Miss Nancy’s Story

This is the second installment of our two-part blog series highlighting the Nancy Tribble Benda Collection (N2016-1) available at the State Archives of Florida. Benda was one of the first mermaids to perform at Weeki Wachee Springs when it opened in 1947. She later went on to star in WFSU-TV’s educational children’s television show “Miss Nancy’s Store”  from 1966-1967 before working for the Florida Department of Education.

After splashing onto the scene in the 1940s as one of the first-ever Weeki Wachee mermaids, Nancy Tribble Benda briefly stepped out of the limelight to pursue a degree in elementary education at Florida State University (FSU). But by the 1960s she was making waves again. This time as the star of her own educational television show: The hit children’s series “Miss Nancy’s Store” aired on WFSU-TV from 1966-1967. During an illustrious 40-year public education career, Benda worked both on and off-screen to expand educational access in Florida.

Nancy Tribble Benda on the set of WFSU-TV's educational children's television show,

Nancy Tribble Benda on the set of WFSU-TV’s educational children’s television show, “Miss Nancy’s Store,” ca. 1966.

Nancy Tribble was born in 1930. Back then, radio was king and television was still a new-fangled experiment. But by the time a teen-aged Ms. Tribble landed her role as an underwater entertainer at the new Weeki Wachee Springs amusement park in Brooksville, Florida, in 1947, home television sets had debuted in American markets. Over the next decade, as television began to redefine national media consumption, it would also redirect Benda’s career path.

Shortly after appearing in the 1948 motion picture Mr. Peabody and the Mermaid, Benda hung up her mermaid fin and moved back to her hometown of Tallahassee, where she enrolled at Florida State University. She married architect Charles Benda in 1950. After graduation, Mrs. Nancy Tribble Benda took her first job at Havana Elementary School in Gadsden County, teaching fifth grade. A few years later, she transferred to Sealey Memorial Elementary in Leon County. But Benda wouldn’t stay in a traditional classroom for long. Her combined performance and teaching talents would soon thrust her into the emerging educational television industry.

Nancy Tribble Benda with her sorority sisters at Florida State University, ca. 1949.

Benda (second row, right) at the Alpha Xi Delta Sorority rush party at Florida State University, ca. 1949.

Ed. Television Comes to Florida

By 1955, half of American households owned a television. Big networks such as ABC, CBS, and NBC captivated audiences with the comedic cheese of family sit-coms like The Goldbergs, Leave it to Beaver, and I Love Lucy. However, heavy product placement, gimmicky ads and implausible story lines left some parents and professionals concerned that the first generation of American youngsters to grow up in front of the television were starved for intellectual stimulation.

The answer to the call for more educational television programming first arrived in 1952 with the creation of the Educational Television and Radio Center (later renamed National Educational Television and replaced by the Public Broadcasting Service in 1970). The network aimed to educate the nation’s growing number of television viewers with an entertaining yet enriching lineup. Proponents saw potential in the new technology’s unprecedented ability to provide underserved populations with quality educational programming.

Individual states soon caught on to the idea of “teleducation,” developing the first statewide educational television networks in the 1950s. Florida’s population increased enormously after World War II, ballooning from just under 2 million in 1940 to 3.7 million by 1955. The dramatic influx of new residents overburdened the state’s traditional public education infrastructure. Consequently, Florida Governor LeRoy Collins, who was elected in 1954 on a progressive education platform, looked to the remote access afforded by educational television programming as a possible solution.

In 1957, the Florida Legislature created the Florida Educational Television Commission (Ch. 57-312, Laws) “to provide through educational television a means of extending the powers of teaching in public education and of raising living and educational standards of the citizens and residents of the state.”

The commission joined with state universities and the independent Florida Institute for Continuing University Studies (FICUS) to create the Florida Television Network. The entity produced both closed-circuit and public access educational programming to enhance learning in all levels of public education, from kindergarten to adult learning.

Illustration showing the radial reach of the Florida Television Network’s six stations, ca. 1966. Nancy Benda Collection (N2016-1), Box 05, Folder 9, State Archives of Florida. Click to enlarge and view full record.

Some channels also collaborated with local school boards. WTHS-TV in Miami opened the first school board-run station in the country in 1957, serving students enrolled in district by day and the general public by night. In 1960 WFSU-TV, whose production studios were located on FSU’s campus, went live in Tallahassee.

By 1965, six non-commercial broadcast stations were in operation throughout Florida: Tallahassee, Gainesville, Miami, Tampa, Jacksonville and Orlando.

Tallahassee’s T.V. Teacher

Benda’s role in the rising educational television movement started in 1960, when she took a continuing education summer school class on the “techniques” of educational television. The following year, she and several other local Leon County elementary school teachers formulated a curriculum for a televised fifth grade social studies course for students in the district.

Once the Leon County School Board approved the new social studies course, the school board held auditions for an on-air teaching position and Benda won the part. On February 1, 1962, the first episode of the live history-themed puppet show, “Our Nation’s Story,” premiered on WFSU-TV’s Channel 11. During the course, which aired every Tuesday and Thursday at 2:00 p.m. in fifth grade social studies classrooms throughout Leon County, Benda taught lessons on the history of the United States from “the westward movement in the late 1840s … to [the] beginnings] [of] space travel.”

WFSU-TV program guide featuring an advertisement for "Our Nation's Story," 1963. Nancy Benda Collection (N2016-1), Box 05, Folder 9, State Archives of Florida. Click to enlarge and view full record.

WFSU-TV program guide featuring an advertisement for “Our Nation’s Story,” 1963. Nancy Benda Collection (N2016-1), Box 05, Folder 9, State Archives of Florida. Click to enlarge and view full record.

WFSU-TV’s reach expanded quickly to the rural counties surrounding Leon County, including Calhoun, Gulf, Jackson, Liberty and Wakulla counties. The program supplemented traditional classroom material and helped break down educational access barriers, serving an estimated 6,000 viewers in the Big Bend area.

“We want to be sure we’re fulfilling a need and we want to put TV to best use,” Benda said. The school board eventually approved Benda’s transfer from Sealey Elementary to full-time status as a television teacher. Only responsible for teaching one course, the state’s handful of TV teachers were able to devote more time to enhancing their lessons and making them more engaging for students. Additionally, TV teachers could fill in if a school did not have a teacher qualified to teach a particular course.

Before long, Benda was appearing on Florida’s other five regional public television stations as part of the network’s statewide educational programming initiative, “Through the TV Tube,” which offered for-credit elementary, secondary and college telecourses. Benda taught televised elementary level American history and science classes. The network also offered Spanish, physical education,reading, literature, art, writing and speech courses. Additionally, many Florida high schoolers tuned in to watch a televised version of the legislatively mandated six-week high school course, Americanism vs. Communism. The Cold War-era content remained a public school curriculum requirement until 1983 when lawmakers replaced it with an essential economics class.

Letter from the Florida Institute for Continuing University Studies to Nancy Benda thanking the teacher for her work on “Through the TV Tube” with a “small honorarium,” August 3, 1964. Nancy Benda Collection N2016-1, Box 05, Folder 1, State Archives of Florida.

Florida’s innovative educational television programming garnered high praise from national critics. Nancy Benda won the 1965 Freedoms Foundation Award for her work on “Our Nation’s Story.”

Additionally, Television Digest touted the Florida networks’ expansive coverage, writing in 1964 that “Despite much talk by other states about elaborate, proposed ETV systems, Florida is still the only state to achieve anything like a real statewide network with programs available to significant numbers of major population areas.”

Benda’s interest in educational television stemmed from her deeper passion for educational equality. After participating in Operation Headstart, a federal program launched in 1965 aimed at providing early childhood education for low-income children, she saw a greater need for high-quality kindergarten instruction.

“In many poverty[-stricken] homes children haven’t even seen books or heard good music. But even in middle or upper class homes, children of working parents often lack opportunities… the parents just don’t have time,” the television teacher elaborated to the St. Petersburg Times.

Determined to help bridge the gaps, Nancy Benda pitched a new children’s television show to WFSU-TV.

 “Miss Nancy’s Store”

In 1965, the Florida Department of Education partnered with WFSU-TV to create, “Miss Nancy’s Store,” an enchanting new after school puppet show geared toward boosting childhood literacy. The series starred Benda in the title role and premiered in January 1966.

Nancy Benda working on the set of

Nancy Benda working on the set of “Miss Nancy’s Store,” ca. 1966.

At the height of its run, “Miss Nancy’s Store” aired on all six public television stations in Florida five nights per week at 5:00 p.m, with a potential viewing audience of six million people.

“It’s really a cooperative venture. Parents in the community have felt a need for a children’s show in the area at this time–something they could be sure wouldn’t have to be supervised, something educational, sound, well-done and enjoyable,” she explained.

While filming the show, Benda also earned her master’s in elementary education supervision via correspondence graduate courses at FSU. She brought her expertise to the set and hit all the right marks with viewers.

Miss Nancy stands next to a magical pot-bellied stove in her store, ca. 1966. The stove's smoke transported children into an alternative world filled with music and moving pictures. Other props included a

Miss Nancy stands next to a magical pot-bellied stove in her store, ca. 1966. On the show, the stove’s smoke transported children into an alternative world filled with music and moving pictures. Other props included a “no-cracker cracker barrel” filled with toys, a gramophone, and a secret door in the brick wall where puppets appeared.

Upon turning on the tube, children were transported in the magical world of Miss Nancy’s Store. To get youngsters excited about learning, Nancy employed creative tactics not feasible in a regular classroom. Miss Nancy played dress up and taught language lessons with the help of the show’s colorful puppet characters. “We want children to watch because [they are] interested, not because mama or teacher says it’s good to learn,” she emphasized to a reporter.

Booklet detailing the different characters and quirks of “Miss Nancy’s Store,” as well as the information about the show’s current and future budget, 1966. Nancy Benda Collection (N2016-1), Box 05, Folder 9, State Archives of Florida. Click to enlarge and flip through the full record.

“Miss Nancy’s Store” ranked number one on WFSU-TV’s Channel 11, receiving 11,000 pieces of fan mail in its first year. To make the show more interactive, she spent the last few minutes of each episode acknowledging viewers’ birthdays and reading  fan letters. Florida Commissioner of Education Floyd T. Christian praised the show for its top-notch instructional content.

“I watch your show every day, and I like it very very much…. My mother likes your show too, and thinks you are very pretty and charming. She also thanks you for keeping me out of her hair while she fixes dinner. [We] both send you a big kiss,” gushed one young viewer.

Fan letter to Nancy Benda from five-year-old Timmy Wilson of Hialeah, ca. 1966. Nancy Benda Collection (N2016-1), Box 05, Folder 10, State Archives of Florida.

Despite such favorable ratings and reviews, the show billed high production costs. And a lack of funding forced the network to cancel “Miss Nancy’s Store” in August 1967. Fans, from kindergartners to grandparents, wrote futile pleas to the show’s producers, begging them to keep it on the air.

“I watch Miss Nancy’s Store, everyday. I like her program. Would you please keep her on the air, so children of my age and yonger [sic.] can continue to be educated and intertained [sic.]?”

Letter from “Miss Nancy’s Store” fan Wanda Coles in reaction to series cancellation, August 2, 1967. Nancy Benda Collection (N2016-1), Box 05, Folder 12, State Archives of Florida.

One adult viewer pleaded with producers to keep the show on the air, asking if “For once, couldn’t the viewer be considered and some other program be dropped and put the money into this feature that holds so many children’s attention?”  She attached an article referring to children’s TV as a “mini-wasteland” to support her case.

Letter to WFSU-TV producers from Mrs. George Brant on the cancellation of “Miss Nancy’s Store,” August 13, 1967. Nancy Benda Collection (N2016-1), Box 05, Folder 12, State Archives of Florida. Click to view full record.

Lifelong Educator

Once “Miss Nancy’s Store” stopped filming, Benda accepted a job with the Florida Department of Education (FDOE) as the director of equal opportunity programs. Until her retirement in 2003, the former television star took up the charge of enforcing Title IX–a 1972 federal law barring sex discrimination in scholastic and athletic programs at educational institutions receiving federal funds–in Florida’s public schools. She traveled the state investigating the disparities in athletic offerings for male and female students. Sports teach discipline and competition, she said. Benda intimated that “those are skills that have served our males very well,” and would benefit women as well.

In 1993 she traveled to Washington D.C., testifying as a witness in a congressional hearing on alleged sex discrimination in secondary and collegiate level sports. Toward the end of her tenure with FDOE, Benda expressed tempered views on the progress of educational opportunity in Florida: “Schools have made some enormous strides, [but] there’s a lot of work to be done.”

Nancy Tribble Benda died of cancer in 2015 at the age of 85. After the former educator’s passing, her family donated her career files to the State Archives of Florida for preservation. The collection documents the television teacher’s historic contributions to expanding educational access in Florida. A sampling of items from the collection is now available online.

Florida now boasts a total of 13 public access channels, their success owed in part to the educational television framework built by innovative teachers like Nancy Benda.

Selected Sources:

Nancy Tribble Benda Collection (N2016-1). State Archives of Florida.

Educational Television Commission Minutes (.S 1913). State Archives of Florida.

200,000 Photographs

Today, the State Archives of Florida reached a major milestone: Resident cataloger Tony Conigliaro officially cataloged the 200,000th digitized photograph from the Florida Photographic Collection on Florida Memory. In commemoration, we are digging into the Archives for a look back at the colorful history of the Florida Photographic Collection. We also interviewed Tony, and he explained more about his role in expanding digital public access to one of the most-used photographic collections in the country.

200,000 Copyright-free Images Online

All photographs available on Florida Memory are now offered under the Public Domain Mark Creative Commons license. Members of the public are encouraged to download and share the digitized archival images, provided they credit the State Archives of Florida. Higher resolution scans or prints of images can be ordered online using the shopping cart feature or by contacting staff at the Florida Photographic Archives via email FloridaMemoryStore@dos.myflorida.com or by phone at 850-245-6718.

About the 200,000th Photograph

For the symbolic 200,000th image, Archives staff selected this print of Harriet Beecher Stowe walking up the steps of Florida’s Old Capitol on April 10th, 1874. Though a copy negative of this photograph has been repeatedly used in publications, the original image was only recently discovered in the State Library. Stowe was an author and abolitionist who wrote the anti-slavery novel Uncle Tom’s Cabin in 1851. After the Civil War, Stowe purchased a winter home in Mandarin, Florida, on the east bank of the St. Johns River, now a neighborhood of Jacksonville.

Harriet Beecher Stowe walking up the stairs at Florida’s Old Capitol to greet Governor Marcellus L. Stearns. Governor Stearns is center front and Stowe is the woman in black to the right on the 6th step, April 10, 1874. Photographer A.G. Grant.

In April 1874, Stowe traveled with a group of Northern businessmen to the capital city of Tallahassee to encourage development and investment in Florida. Floridians graciously welcomed Stowe to the capital despite their general disagreement with her political opinions. This meeting on the Capitol steps was meant as a gesture of the South receiving the North. The photograph of the occasion was taken by Irish photographer A. G. Grant, who was hired by a Boston publishing company to capture images of interest for an upcoming publication about Florida.

A closer look at the photograph shows Governor Stearns (left) on the stairs and Stowe (bottom right) walking towards him. Governor Stearns lost his right arm in the Battle of Winchester while fighting for the Union army during the Civil War.

The Florida Photographic Collection

Florida State University, 1952-1982

The Florida Photographic Collection dates back to 1947, when Allen C. Morris, the self-taught historian and well-known Associated Press political columnist and reporter, started writing the Florida Handbook as a reference for the Florida Legislature. The biennial publication, which is still published in a digital format today, contains current information on the history and government of Florida. Tasked with compiling an inviting and educational manual, Morris found himself on a constant quest to illustrate the book with corresponding pictures.

He sought out new images of all types whenever and wherever he could, often using his vast network in journalism, state politics, and industry to make new acquisitions. Within a few years, the collection had exceeded 50,000 photographs.

“The helpfulness of people, both in Florida and elsewhere, has been extremely gratifying,” Morris told the Miami Herald‘s Jeanne Bellamy in 1972. “[Donors] have cooperated to an unusual degree, placing their facilities at our disposal because of the rather general recognition that we are racing against the erosion of time to preserve scenes of lasting human value.”

In an effort to better preserve and organize the many priceless photographs, Morris established the Florida Photographic Collection at the Florida State University Library in 1952. There, Morris, along with other faculty and graduate students, began cataloging the photographs. He soon became known among the press, academic publishers, and the general public as the go-to-resource for printed images of Florida history. The video clip below documents officials from the Florida Development Commission donating promotional films to the archive at FSU in 1964.

Morris continued his oversight of the Florida Photographic Collection throughout the 1960s. In the middle of the decade, his first wife, Dorothy, who was dying of cancer, urged her husband to take a job with the Legislature. She reasoned that a change in careers would ease the longtime journalist’s transition after her death.

In 1966, Allen Morris became clerk of the Florida House of Representatives. That year, he also met graduate student Joan Perry while working in the photographic collection. The couple wed shortly thereafter. Wanting to focus more of his attention on his responsibilities at the Capitol, Morris eventually stepped down from his role at the archives. In 1970, archivist Joan Perry Morris became the director of the Florida Photographic Collection.

Joan and Allen Morris working in the darkroom of the Florida State University Photographic Archives, ca. 1972.

Joan and Allen Morris working in the darkroom at the Florida State University Photographic Archives, ca. 1972.

State Archives of Florida, 1982-Present

During Joan’s tenure, the collection grew to include over one million images of Florida-related people, places, flora, fauna and other items of interest. As the collection continued to grow, Morris sought a new space for the photographs. In 1982, the State Archives of Florida acquired the entirety of the Florida Photographic Collection.

At the state repository, Joan Morris, her photographic assistant Jody Norman and many other archivists on staff continued the work of building and preserving the photographic record of Florida’s history and culture.

The Florida Memory Program, 1994-Present

By the early 1990s, the photo collection had become so popular that requests for copies and scans of photographs accounted for over half of all reference requests at the State Archives. The solution? The internet and its unprecedented ability to provide remote access to information.

In 1993, Joan and her team applied for federal grant funding from the Library Services and Construction Act (now known as the Library Services and Technology Act) and launched the Florida Photographic Collection Electronic Imaging Project in 1994. They developed a plan for digitizing the Florida Photographic Collection and making the photos searchable online. During the digitization project’s first year, over 5,000 images from the Florida Photographic Collection were scanned and put online.

In 2000, the project was renamed the Florida Memory Program, and it has been hailed as one of the state’s best resources for connecting Floridians with their history.

Florida Memory has received several awards in recognition of its public value, including the Society of American Archivists’ 2015 Archival Innovator Award.

As the speed and precision of technology improves, Florida Memory continues to increase access to the historically significant holdings of the State Library and Archives of Florida.

Today, the program keeps an impressive pace, digitizing 100 new photographs each week. And in addition to featuring 200,000 searchable Florida photographs, the website has also expanded to include over 300,000 documents, 250 videos and 2,900 audio recordings, as well as online educational units. Because of Florida Memory’s wide reach, the Florida Photographic Collection receives daily requests from newswires, magazines, interior designers and average citizens from all every corner of the country. They even have a large international customer base.

Our Cataloger Tony on the Ins and Outs of Florida Memory’s Photographs

The ability to quickly search through our online catalog of images is a huge time saver, especially compared to the tedium of thumbing through a traditional card catalog. But, real-life archivists like Tony Conigliaro are usually sitting on the other side of the screen, researching, fact-checking, and cataloging images to optimize your search results on Florida Memory. Here’s what he has to say about how it all happens:

  1.   How long have you been working as a cataloger for the State Archives?

[About twenty years.] I started work as a part-time scanner in 1997 until I became a cataloger in 1999.

  1. What is your academic background? How and why did you first become interested in cataloging work?

I have a master’s in library and information science from Florida State University. I think my interest in archives [grew] over time. I’ve always liked libraries since my youth (they’re so quiet and clean!) and I enjoyed scanning images and learning Photoshop.

But when I began cataloging I thought of myself as kind of an information conduit/provider and more data-entry librarian than archivist. I’ve never done any collection/preservation work but appreciate the fact that these historical items are being made more readily available for researchers and the general public.

I suppose [that as my] appreciation grew, my interest in archival work and the great efforts of archives staff also grew. I’ve heard a few times of patrons who have come across an image, of an ancestor, they never knew existed which just makes my appreciation and interest grow all the more!

Tony Conigliaro in the process of cataloging Florida Memory’s 200,000th photograph, April 24, 2017.

  1. What steps are involved in cataloging a photo on Florida Memory?

It’s really just a matter of filling in each field with appropriate data and adding additional fields when needed or subtracting fields if there are too many. For instance, every record should have data in the fields for “Title” & “Date”, and they do, but each record ought to have data in the “Subject” field to describe what the photo is about and provide keywords, based on a controlled vocabulary list provided by the Library of Congress (or other authorized source), for users to retrieve the digitized image.

  1. How do you identify people and places in photographs?

Fortunately the overwhelming majority are identified by donors. [O]thers are just from familiarity — once Jody [my former boss] was weeding through some political images and held one up to ask me who it was, I looked over and said “Dewey Macon Johnson,” who was State Senate President in 1959.

Senate President Dewey Macon Johnson, ca. 1959.

Florida Senate President Dewey Macon Johnson, ca. 1959.

[Sometimes]  I’ll also grab the loupe (a small magnification device) to look for clues, like road signs, store signs, or any other identifying information. Then I scour the internet, check out the city directories, newspaper microfilm or other library resources. The loupe also helps [to determine] the date of the image as well, especially if it shows an automobile as I can find out the date it was first manufactured. I also make extensive use of the expertise of the smart people around me!

  1.       How many photographs do you think you’ve cataloged for Florida Memory?

I think I have scanned about 88,000 photos. I’ve never done less than 5,000 per year since 2001.

  1.       What is the biggest challenge of your job? What do you like most about your job?

The most challenging aspect is researching images with a lack of accompanying identifications or cryptic/incomplete info. These sometimes also happen to be the most fun.

I suppose I find getting answers to be the most satisfying. Fitting in pieces of information like a jigsaw puzzle. Sometimes just tracking down the make and model of a car to pinpoint the earliest start date of an image, other times locating a store’s sign in the city directory to pinpoint the street location. I like getting the answers most and being able to provide that information to interested users.

  1.      What is your favorite photograph in the collection, and why?

[That’s]  like asking me to pick my favorite kid – no way! I have a bit of fondness for Political, specifically 1950s, as that’s where I began and was trained. They’re real concrete with bios and dates and over the years some of the faces have become somewhat familiar. Some of the humorous/odd photographs are interesting: C660217Rc04621 (diner title), C003016 (not where I’d want to find myself!) The Tampa skyline and aerial shots I think are attractive. Appears to be a good looking city. The Dale McDonald collection – it’s the first collection that I’ve been the sole cataloger of so it’s kind of special to me and he was a great photographer. Festivalsparades come to mind as they seem to be held just about everywhere in the state so they kind of include something for everyone which I find to be rather special.

  1.       Why do you think the photographs in the Florida Photographic Collection are so significant? In your opinion, what are the benefits of digitizing so many of them on a website like Florida Memory?

They are unique, irreplaceable, one-of-a-kind treasures documenting historical facts! I don’t think I can even fathom all the ways they may be able to touch or affect users if given a chance.

I believe digitization improves accessibility immensely and each image can present a new perspective and provide additional information for users. I don’t think there can ever be enough digitized photographs.

For more information about Stowe’s visit to Tallahassee see Harriet Beecher Stowe, “Stowe’s Visit to Planter Florida,” in Calling Yankees to Florida: Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Forgotten Tourist Articles, ed. John T. Foster Jr. and Sarah Whitmer Foster (Cocoa, Florida: The Florida Historical Society Press, 2011), 85-91.

A Home for Higher Learning

It’s hard to imagine Tallahassee without Florida State University or Gainesville without the University of Florida, but how did they get there? Believe it or not, at one time these institutions existed only on paper, and could have been located anywhere in the state. Multiple towns competed for the honor of hosting them, and the Legislature had to make some tough decisions to choose homes for Florida’s first institutions of higher learning.

Florida’s elected representatives recognized the value of higher education early on, but failed to translate their enthusiasm into action during the territorial era. In 1823, the territorial council voted to set aside two townships’ worth of public land to raise money for a seminary of higher learning. In 1836, Governor Richard Keith Call appointed a 14-member board to plan for a University of Florida. Very little concrete action materialized from these efforts, however, and Florida became a state in 1845 still lacking a state college of any kind.

Two-time territorial governor Richard Keith Call (ca. 1840).

Two-time territorial governor Richard Keith Call (ca. 1840).

Floridians lamented the state of their educational system. Georgia had had a public university since 1785, while the University of Alabama had been open since 1831. Meanwhile, Florida’s young men and women were obliged to travel outside the state to finish their training, or not receive it at all. In January 1851, the Legislature took action by establishing two seminaries for teacher training, one for each side of the Suwannee River. Beyond this one directive, the act was silent as to where the two schools should be located. The Legislature would have to make that choice once the options were clearer.

Several towns throughout the state took this as their cue to make it very clear why they should be chosen as the site for one of the new seminaries. Several of their petitions to the Legislature have survived and are now part of Record Series 2153 at the State Archives of Florida. In recommending themselves, the petitioners focused on the healthfulness and convenience of their location. Pensacola’s advocates, for example, argued their proximity to the Gulf and points west would attract students from neighboring Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana, and perhaps even the West Indies. Ocala’s petitioners pointed to their position near the geographic center of the peninsula and the number of stage roads in the area as reasons for the town’s worthiness.

Memorial to the General Assembly of the State of Florida from the citizens of Pensacola, asking that the state seminary west of the Suwannee River be located in Pensacola (1847). Note this petition actually preceded the 1851 act creating the two seminaries.

Memorial to the General Assembly of the State of Florida from the citizens of Pensacola, asking that the state seminary west of the Suwannee River be located in Pensacola (1847). Note this petition actually preceded the 1851 act creating the two seminaries. Click the image to enlarge it.

The committees writing these petitions realized, however, that it would take more than a few beautiful descriptive phrases to sway the Legislature. To sweeten the deal, they included offers of land, buildings, and even cash to strengthen their case.

East of the Suwannee River, Ocala in Marion County and Newnansville in Alachua County were the main contenders for a seminary. The Ocala petitioners offered to give the state 16 town lots in Ocala valued at $5,000, plus $1,600 cash, as well as the buildings then being used by the East Florida Independent Institute. The Institute had been established in 1852 by a New Englander named Gilbert Dennis Kingsbury, who went by the name S.S. Burton in Florida. Newnansville did not yet possess anything like the East Florida Independent Institute had to offer, but in their petition the citizens of the town pledged $5,000 toward constructing new facilities. The Legislature ultimately selected Ocala as the site for the state seminary east of the Suwannee, which after a series of transformations and a relocation to Gainesville became the University of Florida.

Petition to Establish the East Florida Seminary in Alachua County, ca. 1852 - Box 3, folder 55, Territorial and Early Statehood Records (Series 2153), State Archives of Florida.

Petition to Establish the East Florida Seminary in Alachua County, ca. 1852 – Box 3, folder 55, Territorial and Early Statehood Records (Series 2153), State Archives of Florida. Click image to enlarge and view transcript.

West of the Suwannee, Pensacola and Tallahassee were locked into a similar competition. Pensacola’s citizens promised to provide whatever land was necessary to build a seminary, but Tallahassee went much farther. The mayor and city council pledged to donate $10,000 to the cause, made up partly of $7,000 worth of land and buildings already under construction, plus the remainder in cash. City officials also offered to grant the institution an annuity of $1,500. Citizens of nearby Quincy in Gadsden County chimed in with a similar offer of the buildings used by the Quincy Academy, but the petitioners did not commit any specific amount of cash to the project, let alone an annuity. The Legislature chose Tallahassee as the site for the state seminary west of the Suwannee, which ultimately became the Florida State College for Women and later the Florida State University.

First building at the West Florida Seminary (ca. 1870).

First building at the West Florida Seminary (ca. 1870).

Few folks know that Florida State University had a football team well before the school became coeducational (again) in 1947. Prior to its reconstitution as the Florida State College for Women under the Buckman Act in 1905, the West Florida Seminary was coeducational and football was a school sport. This photo of the school's football team was taken in 1899.

Few folks know that Florida State University had a football team well before the school became coeducational (again) in 1947. Prior to its reconstitution as the Florida State College for Women under the Buckman Act in 1905, the West Florida Seminary was coeducational and football was a school sport. This photo of the school’s football team was taken in 1899. The team members are sitting on the steps of College Hall, the seminary’s main building, which stood from its construction in 1891 to 1909, when it was replaced by Westcott Hall, which still stands today.

What state institutions are located near your Florida community? Do you know how long they’ve been around, or how they came to exist? The State Library & Archives is home to a wealth of information on this subject – search Florida Memory, the State Library Catalog, and the Archives Online Catalog to learn more.