Sunday, November 27, 2016

Florida's floating islands

By Jane Feehan 

Lakes with floating islands dot the globe in countries with marshlands, notably in Tasmania, Brazil, Congo, Burma, The Netherlands and the U.S. Central Florida touts a number of them, drawing the interest of tourists and scientists.

Orange Lake, located in Florida’s Alachua and Marion counties, and part of the St. Johns River system, floats several of these aquatic wildlife habitats. In 1937 this body of water made headlines and postcards as “Lake of a Thousand Floating Islands.”

A floating island, or tussock, comprised of plant root systems of cattails, reeds, bulrush and other species, occurs when water runs too deep for roots to reach bottom, so they orient toward the surface for oxygen. Some islands are small, others expand to acres in size and grow trees. One island with a maple tree was featured decades ago in Robert Ripley’s Believe it or Not compendium of the bizarre. Some say these island trees serve as sails when windy, eerily moving a root system across the water. Documented as growing eight to 50 inches in diameter, island-dwelling trees generally live a decade or two.

Floating islands in Florida serve as home to raccoons, aquatic rabbits, a variety of birds and at times, alligators. Bass fisherman and tourists flock to Orange Lake, which loses about 30 percent of its water each year through a network of sinkholes, an important feature of the area’s hydrology.
Orange Creek Basin,
Osceloa Co.

Orange Lake may be the best known Florida lake for floating islands but others are located in Lake Yarbo in Winter Garden, and Lake Buckeye and Lake Idyl in Winter Haven. Anglers find floating islands to be a nuisance. So does the Florida Department of Environmental Protection’s Bureau of Invasive Plant Management, which spent more than $18 million in 2004-2006 for cleaning up organic buildup adversely affecting fish and wildlife habitats. BIPM is the largest program in managing invasive species on public lands in the U.S.

Tourist attraction or nuisance, Florida’s floating islands add to the area’s semi-tropical mystique.  

Ocala Star Banner, Dec. 28, 1953
Ocala Star Banner, Jul. 31, 1986
St. Johns Water Management District
University of Florida

Florida Department of Environmental Protection

Florida, Jane Feehan, floating islands, tourism, semi-tropics, history, Orange Lake

Monday, May 30, 2016

Memorial Day and somber numbers

Memorial Day is about remembering those who died in the service of our country.  Beginning each class I taught in American history with this sad tally, I hoped to establish a perspective and to set the context for the rest of the course.

Not all conflicts are listed below and many more died serving America. Some numbers are estimates and may differ, depending on the sources, but the point is made.

US War for Independence 
6,800 to 8,000  
About 17,000 servicemen were thought to have died from disease

Civil War
620,000 to 750,000

World War I  - The Great War
110,000-116,000 (Great Britain lost more than  900,000; France lost one in four of its male population)

World War II
About 407,000

Korean War


Afghanistan and Iraq
About 6,700

Tags: US Military deaths, Memorial Day

Sunday, May 8, 2016

What Depression? Miami economy kicks it - 1937

Though most of the nation was struggling to climb out of the depths of the Great Depression during the late 1930s, Miami’s Mayor Robert R. Williams waxed optimistic about greater Miami's  growth:

In 1937:
  • Hotel inventory reached 350, with 60 built that year.
  • Visitors could also find lodging among 6,000 available apartment units.
  • More houses were constructed—3,500—in 1937 than in any year of its history.
  • Eastern Airlines was doubling round trip winter flights between New York (five) and Chicago (three)  and  Miami; it was adding five new 21-passenger Douglas DC-3s
  • October air passenger traffic to South America from Miami was up 20 percent  from the previous October.
  • Florida East Coast and Seaboard Airline railways added extra equipment to transport passengers from Jacksonville to Miami.
  • Out of  eight million pounds of fish caught and shipped from Florida, five million were fished from waters off Miami.
  • The first of many expected mega yachts arrived at the Miami Yacht Basin, the 188-foot Arcadia owned by Mrs. Huntington Reed Hardwick of Boston.
  • Bayfront Park at Biscayne Bay was to host 45 operas and concerts that winter season.
  • The Orange Bowl (played since 1935), the Lipton Trophy sailing race, and the Miami to Nassau sailing race were expected to draw thousands of spectators.

Sources: Wall Street Journal, Dec. 18, 1937

Tags: Miami in the 1930s, Miami tourism, Miami history, Jane Feehan, film researcher, Eastern Airlines, Douglas Aircraft

Sunday, March 13, 2016

MGM: California soaking the rich; move studios to Florida (1935)

File:Aleja Gwiazd w Hollywood 84.JPG
By Mateusz Kudła (Own work) 

By Jane Feehan

During the early days of filmmaking, Florida held a place in the collective mind of the industry. A few studios were established during the early 1900s in Miami and Hialeah (see index). But they closed as California evolved into a movie making epicenter with the founding of Warner Bros* in 1923 and Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer in 1924. Other studio giants followed: Fox, RKO, 20th Century Pictures.

For one last time the spotlight turned on Florida in 1935 as a potential haven for the film industry. MGM threatened to lead a movie studio exodus from California to the Sunshine State to escape high taxes. Key MGM player (and later 20th Century Pictures co-founder) Joseph M. Schenck voiced apprehension about California’s tendencies toward “soaking the rich.”   

The 1930s saw a huge increase in federal income taxes; California followed suit. As a result, highly paid actors and directors chose to work less. Schenck pointed to a proposed 35 percent tax on film industry incomes as reason to leave the state. He called for the people of Florida to raise $10 million through subscriptions to build motion picture studios to be rented to the film industry for $250,000 a year. The interest rate for the arrangement would not exceed 2.5 percent. Schenck told The New York Times he was about to meet with Sidney Kent of Fox Studios in Boca Raton to discuss the plans. Florida would be fine as a new locale, he said. Good transportation to and from the state was an asset. And, most scenes were shot indoors. If mountain scenery was needed, North Carolina was nearby.

The plan was probably a threat; the movie industry was firmly planted in California by 1935. During that decade of the Great Depression, a roster of movie classics was produced that includes: Wizard of Oz, The Public Enemy, King Kong, Petrified Forest, Gone with the Wind and Little Caesar. And the actors soaring to fame through those and other films—Bette Davis, James Cagney, Edward G. Robinson, Judy Garland – were synonymous with Hollywood. It was after, all the “Golden Age of Hollywood.”

Whether threat or plan, Hollywood’s complaining in the media about taxes during the 1930s earned its place in popular debate about the subject—and about politics. And Florida still holds a special mention: The state continues to attract the film industry with its production locations. In 2006 the state ranked third in the nation (behind California and New York) in the film industry.

Let’s hope Florida's incentives for filmmaking are renewed. 

*Albert Warner owned an estate on Miami Beach; it was later sold to make way for the Eden Roc Hotel.

The New York Times, Mar. 5, 1935
Film History: An International Journal: Vol. 22 (2010) Number 1

Tags: Florida history, film industry, Jane Feehan film researcher, MGM history, Florida film industry

Monday, February 15, 2016

Touring Florida in the 1930s: Of air shows, citrus groves, wildlife, and trailer camps

By Jane Feehan

Florida was hit by the Great Depression before most other states, especially after the 1926 hurricane slammed Fort Lauderdale and Miami, scaring off land speculators and developers. By the 1930s, the entire country was affected by a severe economic downturn.

But tough times didn’t stop people from visiting Florida, especially those with cars. New roads and inexpensive tent and trailer camps welcomed “swarms” of tourists during the winter season, which back then started after the holidays.  

There was plenty to see by car, according to travel writers. The roads that made sightseeing possible were State Road 441 from the Georgia line south to Miami and US 1. In the late 1930s, Route 1 was to undergo widening from St. Augustine to Palm Beach. From the Palm Beach area to Miami that well-traveled road was smooth and wide at the time.

Motorists could travel through Central Florida along the Orange Blossom Trail (parts of 441, adjacent routes U.S. 17/192 and other roads).* A recommended itinerary would include a stop at Clermont, Gem of the Hills (now Choice of Champions), and Howey-in-the-Hills, then touted as the “largest citrus development in the world.” Drivers could also stay at Winter Garden, a mecca of vacation trailers, Lake Apopka, a sweet spot for bass fishermen or Winter Haven, the “Citrus Capital” and site of the annual Orange Festival. They might also like to see Palatka, the “new rival” to Ocala (how things have changed …).

The lower coast of West Florida offered Sarasota, “which has more valuable old masters than any other American museum except for the Metropolitan." South of that town sat Fort Myers, once home to Thomas A. Edison (1847-1931) where Edison Day was “still celebrated.” (And celebrated today.)

A tour to East Florida could include driving on sand along the ocean at Daytona Beach or stopping at Merritt Island to see flocks of birds rising like clouds from its marshes. Nearby was Pelican Island, a wildlife refuge off Vero Beach. Also in Vero was the McKee Jungle Gardens, opened in 1931 (and now named McKee Botanical Garden). Cape Canaveral, about an hour north, was a prime spot for catching jumbo shrimp; the town claimed a yearly 400-ton-catch from its adjacent ocean waters.     

Travel on the Overseas Highway down to Key West was interrupted by damage from the Labor Day Hurricane of 1935 but motorists could visit the Lion Farm in Fort Lauderdale (see my post: Where lions once roared at ), Hibiscus Gardens in Dania or stay at one of the many fishing camps in or near Key Largo.

And there was an air show—held south of Miami—that featured planes from 12 airports and seaplane bases. The U.S. Coast Guard provided some of the best acts, according to some. For visitors who made it that far, a visit to Miami could include a wager placed at Tropical Park or a much-needed rest at a comfortable hotel room near Biscayne Bay or along the ocean.

Much has changed since 1937 but some things stay the same: nomadic tourists seeking warm winters, sightseeing and … air shows. 
*Not to be confused with the seven notorious miles of illicit activities dubbed the Orange Blossom Trail near today’s Orlando.


Sources: New York Times, Wikipedia, Cities of Howey-in-the Hills, Daytona Beach

For Florida trips today, see below:

 Tags: Travel, Florida tourism, tours, Florida history, South Florida history, Central Florida, West Florida, Jane Feehan film researcher, Florida in the 1930s, Florida during the Depression

Friday, December 11, 2015

Prohibition arrests leave Broward, Fort Lauderdale high & dry without local law enforcement

Man raising his glass in a toast. 19--.
 State Archives of Florida, Florida Memory.

By Jane Feehan

Liquor flowed to and from South Florida during Prohibition (1920-1933) and according to Jacksonville-based Federal Prohibition Administrator P.F. Hambsch, many across the nation knew about it.

In 1926 Hambsch decided to clean up that reputation.

In April that year, he wrote to Broward Sheriff Paul C. Bryan outlining the problem and asked for monthly reports on arrests of bootleggers and seizures to refute the widely-held notion that little was being done to enforce the law. According to Broward County Sheriff historian, William P. Cahill, Bryan said he “was ready to cooperate.”

Cooperation included Bryan’s invitation to send agents so he could get to know them. Unbeknown to Bryan, two agents were sent to work undercover as bootleggers for three months, gathering evidence for arrests. They paid $750 to the sheriff and his men in weekly installments of $5-$15.  

With protection payments, bootleggers enjoyed full police protection to make and then distribute booze to Miami, Palm Beach and other east coast resorts. There was evidence a few bootlegging rings were financed by some wealthy and respected citizens of Broward County and Fort Lauderdale. (And so evolved the moniker, Fort Liquordale).

In January 1927, raids were conducted by 18 agents, and a few Coast Guardsmen and customs inspectors, resulting in 41 (some say 32) arrests, including Sheriff Bryan, Broward County’s second sheriff, all six of his deputies, Fort Lauderdale Police Chief Bert Croft and eight patrolmen. The raiders seized eight large stills, 10,000 gallons of mash, 300 gallons of moonshine and a quantity of bottled beer.

The arrested lawmen were brought to the Coast Guard Station (near today’s Bahia Mar). They were heavily armed but their weapons were confiscated. Bail was set at $5,000 for Bryan and Croft; for the others, $2,000. The arrests left Broward County and Fort Lauderdale without local law enforcement, but according to Cahill, Bryan served out his term until 1929.The Broward Sheriff’s website states he served until 1927.

Paul Bryan, son of Louis H. and Elizabeth Bryan, was born in Volusia County in 1891 and came with his family to Fort Lauderdale in 1900. His father helped lay out the town of Fort Lauderdale. After Paul left the Sheriff’s Office, he helped run the Dania café owned by his wife, Maude Henson Bryan. Bryan died in 1942; his wife died in 1988 at age 90. Local history is framed (and here, peppered) by Bryan family civic contributions.

The New York Times, Jan. 28, 1927
William P. Cahill, Broward Legacy, Vol. 24, No. 2 (2004)
Roots Web


Monday, November 23, 2015

Florida frontier justice: execution by alligator

Two gators in search of a meal, picture courtesy of Steve Kantner

According to a New York Sun Times news story datelined Fort Lauderdale, Jul. 23, 1897, Florida Seminoles* acknowledged two capital crimes in the late 1800s: theft and adultery. The newspaper published an account given by Seminole James Jumper that underscored the negative views held then about one of those crimes.

It was reported that Tiger Cat, a member of an Indian camp near Tamiami Trail, ran off with the chief’s wife, enraging their entire community. A group set out to find the law-breaking couple; two weeks later they were apprehended and brought back home to face justice. For more than two days the governing council debated punishment. They settled on execution … by alligator.

The convicted pair was brought to Little Gator Key (perhaps an Everglades hammock; there is no Florida key by that name). The two were stripped of their clothes and tied to the ground about 50 feet apart. A dog, which was to initially attract feeding gators, was attached between them. The couple waited all day in the blazing heat until sundown, when a gator emerged from the water and quickly devoured the dog. Other gators joined the dinner frenzy and finished off the errant couple, who were by then most remorseful.

*Note: It is not implied that this group was part of today’s Seminole Tribe of Florida, which has its own constitution, police department and modern and humane due process of law.  

 Tags: Florida in the 1800s, Jane Feehan film researcher, Everglades, alligators