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!

 

Strawberry Schools

Remember those late spring days back in grade school when all you could think about was the approach of summer vacation? Depending on your age and your preferences, you might have spent the time off swimming, taking family trips, or earning a little spending money at a summer job – anything but sitting still in a classroom.

There was a time, however, when some Florida students took their vacation much earlier in the year, from January through March. A number of counties in Central and South Florida mandated this to accommodate the harvest schedules for winter fruits and vegetables, which provided a living for small family farms. Strawberries were the main Florida crop requiring this arrangement. As a result, schools that operated on the modified April to December calendar were called “strawberry schools.”

Students attending a

Students attending a “strawberry school” in Plant City, Florida (1946).

Strawberries have been cultivated in Florida since the late 1800s. They have been grown in nearly every county in the state at one time or another, but large-scale sustained strawberry farming has mainly been centered in Hillsborough, Polk, Hardee, Bradford, Union, and Orange counties. These days, commercial strawberry farming is largely confined to large-scale operations with hundreds of acres under cultivation. Up until about the 1950s, however, family farms dominated the industry. In some places, strawberry farming came to define whole communities. Plant City, for example, has long been known as the “Winter Strawberry Capital of the World,” and strawberries have been a key theme in the town’s self-promotion.

Hillsborough County folder, Ephemera Collection, State Library of Florida.

Hillsborough County folder, Ephemera Collection, State Library of Florida.

Florida strawberries generally become ready to harvest between late December and March, right in the middle of the traditional spring session of the public schools. Farm families depending on the strawberry harvest for their livelihood often enlisted their children’s help tending and picking the berries. Gathering the fruit was only one part of the process; one woman remembered children being responsible for watering the rows of tender plants by hand and covering them with Spanish moss when the weather turned cold.

Children and adults picking strawberries in Plant City (1946).

Children and adults picking strawberries in Plant City (1946).

Strawberry farmers valued the labor their children provided at harvest time, but they also recognized the importance of their education. Some communities decided to have the best of both worlds by rearranging the school year. This was no new invention; the very idea of summer vacation was originally devised to allow farm children to help their families during the busy summer months. Plus, plenty of other states had similar systems to allow schoolchildren to help out at harvest time. There have at various times been “potato schools” in Connecticut, “apple schools” in New York, “tomato schools” in Ohio, and so on. What Central Florida needed was a “strawberry school” that would allow the students’ off-time to coincide with the strawberry harvest January through March.

Excerpt from the minutes of the Florida Board of Education, July 30, 1942 - volume 6, page 286, Series 252, State Archives of Florida.

Excerpt from the minutes of the Florida Board of Education, July 30, 1942 – volume 6, page 286, Series 252, State Archives of Florida.

And that is exactly what happened in many cases. In earlier years, counties would adjust the school year as needed for their particular harvest season. Once state education authorities began regulating the length and structure of the school calendar, local districts had to request permission to operate on a special schedule. Frequently, only some of the schools in a district would operate on the “summer” or “strawberry” system, while the rest of the county would use the more familiar “winter” system. In at least one case in Polk County, a school remained opened year-round and parents had the opportunity to choose which months their children would attend classes. A similar system was attempted for a few years in the early 1940s in Wimauma in Hillsborough County.

Postcard showing children lining up to turn in the strawberries they have picked (circa 1930s).

Postcard showing children lining up to turn in the strawberries they have picked (circa 1930s).

If you’re “warm-natured,” taking your vacation in the winter-time might not sound like such a bad idea, especially if you had to spend some portion of it walking up and down the rows of a field picking fruit at ankle level. The system had its problems, as veteran strawberry scholars have explained when asked about their experiences. Former Hillsborough County teacher Myrtis Hawthorne once told Tampa Tribune writer Leland Hawes that she remembered the gnats being so bad in her classroom that she often put a small dab of kerosene on her students’ faces to keep them away. The heat left her little choice but to keep the windows open, and so the gnats simply became part of the experience.

The strawberry school system was a boon for farmers, but several factors combined to bring it to an end in the years following World War II. Migrant workers had become a crucial part of the agricultural labor force during the wartime emergency, and in the postwar years they preferred to be able to move northward in the summer months as crops became ready for harvest. Also, improved roads and increased automobile ownership helped popularize the concept of the family vacation, which many families preferred to take in the summer.

The educational quality of strawberry schools also came into question during this period. In 1946, Tampa Tribune reporter J.A. “Jock” Murray began writing a series of articles criticizing the system as exploitative and academically deficient. Murray’s efforts helped pave the way for Florida’s landmark Minimum Foundation education law of 1947, but the school term remained a local option issue. The tide was turning, however, and in 1956 the Hillsborough County School Board abolished the strawberry school calendar for all of its schools. The remaining strawberry schools in surrounding counties followed suit soon afterward.

Two children eating strawberries at the annual Plant City Strawberry Festival (1978).

Two children eating strawberries at the annual Plant City Strawberry Festival (1978).

Strawberry farming is still a major winter industry in Central Florida, but these days children spend much more time eating the berries than picking them. Plant City still holds an annual Strawberry Festival that brings in thousands of visitors. This year’s event is coming up soon, by the way – the festival runs March 3-13, 2016. Now that you have a bit of local strawberry history under your belt, you’re all set to give it a try.

If you were a student again, would you choose a three-month winter vacation or a three-month summer vacation? Leave us a comment below or on Facebook with your thoughts!