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Florida's history is open to the public
There are marvelous places in Florida where you can touch history -- where you can smell it, sense it, walk around in it.
They are places that reward you with a sense of what life or a particular moment must have been like for those who shaped the state in ways big and small. Like sabal palms, these places are scattered across the state in every direction. They can be opulent or simple, inspiring or poignant, mighty or mundane.
But they all have something to teach because history is a window on yesterday that helps us understand today.
In Florida are 29 lighthouses, 10 forts, two Civil War battlefields and a battlefield from the Seminole wars that has a contemporary connection.
There is a 16th century town, a town from the 19th century, an antebellum plantation complete with slave quarters and a unique 17th century mission town that was the breadbasket of Spanish Florida.
And you thought Florida history dwelt only in St. Augustine.
Here is only a small taste of what is out there. Put these places on your must-visit list.
Mission San Luis
In the second half of the 17th century, Mission San Luis de Apalachee flourished as no other town in Spanish Florida outside of St. Augustine. About 1,500 Apalachee Indians, including one of the most powerful chiefs, a Spanish deputy governor, a detachment of Spanish soldiers and several priests lived and worked together on a hill in Tallahassee.
San Luis was one of more than 100 missions established in Florida by the Spanish between 1565 and 1690. It was so successful that San Luis became the breadbasket of the colony, shipping corn and other goods to St. Augustine -- or sometimes taking a more lucrative, although illegal, route straight to Havana.
Nowhere else in Florida did the natives and the Spanish work together so productively, if not always in harmony.
State archaeologists are bringing this amazing place back to life, just as it looked at its peak. Their work allows visitors a glimpse of a fascinating part of Florida history about which most of us are clueless.
Several buildings have been reconstructed on their original sites on the perimeter of the village's circular plaza, which was 410 feet across. The latest additions, built with the same techniques and materials as the originals, include the council house and the chief's house, both of which were round. The council house was 120 feet across and could hold up to 3,000 people, making it the largest structure in Spanish Florida until the Castillo de San Marcos was finished in 1695. The chief's house was smaller but conveniently located next door to the council house. A crew of Zulu workers from South Africa, expert in the thatching of roofs, spent last summer in Tallahassee working on the two structures.
The church at San Luis is as large as the Cathedral of St. Augustine that still exists. Next to it is the priests' house, and a bit farther around the plaza is a Spanish house.
Mission San Luis de Apalachee is open daily. Details: 850-487-3655; www.dos.state.fl.us/dhr/bar/san_luis/index.html.
Miami Beach Art Deco District
Only in Florida would 60-year-old buildings be considered historic, but then South Beach isn't like any other place in the world. The American Riviera is hip, exotic, energetic and vibrant.
South Beach also is the home of 800 Art Deco buildings, many of them hotels, that form the largest such collection in the United States. In the past 14 years, most of the pastel beauties built during the 1920s to the mid-40s have been restored. Their renaissance has transformed Miami Beach from a decrepit town for the elderly to a playground for the young.
Typical hotels are cozy places of only three- and four-stories, with masonry construction and stucco finishes.
The Cardozo Hotel, for instance, contains 44 rooms in three stories, and was built in 1939. Owned by singer Gloria Estefan and her husband, Emilio, the Cardozo is painted a creamy color on the exterior and cream and terra cotta on the inside.
The Cavalier Hotel boasts a tropical vibe in its 45 rooms contained in three stories. The rooms of the 1936 structure feature earth tones. The three-story Chesterfield Hotel is funky and chic with its leopard and zebra furnishings and décor. The 50-room hotel was built in 1930.
You could spend hours on a walking tour, or perhaps more in keeping with the style of South Beach, a rollerblading tour.
For information on South Beach, call 1-800-283-2707; Web sites include southbeach-usa.com, funandsun.com and southbeachgroup.com.
It is easy to see why Ernest Hemingway loved this Spanish Colonial house in Key West. It was his refuge, a place where a guy could relax, letting a hostile world spin without him.
That sense of calm still resides in the house where the author wrote such works as To Have and Have Not, The Snows of Kilimanjaro and For Whom the Bell Tolls.
Hemingway lived in the house from 1931 to '40 and again from '51 to '61. If he considered Key West his personal paradise, then the house and its gardens were his tropical sanctuary. The ceilings are high, and wonderful verandas wrap both the first floor and the second. Soothing breezes move easily through every room.
He did most of his writing in a second floor office behind the house, where he started work every morning at 6. Today the room contains a suitcase with his initials and a typewriter that may or may not have belonged to Hemingway.
Outside are two famous features of the house: the pool and the cats. The story goes that Hemingway was so outraged that his wife Pauline had spent $20,000 on such a trifle as a pool that he pulled a coin from his pocket, bellowed, "Here, take the last penny I've got," then stuck a penny in the wet cement. It remains there today.
Cats are everywhere on the grounds, where they have nothing more to do than lounge and look cute for tourists. The 50 felines, many with six toes, are said to be descendants of Hemingway's cats.
The Hemingway House is open daily from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Details: 305-294-1136; www.hemingwayhome.com.
There is a handsome two-story residence at Kingsley Plantation that may date back to 1798. After a visit to the plantation, however, it isn't the big house that makes itself at home in your memory but the remains of 23 small structures -- the slave quarters.
Perhaps no other National Park Service site tells as poignant a tale about the lives of slaves. Rangers say it is not unusual for visitors to become emotional while walking through the quarters.
Zephaniah Kingsley bought the land, on Fort George Island in Jacksonville, in 1817. Kingsley was an enigma: He owned 60 to 80 slaves but was married to a black African woman. His overseer was black. He felt that every slave should have the right to earn his or her freedom. His slaves labored under the task method: Each was assigned a task for the day. Once it was completed, they were allowed to tend to family needs or cultivate a garden. Slaves lived in tiny two-room structures made of tabby, a kind of 19th century concrete of lime, sand and oyster shell.
Kingsley, his wife and their four children lived on the plantation well into the 1830s. By then it had grown to 32,000 acres.
After Florida became a U.S. territory in 1821, it passed laws tightening the oppression of slaves. Kingsley, who was active in territorial politics, argued against the laws, but his fellow slave owners lived in constant fear of rebellions. They argued that repressive laws were needed to guarantee their safety.
In 1837, escaping what Kingsley called a "spirit of intolerant prejudice," Kingsley moved his family to the Dominican Republic, where his descendants remain today.
Kingsley Plantation National Historic Site is open daily. Details: 904-251-3537; www.cr.nps.gov/goldcres/sites/kingsley.htm.
The hamlet of Cross Creek has changed a bit since the 1930s when author Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings lived there while writing The Yearling and Cross Creek. But Cross Creek has escaped the upheaval that has reshaped the state during the past 70 years. It remains peaceful and lovely, if not the "half-wild, backwoods country" of Rawlings' time.
Such serenity inspired Rawlings. Now it inspires her fans to make the pilgrimage to her Cracker-style farmhouse, still set among orange trees, just as she left it. Built of cypress and heart of pine, the unpretentious house contains eight rooms. Open porches, high ceilings, screen doors and plenty of windows made it well-suited for Florida's climate.
The house is filled with Rawlings' furniture. Those are her pots and pans in the kitchen. That's her bed in the bedroom. (That's not her car in the carport.)
On the veranda, Rawlings would sit at her typewriter, composing the stories that celebrated the beauty of Florida and the spirit of its people. Her books enchanted readers all over the world, filling them with vivid images of a hardy people in an unforgiving land.
The Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings State Historic Site is open Thursdays through Sundays but closed during August and September. Details: 352-466-3672.
In the days of sailing ships, the coast of Florida was treacherous. Dangerous reefs, shifting shoals and tricky currents combined with hurricanes to wreck hundreds of ships and claim thousands of lives. Congress approved a necklace of lighthouses designed to guide captains to safety.
There are 30 lighthouses in Florida, most of them more than 100 years old and 20 still hard at work. Six of these sentinels of the sea are open daily to the public. Each is distinctive in appearance and in its history.
The spiral-striped St. Augustine Lighthouse is one of the most scenic light towers in the country. It was built in 1875 and stands 165 feet high. Its light, visible from 21 miles, remains an aid to ships at sea. A climb up its 219 steps rewards a visitor with spectacular views of the Matanzas River, downtown St. Augustine and the Atlantic. Details: 904-829-0745; www.stauglight.com.
Stephen Crane made the Ponce Inlet Lighthouse famous in his story "The Open Boat," which remains one of the best of American short stories ever written. At 175 feet, it is the second-tallest lighthouse in the United States. During its construction in 1886, the tower was rocked by an earthquake in Charleston, S.C., almost 350 miles away. Cracks from the quake can still be seen. The lighthouse, off State Road A1A south of Daytona Beach, was completed in 1887. The lighthouse is closed for renovation but should reopen in early June. Details: 904-761-1821; www.ponceinlet.org.
Civil engineer George G. Meade designed at least four lighthouses in Florida in the 1850s, all of which remain in operation. Meade's lighthouse at Jupiter Inlet in northern Palm Beach County was lit in 1860. Only three years later, Meade was commanding the Army of the Potomac in the Civil War. He defeated Robert E. Lee at Gettysburg in what is generally considered the turning point of the war. The red tower stands 146 feet above the sea, making its light visible for 25 miles. Details: 561-747-8380.
The Cape Florida lighthouse on the southern tip of Key Biscayne, built in 1846, is the oldest structure in Dade County. The original lighthouse was built in 1825 but destroyed in 1836 when a keg of gunpowder exploded after Seminoles attacked the keeper and his assistant. Few lighthouses are surrounded by such natural beauty as the white-sand beach and blue waters of Biscayne Bay and the Atlantic Ocean. In Bill Baggs Cape Florida State Recreation Area. Details: 305-361-5811.
The Key West Lighthouse has been taken off active duty, but visitors can climb its spiral steps and tour the keeper's house, now a museum. A previous lighthouse was wiped out during a hurricane in 1846, killing 14 people who had taken shelter inside. Details: 305-294-0012.
Boca Grande Lighthouse on Gasparilla Island, north of Fort Myers, reopened to the public two years ago, thanks to the work of preservationists. Gasparilla Island State Recreation Area, site of the 1890 lighthouse, is open daily. Details: 941-964-0375.
To request a brochure on the Florida lighthouse trail, call 888-735-2872. Web sites for Florida lighthouses include dhr.dos.state.fl.us/maritime/index.html , floridalighthouses.org and users.erols.com/lthouse/cfhs.htm.
In their old age, battlefields are lovely places. Having earned their fame in the violence of war, they retire to a life of serenity as hallowed ground.
So it is with Olustee, site of the largest Civil War battle in Florida. The piney woods are quiet except for weekend visitors to a nearby lake known as Ocean Pond. But on Feb. 20, 1864, about 5,500 Union soldiers met a Confederate force of equal size. More than 2,800 men, including almost 2,000 federal troops, were killed or wounded during one day of horrific fighting. In the evening, Union troops withdrew in defeat.
Union forces had arrived in Jacksonville two weeks earlier with several objectives: cut crucial Confederate supply lines of salt and cattle, recruit black soldiers and establish a pro-Union state government. They failed at all three.
Among the Union troops were three regiments of black soldiers: the 1st North Carolina Colored Infantry, the 8th U.S. Colored Infantry and the 54th Massachusetts Colored Infantry. The 54th was made famous in the 1989 movie Glory, which starred Denzel Washington and Morgan Freeman.
Black troops suffered heavy losses in the daylong battle but are credited with preventing the Union defeat from becoming a complete rout.
Olustee Battlefield State Historic Site is12 miles east of Lake City in north Florida. There is a small museum, trails, cannons and a monument. It is open Thursdays through Mondays; 904-752-3866. Every February, the Battle of Olustee is re-enacted.
Details of the battle and the site are available at several Web sites: dhr.dos.state.fl.us/museum/civwar/17.html and www.cr.nps.gov/goldcres/sites/olust.htm and extlab7.entnem.ufl.edu/olustee/events.html.
Not far from Tallahassee is another Civil War site, the Natural Bridge Battlefield. During a three-day battle in March 1865, a thin Confederate force supplemented by men and boys from Tallahassee held off several hundred Union troops. Their success meant that Florida's capital was the only one in the Deep South to escape occupation by federal forces. Natural Bridge Battlefield State Historic Site is open daily. Details: 850-922-6007; abfla.com/parks/NaturalBridge.
As he led 107 men through the pine woods on the fifth day of a march from Fort Brooke (Tampa) to Fort King (Ocala), Army Maj. Francis L. Dade had no inkling that he was about to enter Florida history. But during those waning days of 1835, 180 Seminole warriors had been watching Dade and his men as they marched. The Seminoles were resisting the U.S. government's removal policy that sought to send them to Oklahoma.
With most of the march behind him and the terrain more open, the cautious Dade relaxed his guard and tried to cheer his men during the morning of Dec. 28. "Our difficulties and dangers are over now," he told them.
The words weren't long from his lips when a bullet ripped into Dade's heart, killing him instantly and knocking him from the saddle of his horse. The first volley at close range from the Seminoles -- who were led by Halpatter Tustenuggee, known as Alligator to whites, and Ote Emathla, whom the whites called Jumper -- killed half of Dade's detachment.
When the attack ended eight hours later, only three soldiers survived. They made their way back to Fort Brooke. Three Seminoles were killed and five wounded. The battle marked the beginning of the Second Seminole War.
The visitor center holds artifacts, exhibits and memorabilia from the battle. A trail leads to monuments and a replica of a log barricade erected by the soldiers. The remains of Dade and his men are buried at a military cemetery in St. Augustine beneath two pyramid-shaped monuments.
It took several weeks for news of the battle to reach Tallahassee, where the territorial assembly was meeting. Delegates had agreed to create a new county in southern Florida but hadn't reached a final decision on a name. When they learned of the fate of Dade and his men, the name for the new county became obvious to them.
Dade Battlefield Historic State Park in Bushnell is open daily. The annual re-enactment of the battle is scheduled this year for Dec. 29 and 30. Details: 352-793-4781; abfla.com/parks/DadeBattlefield.
Welcome to the no-duh segment of our historical tour. If you haven't spent a weekend in St. Augustine, what are you waiting for? A personal invitation from the king of Spain?
During a couple of days in this charming and authentic town, you can do all of the following: Learn a great deal about Florida's Spanish history and beyond, have a marvelous time without the need for a car and not spend a lot of money.
St. Augustine was founded by the Spanish in 1565. Except for two decades around the time of the American Revolution, the Spanish owned the place until 1819. (Which means, by the way, that Florida has not been American for as long as it was Spanish.)
The town is delightful, but don't forget to take your skepticism with you: Believe only half of what you hear: Tour guides and attraction workers don't let the facts stand in the way of good fiction. Take a tour on a horse-drawn carriage. Stroll through the historic district.
If you do nothing else, spend an hour or two at Castillo de San Marcos, the huge stone fort on Matanzas Bay. Join a ranger-led tour.
The Spanish, who knew a threat when they saw it -- especially if it was wrapped in the Union Jack, built the fort as a reaction to the founding of Charleston, S.C., by the British in 1670. Work started in 1672, but it took 23 years to finish the thing and ended up costing twice the original estimate. It was made with blocks of coquina, stone formed from the shells of sea creatures.
History fills the fort. Take your time to absorb it. As you walk, be aware that you are treading in the footsteps of 17th century Spanish soldiers and citizens, Timucuan Indians (who helped build the fort) of the same period and British soldiers of the 18th century. Three signers of the Declaration of the Independence were imprisoned in the fort during the American Revolution, when the British ran the town. Later, Seminole leaders, including the great Osceola, were held inside its walls by the United States.
Although the fort is undergoing renovations, it remains open daily. Details: 904-829-6506, ext. 234; www.nps.gov/casa/index.htm.
Also visit the Cathedral of St. Augustine, on Cathedral Place, facing the downtown plaza, and the Gonzalez-Alvarez House, known as the Oldest House, on St. Francis Street. The cathedral is the oldest church in Florida, dating to 1797. The Gonzalez-Alvarez House goes back to perhaps 1702, although wooden homes had been built on the same spot as early as 1650.
Flagler College, in the center of the city, started life in 1888 as the Ponce de Leon Hotel, the first great resort hotel in Florida. A Spanish Renaissance masterpiece, it remains one of the most impressive buildings in Florida, stately and dignified. Inside are 79 magnificent Tiffany windows, including 42 in the huge dining hall. Tours of the hotel are conducted during the summer when classes are out.
In a historic sense, Florida is upside-down: The northern part of the state, from Jacksonville to Pensacola, is the most Southern, especially the small towns.
Monticello, east of Tallahassee in Jefferson County, oozes Southern charm. The county was established in 1827, only six years after the United States took possession of Florida from Spain. After Florida became a state in 1845, its first governor, William Moseley, was a Jefferson County planter.
The Monticello Historic District contains 43 buildings in 27 blocks, including several houses that date back to the 1830s and 1840s.
In the center of town sits the Jefferson County Courthouse, a regular whippersnapper for Monticello, seeing as how it dates back only to 1909. Amazingly, the neoclassical structure has changed very little in its in 92 years. The chief reason is the odd fact that the county has fewer residents now than in 1909 -- 13,000 compared with 17,000.
In the courtrooms, much of the original oak furniture remains, including judges' benches and jury boxes. There are four chimneys with three fireplaces each, and two stout pot-bellied stoves, used to heat the courtrooms, are displayed. The floors are pine and ceramic tile.
Nearby in the business district, the Monticello News Building dates to 1859, when a subscription to the weekly newspaper cost $2 a year. Register's Barber Shop and Jackson Drug-Harris Grocery were built in the 1870s, and the Simmons Drugstore goes back to 1853.
Among the houses you can visit, the Wirick-Simmons House is a Greek Revival beauty, built by Adam Wirick, a Methodist circuit rider, in 1833. It now serves as the museum and headquarters for the Jefferson County Historical Society, which offers tours twice a year. The society also owns the Christian Bless House that was built in 1852. At the time, Christian Bless owned a hotel and livery stable in town.
The Palmer House, 160-years-old, enjoys new life as a bed-and-breakfast inn. It was constructed by builder and businessman John Palmer, and remained in the family for 119 years.
A wonderful Web site filled with details is co.jefferson.fl.us/history/places.html.
Fort Pickens and Old Christ Church
Pensacola often gets the short end of the history stick when Florida sites are the topic. But the city's history goes back to 1559, six years before St. Augustine was founded, when Spaniard Tristan de Luna established a colony. The colony lasted only two years, however, denying Pensacola a unique place in history.
Still, the city boasts numerous historic sites. Two are especially notable: One is a place of war, the other, a place of peace.
Fort Pickens, on the western tip of Santa Rosa Island, guards the entrance to Pensacola harbor. In the early 19th century, the Napoleonic Wars in Europe made Congress nervous. Fearing that the country was vulnerable to foreign attack, lawmakers approved the construction of a string of forts to guard strategic locations.
The first of the Florida forts to be authorized was Fort Pickens. It supplemented Fort McRee, Fort Barrancas and the Pensacola Navy Yard, all on the mainland. More than 21 million bricks went into its construction, which lasted from 1829 to 1833. The five-sided fort covered 7 acres and was armed with 100 cannons.
On Jan. 10, 1861, the same day that Florida seceded from the Union, federal troops moved into Fort Pickens and held it throughout the Civil War. On two occasions during the war, Union troops in Fort Pickens and Confederate soldiers in Fort McRee and the Pensacola Navy Yard lobbed thousands of artillery rounds at each other. The violence of the attacks shook houses and shops in Pensacola.
Fort Pickens is part of the Gulf Islands National Seashore and is open daily. Details: 850-934-2600. The Web site dhr.dos.state.fl.us/maritime/forts/forts.cfm contains information about Fort Pickens and other forts in Florida.
From a house of war, we move to a house of worship.
Old Christ Church, the second-oldest church in Florida, has been reborn. Thanks to a $1 million restoration and the tireless work of the Rev. Matt Currin, the church hasn't looked this good in, oh, 120 years.
The 20th century was not kind to the building. After beginning life as an Episcopal Church in 1832, then being renovated in 1879, the church was abandoned in 1903. It was deconsecrated in 1935. The city used the building for several decades, first as the city library, then as a history museum.
By '95, the building was in sad shape. But the next year, Currin formed a foundation and saw to the church's restoration. People of all faiths donated $700,000 toward the work and the state contributed $307,000.
No longer a church with a congregation, Old Christ Church nonetheless serves as a stately and dignified reminder of Florida in the early 19th century. The Spanish Renaissance beauty is a centerpiece of historic Seville Square and a popular stop on daily tours conducted by Historic Pensacola.
Old Christ Church is busy in its new life, constantly in use for concerts, recitals, lectures and weddings of all faiths. Details: Historic Pensacola, 850-595-5985, ext. 100; www.christchurchpns.org/oldcc.htm.
One of the great homes of Florida was built on Sarasota Bay in the 1920s by John and Mable Ringling. By then, John Ringling was the only survivor of five brothers who had built a circus empire.
The Ringling castle, called Ca' d'Zan, which means "House of John" in the Venetian dialect, is spectacular and ostentatious. But what did you expect from a circus czar -- subtlety? One of Mable Ringling's favorite buildings was the Doge's Palace in Venice, so she made sure many of the palace's features were used in her house.
The house was built with terra-cotta blocks, bricks and poured concrete. Most of the decorations are made of terra cotta with glazed finishes in soft red, yellow, blue, green and ivory. The building is 200 feet long and contains 30 rooms and 14 baths. A 2 1/2 -story roofed court serves as the main living room. Columns, doorways, arched windows with tinted glass were brought from Italy, along with decorative accents, all in the Venetian Renaissance style.
The mansion cost about $1.5 million, plus $400,000 for the furnishings and artwork. It has been closed for seven years for restoration; if all goes well, the renewed Ca' d'Zan will reopen to the public in December. Details: 941-359-5700; ringling.org.
Two other "castles" in Florida are Whitehall, built in Palm Beach by developer Henry Flagler, and Vizcaya, the Deering estate in Miami.
Industrialist James Deering built his replica of an Italian Renaissance palace in 1916, a time when Miami was just a burg. The three-story mansion contains 70 rooms filled with furnishing and decorative arts from the 15th century through the 19th century, and features 10 acres of formal gardens. Vizcaya Museum and Gardens is open daily 9:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. Details: 305-250-9133; metro-dade.com/parks.
Henry Flagler was one of the founders of Standard Oil, but ranks as one of the most important figures in Florida history as the developer of the state's east coast. When his Palm Beach mansion was completed in 1902, the New York Herald described it as "the Taj Mahal of North America." Its 55 rooms cover 60,000 square feet and reflect the opulence, grandeur and excessiveness of the Gilded Age. The Henry Morrison Flagler Museum in Palm Beach, also known as Whitehall, is open Tuesday through Sunday. Details: 561-655-2833; flagler.org.