin yellow pine forest in the area, which made it perfect for the timber and turpentine industries. In fact, there was even a “Spuds Turpentine Company” that operated throughout the 1920s and 1930s. Small aluminum coins the company paid to its employees in lieu of cash (called “scrip”) still pop up in auctions from time to time.

A worker collects sap drained from a pine tree to distill into spirits of turpentine (ca. 1900).

A worker collects sap drained from a pine tree to distill into spirits of turpentine (ca. 1900).

These days, the community of Spuds is little more than a wide spot in the road on State Road 207. A few crumbling remains of the old turpentine operation can still be found out in the woods, as well as fragments of old buildings belonging to some of the early inhabitants. The post office is long gone; residents either get their mail from Hastings or Elkton. Perhaps the one thing that hasn’t changed is the potatoes – there are still several large farms in the area.

Susan Deen, Florida Potato Queen in 1962, poses in a field in Hastings, just down the road from Spuds, with a sack of Florida potatoes (photo 1962).

Susan Deen, Florida Potato Queen in 1962, poses in a field in Hastings, just down the road from Spuds, with a sack of Florida potatoes.

What kinds of crops are grown in your corner of Florida, and how has that industry shaped the local history? Give us your thoughts in the comments section below, and share this post with friends and family on social media.

The First Florida Women in Public Office

We’re getting close to some major anniversaries regarding women’s suffrage here in the United States. June 4, 2019 will mark 100 years since Congress approved the 19th amendment to the U.S. Constitution, granting women the right to vote. August 18, 2020 will be the centennial anniversary of the date when enough states had ratified the proposed amendment to make it effective. We tend to focus on how these momentous events forever changed voting rights, but there’s another related victory that deserves some attention as well. Beginning in 1920, many more women began serving in public office at the state and county level, a trend that is well documented in records available from the State Archives of Florida. Today’s blog explains a bit about the history of women in public service and offers some tips on how to find the first women from your Florida community to run for election or serve in office.

Edna Giles Fuller of Orange County, the first woman elected to the Florida Legislature (1929).

Edna Giles Fuller of Orange County, the first woman elected to the Florida Legislature (1929).

First things first: 1920 wasn’t actually the start of women voting in Florida, nor was it the start of women serving in public office. By the time the 19th amendment was ratified, several Florida communities had already granted women the right to vote in municipal elections. Fellsmere (then in St. Lucie County) was the first to do so, having put the necessary language in an amendment to its town charter, which was approved by the Legislature and signed by Governor Park Trammell on June 8, 1915. Here is the relevant clause from Section 35 of the charter (Chapter 7154, Laws of Florida):

Every registered individual, male or female, elector shall be qualified to vote at any general or special election held under this Charter to elect or recall Commissioners, and at any other special election… 

Activists for women’s suffrage vowed to build on this victory, and soon other Florida towns adopted similar changes to their charters. By November 1919, a total of 16 towns in 10 counties allowed women to vote in municipal elections, including Fellsmere in what is now Indian River County; Tarpon Springs, Clearwater, Dunedin and St. Petersburg in Pinellas County; Aurantia and Cocoa in Brevard County; Orange City and DeLand in Volusia County; West Palm Beach and Delray in Palm Beach County; Florence Villa in Polk County; Miami in Dade County; Fort Lauderdale in Broward County; Moore Haven in DeSoto County; and Orlando in Orange County.

Cast from a play put on by members of the Koreshan Unity in Estero, Florida in favor of women's suffrage. The play was titled

Cast from a play put on by members of the Koreshan Unity in Estero, Florida in favor of women’s suffrage. The play was titled “Women, Women, Women, Suffragettes, Yes” (ca. 1910s).

Empowered to vote, a number of women began running for public office in these towns, and in some cases they were victorious. Marian Horwitz of Moore Haven was elected mayor on July 30, 1917, the first woman to serve in that role in Florida. It was an unusual case in that it was the town’s first mayoral election since incorporating in June, and Mrs. Horwitz was directly petitioned by every single registered voter in town to accept the position. Even the two men who had earlier been competing for the nomination bowed out when her name was put forward. Mrs. Horwitz initially refused the nomination, but eventually accepted and characterized it as a way for women to take on tasks that would free up men to support the United States’ efforts in World War I. “I once felt that a woman could not measure up physically to the work of handling public affairs,” she told the press after a few days in office. “In less than a week I have changed my mind.”

Marian Newhall Horwitz, later O'Brien (1917). Image courtesy of the Library of Congress.

Marian Newhall Horwitz, later O’Brien (1917). Image courtesy of the Library of Congress.

But it wasn’t just municipal positions that women were filling in those days before the 19th amendment. Many women also served in county and state positions, especially boards and commissions pertaining to issues where at that time a woman’s perspective and instincts were thought to be uniquely useful. Several women, for example, served on the state’s public school textbook selection committee, the State Board of Osteopathic Examiners and commissions in charge of planning for historic buildings and memorials. Records of commissions for court reporters and county probation officers also show a number of women in the ranks.

Page from the Secretary of State's officer directory showing where Sarah E. Wheeler of Lakeland was commissioned as a member of the State Board of Osteopathic Examiners in 1913. Volume 12, State and County Officer Directories (Series S1284), State Archives of Florida.

Page from the Secretary of State’s officer directory showing where Sarah E. Wheeler of Lakeland was commissioned as a member of the State Board of Osteopathic Examiners in 1913. Volume 12, State and County Officer Directories (Series S1284), State Archives of Florida. Click or tap the image to enlarge it.

Women could also be appointed to major county offices. A common practice that lived on long after women gained the right to vote was for a woman to be appointed to complete her husband’s term in the event that he died while in office. That’s what happened in the case of Mary Jane Curry, for example, who became Monroe County’s treasurer in 1915 when her husband William died about six months into his term. Mrs. Curry was officially commissioned by the governor as her husband’s ad interim replacement, and she continued to serve until she was replaced by a newly elected successor in 1917. Other women were appointed to positions in their own right, such as Mamie Jarrell of Micanopy, who was appointed several times to the post of Marks and Brands Inspector for Alachua County.

Page from the Secretary of State's officer directory showing appointments for both William and Mary Jane Curry as county treasurer for Monroe County in 1915. Note that the record shows William died in office, and Mary Jane was appointed shortly thereafter to succeed him. Volume 12, State and County Officer Directories (Series S1284), State Archives of Florida.

Page from the Secretary of State’s officer directory showing appointments for both William and Mary Jane Curry as county treasurer for Monroe County in 1915. Note that the record shows William died in office, and Mary Jane was appointed shortly thereafter to succeed him. Volume 12, State and County Officer Directories (Series S1284), State Archives of Florida. Click or tap the image to enlarge it.

Now let’s look at how to determine who the first women were in your Florida county to serve in public office, or at least run for office. The State Archives holds records pertaining to women in both categories. First, if a woman from your county was appointed to a county or state office (like Mamie Jarrell) or elected in her own right from 1920 onward, she would have received an official commission from the governor, countersigned by the Secretary of State. The State Archives holds the record copies for many of these commissions (Series S1285, et al), as well as a set of handwritten state and county officer directories (Series S1284), which function like an index to the commissions. One way to look for early elected or appointed women from your county is to look through these directories for names of female citizens. Here’s an interesting example from the first slate of county officers appointed to serve Collier County when it was established in 1923. On the page, we see that two women were among the appointees, including Mrs. T.C. (Mamie) Barfield as Superintendent of Public Instruction and Nellie Storter as Supervisor of Registration.

Page from the Secretary of State's officer directory showing the first officers appointed for the newly created Collier County in 1923. Two women are among the appointees. Volume 14, State and County Officer Directories (Series S1284), State Archives of Florida. Click or tap the image to enlarge it.

Page from the Secretary of State’s officer directory showing the first officers appointed for the newly created Collier County in 1923. Two women are among the appointees. Volume 14, State and County Officer Directories (Series S1284), State Archives of Florida. Click or tap the image to enlarge it.

The state and county officer directories (Series S1284) are open to the public for research here at the State Archives, and our Reference Desk staff can also do a limited amount of research in the books if you have a specific person or range of years in mind. Once you find an index listing for a commission that interests you, we can determine if the State Archives also has a copy of the officeholder’s actual commission, signed oath of office or bond. See our blog post titled Researching State and County Officers for details.

Commission of Eleanor H. Floyd as tax assessor of Franklin County. Floyd was elected to the position just months after women nationwide gained the right to vote in 1920. Volume 15, State and County Officer Commissions (Series S1288), State Archives of Florida. Click or tap the image to enlarge it.

Commission of Eleanor H. Floyd as tax assessor of Franklin County. Floyd was elected to the position just months after women nationwide gained the right to vote in 1920. Volume 15, State and County Officer Commissions (Series S1288), State Archives of Florida. Click or tap the image to enlarge it.

The State Archives’ Florida Memory team has also recently embarked on a project to digitize the state and county officer directories from the 1820s up through 1989. Digital volunteers from across the state have been helping with this exciting and valuable project by transcribing the handwritten data to make it searchable. If you would like to learn more about how to help, even at a distance, contact Archives Historian Dr. Josh Goodman at Josh.Goodman@dos.myflorida.com.

But wait, there’s more! The state and county officer directories are helpful for finding women who were actually appointed or elected to public office, but there were many, many more who ran for election and did not win their races. Luckily, even their candidacy can be documented using records available here at the State Archives.

After each primary and general election, a canvassing board for each county writes up an official report showing the names of the candidates who were on the ballot for each office and how many votes they each received. This report is then forwarded to the Secretary of State, who retains the election results and lets the governor know who to commission for each office. The State Archives holds a virtually complete set of these reports dating back to 1865. You can look through these canvassing reports to see not only who was elected to each public office, but also all of the candidates who ran against the winner and lost. This would be a useful tactic if you wanted to find the first women in your county to run for local office, regardless of whether they won or lost. Here’s an excerpt, for example, from the canvassing report for Palm Beach County for the general election of 1920, the first in which all women in the state had the right to vote. Agnes Ballard, who incidentally was Florida’s first registered female architect, is shown winning the race for Superintendent of Public Instruction.

Excerpt of a page from the 1920 general election canvassing report for Palm Beach County. Agnes Ballard is shown as having received the largest number of votes for the office of Superintendent of Public Instruction. Volume 22, Canvassing Reports (Series S1258), State Archives of Florida.

Excerpt of a page from the 1920 general election canvassing report for Palm Beach County. Agnes Ballard is shown as having received the largest number of votes for the office of Superintendent of Public Instruction. Volume 22, Canvassing Reports (Series S1258), State Archives of Florida.

The canvassing reports (Series S1258) are grouped into volumes by election year and then by county. They are open to the public for research here at the State Archives. You can also contact the Reference Desk if you have questions about a specific race or if you are looking for a specific person.

With the anniversary of the passage of the 19th amendment upon us, now is an excellent time to do some research on the women in your county who have run for and served in public office. Take advantage of the resources available to you here at the State Archives, and let us know how we can help.

 

So You Wanna Be a Doctor

Your physician or surgeon is definitely someone you want to be able to trust, but how do you know you can? Since Florida’s earliest territorial days, the government has required medical professionals to demonstrate their qualifications and be licensed in some way. The rules have changed a lot over the years, however, which makes for some interesting reading.

Pages from the journal of Dr. John M.W. Davidson of Gadsden County, describing treatments for various diseases (Collection M81-24, State Archives of Florida). Click or tap the image to see a larger version of the image and a transcript.

Pages from the journal of Dr. John M.W. Davidson of Gadsden County, describing treatments for various diseases (Collection M81-24, State Archives of Florida). Click or tap the image to see a larger version of the image and a transcript.

After Andrew Jackson formally took possession of West Florida on July 17, 1821, he immediately began passing ordinances laying out a new set of rules for the territory. In September, he issued an ordinance “for the preservation of health in the city of Pensacola” establishing a Board of Health for the city and granting the board powers to license physicians and make rules regulating the practice of medicine. When the territorial legislative council met for the first time the following year, the members passed an act establishing new boards of health in both Pensacola and St. Augustine, although the new law did not specifically say whether the boards would license physicians or not. They did, however, specify that all persons practicing law or medicine within the territory would pay $10 in licensing fees. That was a lot of money in the 1820s! The silver lining? Doctors were not liable for jury or militia duty.

Starting in 1824, the territorial legislative council got a little more serious about qualifications for doctors. That year, the council passed an act requiring anyone practicing medicine to file with the local county clerk either a copy of their diploma and a “certificate of moral character” or a certificate showing he had studied physiology or surgery for at least two years, either at a college or under the supervision of a reputable doctor or surgeon. If a prospective doctor went this latter route to be licensed, he also had to get the endorsement of two county judges.

An Act to Regulate the Admission of Physicians and Surgeons to Practice in This Territory, 1824 (Series 222, State Archives of Florida). Click or tap the image to view a larger version.

An Act to Regulate the Admission of Physicians and Surgeons to Practice in This Territory, 1824 (Series 222, State Archives of Florida). Click or tap the image to view a larger version.

On December 31, 1827, the legislative council established a territory-wide board of health called the Medical Board, initially consisting of Richard Weightman and William H. Simmons of St. Augustine, Robert A. Lacy of Key West, William D. Price and Lewis Willis of Tallahassee, Malcolm Nicholson of Gadsden County, William P. Hart of Jackson County, and C.Y. Fonda and John Brosnaham of Pensacola. All physicians wanting to practice medicine in Florida were supposed to come before the board for examination to be granted a license. If the applicant had a degree from “some regularly established medical university within the United States,” however, he did not have to take an examination.

Home of Dr. Malcolm Nicholson of Gadsden County, one of the first members of Florida's first territory-wide board of health, the Medical Board (1899).

Home of Dr. Malcolm Nicholson of Gadsden County, one of the first members of Florida’s first territory-wide board of health, the Medical Board (1899).

The Medical Board proved burdensome to many would-be applicants, since by law it was to meet exclusively in Tallahassee. In 1831, legislators rectified the situation by abolishing the board and offering physicians three routes to a medical license. An applicant could either (a) file a diploma from a medical college with the local county clerk, (b) file a certificate of competency signed by two licensed Florida doctors, or (c) file evidence of having completed “one course of lectures” at “some medical college,” accompanied by a certificate of competency from just one licensed Florida doctor. This certainly made getting a medical license easier, although there were still cases where some prospective physicians had trouble meeting the requirements, as we see with the following case involving Dr. John W. Robarts of Tampa. Robarts had no medical degree, yet 166 Hillsborough County residents asked the legislature to grant him a special license in 1854. Why he was unable to obtain a certificate of competency is not known, although there are other cases where a doctor who relied on herbal or other alternative methods found it difficult to get this kind of support from fellow physicians.

Petition signed by 166 citizens of Hillsborough County asking the legislature to issue a special license to Dr. John W. Robarts (Series 2153, State Archives of Florida). Click or tap the image to view a larger version.

Petition signed by 166 citizens of Hillsborough County asking the legislature to issue a special license to Dr. John W. Robarts (Series 2153, State Archives of Florida). Click or tap the image to view the complete document.

This system continued with relatively few changes for more than half a century, but over time concerns about “quack” doctors and harmful patent medicines led the state government to get even more deeply involved. The growth of the state and its far-flung geography played a role as well. In 1881, legislators passed an act creating six boards of medical examiners headquartered in Tallahassee, Jacksonville, Pensacola, Key West, Ocala and Tampa. The boards were to examine any persons not possessing a medical degree who wished to practice medicine, surgery or obstetrics in the state. If the applicant passed the examination, he was to enter a copy of the board’s certificate into the records of his local county clerk.

The 1881 law required the six boards to examine applicants in five key areas: anatomy, operative and minor surgery, obstetrics, diseases of women and children and “the general laws of health.” The State Archives holds copies of minutes from the meetings of the examining board based in Pensacola (Series S1321), which contain some of the questions they asked each applicant in the 1890s. Here are a few examples, some of which really show their age. How many can you answer?

  1. Give the effect of chloroform on the system.
  2. What are the antidotes for strychnine poisoning?
  3. State the object of the circulatory system.
  4. What are the symptoms and treatment of smallpox?
  5. What is formed when you combine in a prescription potassium iodide and bichloral mercury?
  6. How may it be known [in the process of delivering a baby] that labor has begun?

In 1889, legislators revamped the system and began requiring all doctors to have a medical degree and sit for an examination. In 1905, they abolished the six separate examining boards and established a statewide Board of Medical Examiners, which still operates today as the Florida Board of Medicine. The questions have gotten a little more complex, as today’s doctors can attest, but the object is the same–to protect the public and maintain a high standard of quality among Florida’s health care professionals.

Doctor and nurse examining a patient at the FSU infirmary in Tallahassee (1959).

Doctor and nurse examining a patient at the FSU infirmary in Tallahassee (1959).

Is there a doctor somewhere in your family tree? Check out our webinar on researching your ancestor’s occupation to learn how to find out more!

 

 

Sawing Logs

Florida’s economy was still mostly agricultural in the late 1800s. The Civil War had ended slavery, but that system was replaced by sharecropping and tenant farming, in which many former slaves–and a number of white citizens as well–rented patches of land in exchange for a “share” of the crops they grew on them. For Florida’s many small freehold farmers who owned their own land, the norm was to produce what they needed to be comfortable, as well as enough of a cash crop like corn or cotton to cover their general store debts and their annual taxes to the county and state. In all of these systems, cash only came in a couple of times per year when crops were harvested. As a result, farmers relied heavily on credit from their landlords and local merchants, and after paying them off each year there was often little if any cash left. Many times, a farmer’s crop wouldn’t even cover his debts, and he might even go so far as to mortgage the next year’s crop to satisfy his creditors. Droughts, bad storms, insects and production shortfalls could easily wreak havoc on a farmer’s plans under these conditions.

Wagons unloading cotton at the Seaboard Air Line depot in Lloyd in jefferson County, Florida (ca. 1890).

Wagons unloading cotton at the Seaboard Air Line depot in Lloyd in Jefferson County, Florida (ca. 1890).

So what could you do if you were a farmer who wanted to make a little extra money to get ahead? The options were few outside the cities, but there was one natural resource that Florida had plenty of that farmers learned to take advantage of in the late 1800s–timber. Even 30 years into statehood, Florida’s government still held title to a tremendous amount of land, which was generally covered with thick stands of valuable timber. Cedar, cypress and yellow pine were the most sought-after varieties. In the late 1870s, the Board of Trustees of the Internal Improvement Fund, which managed these lands for the state, came up with a plan to license private individuals to cut timber on state lands for a small fee. The earliest records from this system are held by the State Archives in Tallahassee, and have recently been digitized and made available on FloridaMemory.com. Besides helping us better understand the so-called “stumpage system,” they may also be useful for researchers working on family trees with ancestors living in Florida in the late 1870s and early 1880s.

Cover of the volume in which the Trustees of the Internal Improvement Fund recorded the permits they issued for cutting timber on state lands (Series S 1814, State Archives of Florida). Click or tap the image to view the entire book.

Cover of the volume in which the Trustees of the Internal Improvement Fund recorded the permits they issued for cutting timber on state lands (Series S 1814, State Archives of Florida). Click or tap the image to view the entire book.

First, some background. The stumpage system came into being after several state officials and county sheriffs warned the board in 1879 that private citizens were trespassing on state lands to cut cedar timber, particularly in Levy, Lafayette and Taylor counties. The German pencil magnate Eberhard Faber had established a cedar slat factory on Atseena Otie (Cedar Key) around 1855, and by the 1870s the company was shipping upwards of a million cubic feet of trimmed cedar annually for the purpose of making pencils. Faber originally got the wood from his own extensive timber holdings in the vicinity of the factory on Atseena Otie, but over time the nearby wood supply was exhausted. With cedar in high demand, Floridians living close to the Gulf coast or along the Suwannee or Withlacoochee rivers saw an opportunity to make some extra cash. There were almost no railroads in the area at this time, and carting the logs over land to Cedar Key would have been impractical, but if a seller could float the cedar logs down a creek or river to the Gulf and then raft them to Cedar Key, he could sell them for a good price.

Workers gathered outside Eberhard Faber's cedar mill on Atseena Otie (Cedar Key). Photo circa 1890s.

Workers gathered outside Eberhard Faber’s cedar mill on Atseena Otie (Cedar Key). Photo circa 1890s.

The problem was that these Floridians weren’t just cutting the cedar trees from their own land. As officials told the Internal Improvement Fund trustees, there were a number of cases where a citizen either started cutting on his own land and simply went outside his boundaries, or just willfully cut trees from state lands. It wasn’t hard to do in those days, of course. Very little land in North Florida was developed at this time, practically none of it was marked and the state did not regularly patrol its holdings because they were so extensive.

At its June 11, 1879 meeting, the Trustees of the Internal Improvement Fund decided to allow private citizens to cut timber on the state’s land, but only if they paid a “stumpage” fee. For cedar and palmetto, the rate would be 10 cents per cubic foot. For pine and cypress it was 50 cents per cubic foot. Moreover, no cedar could be cut unless the log would make an 8-inch square when dressed. To get permission to begin cutting, a citizen simply let the Commissioner of Lands and Immigration know where he wanted to cut timber, what kind of timber it was and where it would be taken, promising to pay a state timber agent the appropriate amount of stumpage. The Commissioner would then issue a permit like this one:

Permit for John Bennett of Lafayette County to cut cedar logs in the vicinity of the Esteenhatchie (Steinhatchee) River, 1879 (Series S 1814, State Archives of Florida).

Permit for John Bennett of Lafayette County to cut cedar logs in the vicinity of the Esteenhatchie (Steinhatchee) River, 1879 (Series S 1814, State Archives of Florida).

Once the permit was issued, the Commissioner of Lands and Immigration entered the data into the ledger in the manner shown below. Here’s where the genealogical significance comes in. These records not only describe where the timber was being cut, but they also show where the timber cutter lived. In doing so, the records pinpoint the specific location of specific people at specific times–a very helpful data point for family history research. Even better, many of the applicants for timber cutting permits were farmers whose activities would not have been documented in many other records, especially not in the late 19th century. If you were to find an ancestor listed in this ledger, you would have not only a data point showing where the person was living at a certain time, but also some insight into how they made their living in the 1870s and 1880s.

Example page from a register of timber permits (Series 1814, State Archives of Florida). Click or tap the image to view the entire book.

Example page from a register of timber permits (Series 1814, State Archives of Florida). Click or tap the image to view the entire book.

These records cover a short period of time and a limited number of people, but they’re an excellent example of why the State Archives of Florida is an essential part of the genealogist’s toolkit when tracing family history in the Sunshine State. Sources like these can be combined with other records to help you form a more complete picture of who an ancestor was and what they did during their lifetime in Florida.

Got a question about the many records we have at the State Archives? Email the Reference Desk at Archives@dos.myflorida.com, or give us a call at 850-245-6719.

 

 

A County Called Mosquito

Florida hasn’t had a new county in almost a century, but in the territorial and early statehood years they popped up all the time. Deciding to form a new county and coming up with a name for it must have been a very serious matter–after all, you can’t just go renaming a county once it’s been established. Or can you? As it turns out, Florida has established several counties that were later given new names, either because the old one proved unappealing or the citizens simply found something they liked better.

Excerpt from H.S. Tanner's 1833 map of Florida, with Mosquito County shaded in pink along Florida's east coast. Click or tap the image to see a zoomable version of the entire map.

Excerpt from H.S. Tanner’s 1833 map of Florida, with Mosquito County shaded in pink along Florida’s east coast. Click or tap the image to see a zoomable version of the entire map.

The best example of this is Mosquito County, created by Florida’s territorial legislative council on December 24, 1824. Clearly no one consulted the local chamber of commerce before coming up with this gem of a name. Mosquito covered a massive amount of territory 190 miles long and 60 miles wide, carved from what had been one of Florida’s two original counties, St. Johns. At the time of its creation, Mosquito County contained within its boundaries all of the land that now belongs to Volusia, Brevard, St. Lucie, Indian River, Martin, Seminole, Osceola, Orange, Lake, Polk and Palm Beach counties. Government operations for this behemoth of a county were eventually headquartered at New Smyrna and later Enterprise. We say “eventually” because it took 10 years for the legislature to make it official–and even after that the county records were still kept at St. Augustine for a while.

As for who was responsible for the name, there’s plenty of blame to go around. The Spanish called one of the region’s waterways Barra de Mosquitos as early as the 16th century, no doubt referring to the insects they encountered in the marshier parts of Florida’s Atlantic coast. The territorial legislature then added insult to injury by passing over all the other named features in the area and choosing to name their newest county for that same waterway, then called Mosquito Bar (or Inlet). Really, guys? Couldn’t the new county have been called Ocklawaha County for its northwestern boundary? Or maybe New Smyrna County for one of its oldest European settlements? Or Canaveral County? Anything but Mosquito!

Excerpt of a 1644 map drawn by Willem Janszoon Blaeu, with particular focus on the named waterways along Florida's Atlantic coast. Barra de Mosquitos is indicated with a red arrow. Click or tap the image to view a zoomable version of the complete map.

Excerpt of a 1644 map drawn by Willem Janszoon Blaeu, with particular focus on the named waterways along Florida’s Atlantic coast. Barra de Mosquitos is indicated with a red arrow. Click or tap the image to view a zoomable version of the complete map.

As you might imagine, the name Mosquito didn’t sit well with many of the locals, and it wasn’t long before they began looking for an alternative. In 1842, the legislature passed an act changing the name of Mosquito to Leigh Read County. Read had been a longtime member of the territorial legislative council and a speaker of the Florida House of Representatives. He died April 27, 1841 when he was ambushed and shot by friends of a man he had previously killed in a duel. There was a bit of confusion, however, because even though the two houses of the territorial legislature voted favorably on the act, the clerk who was supposed to take it up to the governor’s office for a signature failed to do so before the legislative session officially closed. As a result, the name Mosquito stuck for the moment.

Map of Florida drawn in 1842 by Sidney Morse and Samuel Breese. Anticipating that Mosquito County would be renamed Leigh Read as a result of the legislative council's action, the mapmakers labeled the territory of Mosquito accordingly. Tap or click the image to view a larger version of the map.

Map of Florida drawn in 1842 by Sidney Morse and Samuel Breese. Anticipating that Mosquito County would be renamed Leigh Read as a result of the legislative council’s action, the mapmakers labeled the territory of Mosquito accordingly. Tap or click the image to view a larger version of the map.

In 1844, a group of 70 citizens of Mosquito County took another stab at trying to change their name by petitioning the legislature. “The name of Mosquito is very unpleasant to many of the citizens,” they explained, asking that the name be changed to Harrison County. The name “Harrison” was almost certainly intended to honor the late President William Henry Harrison, who had died in 1841 after a short 31 days in office. Harrison had found the time to appoint Richard Keith Call to another term as territorial governor during his brief tenure, which may have endeared him to the citizens of Mosquito County.

Petition signed by 73 citizens of Mosquito County, asking for the county to be renamed Harrison, and for the boundaries to be redefined (1844). Box 4, Folder 3, Records of the Territorial Legislative Council (Series S 877), State Archives of Florida. Click on the image to view a larger version of the complete petition and a transcript.

Petition signed by 73 citizens of Mosquito County, asking for the county to be renamed Harrison, and for the boundaries to be redefined (1844). Box 4, Folder 3, Records of the Territorial Legislative Council (Series S 877), State Archives of Florida. Click or tap the image to view a larger version of the complete petition and a transcript.

The legislature did not grant the citizens’ wishes until the following session in 1845. When they did finally pass an act renaming Mosquito County, they passed over the opportunity to honor President Harrison in favor of something that would prove to be a very valuable asset to the people of Central and South Florida–the orange.

Tanner's 1849 map of Florida. Orange County (formerly Mosquito county) is shown in green. Click or tap the image for a zoomable version of the map.

Tanner’s 1849 map of Florida. Orange County (formerly Mosquito county) is shown in green. Click or tap the image for a zoomable version of the map.

Today, Orange County is much smaller than it was back in its original Mosquito County days, but it certainly makes good use of its space. It’s home to a variety of attractions that draw tourists from all over the world each year, as well as the University of Central Florida, Rollins College and Valencia College. Although many of its signature orange groves have disappeared in recent years to make way for other developments, there’s still plenty of Florida citrus culture going on in the region. And that–most Floridians would likely agree–is a much more appropriate attribute to celebrate than the mosquito!

 

The First Known Christmas in Florida

Florida has the unique distinction of being the probable site of the first Christmas celebration ever held in what is now the United States. Archaeological and documentary evidence suggests that Spanish conquistador Hernando de Soto and his expedition of more than 600 soldiers, slaves, craftsmen and adventurers observed the holiday while encamped at the Apalachee town of Anhaica, located where Tallahassee now stands.

Illustration of Hernando de Soto from Justin Winsor, ed., Narrative and Critical History of America, vol. 2 (Boston: Houghton Mifflin and Co., 1886).

Illustration of Hernando de Soto from Justin Winsor, ed., Narrative and Critical History of America, vol. 2 (Boston: Houghton Mifflin and Co., 1886).

Hernando de Soto had already participated in Spanish conquests in Central and South America by 1537, when King Charles V granted him the right to explore and conquer “La Florida.” Previous expeditions by Pánfilo de Narváez and Lucas Vázquez de Ayllón had reached Florida but had failed to establish permanent colonies. De Soto set out from Havana, Cuba on May 18, 1539 with 600 soldiers, 223 horses, nine ships and a host of servants, slaves and other participants. The expedition reached Florida on May 25th. Scholars have debated over where exactly the conquistador and his party landed, but most interpretations suggest they arrived the vicinity of Tampa Bay. De Soto spent the summer and fall of 1539 making his way up the Florida peninsula, searching for precious metals or other resources valuable to Spain and his own coffers. He encountered many native tribes along the way, who–not surprisingly–opposed the expedition’s intrusion into their territory. The natives used cane arrows tipped with fish bones, crab claws and stone points to attack the Spaniards, while de Soto’s army used their own cruel methods to compel the natives’ submission.

Map showing the routes and settlement sites of Spanish explorers during the colonial era, including Hernando de Soto. From the Division of Historical Resources' booklet titled Florida Spanish Colonial Heritage Trail (2009).

Map showing the routes and settlement sites of Spanish explorers during the colonial era, including Hernando de Soto. From the Division of Historical Resources’ booklet titled Florida Spanish Colonial Heritage Trail (2009).

On October 3, 1539, the expedition crossed the Aucilla River–now the boundary between Jefferson and Madison counties in North Florida–and entered the province of Apalachee. Three days later, de Soto reached the principal Apalachee town of Anhaica, located in what is now Tallahassee. With winter fast approaching, de Soto ordered his followers to establish a camp, where they would remain until March 3, 1540. The location of de Soto’s camp was revealed in 1987 when State Archaeologist B. Calvin Jones uncovered artifacts from the expedition’s stay at a construction site just south of U.S. 27, just under a mile from the State Capitol. A small army of archaeologists and volunteers descended on the site, finding several copper coins, an iron crossbow point, nails, links of chain mail, broken Spanish olive jars and perhaps one of the most telling artifacts of all–the jawbone of a pig dating to around the time of de Soto’s expedition. Since de Soto had been the one to introduce the pig to North America, this was almost certainly a sign that he had been there.

Artifacts discovered at the site of Hernando de Soto's 1539-40 winter encampment in what is now Tallahassee (1987).

Artifacts discovered at the site of Hernando de Soto’s 1539-40 winter encampment in what is now Tallahassee (1987).

The dates of de Soto’s stay at Anhaica confirm he spent Christmas there, but how did the expedition celebrate? The documentary evidence is scant, but we can make a few educated guesses based on what we do know. There were, for example, 12 Catholic priests included in the expedition, so it’s likely they held a traditional Catholic mass to mark the occasion. Also, the Apalachee natives had fled Anhaica before the Spaniards arrived, but they left behind immense stores of maize and beans, which de Soto and his followers used for their own sustenance. Did they have a Christmas feast similar to those still held today? Did the menu include the pig whose jawbone was found by Calvin Jones more than 400 years later? It’s quite possible.

An artist's depiction of the first Christmas celebrated in what is now the United States by Hernando de Soto's expedition in 1539.

An artist’s depiction of the first Christmas celebrated in what is now the United States by Hernando de Soto’s expedition in 1539.

While this may have been the first Christmas celebrated in what is now the United States, it was certainly not a time of peace and joy for de Soto, his followers or the Apalachees they displaced. The natives who had evacuated Anhaica ahead of the expedition besieged the intruders, regularly attacking their garrison and hunting parties, and attempting to burn the town down by flinging torches and shooting flaming arrows into it. De Soto responded in kind, using ruthless tactics to bring the Apalachees to heel. The expedition lost 20 members while encamped at Anhaica. The number of Apalachees killed by Spanish attacks, disease or starvation is unknown.

The historic Governor John W. Martin House in Tallahassee (2012).

The historic Governor John W. Martin House in Tallahassee (2012).

Despite the less than festive circumstances surrounding Hernando de Soto’s time in Tallahassee, the winter encampment site was a critical find. Until recently, it was the only place where verifiable physical evidence of the expedition had been found. The property, which includes the former home of Florida’s Governor John W. Martin, has since been purchased by the state and is now headquarters for the Florida Bureau of Archaeological Research.

When Money Grew in Trees

Florida wouldn’t be Florida without its beautiful oak and cypress trees. Moreover, those picturesque trees would look awfully naked without their hanging curtains of Spanish moss blowing gently in the breeze. It’s an image that has been evoked a thousand times or more in art, song, novels and poetry. The moss even has its own legend, which countless tourists have sent home on postcards for friends and loved ones to read:

Postcard with the legend of the Spanish moss (ca. 1950).

Postcard with the legend of the Spanish moss (ca. 1950).

But let’s get a few things straight about Spanish moss, as it is a most peculiar species. For starters, it isn’t Spanish. It’s native to North America as far north as Virginia, so the Spanish can hardly lay claim to it. To be fair, they didn’t actually mean to give their name to the moss; that was the work of their colonial rivals, the French, during the 16th and 17th centuries. French explorers jokingly called the moss “Spanish beard,” while their Spanish counterparts responded in kind by calling it “French hair.” In those days, you clearly had to get your entertainment where you could find it.

A cypress tree draped in Spanish moss at Edward Ball Wakulla Springs State Park (2007).

A cypress tree draped in Spanish moss at Edward Ball Wakulla Springs State Park (2007).

Spanish moss (Tillandsia usneoides) is also not actually a moss. In fact, as a bromeliad it has a closer relationship to the pineapple than it does to other species we would call “moss.” It’s an epiphyte, meaning it grows on other plants but is not parasitic. Contrary to popular belief, Spanish moss will not kill a tree if left unchecked, although it may produce enough shade to stunt its growth.

Picturesque as it may be, Spanish moss has long been known for more than just its good looks. Once its outer bark has been removed and the strong fibers inside have been allowed to dry, the resulting material is surprisingly strong, yet also soft enough to use for cushioning. Native Americans reportedly weaved dried moss into clothing, and early white settlers braided it into ropes and netting. As early as 1773, the roving naturalist William Bartram remarked during his tour of the Southeast that Spanish moss was “particularly adapted to the purpose of stuffing mattresses, chairs, saddles, collars, etc.; and for these purposes, nothing yet known equals it.” It also served as a popular curiosity and souvenir for Northern visitors. Tourists would take boxes of Spanish moss back home and hang it in their own trees, giving them a bit of Florida to enjoy until winter arrived and killed it off.

“The jolly old crowd in Auburndale,” some with Spanish moss adorning their heads (ca. 1920s).

It didn’t take the enterprising people of Florida long to figure out that this natural bounty could be harvested and sold for a profit. As early as 1834, a New Englander visiting Jacksonville commented on the growing moss industry in that area. The poet Sidney Lanier, who visited Florida in the 1870s, noted a similar factory just up the St. Johns River in Tocoi. The Census Bureau listed a moss processing plant at Pensacola in a supplement to the 1880 federal census, and there was a large moss factory at Gainesville as of 1882 as well. These businesses made their money by collecting moss from local forests, curing and ginning it, and then selling it to manufacturers up north, who used the material for cushions and mattresses and other products.

Articles of incorporation for the Florida Moss-Hair Company, based in Gainesville. From Box 192, Folder 612, Domestic Articles of Incorporation (Series S 186), State Archives of Florida.

Articles of incorporation for the Florida Moss-Hair Company, based in Gainesville. From Box 192, Folder 612, Domestic Articles of Incorporation (Series S 186), State Archives of Florida. Click or tap the image to view the entire document.

The moss business had its advantages and disadvantages. The supply was plentiful, and sometimes pecan and citrus grove operators actually paid moss collectors to rid them of the stuff, since it could decrease the trees’ production. Farm laborers often gathered moss during their off-season as a way to make extra money, gathering the material in their local woods and carting it to the nearest processing plant. The moss gatherer’s tool of choice was usually a long wooden pole with a hook or barb on one end, which could be twisted in the moss and pulled to bring it down in large clumps. From this point, however, the work was tough. The gray outer bark of the moss had to be removed to get to the strong fibers within, usually through a curing process. Moss factories sometimes did their own curing; other times they purchased pre-cured moss from their suppliers. Either way, workers would stack the moss in large piles or drop it into large trenches, and then soak the whole lot with water. This would cause the moss to rot and shed its bark. The longer the moss cured, the tougher and cleaner the inner fiber would become. Six months was required to produce the highest grade moss, which would sell at the highest price.

Spanish moss arriving at the Leesburg Moss Yard in a Ford sedan. Moss gathering was one way to earn a little extra cash back in the days when the moss industry was in full swing (photo 1946).

Spanish moss arriving at the Leesburg Moss Yard in a Ford sedan. Moss gathering was one way to earn a little extra cash back in the days when the moss industry was in full swing (photo 1946).

Moss drying on racks after curing (1946).

Moss drying on racks after curing (1946).

Once the gray outer bark of the Spanish moss slipped off easily, workers removed it from its piles or trenches and hung it out on lines to dry in the sun. Rain, wind and friction combined forces to separate the bark from the dark fibers inside. At this stage, the cured moss would either be taken to a gin or sold to another company that would process the material. Cured moss was worth about 4 to 5 cents per pound as of the late 1950s, depending on how well it had been cleaned. The unit value of the finished product is tough to determine, since government figures often combine moss with other upholstery stuffing materials. State agriculture officials in the 1950s, however, estimated the overall value of the Florida moss crop to be about $500,000 per year.

Bales of ginned moss being loaded onto a truck (1928).

Bales of ginned moss being loaded onto a truck (1928).

These days, inner-spring mattresses have replaced moss-stuffed ones, and synthetic materials cushion our furniture and car seats. The moss factories that once hummed with activity from Pensacola to Gainesville to Leesburg and Apopka are no more. That’s not such a bad thing, of course. The silver lining–or gray, if you please–is that now we have more beautiful Spanish moss to enjoy in the trees where nature originally put it!

A Healthful Haunting

Ghosts stories are often spooky by design, but are all ghosts really that scary? Is it possible that some ghosts–if you believe in such things–might prefer to be helpful rather than harrowing? This seems to be the case with Maria Valdez de Gutsens, who is believed to haunt the former Mercedes Hospital at 1209 Virginia Street in Key West.

The former Mercedes Hospital at 1209 Virginia Street in Key West. The building was later converted into residential apartments (photo ca. 1990).

The former Mercedes Hospital at 1209 Virginia Street in Key West. The building was later converted into residential apartments (photo ca. 1990).

Mercedes Hospital, also known as the Casa del Pobre (Home of the Poor), was established in 1911 in the former home of Eduardo Hidalgo Gato, a prominent Cuban-born cigar maker who first established his factory in Key West in 1874. Although Gato was the leading cigar manufacturer in town, he decided in the early years of the 20th century to move back to Cuba and leave the management of the business to his four sons, who were all officers of the company. That left the spacious Gato home open for other uses.

Bust portrait of Eduardo Hidalgo Gato, in the Official Gazette of the U.S. Patent Office - January 9, 1906.

Bust portrait of Eduardo Hidalgo Gato, in the Official Gazette of the U.S. Patent Office – January 9, 1906.

Meanwhile, a group of philanthropic Key West citizens of Cuban descent called the Beneficencia Cubana  hatched an idea to establish a hospital for residents who could not afford treatment at the city’s other medical facilities. The committee prevailed upon Eduardo Gato to lease his former home to the new institution for free. To honor the Gato family for their generosity, the new hospital was named for Mr. Gato’s wife, Mercedes.

Dr. Joseph N. Fogarty, mayor of Key West and a prominent local physician, donated money, instruments and equipment to the new hospital, but it was Maria Valdez de Gutsens who really ran the show. “Mother” Gutsens, as she was called, administered the hospital for 30 years from its opening until nearly the time of her death in 1941. She dedicated her life to nursing patients in the 30-bed facility, as well as finding money to keep the doors open. According to newspaper reports, Mrs. Gutsens would go around daily to the business houses of Key West and collect dimes and quarters to supplement the meager donations Mercedes Hospital received from the city and Monroe County. In 1934, Cuban president Carlos Mendieta awarded her the medal of Carlos Manuel de Cespedes, Cuba’s highest honor at the time.

Mother Gutsens’ own health began to fail in 1941, forcing her to retire from her nursing and administrative duties at Mercedes Hospital. She was able, however, to participate in ceremonies marking the 30th anniversary of the facility’s establishment. “It was been much trouble,” she admitted, “and many, many tears.” Later that same year, Maria Valdez de Gutsens died at her Catherine Street home and was interred in the Key West Cemetery. The hospital, now without the greatest source of its former vitality, was soon closed, and the Gato house was converted into residential apartments.

Mercedes Hospital might be no more, but some residents say its former matron, Mother Gutsens, still occasionally attempts to apply her healing and caring touch to those who need it. Even before the hospital was closed after her death, there were signs to suggest that she was still at work in the building. A couple of months after Gutsens’ death, for example, a man checked into Mercedes Hospital with a serious case of pneumonia. Convinced he was about to die, he asked the nurse who came to check on him in the middle of the night to help him write a letter to his family expressing his love. According to the man’s testimony, the nurse stayed for about an hour as he dictated the letter, which she wrote down, placed in an envelope and placed on the window sill. She then stayed with the ailing man as he gradually fell asleep. The next day, the man asked to see the night nurse so he could thank her for her help. The nurse on duty that morning replied with confusion that she had been the only staff member in the hospital the night before. When the man described the person who had written his letter, the nurse noted that it sounded a lot like the Mother Gutsens who had worked at the hospital for years, but that she had passed away. Her confusion turned to shock, however, when the man pointed out the letter the night nurse had written the might before… and the handwriting was clearly that of Maria Valdez de Gutsens!

More recently, residents of the old Gato house have seen someone fitting Maria’s description visiting their rooms, especially when they were feeling unwell. In most of these cases, the apparition would either appear to be feeling the person’s forehead for a temperature or checking their wrist for a pulse. A few folks claim to have spoken to the ghost–one woman says she told Maria that although she appreciated what she was doing, it still frightened her. The dutiful nurse responded by stepping away from the woman’s bed, smiling and fading away from view.

The Gato House still stands in Key West and is a favorite stopping place for ghost tours. And what does Mother Maria Valdez de Gutsens think of her fame? The only way to know for sure would be to visit and see if she’ll appear and tell you herself.

Gato House apartments, formerly the Mercedes Hospital in Key West (1988).

Gato House apartments, formerly the Mercedes Hospital in Key West (1988).

Dying to read more ghost stories from the Key West area? We recommend David L. Sloan’s Ghosts of Key West, published by Phantom Press.