Wednesday, October 29, 2014

Ft. Meade and Phosphates

One of the benefits of doing speaking events around the state for my book "Finding the Fountain of Youth" is getting to visit interesting places. Last year I spoke on the tiny island of Matlacha and in the amazing mid-century modern auditorium at Tampa's downtown library. This year I've discovered the Heritage Village in Largo, the historical museum on Amelia Island and most recently I spoke at a small church for the Garden Club of Ft. Meade. The ladies of the Garden Club saw an article about my presentation at the Polk County History Center in nearby Bartow and invited me back to "Imperial Polk County."

Ft. Meade's origins go back to the Seminole Indian Wars when a fort was established at the town's location to protect a nearby homestead and because it was geographically half way between the Gulf of Mexico and Atlantic Ocean.  The fort was named after its founder Lt. George Gordon Meade, an "aggressive" soldier who gained fame for commanding Union troops at the Civil War battle of Gettysburg.

Today Ft. Meade is in the heart of phosphate mining operations, and according to one Garden Club member, that is what helped the town maintain its historic charm. The large number of mines surrounding the town have actually acted as buffer from the rampant growth and development that has engulfed the rest of the state.

A Google maps satellite view of the area surrounding Ft. Meade.
Further north is Mosaic Peace Park with its historical marker for Kissengen Spring.  

As I arrived for my speaking event I noticed how none of the churches lined up along the main road had parking lots – folks just parked in the grass. The neighborhood surrounding the church had some outstanding historic homes, both modest and grand, and I allowed myself some time to drive around a bit and take a few pictures. After my speaking event I visited the small museum located in Ft. Meade's first indoor school building. The 1885 structure also served as a boarding house and it opened to the public as a museum in September of 2000. Packed with artifacts and photos from the area's past, the museum tells the tale of this community that is so closely tied to the mining industry.

Image from the Ft. Meade Historical Museum.

Phosphate Mining

According to wikipedia, phosphate refers to rock or ore containing phosphate ions that are mined for use for industry and agriculture. Ft. Meade is located in what is known as Bone Valley, an area comprising portions of Hardee, Hillsborough, Manatee and Polk Counties. The name Bone Valley refers to the deposits of fossilized bones, many of which have been discovered during the phosphate mining process. The phosphate was accidently discovered by Captain Francis LeBaron of the Army Corps of Engineers in 1881, when he was surveying the Peace River for a route to connect the St. Johns River to Charlotte Harbor. At first mining was done on sandbars in the Peace River, but eventually dredges were used. It's impossible to visit Ft. Meade without seeing the evidence of the mining operations from the enormous piles of mining waste byproducts stacked by the road, to the logo for the local high school nicknamed the "fighting miners." 

Phosphate mine at the Peace River in Ft. Meade, 1890s
State Archives of Florida.
Phosphate mining – location unknown.
State Archives of Florida.
Phosphate mining postcard, State Archives of Florida.
Phosphate dredge boat, circa 1890s.
State Archives of Florida.

Mulberry Phosphate Museum

A month earlier after a speaking in engagement in nearby Bartow, I visited the Phosphate Museum in the tiny town of Mulberry. I knew of the museum only though my discovery of wonderful photos showing vintage dinosaur murals at the museum in the state archives.

Visitors viewing an exhibit at the Phosphate Museum - Mulberry, 1960.
State Archives of Florida.
"The bones of these creatures plus remains of numerous sea animals are found in the vast phosphate deposits of central Florida. Florida supplies three-fourths of the nation's phosphate." 
State Archives of Florida.
Child viewing painting of dinosaur on display at the Mulberry Phosphate Museum, 1950s.
State Archives of Florida.

Contemporary images from the Mulberry Phosphate Museum.
While the dinosaur murals were gone, the museum was packed with fossils and full size replicas of a mastodon and a saber tooth tiger. There was also a new wing created by Mosaic, the giant phosphate mining corporation. It was a charming museum, as was the one in Ft. Meade, with lots of information about the industry that dominates this region of Florida.

Swift & Co. miner creating slurry with pressurized water at a phosphate rock mine south of Ft. Meade, 1941. State Archives of Florida.
Swift & Co. miner creating slurry with pressurized water at a phosphate rock mine south of Ft. Meade, 1941. State Archives of Florida.
 Farm writers see "Super Scooper" in action at the Noralyn phosphate mine, 1956.
State Archives of Florida.

Sand Mountain

"If you grew up in Polk County, Florida in the 1950s or 1960s you remember the man-made phenomena, Sand Mountain. - Lake Wales Public Library. 
Photo from the State Archives of Florida.

Interestingly at the museum in Ft. Meade there was little about about Sand Mountain. "Created for recreational usage from the sand dredged in the phosphate industry, Sand Mountain was a favorite weekend spot for locals." according to the Lake Wales Public Library. 

Skiers on Sand Mountain, State Archives of Florida.
The mountain was a byproduct of mining operations.

Kissengen Spring

At both lectures I spoke about Kissengen Spring, the spring that lost almost all of its water flow when its water was "captured for other uses." Members of the audience remembered this spring that dried up in the 1950s. Phosphate mining has been part of this part state for generations and I find its history fascinating. But I believe it is of critical importance that we use what happened to this community's treasured spring as an example, so that we never make the same mistake again.

Detail from newspaper article about Kissengen Spring from the Polk County Historical Society.
This historical marker is located at Mosaic Peace Park between Bartow and Ft. Meade.
Kissengen Spring was a beloved Polk County recreational resource,
image from the Polk County Historical Society.
John Moran photo at the site of Kissengen Springs.

Attendees of both Polk County lectures seemed receptive to my message documenting the decline I had witnessed in Florida's springs. The ladies of the Ft. Meade Garden Club were on board with support of Amendment 1, the Florida Water and Land Legacy, an effort to ensure that there are no more 'disappearing' springs in the future. As I explored the charming town of Ft. Meade, I felt buoyed in my determination to get my message out, encouraged by the support of the sweet little old ladies in the heart of phosphate country.

1 comment:

  1. I spent my years from eleven to eighteen in Polk County and I had friends who worked in the phosphate pits. Hellacious work, that. Paid well, though.
    Have you ever visited the little museum in the original Sebastian Elementary schoolhouse in Sebastian, Florida? It was where I went to elementary school. My mother taught there. It is truly magical for me to go back and visit.