All in Good Time

It’s smart to plan for the future, but it’s also possible to take that mantra to extremes. Calvin Phillips, an  architect who lived in Tallahassee in the early 20th century, is a good example. You see, in the months leading up to his death in November 1919, Phillips spent most of his time building his own mausoleum.

Calvin Phillips' mausoleum in Oakland Cemetery in Tallahassee (1960).

Calvin Phillips’ mausoleum in Oakland Cemetery in Tallahassee (1960).

This might seem a bit out of the ordinary, but Calvin Phillips was no ordinary man. A few bits of evidence suggested to his contemporaries that he had done great things in his lifetime. His purpose for coming to Tallahassee and the details of his earlier life, however, are mostly shrouded in mystery even today.

Census records indicate that Calvin C. Phillips was born around 1834 in Massachusetts. He trained as an architect and lived in New York for some portion of his adult life. His architectural work was honored by medals from the Pennsylvania State Agriculture Society and the “Exposition Universelle” of 1889, which were brought to Florida by his daughter after his death.

In 1907, for unknown reasons, Calvin Phillips moved to Tallahassee. He had been married, and had at least one living daughter, but no family members joined him in his new home. In fact, he lived mostly as a hermit, seeing very few people and hardly ever going out into public. He built a home at 815 South Macomb Street, and erected a large clock tower at one end of the building. Tallahasseeans who met Phillips recalled that the architect was almost obsessed with the concept of time, which would explain the rather imposing structure.

Home of Calvin Phillips at 815 S. Macomb Street in Tallahassee, including the clock tower (circa 1960s).

Home of Calvin Phillips at 815 S. Macomb Street in Tallahassee, including the clock tower (circa 1960s).

 

Close-up of the clock tower attached to Calvin Phillips' home in Tallahassee (1967).

Close-up of the clock tower attached to Calvin Phillips’ home in Tallahassee (1967).

Apparently, he was equally obsessed with the end of his own time. In 1919, Calvin Phillips began constructing a mausoleum in what is now Oakland Cemetery in Tallahassee. He was over eighty years old by this point, and according to eyewitnesses he would spend his frequent breaks sitting inside the mausoleum that would one day serve as his own tomb. One contemporary said Phillips described this practice as his way of “getting used to his new home.”

Calvin Phillips’ sense of time proved mysterious right up to the end. He finished the mausoleum in November 1919, just days before he passed away. According to his wishes, he was buried in a cherry-wood coffin he himself constructed, and placed in the tomb he had spent so many of his final days creating.

Remains of Calvin Phillips' home in Tallahassee (circa 1974).

Remains of Calvin Phillips’ home in Tallahassee (circa 1974).

Calvin Phillips’ property eventually passed into the possession of Mr. and Mrs. Henry M. Blaine, who in turn gave the house and clock tower to the Florida Heritage Foundation. Efforts to restore the unusual landmark proved prohibitively expensive, and it was torn down in the 1980s. Phillips’ mausoleum still stands in Oakland Cemetery, a lasting monument to his unique contribution to Tallahassee’s architectural history.

Articles from the Tallahassee Democrat were instrumental in reconstructing this story. Did you know  the State Library of Florida has microfilm editions of many Florida newspapers going as far back as before the Civil War? Search the State Library’s online catalog or contact the Reference Desk for details.

Fort Lonesome Was No Picnic

If you know someone with a unique name like Beglasia or Hazelwonder or Plutochose, today (March 3rd) is the day to celebrate. It’s National Unique Name Day, and here at Florida Memory we’re thinking about unique place names across the Sunshine State.

Hillsborough County, for example, is home to the great port city of Tampa, but it’s also home to a variety of smaller communities with some very unique names. From Wimauma to Welcome to Reason to Balm, we’re fascinated with these local place names and their origins. To celebrate National Unique Name Day, we’ve selected two communities for a closer look: Picnic and Fort Lonesome.

Excerpt of the Florida Department of Transportation's Official Highway Map showing the location of Picnic and Fort Lonesome in eastern Hillsborough County (2014).

Excerpt of the Florida Department of Transportation’s Official Highway Map showing the location of Picnic and Fort Lonesome in eastern Hillsborough County (2014).

Picnic has been showing up on Florida maps at least since the 1880s. A former resident, Mrs. Bernice West, once told columnist Nixon Smiley of the Miami Herald that the settlement had once been called Hurrah, just like the Hurrah Creek that flows into the Alafia River near the site. West explained that the name “Hurrah” wasn’t meant to mean the cheer, but an Indian word with a different meaning.

At any rate, Hurrah acquired a neighbor sometime in the 1870s or 1880s called Picnic. Local historians explain that Picnic got its name from the local habit of having picnics and fish fries on the flat land lying at the convergence of Hurrah Creek and the Alafia River. It is unclear whether Hurrah and Picnic existed at the same time. By 1880, however, the name “Picnic” won out for the area’s new post office founded by George W. Colding.

The territory surrounding Picnic, Florida was engaged in two key industries in the early 20th century: turpentine and phosphates. At the start of this period, the community was surrounded by extensive tracts of longleaf pine trees, which could be tapped for their valuable resin. Several companies set to work extracting this substance from the trees and distilling it into turpentine.

Turpentine workers dipping resin from a collection cup (left) and scraping

Turpentine workers dipping resin from a collection cup (left) and scraping “cat-faces” (right). Photo circa 1890s.

This profitable business employed hundreds of local workers, but over time the area’s resources were depleted. As turpentine companies began selling off their land, phosphate companies moved in behind them to extract more wealth from under the ground. By 1930, the majority of Picnic’s residents were either farming or employed in the phosphate mines.

Hand mining phosphates (1900).

Hand mining phosphates (1900).

That brings us to Fort Lonesome, located just south of Picnic on County Road 39. Contrary to the name, there was never a fort there, at least not one called Fort Lonesome. There are several local legends explaining how the name came about, but the best explanation dates back to a serious crisis in the Central Florida citrus industry in the 1920s.

Mediterranean Fruit Fly (circa 1950s).

Mediterranean Fruit Fly (circa 1950s).

In April 1929, state officials announced that Florida was suffering from an infestation of Ceratitis capitata, better known as the Mediterranean fruit fly. The larvae of this pest burrow into the fruits of citrus trees and other deciduous trees, ruining it in the process. To combat the problem, the Florida Department of Agriculture cooperated with other state and federal authorities in an extensive program of eradication. Part of this program meant inspecting all vehicles traveling in and out of the affected area to ensure that no infested fruit left the region to spread the epidemic.

Florida National Guard personnel inspect a truck for fruit affected by the Mediterranean fruit fly (circa 1929). Photo courtesy of the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services.

Florida National Guard personnel inspect a truck for fruit affected by the Mediterranean fruit fly (circa 1929). Photo courtesy of the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services.

One inspection station was located at what is now the corner of County Road 39 and State Road 674 in Hillsborough County, just south of Picnic. The National Guardsmen manning the station didn’t have much traffic to look forward to, as most of the industrial action had quieted down in this section by 1930. To express his feelings about his assignment, one of the inspectors allegedly hung up a sign reading “Fort Lonesome.” The spot has never been incorporated, but the Florida Department of Transportation still posts signs on State Road 674 marking its location.

What is the most unique Florida place name in your county? What is the origin of that name? Today is a great day to do some research on the subject. Need help? Visit info.florida.gov to learn more about using the resources of the State Library and Archives for your next foray into studying Florida history and culture.

A Tribute to Lost Love

It’s getting close to Valentine’s Day, and thoughts of love are in the air here at the State Library and Archives. As a tribute to Valentine’s Day, we’ve searched our collections and found several stories from across Florida history that demonstrate the power of love and the special memories it creates. Today, we look at Coral Castle, an impressive but unusual structure in Miami-Dade County made entirely of enormous blocks of coral rock. The story of how one man single-handedly engineered this massive undertaking is perhaps one of saddest yet most remarkable tales of unrequited love in Florida’s history.

A postcard depicting Coral Castle in Homestead (circa 1950s).

A postcard depicting Coral Castle in Homestead (circa 1950s).

It all began in 1913 when a man named Edward Leedskalnin of the European country of Latvia was jilted by his betrothed, generally thought to be the beautiful 16-year-old Agnes Skuvst. The day before their wedding, Scuvst called off the engagement, saying the ten-year age difference between her and Leedskalnin made him too old for her.

Edward was heartbroken. He left Latvia, never to return, and sailed to Canada. He traveled around North America for several years before finally arriving in Florida around 1918. He purchased an acre of land in Florida City and began carving large pieces of stone furniture out of chunks of coral. He later explained to visitors that he hoped Agnes, who he referred to as “Sweet Sixteen,” would someday come to Florida to join him and make use of these pieces.

Ed Leedskalnin sitting in one of his carved coral chairs at Coral Castle, then called Rock Gate Park (between 1923 and 1936).

Ed Leedskalnin sitting in one of his carved coral chairs at Coral Castle, then called Rock Gate Park (between 1923 and 1936).

In 1936, as more people began moving to the Florida City area, Leedskalnin moved his creations to a 10-acre plot near Homestead. There, he arranged them within an enclosure of coral walls, creating themed “rooms” of solid stone furniture. There was a bedroom, a bathroom, a dining room, a children’s play area, and even a “throne room” with large solid-stone rocking chairs for himself, “Sweet Sixteen,” and a small child.

The mystery in all of this is that Leedskalnin managed to do all of the labor involved with creating these masterpieces by himself. The furniture bears no discernible tool marks, and the elements of the castle intended to move do so with very little effort. The solid-stone rocking chairs Leedskalnin created could be rocked even by a small child, and the 9-foot front gate could be opened with the push of a finger. The design of the chairs and other furniture provided adequate comfort, save for one chair, located behind the coral “thrones” he had created for himself and his lost love. Leedskalnin liked to joke that this chair was reserved for the mother-in-law he never had.

A young visitor at Coral Castle in Homestead (1963).

A young visitor at Coral Castle in Homestead (1963).

Scientists and engineers have studied the designs closely, even using computers, but they cannot account for how Leedskalnin did it. Nothing in the designs is impossible, per se, just extremely precise. And let’s not forget that these pieces of furniture were made from blocks of solid rock, some of which weighed as much as half a ton apiece. When Leedskalnin was in the process of building or moving the pieces, he insisted on being completely alone. When asked about his methods, Leedskalnin would often crypitcally reply either that he understood the “secret of the Pyramids,” or that to move large stone was easy if one only knew how.

For years, Edward Leedskalnin personally managed his creation as a tourist attraction called Rock Gate Park, charging ten cents a head for admission. In 1951, he died without leaving a will, whereupon the property fell to a nephew from Michigan named Harry. The property changed hands several more times over the years, acquiring the catchy name “Coral Castle.” It was added to the national Register of Historic Places in 1984.

Front of a brochure for Coral Castle - part of the State Library's Florida Ephemera Collection (circa 1960s).

Front of a brochure for Coral Castle – part of the State Library’s Florida Ephemera Collection (circa 1960s).

In 1983, the manager of Coral Castle told a reporter he had learned that Leedskalnin’s “Sweet Sixteen” was alive and knew about the massive stone monument built in her honor. To his knowledge, however, she had never seen it. So far as we know, she and Leedskalnin never communicated. Clearly, however, the heartbroken Edward got his point across. His undying (if unrequited) love for his “Sweet Sixteen” is to this day still embodied in the massive stone magnificence of his creations.

The Wakulla Swamp Volcano

Floridians know their state isn’t made up just of sandy beaches. There are swamps, sandhills, prairies, and in some places rolling hills that seem more appropriate in a state farther north. It’s nice to have a little variety, of course, but what would you say if we told you Florida once had its very own volcano?

Model Melody May in front of the volcano at Jungle Land in Panama City (1966).

Model Melody May in front of the volcano at Jungle Land in Panama City (1966).

No, not that volcano. A real one, a natural volcano like Mount St. Helens. For generations, people swore they could occasionally see a dark column of smoke rising up out of the forests southeast of Tallahassee. It was too much smoke to come from a single campfire or some industrial process. The smoke was thicker, blacker, more ominous. Folks nicknamed the phenomenon the “Wakulla Volcano,” even though some bearings indicated it was located in extreme southern Jefferson County in Township 4 South, Range 3 East, somewhere near what’s now known as the “Gum Swamp” section of the St. Marks Wildlife Refuge.

The swamps in southern Wakulla and Jefferson counties are some of the most beautiful, although they can be difficult to access (photo 1971).

The swamps in southern Wakulla and Jefferson counties are some of the most beautiful, although they can be difficult to access (photo 1971).

Local wisdom has it that stories of the volcano were around even when Native Americans occupied the area. The legend became particularly popular in the late 19th century, when a variety of newspapers and magazines carried stories about the mysterious Wakulla Volcano and its possible explanations. Some said it was some sort of beacon established by pirates. During the Civil War, some believed it might be a signal used by deserters hiding out in the swamps to communicate with the ships of the Union blockade. Moonshiners, hermits, giant pine trees struck by lightning, and Native Americans were all suggested at one time or another as the source of the thick black smoke.

Moonshine stills like this one from Miami could produce a lot of smoke depending on what was used to fuel the fire. Some believed this explained the mysterious Wakulla Swamp Volcano (photo 1925).

Moonshine stills like this one from Miami could produce a lot of smoke depending on what was used to fuel the fire. Some believed this explained the mysterious Wakulla Swamp Volcano (photo 1925).

The Wakulla Swamp Volcano seemed to close up shop after the 1886 Charleston Earthquake, which was felt across Middle Florida. Some folks assumed whatever geological formation had opened up to produce the smoke had been closed by the shaking of the ground. Others continued looking for answers, even into the 20th century. As scientific knowledge about the geological formation of Florida became more advanced, notions of an actual volcano became less popular. The best explanation State Librarian W.T. Cash could provide when asked about the volcano in the 1930s was that a mass of peat or vegetation must have caught fire and smoldered, creating the smoke. Marshes and peat bogs do occasionally experience this sort of slow, smoldering fire, although for it to continue burning for so long would be unusual.

A core sample of peat taken by the Florida Geological Survey using the brass cylinder on the right. Peat can become dry and flammable, and some believed this explained the mysterious Wakulla Swamp Volcano (photo 1944).

A core sample of peat taken by the Florida Geological Survey using the brass cylinder on the right. Peat can become dry and flammable, and some believed this explained the mysterious Wakulla Swamp Volcano (photo 1944).

We may never know what was causing that enigmatic black column of smoke rising above the trees. We can be thankful, however, that whatever it was didn’t destroy the forest in that area, because St. Marks Wildlife Refuge is a stunning piece of natural Florida territory. We at Florida Memory recommend you visit sometime!

 

The Day They Gave a Florida Island Away on "The Price is Right"

If you’ve ever seen the hit daytime show The Price is Right, you know they’ll give away just about anything. Toasters, exercise equipment, new cars, bread makers, trips to Italy – you name it, they give it. But have you ever heard of The Price is Right giving away an island?

Excerpt of map of Putnam County showing Bear Island in the middle of Crescent Lake (1990).

Excerpt of map of Putnam County showing Bear Island in the middle of Crescent Lake (1990).

Well, not the entire island. But Bill Cullen, the host of the show before CBS took it over, did give away a nice chunk of Florida real estate on Bear Island in the middle of Crescent Lake, which straddles the border between Putnam and Flagler counties near the Atlantic coast. The date was December 11, 1961, and the movie Mysterious Island, based on the popular Jules Verne novel of the same name, was about to be released in theaters by Columbia Pictures.

Columbia and the Price is Right folks had gotten together and planned a whole show promoting the movie release. One lucky winner would walk away with the keys to a new two-bedroom house on their very own (part of) “Mysterious Island,” complete with a dock and the latest amenities.

The house on

The house on “Mysterious Island,” locally known as Bear Island (1961).

Mr. and Mrs. Henry Freeman of New York were the lucky winners of the “Mysterious Island” house. They were flown to Crescent City for a ceremony at their new home, where they were given the keys, the deed to the land, and a private screening of Mysterious Island. Columbia filmed all of this and used it to help promote the movie.

Mr. and Mrs. Henry Freeman, the lucky winners of the

Mr. and Mrs. Henry Freeman, the lucky winners of the “Mysterious Island” house (1961).

The Freemans appeared to be very pleased with their new home on “Mysterious Island,” but they ended up not doing much with it. After the ceremony and a fishing trip, they returned to New York and reportedly never returned. In early 1964, the local newspaper reported that Jake Ward, the developer who owned the rest of the island, had bought the house. He hoped to perpetuate the “Mysterious Island” theme and create an attractive housing development.

Mr. and Mrs. Henry Freeman enjoying their first (and apparently last) fishing trip on Crescent Lake (1961).

Mr. and Mrs. Henry Freeman enjoying their first (and apparently last) fishing trip on Crescent Lake (1961).

The island is still privately owned today. There’s not much there, aside from the house and a landing strip. There’s no telling whether the owners even know the unique history of the place. But now you do!

You never know what kinds of quirky Florida history will show up when your browse the Florida Photographic Collection. Tell us about the interesting photos you’ve found by sharing on our Facebook page or leave a comment below.