View of Lake Okeechobee. Courtesy of NASA/Flickr
About half the size of Rhode Island but, on average, only nine feet deep, Lake Okeechobee is the largest freshwater lake in Florida and the eighth largest in the country. Though it has a number of nicknames — the Inland Sea, the Big O —Okeechobee’s official name comes from the Hitchiti, an indigenous community that lived on the Chattahoochee River until the early 19th century. In their language, Okeechobee means “big” (chubi) and “water” (oki). Small towns, orange groves, sugarcane fields, and waterways decorate the flatlands surrounding the 35-foot-high Herbert Hoover Dike, which was built around Okeechobee in 1928 to protect against flooding. The 152-mile Okeechobee Waterway bisects the lake, and Florida itself, allowing boats to cut across, rather than sail around. Today, Okeechobee is a prominent landmark that entertains locals and tourists with a number of lakeside activities such as fishing, boating, and hiking.
Forty two years before the English established their first permanent colony in what would become the United States at Jamestown, the Spanish established a permanent colony at St. Augustine. The story of Pedro Menendez’s expedition to Florida and his clash with the rival French colony at Fort Caroline in what is now Jacksonville is the opening act in the documentary “Secrets of Spanish Florida – A Secrets of the Dead Special,” which airs on WJCT TV-7 at 9 p.m. Tuesday. he two-hour documentary, narrated by actor Jimmy Smits, is mostly the story of St. Augustine, which remained the largest settlement in the state from 1565, when Menendez arrived, through 1819, when Spain agreed to turn the territory over the United States. The documentary makes the argument that Spanish Florida played a significant role in the development of the United States, a role that is not widely known or understood.
A hundred years after an ordinance made them official — and 50 years after they were ordered off the sidewalks — St. Petersburg’s green benches hold a complex place in the city’s history. They first appeared in 1908 when Noel Mitchell, a prominent real estate developer and salesman, installed them at the corner of Central Avenue and Fourth Street. Soon, others began mimicking him, installing benches everywhere, orange and purple and green. But when Al Lang became mayor in 1916, one of his priorities was to make the benches uniform. In 1917, he pushed through an ordinance that all of them were to be green. “It was a motley collection of benches,” said Ray Arsenault, a professor of history and politics at the University of South Florida St. Petersburg and author of St. Petersburg and the Florida Dream: 1888-1950. “(Lang) didn’t like the proliferation of all these ugly benches.”
John Pether is a man on a mission — a multimillion dollar dream to establish in Sarasota a state-of-the-art Florida history museum. A gargantuan undertaking to be sure, but Pether brings to the task the zeal, coupled with a well-thought-out and researched plan with facts and figures to convince even the skeptical that it can happen — indeed should happen. What Pether has in mind is an augmented reality home in which to showcase Florida’s unique history. He calls his project FLORIDA HISTORY EXPO: “A Time Machine of History Then and Now.” The plan calls for incorporating virtual and augmented reality. He says it will be the first museum in the United States to offer such modern technologies. Holograms will bring to life historic figures, places and events. No more passing by a one-dimensional photo or artifact and a brief explanation. He cites an example of a saber tooth tiger skeleton exhibit enhanced with augmented reality, making it appear alive and roaming the premises. Historic artifacts will also be brought to life by this technology. For instance a “Then” exhibit of a Civil War operating tent and all the antique instruments will be transposed into a “Now” high-tech operating theater. The possibilities are endless: camp with the Native Americans, take a tour with John Ringling through the John and Mable Museum of Art, maybe visit a Roaring ’20s boom-time real estate office, go for a ride on an early train, or watch William Jennings Bryan stump for Coral Gables.
Bob Lotane has looped through the Freedom Trail of Boston dozens of times. The painted path passes through 16 historic sites. But unlike the Boston area where he’s from, Florida’s capital city lacks such a route that sheds light on its rich history, Lotane noticed. So, the history buff and communications executive, who is running for a city commission seat, conceptualized three different pathways throughout Tallahassee that tourists and residents alike could follow, with no need for a physical tour guide. “The line also creates discussion,” he said. “People are in town and they go, ‘Oh, what’s that red line?'” The three “TallaHistory” routes — Governor’s Loop, Florida A&M University Loop and Downtown Loop — would range from a mile and a half to three miles, passing through historically significant sites like the Grove Museum, the Korean War Memorial and the Taylor House Museum in Frenchtown.
A special Eastern, Western and Central Florida section of a February 1898 Florida Times-Union described several now-vanished communities as vibrant and full of life just before the turn of the 20th century. “The scenery on the Okahumpka Run is weirdly beautiful and luxuriantly tropical, resembling, but unsurpassed by any portion of the far-faced Ocklawaha,” the story explained of what is now Helena Run. Between lakes Dunham and Harris were several thousand acres of rich hammock, the story stated, as well as thousands of wild orange trees that had been budded to form productive groves. There were also giant cypress trees that are as vanished as the ghost towns of the area. “In this locality is situated Crystal Spring, a mirror-like sheet of water several acres in extent and of enormous depth,” the account said describing what is likely called Bugg Spring today. “Here is a beautiful site for a hotel. Near this wonderful spring is Okahumpka, a station on the Plant System.” Though Okahumpka isn’t a vanished or ghost town today, it is vastly different from the Okahumpka written about in 1898.
How did folks cope with extreme cold in 1899? February will be the 119th anniversary of the coldest temperatures ever recorded in Tallahassee: Minus-2 degrees Fahrenheit, on Feb. 13, 1899. The minus-2 is both a Tallahassee and a state record for low temperature. It’s the only time the mercury ever dipped below zero in Florida. The 1899 freeze was part of a record weather event nationally. Snow fell from New Orleans to Savannah, including North Florida. Miami reported its first-ever temperature in the 20s (29 degrees). The freezing temperatures and snow elicited headlines such as, “All Previous Records Broken.” Editorial writers dubbed the storm The Ice King, The Snow King or the Great Blizzard of 1899.
The house at 41 S.W. Seminole St. began as the Clifton Guest and Fishing Lodge more than a century ago. Since its quaint beginnings, the house has evolved, eventually redecorated by well-known designer Dianne Browning Davant and becoming the striking backdrop for several weddings. Soon, though, the property is to be redeveloped into Seminole Bluff, a condominium complex complete with pool, underground parking garage and 20 $1 million units. The storied fishing hideaway seemed fated to have a sad ending. But local hotelier Steven Vitale has a different vision. Instead of tearing down the old house, Vitale would like to see it nestled between two existing historic homes, just 760 feet south of its current location, and rented out to visitors looking for the “anti-chain, anti-cookie cutter” vacation rental, he said. As soon as January, Vitale intends to make this vision a reality. The 2,500-square-foot house will be moved, in one piece, onto a barge on the St. Lucie River, ferried past the Riverwalk and docks, trucked across an empty lot and, finally, nestled onto a vacant lot on Southeast Seminole Street.
Since 1906, people have gathered at Spring Bayou in Tarpon Springs each January 6th to watch young men compete to find a submerged wooden cross. Today, thousands attend the ceremony. The unique Epiphany celebration is one example of the Greek culture that is still prevalent in Tarpon Springs. In the city of Tarpon Springs you can listen to Greek music played on a bouzouki, try the pastry baklava, have a meal of lamb stew or a Greek seafood dish, sip the licorice flavored alcoholic beverage ouzo, and enjoy many other aspects of traditional Greek culture. You can see the Neo-Byzantine style architecture of St. Nicholas Greek Orthodox Church, and watch the sponge divers unload their catch on the city dock downtown. Tarpon Springs has the largest percentage of Greek Americans of any city in the United States. “Even today, after people have been here four or five generations, there is still a big segment of the population that speaks Greek,” says Tina Bucuvalas, curator of arts and history for the City of Tarpon Springs.
Snow makes an impression when it falls in St. Augustine. Readers were asked for a 2012 story by former Record reporter Marcia Lane if they remembered any of the three times snow fell in St. Augustine — and stayed — during the 20th century. The bulk of the story is reprinted below. People shared pictures and memories, particularly of the Feb. 2, 1951, snowfall. That two-inch blast began on a Friday night and remained through Saturday with some snow — in shaded areas — still visible on Sunday. People stayed up all night, threw snowballs and built snowmen.
Don’t miss our 2018 Florida Humanities Speaker Series, featuring fascinating programs about Florida’s historic lighthouses, culture, people, and ecology. Presented by the Florida Humanities Council in partnership with the Cedar Key Historical Society, this series will showcase four engaging talks and performances, starting in January and ending in April. Admission to each is free. All programs will be hosted at the Cedar Key Community Center, 6th and F Street, Cedar Key, FL. Our series will touch on a wide range of topics, including our Hydrologic cycle, Lighthouses in Florida, the legend of Osceola, and history of Cattle Ranching in Florida. Here are the details:
• January 18, 2018, 10:00 a.m. Cynthia Barnett, Rain and the Florida hydrologic cycle.
• February 15, 2018, 10:00 a.m. Florida Lighthouses by Brendan Burke
• March 15, 2018, 10:00 a.m. Andrew Frank, Osceola, the Myth
• April 19, 2018, 10:00 a.m. Bob Stone, the History of Cattle Ranching in Florida
Are waiting in line, humidity, jostling crowds, screaming kids (and sometimes screaming parents) or too many renditions of “It’s a Small World” just not for you? Central Florida isn’t only about princesses and wizards, you know. The headwaters of the Everglades are here, along with the St. Johns River and the Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge, all of which offer opportunities for paddling, boating and wildlife viewing. You can delve into history, learn to swing on a trapeze or a zip line, ogle old war planes, ride a train into Old Florida or try a different kind of wine-tasting. Here several places near Orlando that’ll have you thinking outside the theme park.
Cultural, historical and educational institutions throughout South and Central Florida can now share their digitized holdings with people across the United States and around the world. Librarians and digital strategists at FIU, the University of Miami (UM) and Florida State University (FSU) have partnered to create the Sunshine State Digital Network (SSDN), which serves as the state’s administrative and infrastructure portal to the Digital Public Library of America (DPLA). The Boston-based DPLA is a public, open-source platform that connects users to digitized art works, artifacts, archival documents and other materials from organizations ranging from modest community historical societies to massive cultural institutions. Assets contributed by Florida organizations to DPLA are displayed in search results alongside those from many other collections, fostering learning, research, tourism, business and other endeavors. “DPLA and SSDN offer a tremendous opportunity to share the depth and richness of our state’s digital collections,” said Anne Prestamo, dean of Libraries at FIU. “We look forward to advising and assisting libraries, museums and archives throughout South and Central Florida to fully leverage that potential.”