Saturday, February 25, 2012

Return to the Ocklawaha

I have many great memories from childhood of the Ocklawaha River. My favorite is my epic battle with a longnose gar – the prehistoric fish pulling yards of mono filament from my Zebco reel as it struggled to escape. Fishing for bass with shiners, I had instead hooked this toothed beast and my arms soon ached as the giant fish fought valiantly. I got him close enough to the boat for my fellow anglers to see him, but eventually he escaped and I was left with nothing but a fish tale for my efforts. I've always imagined that gar as big as me, with giant sharp teeth, still prowling the river in order to torment unsuspecting kids. He was my white whale.

Sometimes we would take out boat up the river all the way to dam. The closer you got to the dam, the clearer the water became and in addition to the gar you could see a huge variety of aquatic life including giant channel catfish larger than cats! We would find a shallow area to tie our boat up, eat a picnic and swim in the crystal clear water. Little did I know this wonderful, wild river had a rich history.

The river flows north from Lake Griffin to the St. Johns River near Welaka, Florida. The major tributary of the river is the Silver River, which is formed from the outflow of Silver Springs. In the 19th century steamboats with paddle wheels set inboard, (to accommodate the narrow width of the river), brought tourists up the Ocklawaha from Palatka to Silver Springs. The popular journey attracted the celebrities of the era including former U.S. President Ulysses S. Grant, Thomas Edison, Harriet Beecher Stowe and Mary Todd Lincoln. Eventually rail service supplanted steamboats as the main method of transportation in Florida and steamboat traffic on the Ocklawaha vanished.

In the 1960s work began on the Cross Florida barge canal, an effort to bisect the state with a waterway that would allow barges to cross from the Gulf of Mexico to the Atlantic Ocean (from Crystal River on the Gulf to the St. Johns River and ultimately the Atlantic in Jacksonville.) In 1968 the Ocklawaha was dammed in Putnam County to create a 9,600 acre pool that would allow barges to float after coming through a lock on a canal that connected to the St. Johns. In 1971 President Richard Nixon pulled the plug on the barge canal due to environmental concerns raised by Marjorie Carr and a group called Florida Defenders of the Environment.

Archival images from the State Archives of Florida

Today the dam and pool remain and Rodman Reservoir has become one of the top freshwater fishing areas in Florida. Controversy has arisen between those who wish to see the river restored to its natural course and those who wish to continue to use the pool for recreational purposes. Proponents of maintaining the dam argue that the reservoir is one of the most utilized recreational waterways in the state, pumping millions of dollars into the Marion and Putnam County economies. They fear that restoring the river will destroy the prolific fishing opportunities and hurt local economies.

Proponents of restoring the river maintain that removing the dam, and draining the pool would allow about twenty springs, now submerged beneath tons of water, to reemerge. They argue that the restoration of the river would in turn provide additional economic benefits and fishing will still be good on the river while at the same time increasing the "biodiversity of fish." They believe that removing the dam will also allow manatees to seek refuge in the the warm waters of Silver Spring during the cold winter months. They also point to economic savings created by the removing the need to maintain the dam and nearby lock. And most importantly they see the river as an "inter-connected complex system" that contributes to the overall health of the St. John River ecosystem.

Last weekend I attended an event called the Rally for the River organized by the Putnam County Environmental Council, mainly to see Rodman pool during its draw down phase, as every four years the water level is lowered to kill aquatic weeds. As a result, a graveyard of cypress tree stumps emerge, unseen springs bubble up and thousands of waterbirds are drawn to feed along the shores. The rally was held at a park below the dam, where the river still remains wild in its original condition. The event featured short talks by noted scientists, exhibits, art & crafts, boat rides, live music and hikes into the Ocala National Forest. The highlight for me was the boat ride, a return to the river I have such fond childhood memories of. Because it was overcast, it was difficult to see down to the river's sandy bottom. But in this abnormally warm winter, much of the plant life along the riverbanks was already green, but not nearly as dense as it will be in summer. The boat captain pointed out the stump of a huge old Cypress and had visual props for teaching about the river's history and ecology.

I wish I had known about this stuff as a kid. I appreciate it much more now, even though this was my first trip on the river in probably 30 years. And I noticed that there were people fishing on both sides of the dam, on the reservoir side and on the side that hadn't been altered by man. While the type of fishing would change should the dam be removed, there would still be plenty of angling opportunities on a restored Ocklawaha. I think what is important is that the river be preserved, in as close to its natural state as possible, for future kids to enjoy so they can create their own fish stories. And maybe some lucky kid can finally land that giant gar who is probably still swimming in those historic waters.

Captain Karen explains how insect larvae in the aquatic Spatterdock
plant can be used as fishing bait

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Mid-century mermaids in Florida

I am a big fan of the folks at Vintage Roadside, because they work tirelessly to preserve the memories of small mom-and-pop roadside businesses that would otherwise be lost. For instance, I'd never heard of The Atomic Tunnel in Daytona Beach until I saw Vintage Roadside's colorful shirt of the short-lived roadside attraction. In addition to creating fantastic t-shirts and wonderful roadside photography, they have delved into some of the topics they are passionate about to the extent that they have become experts. Last year I attended a packed presentation at Hukilau on Aquarama, a mermaid themed attraction near the Lake of the Ozarks in Missouri.

Jeff and Kelly's thorough work investigating Aquarama, led them down the path to researching the origins of the mid-century fad of mermaid performances, which in turn led them to learning about other underwater performances. Their knowledge of this fascinating, obscure bit of Americana has led to an upcoming presentation called "Mid-Century Mermaids: A History" to be given this month at Palm Springs' Modernism Week in California. Because so much of the history of mermaid and underwater performances is linked to Florida, I decided to try to glean some knowledge from Vintage Roadside's Jeff Kunkle to try to gain more understanding about this interesting aspect of our state's past. Jeff kindly responded to my questions and even provided some images to boot!

Jeff Kunkle, left, at last year's Hukilau

Q. Do you now who the first underwater mermaid performer was? Or what is the history of underwater mermaid performance (in a nutshell)?

We've spent quite a bit of time researching the history behind the mermaid shows and it's really interesting to see how they evolved over the years. In the early 1940s there were surface shows such as Billy Rose's Aquacade and Sam Snyder's Water Follies which led to the underwater ballets of the early 1950s at places like the Marlin Beach Hotel and the New Everglades, and finally in the 1960s the mermaid shows of Weeki Wachee and Aquarena Springs boomed.

For the 1950s you almost need a flow chart as many of the Florida performers would bounce between underwater shows at one of the hotels, to performing at Weeki Wachee, or even appearing in one of the diving and swim shows put on by the big hotels in Miami for their guests.

Publicity photo for Sam Snyder's Water Follies from Vintage Roadside

Archival Weeki Wachee image from the State Archives of Florida

Q. Other than Weeki Wachee, what other places might you have seen mermaid performances or water shows in mid-century Florida?

Florida had so many fantastic places to see not only mermaid shows, but also water shows of all types. You could catch the Bahama Belles at Rainbow Springs, go upscale at the Eden Roc, the Fontainebleau, or the New Everglades, put on your own underwater show at the Craft Motel, the El Sombrero, or the Holiday Inn - all of which offered porthole views into their pools, or head up to the 4th floor and talk with the mermaids at Webb's City. If you were drawing a treasure map for underwater performances, Florida would have had a big "X" on it!

Poolside at Miami's Eden Roc Hotel, image from the State Archives of Florida

Vintage postcard from Webb's City in St. Pete

Q. Last year I enjoyed my first trip to see Marina perform at the Wreck Bar, are there any other porthole bars like that left?

There are still a few, but sadly not nearly the number there were in the 1960s. We're actually working on a "Five Favorites" for the SCA where we'll list our tips on places to still see a mermaid show. If you'd like to enjoy a cocktail with your mermaid show you can't beat Marina and her pod at the Wreck Bar in Ft. Lauderdale on Friday nights, you'll find the mermaids swimming at the Sip 'n Dip in Great Falls, MT Wednesday through Saturday, and in Sacramento, CA, you can catch mermaids several nights a week at the Dive Bar.

Kelly (Mrs. Roadside), far left, with Marina & her pod from Vintage Roadside

Marina performing in the Wreck Bar from Vintage Roadside

Members of Marina's pod at Ft. Lauderdale's Wreck Bar

Q. Why do you think mermaid performers in the 20th century were do popular? Why do you think mermaid performances captivate us today? Is it the kitsch factor?

The 1960s just seem to be one of those pop culture moments that are hard to pin down. So many of the things we personally love seemed to reach their peak in the 1960s - bowling alleys, drive in theaters, roadside attractions of every type, etc. We have several theories why the 1960s were the perfect time for mermaids and mermaid attractions to catch the imaginations of people, but we still don’t have what we'd consider a definitive answer after all these years. Rather than feeling frustrated by not yet coming up with a satisfying answer, the fact that we haven’t pinned down the exact reason is one of the mysteries that compels us to keep researching, collecting, and most importantly, gathering as many stories from those that swam in the shows as we can.

One of the things that we find fascinating about mermaid performances is that you've got someone whose job is just so completely unique we can't help but wonder what that must be like. There aren't many out there that can list "mermaid" on their resume! Talking with many of the gals that performed in the 1950s and 1960s they still consider it the best job they ever had. That's pretty amazing when you can look back to one of your first jobs and still remember it as the best. Thinking back to our first jobs, they pretty much stunk. :-)

Vintage Florida mermaid brochure

Q. How did you get involved with this project?

We've always loved hearing people's stories and it's become a bit of a quest to get in touch with as many former aquatic performers as we can. For most of the people we talk with it's been 50 or so years since they performed, and many times they were just high school kids, but it's amazing how the memories tend to come rushing right back when we talk with them. Sometimes it's been decades since they talked about those days, and it's always so cool to call them and be the first one to ask about the show after all these years. Usually there's a long pause and then you can almost hear the smile over the phone line as everything comes back.

Q. What was your biggest discovery?

It probably sounds like such a little thing, but it's the old 1964 Aquarama brochure we found several years ago. It was one of those pieces that for whatever reason we found at just the right time to really catch our curiosity and it started us down the path of researching old mermaid and aquatic shows. Here we are years later (and 1000's of hours worth or research later) and we've heard some incredible stories, met so many wonderful people, and best of all, made some great friends. We can't wait to see who we find next!

1964 Aquarama brochure from Vintage Roadside

Q. What was your source for most of your images?

We love old ephemera and photos and have been collecting for several years now. So, we always start with our own archive and go from there. In the last few years several local newspapers have decided to do away with their physical photo archives. It's a shame to see these archives broken up, but the one silver lining seems to be these photos now tend to show up for sale online, where as in the past they may have just been thrown out. We're always watching to see if anything from the old mermaid shows or hotels pop up.

For our upcoming Modernism Week presentation we started with around 500 images and edited down to fit the time allowance. We also were provided with some great vintage and contemporary images from several of the people and places we'll be talking about in our presentation.

We're thrilled that we were able to work with the State of Florida and Weeki Wachee to present a couple of actual items used in their 1960s shows on display. It's an incredible and unique opportunity to see a piece of Weeki Wachee history outside of the park.

1967 Weeki Wachee tail from Vintage Roadside

Q. What is your favorite piece of mermaid ephemera?

That's a tough question - kind of like picking a favorite relative! But, we'd probably say it's the original 1964 mermaid tail from the Aquarama in Missouri. Although as soon as we figure out how to get it from Missouri to Oregon, one of the original Aquarama clam shells used by the mermaids in the shows might become the current favorite!

Aquarama tail, top, contrasted with one of Marina's contemporary tails, bottom

Q. I hadn't realized they had mermaids at Rainbow Springs- how come the performance were so short-lived?

We've just gotten started researching the history of Rainbow Springs, but have run across some great promotional photos produced in 1956 featuring a live mermaid. They may have been using some of the other Florida attractions (the mermaids of Weeki Wachee and the Silver Springs underwater photography of Bruce Mozert) as inspiration. The one thing about researching these old attractions is that there's always a "new" mystery to dig in to!

Mermaid, top, and Bahama Belles, bottom, at Rainbow Springs
From the State Archives of Florida

Q. What do you think the future is for underwater mermaid performances?

There's been a bit of a renewed interest in mermaid shows and we'd love to see them continue to gain popularity. We'll probably never match the number of shows offered in the late 1960s, but it's fantastic to know there are still people out there willing to give it a shot. Marina's shows at the Wreck Bar are more popular than ever, the Sip 'n Dip continues rolling along, Weeki Wachee seems to have finally reached stability now that they're a state park, the Dive Bar just celebrated their 1st anniversary, Ripley's Aquarium in Myrtle Beach has hired their own mermaids after the success of the performances by Weeki Wachee guest mermaids, the "former" mermaids at Weeki Wachee put on a show once a month or so, and there's even a wonderful synchronized troupe in Los Angeles called the Aqualillies whose aquatic performances are inspired in part by Esther Williams.

Weeki Wachee mermaid

We hope to see some of you at our all-new Modernism Week presentation on February 24th! We'll be sharing the history behind the mermaid shows of the 1960s, as well as the Aquacade-type shows of the 1940s, the porthole lounges and hotels of the 1950s, and capping the evening off, a fire eating and mermaid performance by none other than Marina the Fire Eating Mermaid! You can learn more about the event at our Facebook page here.

Also, if you've got any stories, photos, or anything else from an old underwater show we'd love to hear from you! You can always reach us through our contact form on our website located here.

Thanks Jeff and good luck!

Friday, February 10, 2012

Remembering the Senator

The January loss of Central Florida's 3,500 year old cypress tree known as the Senator was devastating for lovers of the record-setting tree. The outpouring of sadness from the community was tremendous and the story made the national news and the New York Times. I had no idea that folks cared so much for this behemoth that was already enormous 1,500 years before the birth of Christ. For me it showed that despite the actions of our state and local government, who seem to bend over backwards to allow developers to pave over the state's natural areas, people living here actually do care about the environment. So I found good in the disaster.

The tree, however, is a total loss, and Big Tree Park still remains closed. To honor the beloved tree, I created poster artwork and uploaded it to the Imagekind site to allow people to have a reminder of the great tree. A portion of the proceeds of any sale will be donated to the Friends of the Wekiva River, an organization that works to protect, preserve, and restore the natural functions and beauty of the Wekiva River here in Central Florida. The Wekiva is one of the areas last havens of wildness, and the pressures of development put its natural systems under great stress. In my opinion, it is our responsibility to maintain areas like this for future generations to enjoy.

Now a little about the poster. Based on an image I took of the Senator a few years ago, the piece is designed to look like a vintage travel poster that might have promoted the tree as an attraction around the turn of the century. The letters in the word "Senator" were hand-rendered, based on a vintage font found in a type specimen book. I used to do quite a bit of that in the days before computers. I then scanned in the artwork and re-drew it on the computer in Adobe Illustrator. Other archival elements like banners and corner elements were scanned in from different sources, to create this poster that celebrates the long period of time visitors have been drawn to this wonderful tree.

In addition to making me realize how much people really cared about the tree, the loss motivated me to get out and see some of the places right in my own backyard that I've taken for granted. I thought a tree that stood for 35 centuries would always be there. You never know when that place you've always intended to visit won't be around any more.

Thursday, February 9, 2012

Central Florida's shrine to the Tupperware party

Earl Tupper invented Tupperware, but Brownie Wise brought them to Florida. Wise, a single mom in 1949, moved to Miami at her doctor's advice to help her sick son. Before she moved to South Florida, she sold Stanley Home Products (including Tupperware) through home parties in Detroit. Earl Tupper's innovative plastic containers were slow to move off department store shelves, so when Wise contacted him about a late order, he invited her to meet him and hired her immediately. The company was divided into two parts, the manufacturing division in New England, and Tupperware Home Parties, led by Wise in Florida.

Tupperware's inventor, Earl Tupper

April 1954 issue of Business Week with Brownie Wise on the cover

After a year spent in an airplane hanger in Orlando, Tupperware headquarters opened in 1953 on 1,000 acres in Osceola County next to Gatorland. According to Bob Kealing author of "Tupperware Unsealed: Brownie Wise, Earl Tupper, and the Home Party Pioneers", Wise had a vision for Central Florida, years ahead of Walt Disney, claiming she "really struck on the idea of creating Orlando as a tourism destination, . . . on this idea of Florida as this glamorous place." The Central Florida site became the place where Tupperware sales people could visit for training and was home to the Jubilee, an annual sales convention and celebration.

Vintage postcards of Tupperware World Headquarters

According to "Flashbacks: The Story of Central Florida's Past", Osceola County of the 1950s was "run by a tight group of cattleman and citrus men, wary of outsiders," but Wise
soon won them over. In the early 1960s Tupperware built a state-of-the-art auditorium on their property to hold the Jubilee celebrations, and when I moved to Orlando it was still a widely used concert venue (I've seen everything from a lecture by Marianne Williamson to a concert by Willie Nelson there.) Today the 2,000 seat auditorium is called the Osceola Performing Arts Center and it is home to the Osceola School for the Arts.

Wise's home party direct sales tactics were ideal for Tupperware, as party hosts explained Tupper's patented "burping seal" to intrigued housewives. As a result both Tupperware and Wise had meteoric rises in popularity. The first woman to grace the cover of Business Week magazine, Wise became the role model for her mostly female sales force. Eventually, however, the relationship between Wise and Tupper soured and Wise left the company in 1958 shortly before Tupper sold it. Wise started three Mary Kay-like direct sales cosmetic companies that all ended in failure, and Wise passed away in 1992 in Kissimmee.

Images promoting a space-themed Jubilee in 1960. Apparently the rockets
were painted pastel colors matching Tupperware products.
From the State Archives of Florida

Brownie Wise's legacy lives on at Tupperware World headquarters, with a new exhibit about the history of the Tupperware brand called the Confidence Center. From an original molding machine used to manufacture early bowls, to keepsake collectible Tupperware "Tiny Treasures", this well-designed space traces the evolution of the brand that is now known world-wide. This compact space showcases the development of Tupperware products, themes of past Jubilees and most importantly the international sales force that continues to use Wise's Tupperware party sales methods today. A quote from Wise in the exhibit puts it this way: "If we build the people, they'll build the business."

To learn more about the free exhibit, visit this companion Retro Roadmap blog.