Welcome to Florida!

Florida was one of the first states to create highway welcome centers, which have now become almost standard across the nation. The establishment of the Dixie Highway routed travelers as far north as Michigan into the state of Florida via a little town called Yulee. Leaders of the growing Florida tourism industry saw this as an excellent opportunity to educate out-of-towners on the many sites and attractions the state had to offer.

Ribbon cutting at opening of hospitality house in Yulee, FL (1949).

Florida’s First Lady, Mrs. Fuller Warren cuts the ribbon at hospitality house opening ceremony – Yulee, Florida (November 4, 1949).

Florida’s first “hospitality house” opened in Yulee in the fall of 1949 on the Georgia-Florida line. Seven more centers followed to greet visitors arriving via US1/301 in Hilliard, US41 near Jennings, US231 near Campbellton, US90 in Pensacola, a marine center in Fernandina Beach, US27 in Havana, and US19 near Monticello.

Tourists at a Florida Welcome Station (October 1955).

Tourists at a Florida Welcome Station (October 1955).

People in front of welcome sign- Havana, Florida (1962).

Unidentified ladies and a man in front of the welcome sign – Havana, Florida (1962).

Although these original facilities have since come and gone, they created a long-standing tradition for offering complimentary orange juice, maps, attraction information, and assistance for tourists with travel inquiries. They also featured picnic and restroom facilities (and anyone who has been on a road trip understands the sanctity and relief of a well placed “restroom” sign).

Tourists receive orange juice at the Welcome Station (1977).

Tourists receive orange juice at the Welcome Station (1977).

Today there are five Official Florida Welcome Centers operated by Visit Florida. They are located on Interstate 10 in Pensacola, US231 near Campbellton, the State Capitol in Tallahassee, Interstate 75 in Live Oak, and Interstate 95 near Jacksonville. Personnel now undergo training to receive a national Information Specialist certification to better serve visitors. Otherwise, not much has changed in the way of good ole’ friendly service you can expect at any one of these stations.

The I-95 welcome station in Yulee, Florida (1977).

Interior of the I-95 welcome station in Yulee, Florida (1977).

Since the first welcome center opened in 1949, the State of Florida has estimated that 90 million visitors have been received, and more than 200 million maps have been distributed. Now that’s a lot of free orange juice!

Florida welcome sign - Tallahassee, Florida (1956).

Florida welcome sign – Tallahassee, Florida (1956).

If you’re traveling through the Sunshine State this summer, be sure to stop at an Official Florida Welcome Center. If you’re stuck at home for the moment, you can still enjoy a bit of Florida by searching for your favorite Sunshine State destinations in the Florida Photographic Collection.


Gregor McGregor (Part Two)

McGregor settled in on Amelia Island after capturing the Spanish town and blockhouse at Fernandina.

After Gregor McGregor captured the small fort and block houses at Fernandina on Amelia Island in June of 1817, he sent the Spanish prisoners to St. Augustine. McGregor planned to continue his invasion of North Florida, but delayed at Amelia Island to set up a government of his own. He established a postal delivery system, acquired a printing press for a local newspaper, issued his own currency and flew his own flag, a green cross on a white background.

Gregor McGregor's flag

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Gregor McGregor (Part One)

In July 1817, McGregor devised a plan to capture part of Florida and sell it to the United States.

Gregor McGregor was born in Scotland in 1786. After serving in the British Army for eight years he sold out of the army in 1810, having attained the rank of major. In 1812, McGregor sailed to South America to join the colonial revolution against the Spanish. He married a relative of Simón Bolivar and campaigned against the Spanish in South America and the Caribbean for several years.

In 1817, he left South America for North America to campaign against the Spanish in Florida. McGregor devised a plan to capture part of Florida and sell it to the United States. He obtained financial backing from an American mercantile company from Charleston, South Carolina, recruited veterans of the War of 1812, and invaded Amelia Island in North Florida.

Map from the Unconfirmed Spanish Land Grant of John McClure on Amelia Island, showing the location of Fuerte San Carlos (upper left) overtaken by McGregor on July 9, 1817

Map from the Unconfirmed Spanish Land Grant of John McClure on Amelia Island, showing the location of Fuerte San Carlos (upper left) overtaken by McGregor on July 9, 1817

Quotation below from Narrative of a Voyage to the Spanish Main in the Ship Two Friends (J. Miller: London, 1819), 87-88.

“On the 9th of July (1817), the little band of McGregor, attended by two schooners and a few row boats, passing the shores of Cumberland island, at the entrance of the river St. Mary’s, anchored in the Spanish waters of Amelia, disembarking in all about 60 muskets, under the very guns of the fort of Fernandina, and two block houses intended as a defense for the rear of the town. McGregor, assisted by Colonel Posen of the United States Army as second in command, led his little band over a swamp, which divided the point of debarkation from the town, plunged up to their knees in mud, exposed to the means possessed by the Spaniards of totally annihilating them… The garrison… did not offer a single coup de canon of resistance from the fort, and only one gun was fired from the Block house and that without the orders of the commandant.”

March 1862: Invasion!

Florida and the Civil War

This is the second in a series of monthly posts commemorating the sesquicentennial anniversary of Florida’s role in the American Civil War.

March 1862: Invasion!

The arrival of a Union invasion fleet off Amelia Island on March 3, 1862, was a startling but not unexpected event. As early as October 1861, Governor John Milton notified neighboring Confederate governors that a Union invasion fleet was steaming southward for a possible landing in Florida. Although the fleet’s target at that time was Port Royal, South Carolina, not Florida, ships from the flotilla eventually transported the Union expeditionary force that descended on Amelia Island in March.

Map of the harbor at Fernandina (1862)

Map of the harbor at Fernandina (1862)

For months, east coast Confederate and Unionist Floridians had expected Federal troops to land in Florida. Although a Federal raiding party occupied the Gulf port of Cedar Key in January 1862, under orders from General Robert E. Lee, General James H. Trapier, the commander of Confederate forces in the Department of Middle and East Florida (the area from the Atlantic to the Choctawhatchee River in the west), concentrated the bulk of his forces for the defense of Amelia Island. Meanwhile in Jacksonville, a city with a strong Unionist element, pro-Union men and women awaited the liberation of their city, where many of them were threatened by secessionist vigilance committees.

By March 1862, however, the Unionists had more cause for optimism than the secessionists. Confederate defeats in Tennessee during February resulted in the Richmond government’s decision to withdraw its troops from Florida to reinforce Tennessee. As the Union fleet approached, General Trapier ordered the withdrawal of his troops from Amelia Island. On March 4, the Federals occupied Fernandina after the last train carrying troops and fleeing civilians crossed the bridge to the mainland under the fire of the USS Ottawa, a Union gunboat. Fernandina remained under Union control for the rest of the war and became a place of refuge for hundreds of escaped slaves from Florida and southeast Georgia.

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