Sunday, October 12, 2014

Built by pioneers, maintained by faith

My first house was a 1947 wood frame bungalow in Orlando. Despite my best efforts, every year I had to replace pieces of wood siding. My current house, built in 1924, has fared better because its cypress cladding is covered with layer of ugly, yet durable vinyl siding. Yet I still have had to replace my wonderful Old Florida dock, the floor boards on my porch require constant maintenance, and wooden planter boxes seem to melt before my eyes. It's hard to preserve wood structures in the sub tropical climate of Florida.

Many of the grand historical buildings from that era built out of wood have been lost – enormous resort hotels, elegant Victorian mansions, and early commercial buildings have all burned, been torn down, or simply left to rot. The last grand wooden resort hotel of the railroad age, the Belleview Biltmore in Bellaire near Clearwater, seems doomed.

So I am thrilled when I find structures that were built before the Civil War at a time when the state was sparsely populated and only hardy souls could stick it out in this swampy land of mosquitoes and high humidity. Many of these buildings are churches whose congregations lovingly maintained and cared for their houses of worships for decades. Like the lovely St. Mary's in Green Cove Springs, St. Marks Episcopal Church in Palatka has been around since the middle of the 19th century. Also a board and batten Carpenter Gothic design, the church is a few blocks from Judge Isaac Bronson's Sunny Point mansion. Bronson, as well as Judge James Burt and Florida's first Governor William Dunn Mosely, were instrumental in the creation of the church in 1854-55. Before the Civil War, services were only held during the cooler winter months, evidence of Palatka's status a riverside resort destination for Northerners. During the War the church was occupied by Union troops who are said to have damaged the structure. The church received full parish status in 1873 and was added to the National Historic Register in 1973.

From the State Archives of Florida

From the State Archives of Florida

From the State Archives of Florida

In addition to St. Mark's and the Bronson-Mulholland House, Palatka's Northern Historic District has other wonderful Victorian-era homes. As the owner of a wood frame house, I understand the commitment it takes to maintain an older home. I am thankful for the loving caretakers of these windows to Florida's past.

Photo by Ebyabe

Photo by Ebyabe

Houses of Palatka's North Historic District

Thursday, October 9, 2014

Sunny Point on the St. Johns

One of the statements that makes me bristle is when someone says "Florida doesn't have any history." Florida has a rich, colorful history but often you have to know it's there to find it. Case in point is Sunny Point, now known as the Bronson-Mullholand House in Palatka. From the perspective of this former Gainesville resident, Palatka was the town on the way to something else: our weekend retreat in Welaka, Crescent Beach or even St. Augustine. We would often stop and eat at Holiday House or Sonny's BBQ, but never linger. Only as an adult have I taken the time to take a longer look at this little gem on the St. Johns River and subsequently learn about its fascinating past.

One of the founders of Palatka was Judge Isaac H. Bronson. Bronson was a New York attorney and member of the U.S .Congress who was appointed to be circuit judge of East Florida. When Florida joined the Union as a state in 1845, Bronson was appointed as one of four circuit judges for the state. Bronson purchased a 1,220 acre plot of land in Palatka and later sold part off keeping the portion known as "Sunny Point" where he built his estate.

Infographic © Old Florida- photo by Ebyabe
Sadly the Judge died one year after the completion of the Simplified Greek Revival Style house and his wife Sophronia returned to the North during the Civil War. Before the war, however, Sunny Point was said to be the center of social activities in Palatka. Both Confederate and Union troops used the home as a lookout during the war.

Charlotte Henry White occupied the house after the Bronsons and after the war it was used by the Freedmen's Union Commission as a school for former enslaved people. When Mrs. White's husband fell into ill health, Mrs. White hired Mary Mulholland as a live-in nurse. After years of taking care of the Whites, Ms. Mulholland became heir to Sunny Point after Mrs. White's death in 1904.

Mary Mulholland and her adopted daughter, Edelmira were owners of the mansion until after World War II when it was subdivided into apartments. By 1965 the house had fallen into a sad state and it was sold to the City of Palatka. The heroic restoration efforts by the Putnam County Historical Society allowed the the house to be opened by the public in 1977.

The windows were designed so that they could function as doorways when the panels beneath them were opened. The house has ten fireplaces.

Many of the furnishings are appropriate to the Victorian period of the house's history.

Followers of this blog will know of my bizarre obsession with taxidermy.
This house is full of wonderfully quirky pieces created by Frank Sands.

The house has lovely details throughout.

While heavily modified during its days as apartments, the Putnam County Historical Society
 has worked diligently to return the house to its former glory.

Some of the home's original furnishing were donated
by Mary Mulholland's adopted daughter Edelmira.

It was a brilliant sunny day when I pulled up to Sunny Point with the fellow members of what I have dubbed the Florida Road Trip. Our guide Phil Eschbach was very familiar with the home and Judge Bronson's place in Florida history. The docent was enthusiastic and knowledgeable and did an excellent job of giving us just the right amount of information in each room. The house is modest in comparison to over-the-top mansions like Stetson House or Henry Flagler's White Hall. But few homes in Florida are this old, with this much history. This is a place where soldiers of both sides in the Civil War once resided. A place constructed from virgin stands of ancient cypress floated up the St. John's River. When it was built, Florida had only been a state for nine years.

If you want history, go to Palatka, they serve it there sunny side up!

Monday, October 6, 2014

Elegance for sale: Ferncourt in San Mateo Florida

I recently read the following passage in "Mr. Flagler's St. Augustine" by Thomas Graham.
Below Palatka, on the east bank of the St. Johns River, a handful of hearty pioneers had established extensive orange groves. They shipped their fruit out by way of steamboats, but they also wanted a link to Flagler's railroad. Back in March a group of San Mateo citizens had called upon Flagler in St. Augustine and invited him to come down to see the extent of their enterprises. Flagler took them up on their offer, and when they petitioned him for a rail extension and offered to give him land for a right-of-way, he agreed to run a four-mile spur to their village. 
Flagler was so enamored with the little settlement of San Mateo that he purchased two orange groves there, and according to Graham, on New Years Eve Flagler brought the entire population of the town to St. Augustine to celebrate at his ornate Hotel Ponce de Leon.

Florida East Coast Railroad engine #10 and crew, State Archives of Florida

Ralph Crosby, Martha Webster Crosby, maid, and dogs, State Archives of Florida

Railroad freight depot, circa 1891, State Archives of Florida

View in grove of San Mateo Fruit Co., State Archives of Florida

Some facts about San Mateo:
• Located 5 miles south of Palatka on the east side of the St. Johns River, it is the highest point on that side of the river at 85 feet above the waterline
• The town was named after the first settler Mateo Simeon Solana, a Minorcan from St. Augustine
• In 1880 San Mateo had 400 acres of citrus groves
• San Mateo's biggest proponent was Henry Flagler, who supposedly started the San Mateo Cigar Company and offered free lots in San Mateo to anyone who purchased 1,000 cigars*

* From “A Historic Tour Guide to Palatka and Putnam County Florida” written and compiled by Susan Clark

There were three hotels in San Mateo, and my trip to this now unincorporated area in Putnam County was to see the one known as Ferncourt. Ferncourt was built in 1889 by Massachusetts residents Henry B. Bailey and Larkin Trull. Bailey, who was involved with the Boston and Lowell Railroad, helped talk railroad magnate Henry Flagler into running the railroad spur into San Mateo. Bailey was a broker for citrus grown in the area and both shipping and packing of citrus occurred in close proximity to Ferncourt.

Ferncourt was the center of social activity in San Mateo with a large third floor ballroom, perfect for formal dances and spectacular parties, plus it had the area's only tennis courts. The elegant mansion even hosted President and Mrs. Theodore Roosevelt in 1905.
After World War II, Ferncourt was divided into several apartments and later became a retirement home. After more than a decade of sitting vacant the Victorian beauty was restored in 1989 by Mr. and Mrs. Jack Morgan. It was most recently a bed and breakfast, (see photos below), but it is currently for sale. Anyone out there wanting a 7 bedroom, 9 bathroom piece of Old Florida history should jump on this opportunity!

Much thanks to our Florida Road Trip guide Phil Eschbach and Amanda Baird Schmidt for their assistance in creating this post.

Sunday, October 5, 2014

Bok Bliss

Today was the first day this Fall where there was a little nip in the air, and the cold front that went through yesterday sucked up all the humidity leaving gorgeous cerulean blue skies. I was fortunate enough to spend my afternoon at one of the loveliest locations in Florida, Bok Tower Gardens. After a popular run all summer at Bok Tower, my Finding the Fountain of Youth exhibit came down Thursday and I had to transport it back to Orlando. When I installed the exhibit the weather was so rainy and overcast I never left the visitors center. Today was the exact opposite, so much so that every moment inside felt like crime against nature.

Here's a plaque from the gardens:

"The kiss of the sun for pardon
The song of the birds for mirth
One is nearer to God's heart in the garden
Than anywhere else on earth"
– Dorothy Gurney

Friday, October 3, 2014

Ghost town in the woods: Kerr City

The Fort Gates Ferry ferry landed us near Salt Springs, another place I had not been since I was a kid, but that was not our destination. Instead we stopped at a ghost town known as Kerr City. Now private property, Phil knew the owner from a previous tour and was familiar with the site. No trespassing signs are prevalent throughout the small hamlet in an effort to discourage visitors and prevent vandalism.

An overgrown dirt road takes you to a collection of wooden houses and what is said to be the state's oldest gas station. Kerr City, a former stagecoach stop, was platted in 1884 at the site of a former Civil War cotton plantation. The town was a prosperous citrus farming community with a population of 100, until the legendary freezes of 1894 and 1895. Today the entire town is owned by the great grandson of its founder, 14 buildings in all. On the National Register of Historic Places, some of the buildings are well cared while others look to be slowly melting back into the soil.

According to wikipedia, the Kerr House Hotel was built by Junis Terry, a well-to-do doctor from Illinois. Opened in 1885, the hotel burned to the ground in 1907.
Image from the State Archives of Florida. 
The post office was in operation from 1884 to 1942 (wikipedia). Photo by Ebyabe.

View of the site of the new town, 1885 from the State Archives of Florida
Here's view from 1886 of the Robert B. Henley home from the State Archives of Florida
Here's a great view from 1884 of a double pen Florida Cracker cabin. The open area in the center is known as the dogtrot. State Archives of Florida.

Kerr's City's founder, George Smiley, continued to live in the Marion County Community after the disastrous freezes at the end of the 19th century, and by 1955 the entire town was in the possession of his son Alfred. Today Alfred's aging grandson Arthur is heir to the town and he does his best to keep it intact. On our visit we ran into neighbors who acted as volunteer caretakers, doing their best to keep the forest from finishing off the remnants of Kerr City.

Dating back to 1925, this may be the oldest gas station in Florida

Thursday, October 2, 2014

Historic Crossing: The Fort Gates Ferry

The opportunity was too good to pass up: a two and a half day road trip with Florida history expert Phil Eschbach and Authentic Florida's Robin Draper. I've not had much time to explore the state I love during my home renovation, so I decided to join my friends at the Ft. Gates Ferry in Welaka on a beautiful Sunday morning.

Although the Ft. Gates Ferry is just a few miles from where I spent much of my childhood, (we had a weekend place in Welaka), I'd never made the journey on its deck across the St. Johns River. Originating from a small fish camp west of Crescent City, the ferry can take two cars at a time and is powered by wonderful vintage watercraft dubbed the "Too Wendy." The fee is $10 a vehicle, but the trip not only takes you across the river, but back in time as well.  The ferry at this location was first put into use to transport troops across the river in the Seminole Indian Wars almost 200 years ago. Florida's oldest ferry, it is also the only ferry in the state that is privately operated. Word has it that major modifications to the facilities surrounding the ferry are in the near future, including paving the long dirt road through the Ocala National Forest on the west side of the ferry's route. Coming in from Crescent City on the east side, I noticed a huge housing development that didn't exist just a few years ago. 

Robin snaps pictures while the ferryman raises the ramp.

The small fish camp from where the ferry departs is real Old Florida.

A houseboat anchored on the western shore.

With Southern Gospel music blaring on a boom box, Sunday service for these folks was on the banks of the mighty St. Johns...
Collecting payment at the journey's end.

The Two Wendy is connected to the barge via a trailer hitch, which allows it to rotate 180 degrees so it can make the journey in both directions.

We were told that this dirt road on the western shore is to be paved.

The ferry landed us near Salt Springs, another place I had not been since I was a kid, but we didn't stop. I hope to return again soon. Although the ferry is really just a way to transport you from one side of the river to the next, it in itself is a remarkable destination.