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

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