Fabulous Florida Anniversaries

A State of mind

Ponce de Leon christened it La Florida (“flowery land”). Five hundred years later, we celebrate our heritage, our diversity–and especially our quirkiness. By Ken Clarke

The first thing we need to do is sweep away the myths that have clung to Ponce de Leon like remora for 500 years. I'm sorry to be the one to tell you this: The Spaniard wasn't looking for the Fountain of Youth when he came to La Florida, and St. Augustine wasn't his first stop.

Instead, Ponce could be considered the forefather of spring break. He came ashore April 3, 1513, looking for wood and water and, no doubt, gold, because the Spanish always sought gold during their explorations. No one knows his exact landing spot, but many historians favor a stretch of coastline near Melbourne Beach. He might still recognize the place—a sliver of a barrier island, a kind surf. Multitudes of sea turtles crawling ashore in the summer night to lay their eggs. Dolphins feeding in the shallows, brown pelicans dive-bombing, right whales spouting in the winter.

The natives are gone, though. They disappeared from Florida 300 years ago. Among them, the Ais, Jeaga, Tequesta, and those touchy Calusa, who ultimately doomed Ponce. There were perhaps 350,000 people total, destroyed by European diseases and warfare with the Spanish. In Florida today, everyone comes from somewhere else, including our Indians, the Seminoles. They arrived as Creeks in the middle of the 18th century.
In place of the natives are the 19 million of us who represent a uniquely diverse population of white and black, red and blue, Latin and Haitian, redneck and sophisticated, Southern and Yankee, European and Asian.

Florida is distinct down to its limestone bones. Embraced by an ocean and a gulf, and strung with a necklace of islands off its tip. A subtropical member of the Caribbean but also Southern in the north and Northern in the south. Florida shows the rest of the country how to relax. It is the center of tourism, retirement, golf, fishing, boating, beach-strolling and cheeseburger-in-paradising.

Shorts and flip-flops are our standard clothing choices when we’re not at work. Our winters are warm, and always there is the blessing of sunshine. Our biggest river flows north.

Where else must residents endure the trying combination of churning hurricanes and tropical storms, sudden sinkholes, nasty fire ants, enough humidity to float a boat and cockroaches big enough to pilot one? Alligators are everywhere, inhabiting any decent size body of water from Pensacola to the tip of the peninsula. Homeowners newly arrived from the north find that everything grows in their yards throughout the year, including an army of persistent weeds and uninvited vines.

For decades our chief industry has been people and more people, millions of them. Growth, from 2.7 million residents in 1950 to 16 million in 2000 and today's 19 million, drives the state's economy: Decade after decade, tens of thousands of houses have been built, necessitating carpenters, plumbers and roofers, tax collectors and building inspectors, road builders and garbage workers, plus more teachers, more doctors, more of every profession.

No county in Florida added more people from 2000 to 2011 than Orange, plumping up by 249,612 for a total of 1.14 million. It wasn't but a few decades ago that the thought of Orange County containing a million people was absurd, ridiculous. Orlando was a pleasant, content, middle-sized citrus town bathed in the early spring fragrance of orange blossoms, and not in a hurry to be anything else.
But that's life in Florida: A city may be quiet one day, bustin' its britches the next. A hundred years ago, Miami was little more than a village. Now it's the urban center of 5.5 million people that is South Florida. Only 50 years ago, the population of the entire state was 5 million.

We spoke Spanish for centuries. Consider this: Florida still hasn't been a part of the United States for as long as it belonged to Spain. Those weren't Puritan shopkeepers landing on the shore, they were Spanish soldiers in service to their king. The Latinization that has spread through Florida during the past few decades, bringing our Hispanic population to 23 percent, isn't anything new. In some ways, our land remains La Florida.
In another way, the Spaniards never left. Florida and Cape Canaveral are two of the oldest place-names in North America. Boca Raton, Anna Maria Island, St. Augustine, Matanzas Inlet, Islamorada, Punta Gorda, Boca Grande and Key West (a corruption of the Spanish Cayo Heuso) also got their names courtesy of the Spanish.

Leon County is named for Ponce, and in another oddity, two counties are named for the same person. That would be Hernando and DeSoto. A visit to three North Florida counties will take you back to the days of Prohibition: Lafayette, Liberty and Washington counties are dry.

Two and a half centuries after its founding, Florida remained largely a military garrison and a harsh frontier. For a brief 20 years in the 18th century it belonged to Britain but without a merchant class to make trouble for the king, unlike their 13 brethren to the north. Would you like to guess which state was the only British colony not to join the American Revolution?

Across contemporary Florida, there are a slew of oddities waiting for you and your camera. Anyone who can't wait to see the world's largest fishing lure needs to hurry to Miramar Beach in the Panhandle. And where else but Florida will you find the smallest post office in the country (Ochopee), the largest chicken wing (Madeira Beach) and a giant head of Beethoven (Fort Myers)? In a cola war of sorts, Jacksonville offers a giant can of 7Up while Fort Walton Beach counters with a 15-foot Coca-Cola bottle. And if you just can't know too much about phosphate, hurry yourself to the Mulberry Phosphate Museum. Don't miss the video. 

Ponce would be amazed to see what has happened to his La Florida. All of those people, all of those tourists. But sorry, Ponce, there never was any gold. Not in nugget form, anyhow. Our gold is found in our orange crop, millions of acres and maybe a billion dollars' worth. We pour orange juice for the world. For that we can thank the Spaniards who brought orange trees when they founded St. Augustine in 1565. That's not just OJ you are drinking in the morning, it's Florida history.
Oddballs have been a big part of that history too. Maybe it's because Florida hangs off the continent like a geographic afterthought. Maybe it's our warm climate. Or swamp gas. Who knows?

During the Spanish-American War, a future Florida governor, Napoleon Broward, smuggled guns to Cuban rebels. Once he became governor, Broward was bound and determined to drain the Everglades, which he saw as useless swamp. (Have we mentioned that there is nothing like the Everglades in the rest of the world?)
In 1881, Gov. William Bloxham sold 4 million acres of the state (larger than Connecticut) to a Philadelphia saw manufacturer for a million bucks, which happened to match the size of Florida's debt.

During the 1960s, Gov. Claude Kirk was flamboyant and, well, odd. During his campaign he visited men on death row, shaking their hands while promising to sign their death warrants if he was elected. When Kirk looked at the famous photo from the Kent State shootings, he saw not an anguished female student kneeling over the body of a fellow student killed by National Guardsmen, but a "communist."

Ponce wasn't a communist, and certainly he was brave and daring, although not always the best of decision-makers. The voyage on which he discovered Florida ended hastily when the hostile Calusas ran off Ponce and his men, who had made another landing near Fort Myers or Sanibel Island, meaning to stay for awhile. The Calusa were Indians with attitude. They lived in a relatively small area of southwest Florida but controlled the lower two-thirds of the peninsula on both coasts.

Six years later, Ponce decided to make another trip to Florida, this time for a serious attempt at establishing a colony. That in itself wasn't a bad idea. The bad idea was this: to return to the very place he had been forced to flee on the earlier voyage. Did he seriously believe the Calusa would welcome him with pitchers of sangria and trays of warm pork empanadas? Instead, they greeted Ponce and the colonists with warriors in canoes and volleys of arrows. One of the arrows pierced Ponce's thigh. The colony idea was hastily abandoned, and the wounded Ponce was taken to Havana. He died six weeks later.
He never found gold. Or the mythical isle of Bimini he had sought. But he had found La Florida. Now, 500 years later, we say, thank you, Ponce.

The Little School That Did

UCF started with a couple of buildings this side of nowhere. As the country’s second-largest university celebrates its 50th year, we look back in amazement.
By Jay Hamburg

Now boasting nine regional campuses and recent national kudos for its fast climb up the academic ladder and bang for its tuition buck, UCF was hardly larger than a strip mall when it opened for business in 1968. There were just two buildings ready to hold offices and classrooms when students filed into what was known then as Florida Technological University.

As UCF approaches its 50th anniversary (the legislature authorized the university in 1963), it’s intriguing to look back on the early days when the powerhouse was just a pinpoint on the periphery of town.

Retired art professor Steve Lotz recalls the first year as a time of exciting challenges. The school had no art studio and just a couple of easels, so his students mostly sat on a classroom floor and drew freehand. Lotz complained; the administration freed up some dollars, and the professor concluded that a modest-sized geodesic dome would be an inexpensive way to add space.

The dome arrived, unassembled, during the July 4 weekend. But Lotz, fellow faculty member and noted sculptor Johann Eyfells, the deliveryman and a few students pieced it together. Only later did the professor realize he really hadn’t cleared the construction or the placement of the dome.

“I thought I would be fired,” Lotz says. But so much was changing on campus and there was so much vacant land that the little dome slipped in with few hassles. For Lotz, the small but busy campus was a stimulating place where it seemed possible to know the entire faculty and most of the students. The initial enrollment of 1,948 students made it cozy and much smaller than many local high schools today. Of course, the region was nothing like our current, crowded metro area.

“On a Sunday afternoon, you could shoot a cannon down I-4 and not hit anybody,” says history professor Dick Crepeau, who arrived in 1972. “You really felt isolated.”
Crepeau enjoyed the almost rural setting and admired the dedication of the students at what was then strictly a commuter school. They seemed much more neatly attired than most collegians he had known because most were coming from or going to work. But he was surprised by how little presence the university seemed to have in the community in the 1970s, even as enrollment grew.

“On countless occasions when I told Orlando residents that I was a professor at the university, they indicated they had no idea there was a university in Orlando.”

Situated 15 miles east of downtown Orlando, the site made sense when Florida Tech’s mission was to train scientists for the Space Coast and NASA was hustling to put astronauts on the moon. By 1978, the space race had slowed, although the region’s growth accelerated. In response, the school broadened its mission and dropped the tech label for a more traditional name.

Obviously, the plan worked. This year, UCF’s enrollment topped 60,000, making it second only to Arizona State and putting it on par with the population of cities such as Sanford, Kissimmee and Daytona Beach.

Under the guidance of its fourth president, John C. Hitt, the university continues to grow, although it now faces funding challenges as money becomes tighter. But with a new Health Sciences Campus at Lake Nona and a Center for Emerging Media in downtown Orlando, the school keeps extending its reach, finding new partners to help shape the region’s future.

For one alum—former state senator and current Seminole County Commissioner Lee Constantine—the university’s growth still seems astonishing, even though he watched it mushroom as a student in the early 1970s, as a college administrator into the 1980s and eventually as a staunch supporter in the Legislature from 1992 to 2010.

“You shake your head and ask, ‘How did it all get this big?’ ’’ says Constantine, who graduated in 1974 and was student body president during his senior year.

He’s certain, however, that the school’s once ridiculed isolation turned out to be a blessing that gave it vast room to expand. “Everybody thought it was crazy to have it out there,” he says. “But for what UCF was to become there is no other place it could have been.”


A Devotion to Promotion

The Orlando Chamber celebrates 100 years.

The minutes of the Orlando Chamber of Commerce meeting from April 12, 1927, are relatively mundane. The gathering at the Angebilt Hotel was attended by 84 people who talked about new memberships, city taxes and promoting a local play called “The Show-Off.’’

And then there’s this: “The meeting adjourned at 1:30 p.m. with the singing of ‘Orlando, We’re All in Love With You.’ ’’

It was a mission statement of sorts for the organization, which began in 1913 as the Orlando Board of Trade and is now known as the Orlando Regional Chamber of Commerce, one of four civic and business groups that make up the Central Florida Partnership. The Orlando area has changed by leaps and bounds over the decades but the chamber has remained a mainstay, led by familiar names like Harry P. Leu, Curtis Stanton and Jacob Stuart. These days its focus is on regional entrepreneurship and connecting businesses across a seven-county area, but the message about The City Beautiful and its environs has basically remained the same for 100 years: “We’re the best.’’

—Barry Glenn

Oldies But Goodies

50 years

Plaza Theatre The landmark Orlando theater boasted rocking chair seats when it opened on Nov. 20, 1963, with McClintock, a John Wayne movie—just two days before JFK was assassinated. The Plaza shut down in 1992, then was renovated and used for years for everything from church services to film festivals. These days it has become a top-drawing, live-music venue known as The Plaza Live Orlando and shows no signs of going dark again.

45 years

Beefy King Three generations of the Smith family have served the same thing since 1968: roast beef sandwiches. And local fans keep filling the tiny shop on Bumby Avenue, ordering house-made sliced beef, extra-lean pastrami and turkey on steamed Kaiser rolls. The grandchildren of the original owners now serve food to the grandchildren of their original customers.

Red Lobster The progression from single restaurant to largest full-service restaurant company in the world may have taken more than four decades, but the success of Red Lobster and Orlando-based Darden Restaurants has been meteoric. Thirty years after launching The Green Frog restaurant in Waycross, Ga., at the age of 19, Bill Darden opened a small seafood restaurant called the Red Lobster Inn in Lakeland in 1968. It was an experiment that paid off big and brought lobster, crab and casual higher-end table service to hometown America.

40 years

SeaWorld Orlando The park opened on Dec. 15, 1973, drawing 5,800 visitors its first day. (Interestingly enough, Disney World opened its Pirates of the Caribbean attraction the same day.) Among the first SeaWorld shows: the Ding-A-Ling Brothers Seal and Penguin Circus. In the four decades since, SeaWorld has ratcheted up the entertainment with Shamu, walruses, roller coasters, a swim-with-the-dolphins experience and a water park. Coming this spring: the park’s biggest expansion ever with the opening of the Antarctica section.

30 years

Orange County Convention Center The center opened in 1983 with 150,000 square feet of exhibition space. Today, that figure is 2.1 million (total square footage of the massive complex on I-Drive is 7.1 million, shared by two buildings). The North/South Building’s exhibition hall alone is 22 acres. So, yeah, you might need a map—and a reservation. OCCC has 753 events with an estimated 11 million attendees booked through 2029.

20 years

Walt Disney World Marathon It started in 1994 with about 8,000 runners. This year more than 25,000 have signed up for the race. The 2013 route will include Disney’s speedway and baseball stadium, in addition to traditional routes through the theme parks. Also new this year: a 20th anniversary commemorative “Mickey medal.’’

Orlando Philharmonic Orchestra When the debt-ridden Florida Symphony Orchestra folded in April 1993 after 43 years of making music, it looked like dark days ahead for classical music in Orlando. But then Music Orlando, a group composed of FSO players who had been dedicated to playing chamber music concerts, stepped up its game. As their visibility increased­—they provided music for opera and ballet performances—so did their numbers. In 1996 they gave their first full-orchestra concert. The group renamed itself the Orlando Philharmonic Orchestra, and never looked back.

Christner’s Del Frisco’s
Prime Steak & Lobster This perennial favorite on Lee Road began in 1993 as Del Frisco's Prime Steak, a name borrowed from famed Del Frisco’s Double Eagle in Dallas. Owners Russ and Carole Christner took over next-door Morgan’s Lobster House in 2000, creating a meandering paean to sirloin and crustaceans. A change of ownership in Dallas means Carole and son David (Russ passed away in 2005) will phase out the Del Frisco’s name this year, but the classic food will remain.
—Barry Glenn and Joseph Hayes



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