Saturday, October 29, 2011

A cow town, re-created

I'm fasincinated by Osceola County because it has such extreme contrasts. It's where old Florida cattle country collides with the kingdom of the mouse. In Patrick Smith's epic tale of pioneer Florida, "A Land Remembered", the cattle raising protagonist visits Osceola's largest town Kissimmee often, as it was one of the few towns accessible to cowmen in Florida's interior. The cattle industry is still part a big part of life in Kissimmee but its more and more obscured by the glare of the mouse. It's hard to imagine any town in Florida has had as many demographic changes in the last 40 years.

A Cracker homestead in Kissimmee.

Note the whip held by the gentleman in front. Some assert that the crack of the whips
used by Florida Cowmen is where the term "Cracker" comes from.

A Parade in downtown Kissimmee- the Silver Spurs Rodeo
is an on-going Osceola County tradition.
Images from the Florida State Archives.

One of the best ways to get a glimpse into the Florida Cracker lifestyle of the 1800s is at Osceola County's Pioneer Village and Museum. Located surprisingly close to the tourist corridor on 192, this collection of archival buildings is a breath fresh air from the tacky architecture just blocks away. Two old Cracker houses are closest to the road, the Tyson and Lanier homesteads. The Tyson house has been turned into a general store, complete with artifacts from Narcosee's post office. Next door, the Lanier homestead is set up with actual furnishings of the period and one can get a sense of what it must have been like to live in Florida in the late 1800s. On the Fall day I was there, the weather was perfect and it seemed like a pretty good way to live. But I can't imagine what it would be like in the summer.

Another highlight for me was the one-room schoolroom. Complete with books and desks it's very quaint. Other buildings include a wash house, a smoke house, a blacksmith shop, a citrus parking house and a small museum.

Across the street is the Mary Kendall Nature Preserve, part of the Shingle Creek Regional Park. This 78 acre area has boardwalks and trails that leads to 2 more Cracker structures, the restored Stefee homestead and the Caretaker's house. Both were closed on my visit, but the walk was beautiful and serene and I was happy that this little piece of old Florida had been preserved. Visiting the Preserve and the Pioneer Village made for a memorable afternoon and I left with more insight and appreciation for life in nineteenth century Central Florida.

About a hundred yards from the preserve, lies ground zero for Central Florida tourism.

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Kissimmee follow-up

This weekend I returned to the site of some older posts to see what had changed since my initial observations. First I went to the site of the shuffleboard courts of the Kissimmee All State Tourist Club in downtown Kissimmee. The courts were long gone and a new picnic pavilion is almost completed in its place. Part of a larger plan for a new lakeside park, the shuffleboard complex was booted after decades of good times next to the Monument of States. I was surprised to see the area still closed off about a year and a half after my previous visit, with very little lake access remaining for the public. I'm not sure what happened to the members of the KAST club, but it seems like a rather disappointing situation as the park seems stuck in limbo.

In some cases, the neglect of the lakefront park has yielded beautiful results

Next I drove down 192, the tourist corridor leading to Disney. On my previous visit it was easy to see the effects of the recession and Disney's strategy to keep all of their guests on Disney property in Disney hotels. Boarded up businesses were frequent, ugly scars on this busy Osceola County roadway. This weekend I found even more businesses had fallen by the wayside and was surprised that some that some of them appeared to very recently built. In fact, a year and a half ago I noted a brand new A&W Drive-In across from the former location of Xanadu House of the Future. It appears that the Drive-In was one of the victims of the 192 recession and it too now sits vacant.

I found it fascinating that in some places the natural landscape was consuming man made structures. I pulled over at a closed miniature golf course and found it so overgrown that no part of the course was visible from the road. Next door, the Viking Motel, appearing freshly painted, sat empty as its swimming pool area flooded and and the roadside signage disintegrated. While I feel empathy for the business owners and the their former employees, it is kind of nice to see nature making her own land grab, even if it is only temporary.

This is actually the walkway to the pool area


This sign on U.S. 441, sits in front of an overgrown empty lot, pointing at nothing but sky.

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Diggin' West Orange

"We're spending a lot of money on education, and when you look at the results, it's not great," the governor said. "Do you want to use your tax money to educate more people who can't get jobs in anthropology? I don't."- Florida Governor Rick Scott

I find it very ironic that I would be invited to a dig by an anthropologist the same week that Florida's governor would take a dig at the anthropology profession. A new friend from my Facebook Old Florida page who teaches Anthropology at local college made the invitation and I leapt at the opportunity.

The archeological dig was in the West Orange County community of Oakland, a small town with a big history dating back to the 1860s. The town was incorporated in 1887 after railroad builder Peter Demens accepted Judge James Speer's offer of 200 acres of land along Lake Apopka in exchange for running the railroad line through Oakland. The town boomed between the 1880s and mid 1890s until a freeze wiped out much of the citrus industry that the town relied upon.

One of the town's most colorful residents was Rose Mather-Smith who moved to Florida from Chicago with her husband Charles Frederic Mather-Smith and took the the town by storm with her colorful social gatherings. She and her husband built the West Orange Country Club in 1911 and the club was the social hub of the area for many years. The guest house for the club, now a private residence located next to the Florida Turnpike, was the site of the dig.

A Mather-Smith social gathering, circa 1930 from the Orange County Regional History Center

The Mather-Smith family of Oakland is all dressed up for a parade at Lake Eola in Orlando circa 1911

From the State Archives of Florida

The road to the dig, directly off SR 50, reminded me of the secret road that the Batmobile would always disappear into in the classic '60s TV show. Unless you looked hard, you would never know to turn there. But the house hidden at the end of that road was a wonder of old Florida, engulfed by ancient Live Oaks, palm trees and native plant species. I got a tour of the site from Jason Wenzel, a PhD candidate at UF who was supervising anthropology students from various Central Florida colleges. He explained that this was a Phase 1 archeological survey where holes 50 cm by 50 cm wide were dug at measured intervals around the property. Descending a meter into the ground, the student volunteers learned about use of the landscape from the dirt by matching it to a color guide. During the time when this property was utilized as guest quarters for the club, trash was dumped in a rubbish heap at the edge of the property. Digging through this trash from the past can yield valuable clues to the location's inhabitants – for instance dietary habits can be learned from bones. The presence of bones from indigenous game would show that the guests may have hunted, or finding bones like lamb and other more expensive meat would show that they were affluent. Particularly of interest to Wenzel was glass samples, as he is studying the relationship between alcohol and tourism in the early 20th century. Florida was haven for moonshiners during the Prohibition era, and finding illicit liquor bottles from that time could be very useful.They also found ceramic shards and nails on the site which can tell a good deal about social status and any structures on the site.

Originally guest quarters for the West Orange Country Club,
the site of the dig is now a private residence.

Suburbia encroaching on Old Florida

I was impressed by the knowledge of the two anthropologists at the site, and encouraged that Florida's early 20th century past is considered worthy of study. The whole group was very youthful and enthusiastic and seemed committed to the scientific manner in which they were exploring Florida's past. Although this site was not yielding great archeological treasures, this was the first dig I'd ever seen up close and it was a treat for me. We talked about the Governor's comments and it would be devastating if this was the last generation we train to dig into our state's cultural history. The Executive Director of the Florida Public Archaeology Network responded to the governor's remarks saying "These studies have not only written Florida history, they provide authentic content to a very important and sustainable heritage tourism and historic preservation industry that brings in over $4 billion per year to Florida’s economy." Hopefully he's speaking in language the Governor can understand.

The gates to the former country club are located
on the opposite side of the turnpike from the dig.
Click here to see other historic buildings in West Orange County.

If you'd like to sign the petition about cuts in education to programs like Anthropology in Florida, click here.

Saturday, October 8, 2011

Gainesville's Glen Springs

When I was in high school in Gainesville, the practice field behind the school was in big demand, so much so that pre-season soccer practices had to be held at Glen Springs Elementary a couple miles down the road. So our conditioning was aided by the fact that we had to jog down Glen Springs Road before we could even kick the first ball. I always wondered if there was a spring associated with Glen Springs Road, but never saw any evidence of one.

On a recent trip to my hometown, however, I asked Father Ephemera who was a city planner in Gainesville for years, and he knew just where the springs was located. By this time I'd seen vintage postcards of a Glen Springs swimming pool, so I knew at one point there was a recreational facility. My father knew that the pool was still there, behind the Elks Lodge. And we happened to be driving that way so we stopped to see if we could catch a glimpse of the mysterious waters behind the Lodge.

The spring pool was built in 1924 according to a report by Amy Grossman issued in 2010. Used as a swimming pool until 1970, the facility is unused by the Elks except for when it is stocked with fish for a charity fishing tournament for kids. The area just past the Lodge, where the water from the spring forms a creek is now a city park called Alfred Ring Park.

Girl Scouts, Brownies Beauty Contest and water carnival, 1934.
Photo from UF Digital Collections

Car Sale Promotion at Glen Springs swimming pool.
Photo from UF Digital Collections

Vintage postcard from the Alachua County Historic Trust: Matheson Museum, Inc.

Vintage postcard from the Alachua County Historic Trust: Matheson Museum, Inc.

Vintage postcard from the Alachua County Historic Trust: Matheson Museum, Inc.

While my father an I were poking around, a member of the Lodge invited us in to take a look and in addition to seeing the spring we got a history of the Elks Lodge in Gainesville. The structure of the pool looks pretty much the same as it does in the vintage images I found later. The water however, except for the "boil", where it first emerges from the aquifer, looks more like greenish-brown lake water than the crystal clear blue-tinted water one normally associates with a Florida spring. According to the Grossman's report, the water flow is significantly reduced from what it used to be and the nitrogen levels are higher. She states: "As the population in Gainesville has grown, the land use has changed from forested to agricultural to residential. This means an increase in the installment and construction of septic tanks and private drinking water wells as well as an increase in use of fertilizer on lawns. All of these changes in the area have adversely affected the spring."

It was thrill for me to finally discover the spring that I had wondered about for years. It is disappointing that it is unavailable to the public, and that the quality and quantity of the water is diminished. But perhaps the spring could one day return to being a recreational spot for Gainevillians. Grossman writes: "There is an opportunity for revenue from this property, similar to the set-up at Gainesville’s other spring, Boulware Spring. Since the spring pool house is still in good shape with the original flooring from the bar in the 1950’s, a porch that was added on in the 1970’s, and the Elks Lodge next door, the property could be rented out for special events, with the spring being the main attraction. Given the chance, many people would pay to have their wedding next to a spring or host one of the numerous conferences and retreats that come to Gainesville."