The Fountain of Youth

You’ve probably heard the old saying that truth is stranger than fiction. That could be said of De Leon Springs in Volusia County, which has long been reputed to be the Fountain of Youth that Spanish explorer Juan Ponce de Leon was searching for when he came to Florida in 1513. It turns out this was a bit of creative myth-making–old Ponce never made it quite that far inland. That being said, De Leon Springs is still a naturally beautiful spot with a fascinating past.

Excerpt of a 1985 map published by the Florida Department of Transportation showing the location of Ponce de Leon Springs State Park in relation to Orlando, Daytona Beach and Ocala. Click or tap the image to enlarge it.

Excerpt of a 1985 map published by the Florida Department of Transportation showing the location of De Leon Springs State Park in relation to Orlando, Daytona Beach and Ocala. Click or tap the image to enlarge it.

Evidence suggests that the first Floridians to live near De Leon Springs arrived at least 6,000 years ago. In 1985 and 1990, dugout canoes made of yellow pine and bald cypress were discovered in the spring. Carbon dating confirmed that they came from the Middle Archaic Period (6,000-3,000 B.C.E.), making them two of the oldest watercraft ever found in the Western Hemisphere. Native Americans were still living near the springs when the Spanish arrived in the 16th century, although it wasn’t Ponce de Leon who first encountered them. Pedro Menéndez de Avilés, adelantado of Florida and founder of St. Augustine, led an expedition up the St. Johns River in 1566 and made it within about 10 miles of De Leon Springs. Menéndez had been hoping that the St. Johns connected with Lake Okeechobee, but after a confrontation with the local Mayaca natives he decided to turn back.

Portrait of Pedro Menendez de Aviles (1565).

Portrait of Pedro Menéndez de Avilés (1565).

There is no evidence to suggest that the Spanish ever settled at De Leon Springs, but it’s clear the area was considered valuable territory. William Panton and Thomas Forbes, British merchants who traded regularly with local Native Americans, both received grants of land surrounding the springs from King George III during Florida’s brief stint as a British province in the late 1700s. This may have been part of a move to drum up some business with the natives still living in the vicinity. One survey plat belonging to William Panton shows a road heading from the springs toward “Panton & Forbes’ Upper Indian Store.”

Excerpt of a 1779 survey plat depicting a plot of land near Spring Garden granted to William Panton by the British government. Box 32, Folder 23, Confirmed Spanish Land Grants (Series S990), State Archives of Florida. Click or tap the image to view the full map and the entire land grant dossier.

Excerpt of a 1779 survey plat depicting a plot of land near Spring Garden granted to William Panton by the British government. Box 32, Folder 23, Confirmed Spanish Land Grants (Series S990), State Archives of Florida. Click or tap the image to view the full map and the entire land grant dossier.

The two traders seem not to have established anything too permanent at the springs, however, because in 1804 the Spanish granted a 2,020-acre plot of land to William Williams in almost exactly the same spot, with the future De Leon Springs right in the center. William Williams and had emigrated to Spanish Florida with other members of his family from the Bahamas in 1803. William had originally received a land grant at New Smyrna about 26 miles to the southeast, but he found the land unsatisfactory and asked to swap for something better. He called his new possession “Spring Garden,” and established a plantation growing corn, cotton and other crops.

Excerpt of an undated survey plat showing the overlapping land claims of William Williams, William Panton and Thomas Forbes (ca. 1825). Box 34, Folder 7, Confirmed Spanish Land Grants (Series S990), State Archives of Florida. Click or tap the image to view the entire plat and the complete Spanish land grant dossier submitted by the heirs of William Williams.

Excerpt of an undated survey plat showing the overlapping land claims of William Williams, William Panton and Thomas Forbes (ca. 1825). Box 34, Folder 7, Confirmed Spanish Land Grants (Series S990), State Archives of Florida. Click or tap the image to view the entire plat and the complete Spanish land grant dossier submitted by the heirs of William Williams.

William Williams died in 1808, and his family later sold the Spring Garden property to Joseph and Jane Woodruff of McIntosh County, Georgia. Woodruff had intended to start growing sugar on the site, but he died before he could get his plan into action. A new owner, Colonel Orlando Rees, decided he too would try his hand at growing sugar cane, and by 1832 his operation was up and running, with a water-powered mill taking advantage of the springs’ rapid flow. An 1834 government survey map shows the location of both the mill (called the “sugar house”) and the Rees family’s home just to the east.

Excerpt of a survey plat showing the location of a sugar mill and dwelling on the property surrounding Spring Garden, later De Leon Springs. The plat was reproduced sometime in the early 20th century from the 1836 original. Box 65, Township Survey Plats (Series S617), State Archives of Florida. Click or tap the image to view the complete map.

Excerpt of a survey plat showing the location of a sugar mill and dwelling on the property surrounding Spring Garden, later De Leon Springs. The plat was reproduced sometime in the early 20th century from the 1836 original. Box 65, Township Survey Plats (Series S617), State Archives of Florida. Click or tap the image to view the complete map.

The Rees sugar plantation was destroyed at the outbreak of the Second Seminole War in 1835, but a descendant later sold the property to a man named Thomas Starke. In the years leading up to the Civil War, the Starke family rebuilt and enlarged the mill, and during the war they supplied sugar, corn meal and other commodities to the Confederacy. In 1864, Union forces pushed through to the Spring Garden area, hoping to catch the “notorious rebel” Thomas Starke, as U.S. treasury agent A.G. Brown called him. Starke had fled with his slaves and a large supply of corn, but the Union managed to capture 19 bales of Sea Island cotton. They also destroyed the sugar mill and–according to legend–pushed the equipment into the springs.

Artist's rendering of the old sugar mill at Spring Garden, contained in a booklet about the Ponce de Leon Springs Inn, built in 1925. Florida Collection, State Library of Florida.

Artist’s rendering of the old sugar mill at Spring Garden, contained in a booklet about the Ponce de Leon Springs Inn (1925). Florida Collection, State Library of Florida.

Spring Garden began a whole new life when Major George Norris of New York purchased the land in 1872. Norris rebuilt the sugar mill and established a successful orange grove. He also built a hotel–the Spring Garden House–and advertised it primarily to northern tourists. At some point in the 1880s, Norris seems to have shifted his focus more toward his booming citrus business and left the business of putting up a good hotel to his brother, Abijah Hart Norris. “Hart,” as he was called, put out newspaper advertisements promising to give “sufficient land” and 10,000 board feet of lumber to “anyone who will put up a good Hotel.”

Advertisement for the Spring Garden House in The Florida Agriculturist, October 15, 1879.

Advertisement for the Spring Garden House in The Florida Agriculturist, October 15, 1879.

Around that same time, local leaders decided to establish a new post office called De Leon Springs. The old Spring Garden post office remained in place until 1933; this new office was for the growing village located just south of the spring itself. This was likely the beginning of the effort to identify the spring and the surrounding area with Ponce de Leon’s famous Fountain of Youth.

In 1925, the new owners of the spring, F.N. Conrad of Daytona and C.M. Greiner of Seabreeze, opened up a new hotel and doubled down on the Ponce connection, publishing a booklet extolling the site’s storied past. “Picture, if you can, such a spot with all these modern sources of amusement, with every modern convenience, not detracting in the least from its beauty and from the romance of its historical background,” they gushed. “Picture all this, we say, and you have Ponce de Leon Springs.” The “Florida Boom” hadn’t quite burst just yet at this point, so they did what many other developers were doing around the state–in addition to the hotel they also offered land for homes. A folded map inside their booklet showed the land around Ponce de Leon Springs laid out into lots, plus a golf course and space for farming.

Ponce de Leon Springs: Florida's Great Natural Wonder, the Fountain of Youth (1925). Florida Collection, State Library of Florida. Click or tap the image to view the entire booklet.

Ponce de Leon Springs: Florida’s Great Natural Wonder, the Fountain of Youth (1925). Florida Collection, State Library of Florida. Click or tap the image to view the entire booklet.

 

A colored plat map showing the layout of the prospective Ponce de Leon Springs development. Note the golf course, farm, and

A colored plat map showing the layout of the prospective Ponce de Leon Springs development. Note the golf course, farm, and “colored town” included (Florida Collection, State Library of Florida). Click or tap the image to enlarge it.

Ponce de Leon Springs (ca. 1925).

Ponce de Leon Springs (ca. 1925).

The new hotel, the De Leon Springs Inn, closed after a time and the would-be residential paradise surrounding it never quite got off the ground. Still, the springs continued to attract visitors. In June 1953, the springs reopened as a roadside tourist attraction with a zoo, a jungle cruise and even water-skiing elephants. By the 1970s, facing a lag in business as many roadside attractions did in those years, the owners contemplated selling the property to developers. Locals petitioned to have the site turned into a state park instead, and in 1982 Ponce de Leon Springs officially became a part of Florida’s state park system. The focus is a bit more on the cool, refreshing quality of the springs these days rather than their ties to the Fountain of Youth, but there’s still plenty of Florida history to be enjoyed. Stop by next time you’re in the area!

Entrance to the Ponce de Leon Springs attraction featuring the Spanish explorer himself (1954).

Entrance to the Ponce de Leon Springs attraction featuring the Spanish explorer himself (1954).

 

Under the Spring

What’s the best way to explore a cool, crystal-clear Florida spring? Usually, we recommend getting up close and personal by swimming in it yourself, especially during hot weather. There are other ways, of course. Glass-bottom boats, for example, have plied the waters of Florida springs for more than a century, allowing visitors to glimpse into their underwater worlds without needing a change of clothes afterward.

But that just wasn’t enough for the early owners of Rainbow Springs near Dunnellon in Marion County. Around 1940, they decided to put their visitors even closer to the underwater action by offering rides around the spring in a submarine!

Visitors view Rainbow Springs through their own personal portholes in one of the park's

Visitors view Rainbow Springs through their own personal portholes in one of the park’s “scenic submarines” (1956).

Well… it was at least a kind of submarine. The boats didn’t exactly dive below the surface, but the passengers themselves were seated 5 feet beneath the water line, which gave them a breathtaking view of Rainbow Springs and the wildlife that lived there. Brochures called it “America’s most unusual boat ride.” Here’s one of those brochures:

Brochure from around 1959 advertising Rainbow Springs. Click or tap the image to view the entire brochure.

Brochure from around 1959 advertising Rainbow Springs. Click or tap the image to view the entire brochure.

The idea started back in the 1930s when Frank Greene and F.E. Hemphill began making plans to develop Rainbow Springs as a privately owned park and tourist attraction. When they opened for business in 1937 they had a lodge, a gift shop, a dance pavilion, a boat dock and a ticket office. They also put two glass-bottom boats into service, much like the ones a few miles away at Silver Springs. They hired a small staff to run the place, including Dave Edwards, a young African American man who had grown up just south of Rainbow Springs. Edwards did a wide range of odd jobs at the park, even slapping Rainbow Springs stickers onto the bumpers of cars in the parking lot. When he began training to be a glass-bottom boat captain around 1940, he hatched an idea. Why not build a boat that let the visitor actually go beneath the water to see Rainbow Springs at eye level rather than from above? He sketched out some plans, and the owners decided to give the idea a shot.

The Mermaid, one of the

The Mermaid, one of the “submarines” at Rainbow Springs (ca. 1950).

The new “submarines” were a big hit with visitors, and they became a major selling point for Rainbow Springs. Much like the glass-bottom boat tours that came before, the magic came from a combination of beautiful underwater scenery and expert narration from the captains. These guides did more than just run down a list of plants and animals along the tour route. Over time, they developed a spiel that became almost musical in its delivery. “Skipper” Manning Lockett, one of the original employees of the park, earned a reputation as the “bard of Rainbow Springs” for the poetic way he conducted his tours. It was unique and enjoyable enough that the park owners recorded his tour and offered it for sale in the gift shop. The following is an excerpt from one of Skipper Lockett’s tours, although we daresay reading the tour does it no justice. We recommend listening to the recording as well… all of it.

Good afternoon ladies and gentlemen, and welcome to Rainbow Springs.
Rainbow Springs is one of Florida’s most beautiful and scenic attractions.
Rainbow Springs is a beauty, created beneath deep waters, made only by the hands of God.
Now look through your left-side port hole, far as your eyes can see, watch that dreamy sunlit landscape.
Looks like mountains, looks like valleys, looks like green pastures.
And the fish look like birds [winging?] in the air, and the turtles look like cattle roving in the forest.

“Skipper” Manning Lockett aboard one of the “submarines” at Rainbow Springs (ca. 1950).

Rainbow Springs flourished throughout the heyday of the Florida roadside attraction in the 1950s and 1960s, but sales began to decline in the 1970s. Interstate highways siphoned travelers off the smaller routes like U.S. 19 and U.S. 41 where many of the roadside parks like Rainbow Springs were located. Supersized theme parks like Walt Disney World also helped draw the crowd away. By the end of the decade, many roadside parks like Rainbow Springs had closed their doors or were barely hanging on.

Postcard showing the fleet of submarine boats at Rainbow Springs (ca. 1960).

Postcard showing the fleet of submarine boats at Rainbow Springs (ca. 1960).

In 1973, the owners of Rainbow Springs told the managers to close the park on Sundays and Mondays as a cost-saving measure. Less than a year later it closed to the public entirely. The property sat neglected for a number of years until a company called Chase Ventures bought it in 1984. By then, nature had reclaimed much of the area around the springs, but the new owners allowed local garden clubs to go in and spruce things up. In October 1990, the State of Florida purchased the 55-acre site, plus a 600-acre buffer zone, and turned Rainbow Springs into a new state park.

A few things have changed since the old days, of course. Skipper Lockett and Dave Edwards have passed away, and the “submarines” they piloted are no more, except for one the park is saving as the centerpiece of a historical exhibit. The springs themselves go on, however, reminding visitors of Florida’s majestic natural beauty.

Man holding a model of a Rainbow Springs submarine boat (ca. 1950s).

Man holding a model of a Rainbow Springs submarine boat (ca. 1950s).

Looking for more information about Florida springs that became popular roadside attractions? We recommend Glass Bottom Boats & Mermaid Tails: Florida’s Tourist Springs by historian Tim Hollis.

 

 

 

 

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!

 

 

The Legend of Spook Hill

The weather is getting cooler (finally), and it’s almost time for Halloween–that special day for thinking about all that’s creepy, crawly, scary and mysterious. We think it’s the perfect time to take a look at a curious tourist attraction in Central Florida that doubles as one of the state’s most unusual (super?)natural phenomena, Spook Hill.

Sign advertising Spook Hill in Lake Wales (1953).

Sign advertising Spook Hill in Lake Wales (1953).

Spook Hill is located on 5th Street in Lake Wales, a city in Polk County. For years, signs have invited motorists to stop their car at a white line on what appears to be the bottom of a hill, put their car into neutral, and watch with terror as their car appears to creep its way back up the hill, as if moved by some unseen force.

Ask most folks who study such phenomena and they’ll tell you it’s all an optical illusion, that the unique pattern of changes in elevation along 5th Street plays a trick on your eyes, making it seem as though you’re at the bottom of a hill when you’re actually at the top. But is this really what’s happening?

Many locals have offered much creepier explanations over the years. A popular restaurant in Lake Wales called Barney’s Tavern, for example, was kind enough to publish a leaflet in the 1950s explaining the “real” story behind Spook Hill. According to this legend, it all began when a Spanish pirate named Captain Gimme Sarsparilla decided to hang up his cutlass and retire to Lake Wales. He was joined by fellow pirate Teniente Vanilla, whose surname was an acronym for a much larger mouthful of a name–Vincento Alfredo Nieto Isidoro Lima Llano Alvarez. We’ll stick with “Teniente Vanilla” for the sake of brevity.

Postcard showing a photograph of Barney's Tavern, a popular restaurant in Lake Wales (ca. 1950).

Postcard showing a photograph of Barney’s Tavern, a popular restaurant in Lake Wales (ca. 1950).

According to the good folks at Barney’s, when Vanilla died he was buried at the foot of Spook Hill. Captain Sarsparilla, for whatever reason, ended up nearby at the bottom of the lake for which Lake Wales is named. All was well for a couple of centuries, but then one day in the early years of the automobile age a man decided to park his car right at the bottom of Spook Hill and go fishing. The car–which the crew at Barney’s estimated to be approximately the weight of 16 men–was parked directly over the grave of the long-forgotten Teniente Vanilla. And you know what they say about pirates and 16 men on a dead man’s chest. This was bound not to end well.

Vanilla, his rest now disturbed, was said to have called out to his old friend Captain Sarsparilla, who emerged from his watery tomb in Lake Wales and pushed the unlucky fisherman’s car up the hill and off of the dead pirate’s chest. And–legend says–that’s what will happen to your car as well if you dare to stop at the bottom of Spook Hill as that fisherman once did.

Leaflet describing Spook Hill, sponsored by Barney's Tavern in Lake Wales (1954).

Leaflet describing Spook Hill, sponsored by Barney’s Tavern in Lake Wales (1954).

Now that’s not the only explanation that has been put forward to explain this chilling peculiarity. At some point local tourism promoters put forward a completely different legend involving a struggle between a Native American chieftain and a particularly bothersome alligator. Someone else proposed a theory involving an underground lode acting as a magnet that draws automobiles up the hill.

The makers of this sign at Spook Hill in Lake Wales seem to have some doubts about the legend of Sarsparilla and Vanilla (ca. 1950).

The makers of this sign at Spook Hill in Lake Wales seem to have some doubts about the legend of Sarsparilla and Vanilla (ca. 1950).

So what’s the real story behind Spook Hill? We’ll leave it for you to visit Lake Wales someday and decide for yourself… if you dare!

Post-War Aviation in Florida

The years following World War II saw a transformation in aviation from military use to civil, commercial and, notably, agricultural applications. Agriculture has long been the foundation of Florida’s economy, and in the post-war era, a key technological advancement began to emerge within the industry: aerial agriculture. Aerial application of pesticides and seeding became prevalent in Florida as military airfields, such as Brooks Army Airfield in Brooksville and Pompano Air Park in Ft. Lauderdale, were adopted for civil use and as war surplus biplanes, such as the Stearman, were re-purposed for agricultural use. Within this rise in civil and agricultural use, State Aviation Director William C. Lazarus saw a need for tighter controls on aviation at the state level, in the form of licensing and regulation of airports, and lobbied for legislation to achieve this aim.
 
The State Airport Licensing Act (Chapter 24046, Florida Laws 1947), a bill to provide state licensing and regulation of airports, was passed to encourage and develop aeronautics in Florida and effected uniformity of the laws and regulations relating to the establishment and development of airports in accordance with federal aeronautics laws and regulations. The proposed rules and regulations set forth by the State Improvement Commission in 1947 were circulated to owners of existing private airports for their input.

Crop dusting in Florida.

Airport Licensing Rules and Regulations set forth in accordance with State Airport Licensing Act of 1947 (Series S 284, box 1, folder 18, item 21).

Correspondence received in reaction to the rules and regulations gives insight into the pursuit of civil and agricultural aviation in Florida, given firsthand from stakeholders and enthusiasts in the industry. A.H. Lane, manager of Davis Seaplane Base, wrote the following to William Lazarus:

Letter from A. H. Lane expressing concern over aviation regulations, 1947 (Series 284, box 1, folder 18, item 7).

Florida is an air minded state. The airmen seem much interested in the facilities and uses of aircraft, especially the new members of this group. This has convinced me that it is a good state in which to operate. Seaplanes are popular here due to so many lakes and costal [sic] waters available for landings.

Just when civil aviation needs a boost and operators, working at prewar prices and post-war costs are going “under,” it seems that in order to promote aviation it is necessary for all of us to get on one side and push.

Further, Lane’s letter emphasizes the role of crop dusting pilots in Florida’s agricultural sector and expresses anxieties over the impact of regulation on their business:
Dusting pilots have done much to control pests and in so doing have helped the industrial areas. They have enough to contend with now, even with CAA rules waived. They are a hard working group and 2.30 – 2.31 – 2.32 are unnecessary added complications.
We must keep all landing spots open and free to the flying public if we are ever to see personal aircraft become popular.
Lane wasn’t alone in his concern over the act’s impact on agriculture. Many crop dusting companies wrote in objection to regulations on the width of airstrips (a newly imposed minimum of 300 feet.) Crop dusters argued that a strip of this width would not be feasible in rural areas and that dusting planes had to land and take off close to the fields. A letter from J. R. McDaniel of McDaniel Dusting Service described in detail the procedures of crop dusting and expressed concern over the plight of the farmer in Florida as related to regulations set forth on crop dusting:
 

Letter from J.R. McDaniel to William C. Lazarus, outlining concerns about the impact of the State Airport Licensing Act on crop dusting procedures, page 1 (Series S 284, box 1, folder 21, item 6).

 

Letter from Delta Air Lines Dusting Division to William C. Lazarus expressing concern over sections of the State Airport Licensing Act that would affect crop dusting operations (Series S 284, box 1, folder 21, item 7).

Many companies also expressed criticism of the gross weight limit of two tons put forth for use of Class I airports under the initially proposed rules and regulations. At the outcry of corporations such as United States Sugar and Showalter, as well as special interest organizations, the commission dropped the regulations that limited gross weight of airplanes on certain airports.

Letter from U.S. Sugar to William C. Lazarus expressing concern over regulations on the weight of aircrafts (Series S 284, box 1, folder 18, item 11).

Letter from H.W. Showalter, Jr. expressing concern over regulations on the gross weight of planes, 1947 (Series S 284, box 1, folder 18, item 12).

Despite public concerns over the regulations’ impact on agriculture, the State Airport Licensing Act was in many respects lenient so as to encourage aviation in the state. No approvals were required for the sites of existing airports, meaning airstrips used by farms and other private operations were grandfathered into the act.

Master list of privately owned airports and seaplane bases, 1947, page 1 (Series S 284, box 1, folder 7, item 3).

Licensing for new airstrips was decidedly inexpensive. The section of the act providing for the licensing of airports deemed that a fee not to exceed $50.00 (the equivalent of $561.00 in 2017) would be charged for the approval of airport licensing, while renewals of licenses were not to exceed $10.00.

Airport licenses issued from 1947 to 1948 (Series S 284, Box 1, Folder 8, item 14, page 2 of 5).

Correspondence relating to the submission of these fees to the Florida State Improvement Commission gives a rare glimpse into the operations of now-defunct private aeronautic small businesses, such as Stone and Wells Flying Service of Jacksonville.

Letter, Stone and Wells Flying Service to Florida State Improvement Commission, enclosing licensing fee for temporary airports at Jacksonville Beach and Fernandina Beach (Series S 284, box 1, folder 54, item 7, page 1).

Flight chart for temporary airport locations in Jacksonville Beach and Fernandina Beach (Series S 284, box 1, folder 54, item 7).

 
Though there are new laws and regulations governing aviation in Florida, the State Airport Licensing Act was one of the first laws to require the inspection, approval, registration and licensure of air strips and airports and to regulate air traffic. Cited as the first law in the history note of most sections of the current Florida Statutes on regulation of Aircraft and Airports, the Act has shaped many of today’s laws governing aviation.
 
Records from series S284 Aviation Division Administrative Records, 1947-1959, give rare insights into the post-war history of aviation in Florida, including licensing of private and commercial airstrips and airports, airport rules and regulations, and regulations regarding crop dusting. License and master airport lists included in this series contain valuable information for genealogists whose families may have been involved in aviation in Florida. Historians with an interest in aviation in Florida will find this series as well as collection M82-133 William C. Lazarus Papers, of use in their research.
 
Sources: 
 
S284 Aviation Division Administrative Records, 1947-1959, Box 1, State Archives of Florida, Tallahassee, Florida.
 
Brown, W. J. (1994). Florida’s Aviation History: The First One Hundred Years. Largo, FL: Aero-Medical Consultants.
 

The Underground History of Florida Caverns State Park

For the past 74 years, the interpretive cave tours available at the Florida Caverns State Park have made the site one of the Sunshine State’s most unique attractions. Situated about one hour west of Tallahassee in Marianna near the Chipola River, the shimmering limestone caverns of northwest Florida regularly dazzle visitors. Aside from their obvious physical allure, the history of the Florida Caverns further illuminates the evolving social, economic, and environmental landscape of the state. The Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) first developed the caves into a public tourist destination in the late 1930s, but humans have interacted with some of the caverns for much longer. Since officially opening to the public in 1942, the Florida Park Service has dutifully maintained the caverns. As a result of these conservation efforts, generations of spelunkers, hikers, and sightseers have relished the opportunity to explore the curiosities of Florida’s underground world.

Colored lights give added dimension to the cave formations at Florida Caverns State Park, 2016.

Colored lights give added dimension to the cave formations in the “Cathedral Room” at Florida Caverns State Park, 2016.

The splendid mineral silhouettes inside the Florida Caverns did not form over a matter of years, decades, or even centuries. Rather, they are the result of 38 million years of falling sea-levels, which left previously submerged shells, coral, and sediment in the open air to harden into limestone. For the next several hundred thousand years, droplets of acidic rainwater passed through the ceiling of the porous limestone cave, and over time minerals bunched into icicle-like formations called stalactites. As the stalactites hung from the cavern’s top, water slowly trickled down to create mineral spires, known as stalagmites, on the cavern floor. In many rooms and hallways, the stalactites and stalagmites have joined to form full columns. Glistening draperies, soda straws, and ribbons complement the proliferation of stalactites and stalagmites, creating a distinct living environment for the cave-dwelling flora and fauna.

View of stalactites and stalagmites inside the Florida Caverns. The lowest point in the caverns is 65 feet below sea level, while the highest point is 125 feet above sea level. The temperature in the caverns hovers around 65 degrees at all times, regardless of seasonal fluctuations. Blind salamanders, crayfish, and gray bats live among the underground limestone formations.

View of stalactites and stalagmites inside the Florida Caverns. The lowest point in the caverns is 65 feet below sea level, while the highest point is 125 feet above sea level. The temperature in the caverns hovers around 65 degrees Fahrenheit at all times, regardless of seasonal fluctuations. Blind salamanders, crayfish, and gray bats live among the underground limestone formations.

Archaeological discoveries of pottery sherds and mammoth footprints in several of the caverns predate European settlement in North America. But the site factors into Florida’s more recent history, too. In 1674, for example, Spanish missionary Friar Barreda allegedly delivered a Christian sermon amid the backdrop of the underground wonderland. Prevailing folklore also suggests a group of Seminoles trying to escape Andrew Jackson’s Indian removal expeditions of the early 19th century took refuge in the caverns. Further, the secluded underground openings have reportedly sheltered outlaws, runaways, and mischievous teenagers for centuries.

Program from services commemorating the 274th anniversary of the first Christian services held at the Florida Caverns in Marianna. Florida Park Service Public Relations Files (S. 1951), Folder 62, State Archives of Florida.

Program from services commemorating the 274th anniversary of the first Christian services held at the Florida Caverns in Marianna, 1947. Florida Park Service public relations and historical files (S. 1951), Box 1, State Archives of Florida.

The Florida Caverns remained one of the state’s best kept secrets until the 1930s, when the economic downturn of the Great Depression precipitated the expansion and creation of state and national parks. After President Franklin D. Roosevelt took office in 1933, his administration proposed a “new deal” for United States economy, enacting a series of sweeping measures intended to relieve the financial strain of some 12 million jobless Americans, or nearly a quarter of the workforce. One of those programs was the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC). Nicknamed “Roosevelt’s Tree Army,” the CCC, which fell under the operation of the Florida Board of Forestry, was designed to conduct conservation work, including state park construction, while simultaneously providing employment, education, and training to enrollees. State forest officials spied commercial potential in expanding the state park system, and would ultimately utilize federally funded CCC labor to realize that vision. “They [tourists] soon tire of the races, nightclubs, and man-made recreation. They sit in the lobbies of our hotels wondering what to do with themselves. If a park system were shown on the highway maps and their wonders described in the literature of a state department, the tourists would flock to parks by the thousands,” wrote forester Harry Lee Baker to the Florida State Planning Board in 1934. One year later, the Florida Legislature created the Florida Park Service (FPS), an agency overseen by the Florida Board of Forestry. The FPS would operate in tandem with both the National Park Service and the Internal Improvement Fund. By the close of 1935, seven of Florida’s original state parks came under the control of the FPS, including the Florida Caverns.

CCC workers construct mess hall at the Oleno forestry training camp in Columbia County, Florida, 1935. With the establishment of the Florida Park Service, thousands of unemployed Floridians were put to work by the CCC to develop state parks for public use.

CCC workers construct mess hall at the Oleno forestry training camp in Columbia County, Florida, 1935. With the establishment of the Florida Park Service, the CCC put thousands  of unemployed Floridians to work developing state parks for public use.

In order to make the newly discovered series of caves accessible to tourists, CCC enrollees were paid approximately one dollar per day to work on the project from 1938 to 1942.  Underground, the “gopher gang” removed hundreds of tons of soil and rock to create usable pathways and clearings large enough for people to walk through, while also installing a light and trail system to guide visitors through the caves. Above ground, CCC workers helped construct a visitor center, fish hatchery, and nine-hole golf course. With the onset of America’s involvement in World War II, the federal government discontinued the CCC, and work on the caverns project abruptly stopped. In 1942, the 1,300 acre Florida Caverns State Park officially debuted to the public, charging 72 cents for general admission.

Golfers in play on the Florida Caverns Golf Course, 1947.

Golfers play on the Florida Caverns Golf Course, 1947.

Thousands of visitors descended into the bowels of the “underground wonderland” during its first years of operation. The caves soon emerged as a popular Sunshine State tourist destination during and after WWII. As Florida’s total population more than doubled between 1940 to 1960, the FPS proposed several improvements and expansions to the state park to accommodate more visitors. No expansion issue was more sensitive, however, than the subject of segregated park restrooms for blacks and whites. A reflection of the separate and unequal Jim Crow South, the FPS designed the state parks system in the 1930s with only whites in mind–admission fares necessarily excluded African-Americans.  However, the booming wartime economy of the early 1940s opened more economic opportunity to black Floridians, and in turn, lined their pockets with more disposable income to spend on recreation. Florida Caverns Superintendent Clarence Simpson observed the changing demographic of visitors and agreed that “they [African-Americans] should be given the same service that we accord to anyone else,” but warned that it would be “a grave mistake [to] allow them to use the same rest room.” Segregated bathroom facilities were eventually built for black patrons, and segregation persisted at all of Florida’s state parks until the Civil Rights Act of 1964 effectively outlawed the practice.

Letter dated May 25, 1943 from Superintendent of Florida Caverns, J. Clarence Simpson to FPS Director Lewis Scoggin regarding segregated bathroom facilities. Florida State Parks project files (S. 1270), Box 1, State Archives of Florida.

Letter dated May 25, 1943 from Superintendent of Florida Caverns J. Clarence Simpson to FPS Director Lewis Scoggin regarding segregated bathroom facilities. Florida State Parks project files (S. 1270), Box 1, State Archives of Florida.

In addition to offering integrated bathrooms and impressive guided cave tours, by the mid-1960s, Florida Caverns State Park also boasted new campgrounds, a swimming hole, expanded hiking and biking trails, and a bath house.

Florida Caverns State Park promotion brochure, ca. 1950. State Library of Florida vertical file collection.

A young visitor is pictured standing inside the “Cathedral Room” on the cover of a Florida Caverns State Park promotional brochure, ca. 1950. State Library of Florida vertical file collection.

While perhaps not as well-known as Virginia’s Lurary Caverns or Kentucky’s Mammoth Cave, the eerie calm of the luminescent mineral contours at Florida Caverns State Park consistently draws droves of new and returning visitors each year. The next time you find yourself driving on the historic Highway 90 corridor in northwestern Florida, follow the signs for the caverns at Marianna, and uncover some of Florida’s underground history.

Entrance to Florida Caverns State Park in Marianna, c. 1950.

Entrance to Florida Caverns State Park in Marianna, ca. 1950.

Interested in planning a trip to Florida Caverns State Park? Visit the Florida State Parks website for more information.

 

 

 

 

The 1964-1965 New York World’s Fair: Florida on Display

Summertime is well and truly underway here in Florida, and people from all over the world are coming to enjoy what our state has to offer.  In the summers of 1964 and 1965, however, Florida came to them as part of the World’s Fair, held in New York City’s Flushing Meadows Park.

Presided over by the iconic Unisphere, the fair ran for more than a year, from April 1964 to October 1965, with a break for the New York winter.  With the theme “Peace Through Understanding,” the fair was a showcase of the latest and greatest; from cutting edge technology to works of art from all over the world.  Dozens of other countries had a presence, along with many US states and several prominent corporations.  Visitors could marvel at Bell Laboratories’ video phone technology, admire the Ford Mustang – unveiled to the world for the first time at the fair – or sample any number of foreign cuisines.

Florida’s pavilion, rather than looking forward to the wonders of a utopian future, was an exhibition of the progress being made and the pleasures to be had in Florida; potentially on the very same day.  Indeed, visitors could even book a flight south right in the pavilion.  As one promotional video put it, Florida’s pavilion had “pretty girls, orange juice, and jumping porpoises.” In addition, the exhibit boasted shops, works by Floridian artists, and other attractions; all topped by the enormous illuminated orange of the Citrus Tower.

Porpoises performing for a happy audience, the main Florida pavilion is visible in the background.

Porpoises performing for a happy audience, the main Florida pavilion is visible in the background.

Among the attractions was a water-ski show, offered free to the public courtesy of Florida. There were regular showings hosted every day in a large amphitheater adjacent to the pavilion proper.

Among the attractions was a water-ski show, offered free to the public courtesy of Florida. There were regular showings hosted every day in a large amphitheater adjacent to the pavilion proper.

Miss Florida 1965 Carol Blum demonstrates her water skiing ability in the Florida aquadrome.

Miss Florida 1965 Carol Blum demonstrates her water skiing ability in the Florida aquadrome.

There were numerous guest acts, including performances by several Florida high school bands.  Also appearing was a group of Seminole alligator wrestlers who, according to Fair correspondence, “preferred to wrestle very large alligators” and were willing to bring their own to accommodate.  Accounting for all the various exhibits, demonstrations, and shows, Florida’s pavilion was among the largest at the fair.

Florida’s exhibit eventually ranked as the seventh most popular out of more than 150 at the fair by its end. The Florida pavilion only placed behind the likes of General Motors or the Vatican, who had Michelangelo’s Pietà brought to the fair at great expense.  The famous sculpture weighed some twenty thousand pounds including its marble base.  All told, close to fourteen and a half million fairgoers visited the Florida pavilion in the 1964 and 1965 World’s Fair seasons.  Were you or someone you know one of them?  Let us know in a comment!

An International Attraction

It takes about 18 hours and 7,600 miles to fly from Orlando to Beijing. That’s a long haul for most Floridians, but did you know that for ten short years you could go to China without leaving Florida?

Park in Shenzhen, China after which Splendid China in Florida was modeled (2011). Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

Park in Shenzhen, China after which Splendid China in Florida was modeled (2011). Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

Splendid China Florida was a tourist attraction in Citrus Ridge, located just southwest of Orlando near the meeting point of Lake, Orange, Osceola, and Polk counties. The park offered a miniaturized Forbidden City, dances, traditional acrobatics, and other demonstrations of Chinese culture. It was modeled after a park of the same name in Shenzhen, China, across the border from Hong Kong. The owners hoped to promote Chinese culture overseas and tourism to China itself.

Acrobats from Splendid China performing at the Florida Folk Festival (1999).

Acrobats from Splendid China performing at the Florida Folk Festival (1999).

Dragon dance performance at Splendid China theme park (1998).

Dragon dance performance at Splendid China theme park (1998).

Unfortunately, the park never took off. It could not compete with the bigger, flashier theme parks drawing tourists from around the world. The owners tried several strategies to capture a portion of Central Florida’s vast tourist market, but the effort ultimately failed.

After a decade of lackluster attendance, the attraction finally closed its doors in 2003. The structures and gardens remained standing for another ten years, although over time they began to take on the appearance of a Chinese ghost town in the middle of Florida. Skateboarders and thrill-seekers became the closed park’s most frequent visitors, along with photographers looking to document its unusual landscape. A quick Internet search will turn up hundreds of photographs of the crumbling Splendid China park, all poignant reminders of the life cycle experienced by so many of Florida’s tourist attractions over the years.

To learn more about the rise and fall of Splendid China, check out Wenxian Zhang’s 2006 article on the subject in the Florida Historical Quarterly. Also have a look at the State Library’s Tourism in Florida resource guide, which lists related books, journal articles, and digital collections.

Room and Board

During the 19th century, developers, railroad magnates, and other enterprising businessmen peppered Florida with hotels to house the state’s growing number of visitors. These establishments ranged from modest inns to palatial resorts built by the likes of Henry Flagler and Henry Plant. But where could you stay if you couldn’t afford a room in one of these hotels? Or, what if you were traveling for work and just needed a place to crash rather than to be entertained? The answer for many visitors was to stay in a boarding house.

A boarding house in Crescent City, Putnam County (circa 1870s).

A boarding house in Crescent City, Putnam County (circa 1870s).

Boarding houses were the go-to low-cost accommodations for locals and visitors traveling around Florida in the 1800s. They could be standalone businesses, or they might be combined with a post office, a general store, or some other business. Some Floridians even operated boarding houses out of extra rooms in their private homes.

North Miami Avenue in Miami (1896). The building second from the left contained a store owned by T.N. Gautier on the ground floor and a boarding house on the second floor run by Gautier's wife.

North Miami Avenue in Miami (1896). The building second from the left contained a store owned by T.N. Gautier on the ground floor and a boarding house on the second floor run by Gautier’s wife.

McCord family home in Tallahassee, circa 1910. The McCords took in boarders at this time.

McCord family home in Tallahassee, circa 1910. The McCords took in boarders at this time.

Boarding houses were advertised just as widely as hotels, but they had a few differences. The furnishings in the rooms were usually simpler, and there were generally fewer amenities and services. Proprietors often served meals family style, with boarders eating together at a single table rather than in their own private groups. That’s not to say the food was dull – far from it. While Florida’s boarding houses might not have been serving four-course meals with all the trimmings, guidebooks and advertisements reveal that the quality of the food was a critical component of a house’s reputation. Advertisements often referenced the house’s “excellent table,” or listed the fresh foods served daily.

Mrs. Crook's Boardinghouse in Winter Haven (1912).

Mrs. Crook’s Boardinghouse in Winter Haven (1912).

The trade-off for offering limited services, of course, was the lower price tag for a stay at the boarding house. At Fernandina in 1884, for example, a night at the Egmont Hotel cost $4, while a night at most of the town’s boarding houses was only $2. On top of that, many proprietors would cut boarders a deal if they committed to a week’s stay. A $2 difference may seem negligible today, but keep in mind we’re talking about 19th century dollars. Adjusted for inflation, that $2 jump in price for a night at the Egmont represents about a $50 price difference! No wonder so many folks were staying at Florida’s boarding houses when they traveled.

Advertisement for the Hernandez House in St. Augustine, printed on page 104 of H.D. Bicaise, A Guide to the Land of Flowers (Charleston: Parry, Cook & Co., 1878). A copy of this guidebook is available in the State Library's Florida Collection.

Advertisement for the Hernandez House in St. Augustine, printed on page 104 of H.D. Bicaise, A Guide to the Land of Flowers (Charleston: Parry, Cook & Co., 1878). A copy of this guidebook is available in the State Library’s Florida Collection.

Boarding houses remained popular into the 20th century, although new establishments eventually superseded them as the primary low-cost lodging options. Motels and campgrounds became especially popular with automobile owners, who were looking for cheap and convenient options along the roadways.

The Miller family of Toledo, Ohio at a tourist camp in Sarasota (1929).

The Miller family of Toledo, Ohio at a tourist camp in Sarasota (1929).

Do you know of any boarding houses that once existed in your community? When were they in operation? Get in the conversation by commenting below and sharing this post with your friends and family on Facebook and Twitter.

A State Park Under the Sea

One of the greatest strengths of Florida’s state park system is its diversity. Between the caves, springs, towering forests, picture-perfect beaches, and historic structures, there’s a park to suit almost every interest. Heck, Florida is even home to the nation’s first underwater state park, located down in the Florida Keys. Read more »