Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Gator tale: He's the longest ever caught

Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission
David Ammerman of Pine Hills caught the state's longest documented alligator on Nov. 1.
It measured 14 feet 3.5 inches long. It weighed 654 pounds. Nov. 1 was the last day of 
alligator season. Ammerman caught the critter in Lake  Washington in Brevard County.

Friday, November 5, 2010

In 1916, another close governor's race

Florida State Archives | Florida Memory Project
Vintage silent film shows Sidney J. Catts' Inauguration Day. This is a short clip. You can see the full five-minute version at Florida Memory

Tuesday's election results beg comparison to one 94 years ago. In 1916, a political outsider who had never held public office before beat the establishment candidate by the narrowest of margins – just 9,203 votes. There is no indication that he spent his own fortune to do it, however.

Sidney J. Catts
Sidney J. Catts, who switched parties after he lost the Democratic primary, didn't campaign with promises to create jobs. The fiery campaigner stirred anti-Catholic sentiment and pledged government reform. He would become one of the most controversial governors Florida ever had.

Catts, an Alabama native, studied law at Auburn and Howard Colleges in Alabama and received a law degree from Cumberland University in Tennessee. He practiced law for four years before becoming a Baptist minister. He came to Florida in 1912 when he got a call to a church in Defuniak Springs. Three years later, he resigned and started selling insurance, a career move that allowed him to meet a lot of people and develop the idea of running for governor.

In 1916, Catts entered the Democratic primary, irritating the establishment party bosses. Catts won by a very narrow margin, but party bosses got the Florida Supreme Court to order a recount, and Catts ultimately lost.

But Catts didn't give up easily. He switched parties and ran again as the Independent Prohibition Party candidate. It was a four-way race, with a Democrat, a Republican, a Socialist and Catts, who prevailed, winning 39,546 votes. He was the only governor in history to win solely as a Prohibition candidate. A congressman from California was the only other Prohibition politician to hold office.

Despite his anti-Catholicism and his racism (he once called blacks an "inferior race"), Catts' administration accomplished some progressive things for the time, including reforms in the treatment of convicts and the mentally ill. Labor and tax reforms and road improvements were started and Catts pushed for women's suffrage. He got a Prohibition Act passed but supported local option gambling.

Shortly after he took office, Catt returned to the Democratic Party. He could not succeed himself as governor so he ran for the U.S. Senate in 1920 but was defeated. He never held public office again but remained influential in Florida politics until his death in 1936. He was among the Democrats who worked against Al Smith's campaign in 1928. Why? Smith was Catholic. Herbert Hoover won that election.

Thursday, November 4, 2010

The last territorial governor

John Branch
It is the birthday of John Branch, who was the sixth and last territorial governor of Florida, serving from June 1844 until June 1845. During his brief administration, he prepared Florida to become the 27th state.  He also advocated for education and coastal defense.

Branch was born in North Carolina in 1782, the son of wealthy landowners. He became a lawyer, planter and civic leader. Branch served in the North Carolina State Senate. He was elected governor of the state in 1817.

He was a strong supporter of Andrew Jackson, who named him Secretary of the Navy. He resigned in 1831 and became a state legislator in North Carolina.

In the mid-1830s, Branch moved to Florida and began the famed Live Oak Plantation, a 1,560-acre cotton plantation on the eastern shore of Lake Jackson, north of Tallahassee. Branch lived there 15 years.

President John Tyler appointed Branch as Florida’s territorial governor in 1844. He replaced Richard Keith Call, who ran for governor and lost. Call never held public office again.

William Dunn Moseley, another North Carolina native, won the election and became the state’s first governor.

In the early 1850s, Branch moved back to North Carolina and remained there until his death in 1863.

His portrait was painted by Clearable Jett in 1960. Jett, a native Texan, moved to Tallahassee in the 1940s. She painted historical scenes and historical portraits of early Florida governors.

Information from John Branch: 1782-1863 by Marshall Delancey Haywood, Wikipedia, and From Cotton to Quail: An Agricultural Chronicle of Leon County, Florida, 1860-1967 by Clifton Paisley, was used in this report.

Saturday, October 30, 2010

1896 Senate race: Sound familiar?

If you think this year's race for the Florida's open seat in the U.S. Senate is contentious, you should have seen the 1896 election. There are similarities. That race 114 years ago pitted conservative railroad and corporate interests against a populist liberal candidate. There was lots of political maneuvering going on. The rivalries were bitter indeed. And one candidate pulled out to prevent his rival from winning. A little background:

W.D. Chipley
W.D. Chipley may have been to Pensacola and the Panhandle what Henry B. Plant and Henry Flagler were to the rest of the state – the railroad moguls who made things happened and weren't inclined to let local or state public officials stand in their way.

Plant and Flagler certainly had their moments in having things their way politically but William D. Chipley may have won the top honor for Tammany Hall-style machinations.

Chipley was born in Georgia, educated in Kentucky and served as a Confederate officer during the Civil  War. He was wounded twice and was taken prisoner by the Union. After the war, Chipley became involved in the management of several southern railroads companies, including Pensacola & Atlantic Railroad, which he joined in 1881.

Wilkinson Call
Chipley became vice president and superintendent, and also served as the company's general land agent. The company had a 2.8 million-acre federal land grant to build a railway from Pensacola to Chattahoochee. That was a half-way point to unite east and west Florida by rail. It would give the Pensacola area access to the extensive Atlantic seaboard rail systems.

But Chipley wanted more. He wanted to company to basically own most of the Florida Panhandle. He planned to accomplish that by securing a large pre-Civil War land grant given to a railroad that had already gone out of business.

Chipley inserted himself into Florida politics to make sure things went his way. He became chairman of the state Democratic Executive Committee, a position that gave him significant influence over selecting legislative candidates with pro-railroad leanings.

Stephen Mallory II
Enter the man who was to be Chipley's archrival: liberal U.S. Sen. Wilkinson Call. He was the nephew for former territorial governor Richard Keith Call. The liberals had a litany of charges to level against the railroad special interests. They called the land grants "land grabs." They accused the railroads of using discriminatory freight rates and excluding Florida ports in shipments of citrus and phosphate.

In 1888, when Call introduced a measure in the U.S. Senate calling for the forfeiture of all expired land grants and opening them to the public for homsteading, it was the last straw. For Chipley, it became personal. He targeted Call. In a New York Times account of a speech in Fort Myers in 1890, Chipley accused Call of lining his pockets with public money, stealing land from poor negroes and having unsavory banking connections. He tried to block Call's reelection in 1891 to a third term with a lot of back room politicking. Call won anyway.

But it wasn't over yet. The railroad was completed. Chipley had accumulated a political power base. In 1896, he decided to run against Call himself. He rallied the state's newspapers in his bid to unseat Call. He tried to divide the liberal bloc by declaring support for populist presidential candidate William Jennings Bryan. He even hinted that he'd support a state railroad commission.

Voting in the legislature took 25 ballots. Legislators switched their votes back and forth. It appeared to be a real cliffhanger but on the final night of balloting it looked like Chipley would win. In late-night haggling, liberals convinced Call to drop out in favor of moderate liberal Stephen Mallory II of Pensacola. That was enough for Mallory to win, keeping Chipley from becoming senator.

Publicly, Chipley said he'd accomplished his mission, to get Call out of office but privately he raged that all that vote switching had robbed him of his victory.

The bitter campaign may have taken its toll on Chipley. He died about a year later.

Information from Gene Burnett's Florida's Past: People & Events That Shaped the State, Volume 2, History of the Confederates Memorial Associations of the South and The New York Times, was used in this report.

Thursday, October 28, 2010

Pan Am flies Key West to Havana

University of Miami Libraries
Members of the Pan Am flight and ground crew with the General Machado.

On this day in 1927, Pan American Airways began mail service from Key West to Havana using its own aircraft, a Fokker F-VIIa Tri-motor.

To comply with U.S. government requirements, the company had actually started the mail service nine days earlier with a chartered seaplane. It couldn't use its own plane because the airport at Key West wasn't ready for its plane.

The Oct. 28 flight carried 28 sacks of mail weighing 722 pounds. It left at 8:25 a.m. piloted by Hugh Wells and arrived in Havana an hour and 20 minutes later. The plane was named the General Machado, after Gerardo Machado, a war hero who was president of Cuba when the flight took place.

Passenger flights to Havana started three months later on January 16, 1928.

Historian Allen Morris wrote that "because of prohibition the champagne christening of the maiden flight that day had to take place in Havana rather than in Key West.”

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Henry B. Plant was born in 1819

Ebyabe | Wikipedia
When Plant opened the Tampa Bay Hotel, he invited Henry Flagler attend. Flagler responded, "Where is Tampa." Plant answered, "Just follow the crowds, Henry, just follow the crowds."

Today is the birthday of railroad magnate Henry B. Plant, who built a system of steamships and railroads that ran from Jacksonville to Havana, Cuba. He built the Moorish-style Tampa Bay Hotel that eventually became the University of Tampa and the Belleview Biltmore near Clearwater.

Henry B. Plant
Plant was born in 1819 in Branford, Conn., to Anderson Plant, a well-to-do farmer, and Betsey Bradley Plant. His father died when he was six years old but his mother remarried and the family moved to New York and, eventually, to New Haven, Conn. He attended private school.

His grandmother wanted him to become a clergyman and offered to pay for him to go to Yale College but  the impatient young man became a captain's boy and, eventually, a deck hand on a steamship instead.

Plant married Ellen Elizabeth Blackstone in 1842, and he worked for the Adams Express Company, handling express parcels. He ran the company's New York office. In 1853, Ellen was told she needed to move to the South for her health. They visited the then-tiny town of Jacksonville, where Plant saw the possibilities for future development. In fact, a rugged trip to St. Augustine convinced him transportation was needed in the area. To get to the ancient city, he had paddle a dugout canoe up the St. Johns River and hike through the forest. The guide lost his way and they had to spend the night out under the stars. Only a few years later, Plant made such a rustic trip unnecessary.

During the Civil War, the owners of the express company transferred the company to him, fearful they would lose it to the Confederacy if they remained in control. Plant organized the Southern Express Company in 1861 with southern stockholders. The company collected tariffs and transferred funds as an agent for the Confederacy.

After the war, southern railroad were ruined and many railroads were in bankruptcy. Plant bought railroads at foreclosure sales and began building a transportation system. In 1882, with Henry Flagler's help, he organized the Plant Investment Company, resurrected several small railroads, and provided service across Florida.

The line ended in Tampa, where he established a new steamship line to Havana. For $2.5 million, he built the Tampa Bay Hotel in the style of a Moorish palace, with distinctive minarets. He also built the Victorian style Belleview Biltmore near Clearwater. He built eight hotels in all, but his favorite with the Tampa Bay Hotel.

Plant City in eastern Hillsborough County is named for him as is Henry B. Plant High School in Tampa. Bradley Junction in Polk County is named for his mother.

The Henry B. Plant Museum at the University of Tampa is dedicated to his life.

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Yes, an alligator could eat your dog

Tampa Bay's Channel 10 reports on a 50-pound Keeshond that was eaten by an alligator on Saturday. It shouldn't be surprising. It's what alligators do. They see small dogs (and children) as food. In Florida, it's a fact of life. Around alligator habitat, be watchful.

Sunday, October 17, 2010

Hermit in oil reveals fabled island life

Silas Dent preferred barefooted living on mosquito-ridden Cabbage Key to civilization.  He died at 76 in 1952.

PASS-A-GRILLE – In the old Florida boutique Bamboozle on Eighth Avenue, there's a huge oil painting of Silas Dent, the celebrated recluse of Cabbage Key, who is remembered for his quirky personality and non-conformist lifestyle.

He sometimes played Santa Claus for island children. Pulitzer-prize winning Associated Press columnist Hal Boyle called Silas the "Happy Hermit of Cabbage Key" in a 1948 Life magazine article. He recounted how Silas traded faded overalls for a red Santa suit once a year and invited the Pass-A-Grille kids over to his island (now part of Tierra Verde).

He gave them presents he'd bought with a meager income earned from selling mosquito swatters to tourists in Pass-A-Grille. He knew the parents of the island kids were struggling to make a living.

Longtime Pass-A-Grille residents knew Silas as the most eccentric member of a family that tried unsuccessfully to operate a dairy on Cabbage Key, eventually moved their herd to what is now Bella Vista, and finally to acreage off Ulmerton Road in Largo.

After Cabbage Key, Silas tried living the civilized life but found that it just didn't suit him, so he moved back to a palmetto-thatched hut on Cabbage Key. The oil painting shows Silas sitting in his hut playing a banjo. It was painted from a photograph well known to students of local history.

Artist Patrick Donatelli
The man who painted it has his own connection to Pass-A-Grille, though he never knew Silas when he lived here. Artist Patrick Donatelli is the son of legendary Major League Baseball umpire Augie Donatelli, who brought his family to the community in the 1950s.

The elder Donatelli and other umpires rented places to stay at the beach during spring training. Once Life magazine photographer Arthur Rickerby came to town and took pictures of the family down on the beach enjoying the warm Gulf waters for a spread in the magazine.

Patrick Donatelli fondly recalls his Pass-A-Grille childhood with memories of the wind whispering through tall Australian pine trees and dipping his toes in ultra fine sand on the beach. For young Patrick, it was a storybook life, like an N.C. Wyeth illustration of Treasure Island and the lad imagining himself as Jim Hawkins.

Though the family lived in Pennsylvania during those years, they always came to Pass-A-Grille in the spring. Finally, the family moved to St. Petersburg permanently in 1967, when Patrick was 12 years old. 

Baseball umpire Augie Donatelli lifts his son,
Patrick, on Pass-A-Grille beach in photo by
Life magazine photographer Arthur Rickerby.

As children, Partick and his siblings knew their dad was involved with baseball but they didn't really grasp how well known he was throughout the country, and among people in all walks of life. Patrick tells of a time shortly after the family moved to St. Petersburg when his dad took his mom, Mary, in the middle of the day to the Hilton Hotel downtown.

They walked past the lobby into the ballroom with Mary wondering what was up. An orchestra was rehearsing and a slight man with a big smile greeted Augie Donatelli. "Hey, Augie. How ya doin'?" It was Frank Sinatra.

Patrick Donatelli's youth in St. Petersburg is filled with memories of regular trips to the beach, soaking up the sun and beach life and basking in the spectacular sunsets. The love of place spurred him to explore Florida's history, and in the 1980s he discovered Silas Dent, the storied character from Cabbage Key.

He found that photograph while doing research at the St. Petersburg Museum of History and was immediately drawn to it. Patrick knew he would paint Silas in oil. Such an iconic figure in local history had to be part of his portfolio. It was a natural for a lad whose dreams of pirate adventures on Treasure Island fueled an imaginative childhood.

 • Read St. Petersburg Times columnist Jeff Klinkenberg's interview with Pass-A-Grille's Frank Hurley

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Weeki Wachee opened in 1947

Florida State Archives
The Aquabelles in 1947.  Newt Perry taught the girls to do aquatic ballets. Watch them eat and drink underwater in the video below made from a 16-mm movie shot in 1952.

This picture by fashion photographer
Toni Frissell was published in Harper's
Bazaar in 1947.
Weeki Wachee Springs, the famous Florida roadside attraction that became known as the home of the live mermaids, opened on this day in 1947.

Newton Perry, an ex-Navy frogman, created the attraction but he had to remove rusted junk from the spring first. Locals had used it as a dumping ground. Perry invented a way to breathe underwater from a free-flowing air hose supplying oxygen from an air compressor.  He had an 18-seat theater built and submerged six feet below the surface of the spring.

Perry trained young women to use the air hoses so they could stay underwater seemingly effortlessly to do the shows. He taught them how to smile underwater, and to drink and eat and do aquatic ballets there, too. The air hoses were hidden behind scenery.

Then he put a sign out on U.S. 19. In those days, U.S. 19 was not heavily traveled. It was paved but none of the other nearby road were, and there were few amenities. You could drive for miles without seeing a gas station or grocery store. And convenience stores hadn't been invented yet.

It was a pretty desolate place, and it's a wonder anybody came. There were so few cars that the performers ran out to the highway when they heard a car coming and waved travelers into the parking lot. Then they jumped into the spring to perform.

A couple of months after the attraction opened, Harper's Bazaar magazine published a photograph of a woman wearing a long evening gown floating in the spring. The photograph was by Toni Frissell, a well known fashion and portrait photographer in New York.

ABC bought the attraction in 1959, and then it really took off. ABC promoted it heavily on television. Arthur Godfrey, Don Knotts, Esther Williams and Elvis Presley all visited the attraction.

Today Weeki Wachee is a Florida State Park. Its general manager is former mermaid Robyn Anderson.

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

The slaughter at Matanzas

Jay Kislak Foundation
Pedro Menéndez de Aviles captured Fort Caroline and killed Jean Ribault.
On this day in 1565, French naval officer Jean Ribault and about 200 of his men were slaughtered by Spanish soldiers on the banks of the Matanzas River south of St. Augustine. If it hadn't been for his earlier accomplishments, Rebault might have been merely a footnote in history.
Jean Ribault
In 1562, Rebault led a Huguenot expedition to the New World to establish a colony for France. He explored the area around the mouth of the St. Johns River, then moved north and built a settlement on present-day Parris Island, S.C.

The settlement was named Charlesfort, for the king of France. He left a small group of men there and returned to Europe for more supplies and settlers.

He got caught up in the Religious Wars in Europe, was arrested in England and charged with spying so he couldn't return as planned. The group he left in the New World ran out of supplies, and, faced with hostile local tribes, built a crude open boat and set sail for Europe. Most didn't survive the trip. 

In 1564, René Goulaine de Laudonnière, Ribault's second-in-command in the earlier expedition, returned to the New World and established a colony at the mouth of the St. Johns River, the area the two had explored two years earlier. He called it Fort Caroline.

Laudonnière met the local Timucua tribe who helped the Frenchmen at first. But soon Fort Caroline was beset with troubles and unrest. Some colonists took a ship and sailed to the Gulf of Mexico where they became pirates and attacked Spanish ships. The Timucua stopped helping the remaining colonists, who became increasingly disenchanted.

Pedro Menéndez de Avilés
They were on the verge of revolt when Rebault finally returned from Europe with supplies and took control of Fort Caroline. Laudonnière was ready to depart for France, unhappy that he had been relieved of command.

But the Spanish, who had laid claim to Florida way back in 1513 when Juan Ponce de Leon first arrived, took a dim view of the arrival of the French. Pedro Menéndez de Avilés brought a Spanish fleet with the mission to remove the French Protestants from the New World. They attacked Ribault's ships near the mouth of the St. Johns but the weather was so bad that neither side prevailed. The deteriorating weather was an approaching hurricane. Menéndez sailed south and built a camp at St. Augustine near a Timucua village.

Ribault left Laudonnière with 100 men and sailed south to attack Menéndez at St. Augustine.  Menéndez sent men overland during the hurricane to attack Fort Caroline. They overwhelmed the fort, killing most of the men but sparing the women and children. Laudonnière escaped and eventually returned to Europe.

Meanwhile, Ribault's fleet got caught in the hurricane and his forces were scattered south toward where Daytona Beach is today. The ships were destroyed and Ribault and his men washed ashore. They started walking north along the beach. The Spanish found them at Matanzas Inlet. Ribault, believing his forces would be treated well, promptly surrendered.

But Menéndez had most of the survivors, including Ribault, executed.

Information from The Southern Colonies in the Seventeenth Century, 1607-1689 by Wesley Frank Craven, the Fort Caroline National Memorial Web site and Charlesfort: Return to Port Royal: 1564 by Chester B. DePpratter was used in this report. 

Monday, October 11, 2010

Death of the Barefoot Mailman

Palm Beach County History Museum
Barefoot Mailmen are remembered in an exhibit at the Palm Beach County History Museum.
Today in 1887 James E. Hamilton, one of the famous Barefoot Mailmen, died at Hillboro Inlet near Pompano Beach. He was one of a cadre of public servants who delivered the mail along the southeast coast of Florida from Palm Beach to south of Miami. They walked along the beach because there were no roads.

The route was established in 1885 to deliver mail between Palm Beach and Miami. Before that, a letter from Palm Beach took a circuitous route by steamboat and train to Jupiter, Titusville, New York and Havana, Cuba, before arriving in Miami at least six weeks later.

The route along the beach took about a week, and included rowing boats across various inlets along the way.

In her book, Magnificent Mile, A History of Hillsboro Beach, Carmen Racine McGarry details the circumstances surrounding Hamilton's death. Hamilton was last seen in Hypoluxo on Oct. 10, 1887, a Monday. He was expected back the following Saturday but never returned.

Two of his friends followed his route to find out what happened. They discovered his mail pouch, trousers and shirt hanging on a tree limb at Hillsboro Inlet. They found his underwear near the water's edge. They surmised that he had decided to swim across the inlet to get his boat.

His friends believed he was killed by alligators. Numerous gator tracks were found in the area. His body was never found.

The question arose why Hamilton's boat wasn't on the right side of the inlet as it was supposed to be. Locals became suspicious of a newcomer who had just arrived in the area. The man claimed that hunters had given him a ride across the inlet but he was suspected of having taken Hamilton's boat, an offense as severe as horse stealing in the old West.

The stranger was charged with tampering with government property but was acquitted in federal court in Jacksonville.

Theodore Pratt's 1943 book The Barefoot Mailman told Hamilton's story. A movie based on the book came out in 1951. It starred Robert Cummings and Terry Moore.

There is a plaque in memory of Hamilton at Hillsboro Inlet Lighthouse.

Friday, October 8, 2010

Caution: Florida's still a wild place

Trisha Shears
Venomous Florida water moccasins can be found near waterways, swamps and wetlands. 
The news that a tourist from Rhode Island was bitten by a venomous water moccasin in the resort area near Orlando is a stark reminder that Florida is still a wild and dangerous place, despite decades of effort pave every square inch of it, thus eliminating anything native and natural.

Apparently the man was bitten as he walked near the swimming pool at the J.W. Marriott Grande Lakes resort. The posh resort is surrounded by water – a golf course with lakes and a swamp. Evidently he stepped on the snake and was bitten on the left ankle.

At last report, the man was in intensive care at a nearby hospital, his leg swollen and in extreme pain. He was treated with anti-venom, the Orlando Sentinel reported.

Water moccasins, also called cottonmouth moccasin's for the white lining in their mouths, are found throughout the southeastern United States, according to the Smithsonian National Zoological Park.

They are primarily active at night but like to lie in the sun during the day because it helps their digestive metabolism.

Long-time Floridians know that snakes are present and that it is unwise to stalk around in the wilderness without using caution. Cottonmouth moccasins are not aggressive and won't attack unless agitated, according to the Smithsonian. The caution "they won't bother you if you don't bother them" comes to mind.

If they feel threatened they will stand their ground, however. An angry moccasin will coil his body and threaten an intruder with bared fangs.

Information from the Florida Museum of Natural History, the Smithsonian Institution and the Orlando Sentinel was used in this report. 

Thursday, October 7, 2010

Florida's Confederate governor

John Milton
Today’s the day in 1861 when Gov. John Milton took over the state government from Gov. Madison Starke Perry. Milton has been elected the fifth governor of Florida in March but didn’t take office for seven months.

Milton was born in Georgia, a descendant of the English poet, John Milton. His grandfather was a Revolutionary War hero and had been secretary of state in Georgia. Milton practiced law in Georgia, Alabama and New Orleans. Eventually, he settled in Marianna and became involved in state politics.

Milton was a staunch states’ rights advocate and vocally urged the secession of Florida from union. He got his wish on Jan. 10, 1861, when the state the third in the south to secede. The next day, during a ceremony to sign the Ordinance of Secession, the governor-elect unfurled a white silk secession flag on the east porch of the state capitol. The three stars represented the first three states to leave the union: South Carolina, Mississippi and Florida.

Museum of Florida History
As governor, Milton saw to it that Florida became an important source of goods rather than men for the Confederacy’s war effort. Florida provided large supplies of cattle and salt. He may be the only southern governor who cooperated fully with the Confederacy. Squabbles among others have been blamed for contributing to the South's defeat.

On April 1, 1865, as the Confederacy was collapsing, Milton left Tallahassee for the 65-mile trip to Sylvania, his plantation near Marianna. There he died of a gunshot wound through his head. Many believe it was suicide, a theory bolstered by his last statement to the Florida Legislature, in which he said that  “... death would be preferable to reunion.” However, historian Dale Cox says there is a local tradition that it might have been an accident.

Information from the Museum of Florida History,  National Governor’s Association, The Florida Historical Society and the blog, Two Egg, Florida, was used in this report.

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

Florida's New Deal governor

Florida State Archives
Gov. David Sholtz, center, accompanied President Roosevelt on a visit to Jacksonville in the 1930s. Sholtz's support of FDR brought needed jobs to the state.

Today is the birthday of David Sholtz, Florida’s New Deal governor.

He is best remembered for establishing the Florida Park Service and the Florida Citrus Commission, getting a workers’ compensation law passed and mandating free textbooks in public schools. He also presided over the creation of Everglades National Park.

Florida State Archives
Sholtz was inaugurated on January 4, 1933.
Elected as Florida’s 26th chief executive in 1932, he took office at a time when many Floridians were out of work and hungry, and many of the state’s cities were broke. His support of Franklin Delano Roosevelt brought many sorely needed federal job programs to Florida. He made jobs a priority. He also cut welfare rolls by 75 percent in three years. He inherited a state debt of $2.14 million and had a surplus by 1934. He pushed for a $5 auto tag fee and used some of the money to pay teachers in cash instead of script.

He was born to Jewish immigrant parents in Brooklyn, N.Y., in 1891. His father became a wealthy in investments and real estate and moved the family to Daytona Beach in the early 1900s, and entered civic activities there.

Sholtz graduated with honors from Yale University in 1914. He earned a law degree the following year at Stetson University, and started practicing law in Daytona. He entered the U.S. Navy as an ensign during World War I and served four years.

He was elected to the Florida House in 1917, and held several other public offices after returning from military duty.

In the 1932 election, he was a dark horse candidate who emerged from a crowded field in the Democratic primary to face powerful former governor John W. Martin in a runoff.

Sholtz was an affable man who easily established rapport with Florida’s rural Cracker population, despite his ethnic and regional roots. He campaigned using a flat-bed truck with two loudspeakers. As a public speaker, he rarely used notes and was perceived as being genuinely interested in helping people. His opponent at first inserted a subtle anti-Semitic tone into the campaign and finally more blatantly attempted to smear Sholtz.

For his part, Sholtz ignored the attacks, refused to get angry, smiled and listened to the people. He spoke of creating jobs for the hungry, keeping closed school open nine months, providing free textbooks in all grades, lower taxes for small homeowners. He was serious and sincere.

Martin’s smear campaign backfired and Florida’s Cracker voters handed David Sholtz the largest majority ever given a candidate in Florida history. He easily defeated his Republican opponent in the general election. In those days, Florida elections were decided in the Democratic primary.

After serving as governor, Sholtz ran against Claude Pepper for the U.S. Senate in 1938 but lost. Sholtz died in 1953 while visiting Key West.

Information from Florida Trend magazine, Time magazine, Wikipedia, the National Governors Association and the Florida State Library was used in this report.

Sunday, October 3, 2010

Correspondent in the manatee wars

When Henry Flagler was building his railroad down the east coast of Florida there was a place in Florida Bay called Cow Pens, where young sea cows were herded like cattle to be kept to feed the construction crews.

Craig Pittman, the award-winning environment writer for the St. Petersburg Times, writes about the Cow Pens and about manatees as dinner in his book Manatee Insanity, that was published earlier this year by University Presses of Florida.

How does manatee taste? Pittman says he has never tasted it himself but notes that a Civil War soldier thought it rivaled the finest Tennessee beef. A scientist who tried some more recently told Pittman it had the texture of pork and the taste of beef.

If the idea of dining on this beleaguered gentle and slow moving creature is repugnant to you, you’re not alone. Thousands of Floridians and others have rallied too the defense of the manatee since 1981 when Jimmy Buffett and Bob Graham started the Save the Manatee Club.

Thousands more have railed against the subsequent rules and regulations enacted to protect the chubby veggie chomping mammal, often treating it, as Pittman puts it, as a “living speed bump.”

Pittman was drawn to the subject by the wackiness of the animal’s admirers and the sheer vociferousness of the opposition. In his 12 years of covering environmental issues for the Times, manatees are the one topic that is most divisive, he said. There is no sign of compromise.

He also wanted to tell a history of Florida that is not well known to most Floridians. He wanted to tell how Florida has changed over the decades and how it has changed those who live here. In the process, Pittman has produced what is arguably the more comprehensive study of the political and social fallout over "Florida's most famous endangered species."

On the whole, how’s the manatee doing in Florida? It’s a mixed bag, he says. The future of the manatee is by no means assured.

Monday, September 27, 2010

Ponce de León's accidental gift

Courtesy of
The breed was small, tough and agile – the result of centuries of crossbreeding in Spain.

Explorer Juan Ponce de León brought the ancestors of what became the Cracker Horse to Florida in 1521. He hadn’t planned to abandon them but his departure from Florida was kind of hasty.

Ponce de León brought 50 horses and other domestic animals, including Spanish cattle. He also brought 200 men and farming equipment. He planned to set up a colony.

But the native Calusas didn’t want new neighbors. They attacked the Spaniards to make it clear that visitors were not welcome, especially ones who were planning to stay. Ponce de León was hit with a poison arrow during the melee and his men got the message.

They set sail quickly and headed back to Havana, where Ponce de León died from his wound. They left the cattle and the horses in Florida to fend for themselves.

The horse breed was small, tough and agile – the result of centuries of crossbreeding in Spain, where the Spanish Sorraia and the North African Barb eventually became the Iberian horse in the 16th century.

The horses and cattle roamed free and thrived, adapting to their new environment and becoming breeds apart and specially suited to Florida. Explorers who followed Ponce de León brought horses to Florida, too.

During the English Period (1763-1783) and the Second Spanish Period (1783-1821), horse breeding and cattle ranching were well established, built from the feral Spanish herds.

By the 1760s, when Seminoles were breaking away from the Creek nation and moving into Florida, the horse breed the Spanish explorers had brought to the New World was quite at home.

In another 50 years or so, the United States took possession of Florida and encouraged settlers to move into the new territory. These descendants of Colonial era Scots-Irish and English American pioneers streamed into the peninsula, established farms and raised cattle.

They were called Crackers. Historians still debate the origin of the term. Some note that in Middle English, the word crack meant entertaining conversation as in cracking a joke. It also was used to describe a braggart. "What cracker is this same that deafs our ears with this abundance of superfluous breath?" asks Austria in the Shakespeare’s The Life and Death of King John.

The Florida cow hunter or Cracker cowman didn’t use lassos like their Spanish or western counterparts, for such tools weren’t suited to the palmetto prairies. Instead, they used braided leather cow whips and dogs. The cracking sound of the whips gave rise to the Cracker name, suggest others.

Given some cowmen’s reputations for being raconteurs, the two theories are not necessarily mutually exclusive.

In any case, the lean, quick horses they rode and the scrub cows they drove acquired their names from the men who herded them.

Florida Cracker horses have remained a vital part of cattle ranching in the state. They are known for having strength, endurance and “cow sense,” a strong herding instinct. They are 54 to 60 inches high and weigh 750 to 900 pounds. They are quick animals with a fast walking gait.

The Cracker Horse was nearly lost during the Depression. A government program designed to provide help to ranchers had unintended consequences.

Before the 1930s, cattle roamed the state free and cow men rode Florida Cracker horses to herd them. During the Depression, though, cattle were shipped to Florida from Oklahoma’s Dust Bowl but some of the cows had screwworms, which had to be treated. So fencing and dipping vats were introduced for the first time in Florida.

Ranchers started using the larger Quarter Horse to work the cattle. The Florida Cracker Horse lost demand and became rare.

Only a few old-time ranching families continued to breed the Florida Cracker Horse, among them the Ayers, Bronsons, Harveys, Matchetts, Partins and Whaleys.

The Florida Cracker Horse Association was organized in 1989 to search for remnant herds of Cracker Horses. The non-profit organization’s mission is to promote the horse as a valuable and vital part of Florida’s heritage.

It is dedicated to the preservation and perpetuation of the Cracker Horse as distinct and unique Colonial Spanish breed descended from the horses of Juan Ponce de León.

Information from the Florida Cracker Horse Association, Juan Ponce de Leon and the Discovery of Puerto Rico and Florida (2000) by Robert H. Fusion, Cracker: Cracker Culture in Florida History (2006) by Dana Ste Claire and Florida’s Seminole and Miccosukee Peoples (1996) by John K. Mahon and Brent R. Weisman was used in this report.

Saturday, September 25, 2010

Should Florida ban alligator wrestling?

In an old video, a Miccosukee man wrestles an alligator. | Here's an AP video of Seminoles who are trying to turn alligator wrestling into an extreme sport.

Seminoles and Miccosukees have been wrestling alligators in Florida for generations. It used to be for survival. Now its more for entertainment, and though it was quite common a couple of decades ago, the practice seems to be dying out. There's a petition online at to get the Florida Legislature to ban alligator wrestling. What do you think? Comment below.

Lessons after Deep Horizon oil spill?

United States Coast Guard
Deep Water Horizon oil well
"Every so often, a major event involving [the Gulf of Mexico] reminds us that we are not the sole animating force in our history," writes UF history professor Jack E. Davis. "Nature is an equal, sometime greater, influence (something history books fail to teach), and from Texas to Florida, the Gulf is nature supreme."

"We should pause to understand that for the past 150 years our behavior has been on a collision course with the Gulf and its enriching presence," he writes in an op-ed piece for the Tallahassee Democrat.

Read the full article Treat the Gulf right and it will return the favor

Baby coachwhip on the Nature Coast

Pure Florida blogger floridacracker, who is a native of Florida and lives on the Nature Coast, has some interesting video and photographs of a baby snake he discovered the other day. He thinks its a baby coachwhip but acknowledges that it could be a black racer. See what you think.

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Voice of America features the Glades

National Park Service
More than 350 bird species and 300 species of fresh and saltwater fish live within the park.

Steve Ember and Faith Lapidus presented an audio report on the Everglades on Science in the News, a VOA program in Special English. 

Yankee loses in island showdown

Harry Stolzfus
Remember that tale a couple of weeks ago about the battle between the transplanted yankee and the old-time, deep-roots Floridian (Ed Chiles, Lawton's son)? Well, it has played itself out now. For the moment, at least. The Anna Maria Island Sun reports that City Commissioner Harry Stolzfus has been recalled. His term is to be filled by the man who ran against him. The town's other newspaper, The Islander, reports that Stolzfus is challenging the legality of the recall election. So it all may end up back in court again. Meanwhile, Bill Yanger, author of the island blog Our Anna Maria wonders if the new commissioner will honor his promises. The drama continues.

Monday, September 20, 2010

Is it illegal to dig in the sand?

Don't plan to dig on the beach at the Gulf Islands National Seashore. You could be in big trouble. UPDATE: Here's a followup to that earlier report. Apparently a staffer was misinformed. Digging is okay at the beach, where you might dig up oil, just not near Fort Pickens, where you might dig up an artifact.

Saturday, September 18, 2010

Florida Cracker makes a documentary

Filmmaker Haley Downs was born in DeLand. Her dad was a Cracker and her mom an Alabama southern belle. When she was 17, she fled her Cracker heritage and sought life in the city. Her travels took her to Miami and then New York. But after a series of personal tragedies, she returned to her Cracker roots and discovered the key to her survival. She has produced a documentary about the journey, Swamp Cabbage: A Hot and Sweaty Documentary.

From the film synopsis: "Swamp Cabbage began in May 1999 when Hayley Downs and Julie Kahn, both Floridians interested in Slow Food and dismayed by the paving of Florida, decided to document Hayley’s father’s wild game feast. As they traced the sources of the game to the wild boar, alligator and rattlesnake hunters, they realized the potential of the project not only to amplify the voice of an under explored and often stereotyped region, but also to address broader contemporary issues of conservation and community.

"Swamp Cabbage is an exploration of our complex relationship to the natural world though Hayley’s unlikely return to her Cracker roots and her discovery of the importance of authentic culture, food and where we lay our head. One-part diary film, one-part cooking show and one-part environmental adventure, Swamp Cabbage  looks and feels like a fast-paced, quirky, irreverent, lyrical, wild ride filled with dark humor, tension, and unexpected truths from an under explored and often stereotyped region."

The filmmakers expect the documentary to be released in 2011. They can be reached by e-mail at

Friday, September 17, 2010

Divers hunt invasive lionfish

The lionfish is native of the Pacific and Indian oceans. In the Atlantic and the Gulf of Mexico, it has no known predators and it reproduces rapidly. It is an invasive species – an aquatic form of the Brazilian pepper or the casaurina tree or Burmese pythons in the Everglades.

It is yet another case in which irresponsible people have released non-native critters into Florida's wilds with potentially disastrous results. They're sold for home aquariums but people often realize they're too aggressive and discard them.

In the Florida Keys recently, more than 100 divers turned out for the first Lionfish Derby, and they brought in more than 500 lionfish, reports.

For divers, catching the spiny critters can be a challenge. Their poisonous spikes can send victims to the hospital. "I heard one person describe that if it stung you on the arm, it wouldn't kill you but you would want to cut your arm off," a Boca Raton diver told WPLG Ch. 10.

They were first seen off Miami in the 1980s but last July a huge population was spotted of Key  Biscayne, and they've even shown up in the Loxahatchee River.

The lionfish likes to live near coral reefs, and that's a problem around Florida because it has a voracious appetite. It eats just about anything, including young grouper, snapper and other tropical fish.

With nothing apparently out there eating them, lionfish tend to take over. However, the Lionfish Derby may prove to be the solution to the problem. The fish is described as delicious with light, white and flakey meat, and derby participants wasted no time in frying them up or serving them in a citrus ceviche.

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Venice: Antidote to urban sprawl

In 1925, in the glory days of the Florida land boom, a nationally known orthopedic surgeon sold 1,428 acres south of Sarasota to one of the country’s largest labor unions and quadrupled his investment.

City planner John Nolan
Then he insisted that a renowned city planner be retained to develop a new town. The planner was John Nolan, who was known for his advocacy of the European “garden city” approach to urban planning, keeping urban sprawl at bay with clustered mixed-use neighborhoods. Nolan’s plans made cities that were decidedly walkable.

The result of Nolan’s work became Venice, a city that retains the vision today, so much so that the National Register of Historic Places is considering recognizing the city.

All this has prompted Venice’s historical director, James Hagler, to develop a plan to celebrate the city’s rich history to attract more tourists, reports the Sarasota Herald Tribune. Hagler is planning a fundraiser Sept 21 at the Saltwater Cafe in Nokomis to raise money for the project.

The famed orthopedic surgeon was Dr. Fred Albee, who had pioneered bone grafting and other advances in orthopedic surgery, including a machine that helped with the grafting. Dr. Albee’s work helped many injured World War I veterans.

Dr. Fred Albee
The labor union, the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers, wanted to cash in on the land boom but it also envisioned “a place where the ordinary man could have a chance to get all that the rich have ever been able to get out of Florida.” The BLE built some hotels and buildings in the downtown business district, but lost its investment when the real estate market crashed.

But the city remains, and Nolan’s concept has survived. Nolan worked on plans for other cities in Florida (54 in all), including St. Petersburg. In the Sunshine City, though, his lofty ideals failed at the ballot box with only 13 per cent of the vote. Greed prevailed.

In his book, Visions of Eden, Rollins College professor R. Bruce Stephenson, recounts Nolan’s frustrating efforts in St. Petersburg. "It has been said and with reason," Nolan wrote, "that man is the only animal who desecrates the surroundings of his own habitation."

Last May, WEDU Channel 3 in Tampa aired a documentary, Venice Florida: Moving Forward by Looking Back, about Venice’s development in the 1920s.

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Exploring Florida: It's a living!

Video on Kevin Mims' YouTube site. 

Kevin Mims has a remarkably enviable job. He gets paid to paddle Florida's most beautiful rivers, swim in refreshingly bubbly springs and explore natural caverns or underwater coral reefs, then shoot video and write on his blog about his experiences.

Mims is a Florida Insider for Visit Florida, the state's non-profit marketing operation. He's billed as an outdoors and nature expert on Web site, which makes a lot of sense. He's a native Floridian and an avid outdoors adventurer.

"Living in rural Florida, I'm always outside camping, hiking, biking and paddling all over the Sunshine State," Mims says on visitflorida. com. He grew up near Inverness and spent time as a youth exploring the Okefenokee Swamp in south Georgia.

The Palm Beach Post recently published a feature story on Mims after he stopped in West Palm on his way up the east coast from a trip to the Keys. He travels about 30,000 miles a year.

Monday, September 13, 2010

Deputies put gator in handcuffs

Pinellas County Sheriff's Office
Deputies put a rope around the gator's neck and attached handcuffs to it hind legs.
Pinellas sheriff's deputies handcuffed an alligator to keep it from causing damage as it thrashed about against a wall near an elementary school in Oldsmar, Tampa Bay's Fox News reported. A crossing guard spotted the 7.5-foot reptile about the time kids were walking to school. Deputies taped up the critter's mouth with electrical tape,and put a noose around its neck and waited for wildlife officials. But the rambunctious gator thrashed about with its tail so much that the deputies needed to restrain it.

In Tampa, a refuge for sea cows

Mwanner | Wikipedia
Scientists say manatees, which are protected under the Endangered Species Act, can die of starvation if their body temperature drops too low.

If Tampa officials want to move ahead with a $5.7 million project to improve the ecology of the lower Hillsborough River, they're going to have to keep the manatees toasty warm, the Tampa Tribune reports.

At issue is everything from having enough water to supply a thirsty city and helping the river rebound from years of degradation to - and this was the sticking point - protecting the herds of sea cows that seek out the warm waters of Sulphur Springs each winter.

The solution? A thermometer.

Saturday, September 11, 2010

Man snaps photo, punches shark

Kris Kerr was taking pictures of his friend surfing in the ocean off New Smyrna Beach when a shark charged him. Kerr snapped a picture of the shark then punched it. The shark departed. Kerr was interviewed on CBS's Early Show.

• For more strange and wacky Florida news, visit our Huh? Florida page.

Friday, September 10, 2010

Killer Hurricane Donna struck in 1960

Vintage report about Hurricane Donna from WTVJ, anchored by pioneer television journalist Ralph Renick. There are three parts to this report.

Fifty years ago today Hurricane Donna struck the Florida Keys, crossed the state and roared northward along the eastern coast of the United States, leaving death and destruction in its path. Some 364 deaths were blamed on the storm and damage was put at $900 million in 1960 dollars. Today that would be $6.6 billion.

Hurricane Donna holds the record for retaining major hurricane status for nine days. It was a Category 4 storm when it made landfall at Marathon, where a storm surge of 13 feet was reported.

The storm continued into the Gulf of Mexico and shifted northward, making a second Florida landfall between Naples and Fort Myers. It roared north through the citrus belt  and back into the Atlantic at near Daytona Beach.

It continued up the coast, striking coastal North Carolina and eventually Long Island.

It had formed as a tropical depression in the vicinity of the Cape Verde Islands off the coast of Africa on Aug. 29. It weakened and dissipated 17 days later on Sept. 14.

The Naples Daily News has a photo gallery of images from Hurricane Donna that were submitted by readers. The South Florida Sun Sentinel also marked the anniversary of Deadly Donna. Read a report from the archives of the Fort Lauderdale News about the storm.

1842 Tampa house could be torn down

Google Maps
3210 E Eighth Ave.: The home was once the residence of Dr. Sheldon Stringer, who was surgeon to Gen. Joseph Finegan, commander of Confederate forces in Florida during the Civil War.
Preservationists are looking for a way to save what may be the oldest house in Tampa Bay, the St. Petersburg Times reports. It was a boarding house in downtown Tampa, and was once the home of a prominent surgeon who served the Confederacy during the Civil War.

The yellow Georgian-style home at 3210 E Eighth Ave. is for sale for $22,000. An investor could tear it down and build three units in its place, according to Tampa zoning laws.

Preservationists are concerned because of the loss of significant local landmarks over the years. The well-known 94-year-old Spanish Park Restaurant was bulldozed in 1993.  In 1994, fire destroyed a 91-year-old church. Last year wrecking crews  knocked down the 1913 Gary Elementary School.

The home was built in 1842 at the close of the Second Seminole War. In 1914, it was moved from downtown Tampa to what is now the edge of Ybor City. It was built with pegs, not nails, according to a local history buff.

Thursday, September 9, 2010

Columbia reinvents its Cuban sandwich

The Cuban sandwich isn't just a sandwich, it's history – Columbia Restaurant history, writes Becky Bowers in the St. Petersburg Times. That's why Richard Gonzmart, owner of the 105-year-old Ybor City icon, decided the signature dish needed to be reinvented. Over the years cutting corners had reduced the quality and taste. Gonzmart set about to restore the legacy.

Friday, September 3, 2010

Sanibel to spruce up lighthouse

Lee County Visitor and Convention Bureau
Sanibel is asking the federal government for $170,000 to help pay for refurbishing the 126-year-old Sanibel Island Light. The city plans to pressure blast and repaint the 98-foot tower, replace parts of the lighthouse eves and replace deteriorated steel doors, reports.

The Sanibel Island Light was the first lighthouse on Florida's Gulf coast north of Key West and the Dry Tortugas. It is located on the tip of Sanibel Island. It was built to mark the entrance to San Carlos Bay for  ships calling at Punta Rassa, across San Carlos Bay From Sanibel Island.

Punta Rassa was an important port for shipping cattle to Cuba during the Spanish American war.

Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Killing sharks for the jaws

Albert Kok
Bull shark in the Bahamas. The species lives throughout the world in warm waters.

Folks in Venice were incensed recently about the mutilated 6-foot bull shark carcass found on the beach under the Venice Fishing Pier. It had been killed for its jaws.

“It’s a needless slaughter. Was this really necessary for a jaw?” asked Ron Salisbury, a local bait shop employee, in a report in the Venice Gondolier Sun.

“This is akin to removing shark fins for soup,” beachgoer Ron Leverish wrote in an e-mail to the newspaper.

A state wildlife official, however, said fishing bull sharks is not banned.

Bull sharks are found throughout the world. They can be unpredictably aggressive. They are among the most dangerous to humans because they tend to live in shallow water. Great white sharks and tiger sharks are also dangerous to humans but typically people encounter them in deeper water, Jaws notwithstanding.

Bull sharks may not be the most beloved species in the world but they certainly command attention. In Africa, bulls are known as Zambezi sharks and in Lake Nicaragua they are known as Nicaragua sharks. In India they're called Ganges River shark.

Despite their reputation for irascibility, bull sharks seem to draw sympathy when they're on the losing end of an encounter with humans. Witness the incident in May last year when two young men caught 9-foot pregnant female off the Pier in St. Petersburg.

"It was either him or us," 19-year-old Joshua Lipert of St. Petersburg told an onlooker, according to a report in the St. Petersburg Times.  "Look who lost."

"We like to cut the jaws out, hang them on the wall as a souvenir," said Robert Korkoske, 16.

The lads called it a trophy kill.

The article generated 287 comments, most of them criticizing the young men. Several asked why the 16-year-old wasn't in school.

The St. Petersburg Times published an accompanying shark photo gallery of shark catches in Florida.