Around Florida – Historic St. Augustine and Daytona Beach

Forty-two years before Captain John Smith landed at Jamestown, and forty-seven years before the Dutch settled Manhattan, Pedro Menendez de Aviles and his Spaniards were building St. Augustine. For three hundred and seventy-two years St. Augustine has been continuously occupied by people speaking a European tongue. We look with veneration on the continuous records of the Plymouth colonists, yet here in St. Augustine are the parish records of the old church which run back to 1594, almost a century before William Penn landed on the banks of the Delaware to found his City of Brotherly Love.

The strongest impression which the visitor to St. Augustine receives from the moment he comes within sight of the ancient city gates is one of age, an impression emphasized by the sense of surprise at finding it so well preserved in a territory so new, for the most part, that it can hardly be said to have any history at all. One is impressed in St. Augustine with the feeling which ancient European cities give the sensitive traveler, a sense of continuity, of being a part of the stream of life and of time from the beginning of things.

Its antiquity has been St. Augustine’s chief lure, next to its climate, which it shares with the rest of Florida, since before there was a railroad leading to it. Until Henry M. Flagler, the pioneer railroad builder who opened up Florida’s East Coast to settlement and tourist traffic, had extended his rails southward, St. Augustine was and continued for many years to be the chief resort for winter tourists. Mr. Flagler, with admirable discrimination, determined to maintain the Spanish character of the town, and built his great hotel, the Ponce de Leon, which still dominates St. Augustine, in a style which his architects brought directly from Spain. Though most of the other huge caravanseries which Flagler erected farther south have been razed by wreckers or demolished by fire, this modern replica of a bit of the medieval still stands, and is scheduled to remain as the background tying together all the elements constituting the restored and reconstructed historical monument into which archaeologists, engineers and builders began to convert St. Augustine in the Spring of 1937.

Quite the most interesting, and quite possibly the most important development of recent years in Florida, if not of all time, is the program of historical restoration of St. Augus tine, under the joint auspices of the Carnegie Institution of Washington, with the Smithsonian Institution, the American Council of Learned Societies, the Social Science Research Council and the Carnegie Corporation of New York collaborating. With the completion of the project, the cost of which is expected to reach or exceed $9,000,000, under the direction of Dr. Verne E. Chatelain of the Carnegie Institution’s staff, men and woman of today and tomorrow will be able to walk through six centuries of history which represents the birth and growth of their own civilization.

The plan of the project is not to restore one period by itself, but to telescope the centuries, bringing the life of the aboriginal Timuquan Indians into clear focus side by side with all the succeeding centuries, the arrival of the Spanish, the French and the English and their struggles for supremacy over each other and over the wild land to which they had come and its savage inhabitants. The plan of depicting history “in the round” is to be carried down to the present day, thus making St. Augustine, the city itself, an epitome of American history from its beginning, as veritable as reproduction of a slice of our national past as the Rockefeller beneficence has made of Virginia’s ancient capital city of Williamsburg.

The means for the accomplishment of this project is a revolutionary venture in the field of history and science, for rather than relying on written records to reconstruct the story, as is the usual procedure of the historian, the pan-scientific method will be used; that is, all the arts and sciences will contribute their findings in this region to make a scientifically as well as historically accurate whole. The archaeologist, architect, engineer, geologist, astronomer, botanist, the student of cartography, physical and human geography, languages, medicine, agriculture, plant ecology, anthropology and paleontology will enlarge and enrich the story by their findings.

The restored St. Augustine will tell its own story, and the town will not be “frozen” into any period of its history, but all stages of its development will be represented. There may be a few instances where buildings representing one period of history will be reconstructed in detail, but the general plan is to give the visitor the feel of succeeding centuries. Many houses here today explain this plan. Built of coquina, a sea shell material hardening like concrete, peculiar to this region and distinctly American, these houses have the Spanish features of windowless north walls, gardens and patios facing south, overhanging balconies, living rooms on the second floor, and the added English features of gable roofs and chimneys. But the balconies themselves are not quite like the balconies of Europe. Therefore, in one house may be represented the story of the Spanish and the English occupation, flavored with the personality that is American. It is that blending of old civilizations with the distinctively American flavor that gives St. Augustine a personality which is unique.

These monuments might be called the body of the picture. The work of giving it color, richness and life will be in the studies of folk-lore, traditions, religious observances, to the end of staging historical plays, pantomimes, pageants, festivals, fiestas and pilgrimages in order that those traditions which are the heritage of the people may again become part of their consciousness. Creative activity and the desire to preserve folk skills, home manufacture of handicrafts, such as linen and lace making, traditional domestic food and dishes, stories and literature will all contribute.

In order that the scene may achieve a harmonious and esthetic whole the city has been replanned for the construction of boulevards, promenades and parks; traffic will be rerouted out of the historic areas and parking lots will be developed. Anachronistic buildings will be razed; overhead wires, signs, poles and other disfiguring objects will be removed.

The Historical Museum will be the final achievement of this project, the thing which will tie the completed venture into a perfect whole, a depository of culture presenting in objective fashion the complete story of St. Augustine by means of period rooms, each containing dioramas, models, pictures, charts of explanation, and artifacts relating to single stages in this history. With these objective realities the visitor may then go out to intelligently visit the actual sites.

The philosophy of the project is to achieve the thing beyond research; the educational use of this site. To quote Dr. Chatelain’s report of the preliminary survey which was com pleted in March, 1937, the plan will “result in making St. Augustine a great laboratory of history, as well as in the fine arts and social democracy, useful not only in understanding more fully how life progresses, but effective because of its objective realism, far more than books and classrooms can be, in educating all classes of citizens in what may be termed `historical mindedness.’ ”

The first few months of work on this gigantic project resulted in the tentative verification of the claim of “the oldest house in the United States” to that title, dating it back to, at latest, the late 1500’s, while at the same time scientific research shifted the reputed ages of some other St. Augustine buildings from one century to another. The beginning of actual restoration was made at the ancient city gates, with the discovery and re-excavation of the old moat.

The inspiration for this huge project came in the first instance from Mr. Walter B. Fraser, mayor of St. Augustine. Mr. Fraser is manager of the Fountain of Youth Gardens, St. Augustine’s most popular tourist resort, where thousands flock daily during the season to drink of the clear, sweet water, although no pretension is made of its medicinal value and it is doubtful whether Ponce de Leon ever found the miraculous Fountain of Youth except in his dreams.

In 1934 workmen digging holes in which to plant orange trees in the Fountain of Youth Gardens unearthed a human skeleton. Further digging uncovered more bones. It was apparent that this had been the site of an ancient cemetery. Recalling the tradition that the Indian village of Seloy, described by early historians, had stood at or near this spot, Mr. Fraser appreciated the possible archaeological value of the discovery and asked the Smithsonian Institution to send a scientific research man down to St. Augustine. Dr. M. W. Sterling, ethnologist of the Smithsonian, came down and identified the skeletons as Indians. Mr. J. Ray Dixon of the Smithsonian staff and an archaeologist of note, directed the uncovering of the entire area, disclosing hundreds of skeletons which had been buried under Christian influence, as indicated by the postures with the hands crossed over the breast.

This was regarded by the Smithsonian as a highly important archaeological discovery, and the greatest pains were taken to collect and study the beads, decorations and other artifacts which had been buried with the bodies, while the dirt was carefully scraped and brushed away from the skeletons, leaving each undisturbed in the position in which it was found exposed upon a pillow of earth and with the bones treated with a preservative to guard against disintegration by exposure to the open air.

Housed under a thatched log structure built after the style of the Timuquan council houses, the Indian graveyard became an added attraction for tourists; but of far greater conse quence, his observation of the methods of archaeological research by Mr. Dixon and his associates and the precision with which science could deduce historical facts and events from the study of the tangible relics of an earlier day, impressed Mr. Fraser with the possibility of applying such methods to the study of the entire ancient city. He went to Washington and there found that Dr. John C. Merriam, president of the Carnegie Institution, and his staff, had been casting about for an opportunity to put their combined knowledge and resources to work upon just such a project. As a background they had the voluminous records of the early Spanish explorers and governors of American colonies, which a corps of research workers had been digging out of the royal archives in Spain for a quarter of a century.

The National Park Service, whose interest arose from its custody of Fort Marion, the well-preserved ancient Spanish fortress which has long been one of the principal tourist attractions of St. Augustine and which is now a National Monument, was also called into consultation. The result was the establishment of the National Committee for the Preservation and Restoration of St. Augustine, and the working out of a plan of cooperation between the various agencies already named. The actual work of restoration began in March, 1937, on a program planned to cover several years, and to make of St. Augustine the chief center of historical information and study of the life of pioneer America.

The program of restoration and research was hardly under way before its effects began to be observable in a new influx of visitors and a rising demand for permanent residences. During the real estate boom of 1925 a pretentious development was begun on Anastasia Island, lying between St. Augustine and the ocean, across the narrow sound known as the Matanzas River. The project collapsed with the collapse of the boom, but it left St. Augustine with its beautiful “Bridge of Lions” leading to the Island, where the concrete seawalls, paved streets and other improvements provided ample room for population growth for years to come. Good roads lead across the Island to the ocean side, where a fine beach provides sea bathing, while southward through the middle of the island a fine state highway has been built, connecting at its lower end, sixteen miles south of the city, with the shore drive on the mainland.

The first French expedition to land on the coast of Florida entered the harbor of St. Augustine and sailed through the Matanzas River in the summer of 1564. Their captain, Lau donniere, named it “The River of the Dolphins,” a name which would be still appropriate today, for one of the most interesting sights for those who come to Florida merely to take their ease in comfort under the winter sun is to watch the dolphins (which we call porpoises) frolic and leap in great schools up and down the Matanzas River.

If, instead of following the main highway south from St. Augustine, the motorist crosses the Matanzas River over the Bridge of Lions and drives the length of Anastasia Island over the fine new state highway No. 140 he can cross Matanzas Inlet by bridge or ferry to reach two of Florida’s most interesting spots. One is old Fort Matanzas, scene of the massacre of 300 French Huguenots in 1565 by the Spanish under Menendez. Fort Matanzas has been made a National Monument and is under the jurisdiction of the National Park Service.

Seaward from the highway is Florida’s newest town, Marineland, where a unique and truly amazing institution, the Marine Studios, has been established. Headed by Cornelius Vanderbilt Whitney, a group of prominent New Yorkers have formed a corporation with half a million dollars in capital, which constructed in 1937 a gigantic scenic aquarium in which large sea creatures never before seen in captivity are on public exhibition under conditions which not only make it possible for visitors to see them from above but to view them from below the water level. Sharks, tuna, porpoises, the giant manta, swordfish, marlin, barracuda and possibly even small whales, if opportunity offers to capture one, may be seen swimming and feeding in their natural element.

The inspiration for this project came from W. Douglas Burden, a young scientist of the staff of the American Museum of Natural History. Scientists have had little opportunity to study marine life under controlled conditions, and the need for such facilities was felt. With the cooperation of Ilia Tolstoy, grandson of the great Russian novelist, and Roy P. Gates, a plan for meeting this need was developed. The resulting Marine Studios consist, primarily, of two huge open air tanks. One is a rectangle, 40 x 100 feet; the other a circular tank of 75 feet diameter. Both are made of steel, and are fitted with portholes around the sides through which visitors can observe the life and actions of the big fish. Watertight galleries enable observers to view the interior of the tanks from three different undersea levels, and also to look upward through the bottom of the rectangular tank. Difficult engineering problems had to be solved, to build suspended tanks so that the interiors would be visible from all angles, and to make the portholes absolutely free from leakage. The tanks are constructed of electrically-welded steel plates, lined inside with a two-inch non-chipping cement enamel.

An immense amount of scientific research was necessary before work on the Marine Studios could be begun. Specimens of seawater from both the Atlantic and Pacific coasts were studied, before it was decided where to locate the studios. It was necessary to find a place where the water was at a constant temperature the year around. Moreover, the water must be crystal-clear, otherwise the principal purpose, that of observing and studying sea creatures, would be defeated. Water from many sources was sent to the New York Aquarium and placed in the tanks there. At last a specimen of seawater obtained from the ocean near the Matanzas Inlet was found not only to have the requisite clarity but to have other properties which no other water had. Fish placed in this water, Dr. Charles M. Breder of the Aquarium reported, seemed to be rejuvenated. This water had been pumped up through a large deposit of coquina, lying four or five feet below the sand about 200 feet from the shore. The coquina apparently acted as a filter, and the supply of water for the Marine Studios’ tanks is obtained in the same way, pumped through the coquina bed and into the tanks at the rate of 3,600 gallons a minute.

For capturing big fish alive a special boat has been built, equipped with a large submersible cage into which fish can be herded after being hooked or netted, and towed to Marineland to be floated from the cage into one of the tanks.

Besides the scientific study possibilities in a field about which zoologists and biologists as yet know little, the Marine Studios make a fascinating educational exhibit. Because of the clearness of the water and the possibility of illuminating the interior of the tanks from all sides and below as well as from above, underwater movies of a quality never before achieved are also possible.

The back country behind St. Augustine, lying between the ocean and the St. Johns River, is, naturally, the oldest agricultural region in Florida. Here citrus culture began. The Spanish settlers planted orange and lemon trees and some of the finest orange groves in Florida are to be found here in St. Johns county, many of them having records of continuous production for more than a century. A few miles southwest of St. Augustine lies the town of Hastings, which is the center of the white potato cultivation in Florida. From Hastings and its appropriately named nearby railroad station, “Spuds,” are shipped annually nearly three-quarters of the million-bushel potato crop grown in St. Johns and Flagler counties.

It is an intensively agricultural background which lies back of the seaside winter resorts through which the main highways leading south take us on our trip around the state. Crescent Beach, Flagler Beach, Ormond Beach, where the late John D. Rockefeller maintained his winter home for so many years, and the back country communities lying between the ocean and the St. Johns all have their special attraction for winter vacationists and most of them have developed a permanent clientele among people who go to Florida not in search of excitement but for restful relaxation and sunshine.

Daytona Beach, fifty-seven miles south of St. Augustine and ninety-seven from Jacksonville, is distinctly a resort city, whose 20,000 permanent residents are about equally divided between settlers from the North who have retired on their incomes and picked this spot as the one they liked best in Florida, and those who earn their living by catering to the needs and tastes of the floating population of winter and summer vacationists. It is so typical in almost every respect of what Florida offers to tourists and to those seeking year-’round homes for their declining years that it is of interest to examine Daytona Beach in some detail, as representing the golden mean between the extremes of extravagant luxury and ostentation on one hand and the monotony of the severely simple life on the other.

One may, it is true, live as luxuriously in Daytona Beach as anywhere else in Florida, and many persons of wealth have built themselves fine mansions here. But there is no encourage ment of nor facilities for the gay night life and boisterous excitement which some other Florida resorts offer to those whose tastes run to such things. One may live at Daytona Beach as simply and economically as he chooses and still participate in everything which the community has to offer to its guests. The major part of the vacationists who come to Daytona Beach, however, are neither the ultra-rich nor those who have to calculate the precise value of every penny they spend. The result is that Daytona Beach, at the height of its winter season, is a representative cross-section of middle-class America enjoying itself in Florida; and Daytona Beach’s season is steadily growing longer at both ends as increasing numbers of people are realizing the truth that there are far less comfortable, though widely advertised, places in which to spend a summer vacation than the shores of Florida. The slogan of Daytona Beach is: “It’s Warmer in Winter and Cooler in Summer,” and the weather bureau records, showing a winter average of 63 degrees and a summer average of 79, tends to bear out that claim.

The city of Daytona Beach lies on both sides of the Halifax River, another of Florida’s salt water sounds forming a part of the intra-coastal waterway system. Its beach has been in ternationally famous from the earliest days of motoring. Here for nearly forty years the world’s speed records have been established, and the most spectacular motor races have been held. The hard-packed sand of the almost perfectly level beach makes a race-track 600 feet wide and 26 miles long in the straightaway. No other speedway in the world equals it, except possibly the salt flats of Utah, where Sir Malcolm Campbell, in 1936, for the first time drove a car at 300 miles an hour. The city of Daytona Beach has an outstanding offer of a cash prize of $10,000, which has been augmented by private subscriptions to nearly double that sum, to any racing motorist who will bring the world’s speed record back to Florida, where Sir Malcolm in 1935 pushed his “Blue Bird” along the beach at the rate of 276 miles an hour.

Automobile racing, however, is only an occasional high spot of excitement in the life of Daytona Beach, although motorists and motorcyclists among the visitors find a large part of their recreation and enjoyment in motoring up and down its broad expanse. A large part of the life of Daytona Beach is lived in bathing suits, in or out of the water. One wears a bathing suit to go fishing, either surf-casting from the beach, by handline from one of the fishing piers, or going out seriously in a chartered boat after the big ones off-shore.

The chartering of motor boats for deep-sea fishing parties is not listed in any of the statistical records of Florida’s income-producing operations, but it must rank as an important, if not a major industry. At every point along the coast where there is a safe harbor for small craft, and that means practically everywhere, there are fishing boats for charter parties, owned and manned by skilful sailors who are also experts in the art of fishing and who, for a charge which usually runs about $30 a day, will take a party of amateurs, usually six, out to where the fish are running and all but guarantee good catches for those who are willing to follow instructions about bait, tackle and technique.

There is good fishing off any part of Florida’s coast, anywhere at any time. While certain areas are associated in the minds of sportsmen with certain varieties of fish, every kind of salt water fish found anywhere in the Gulf of Mexico, or in the range of the Gulf Stream on the Atlantic side of Florida, can be caught anywhere else in those waters.

Tarpon fishing has been exploited by annual contests and prizes on the Gulf Coast until many think of tarpon as exclusively a Gulf fish; but tarpon running up well over one hundred pounds are not infrequently taken in the waters close to Daytona. While the largest tarpon on record ever caught by rod and reel was taken off the coast of Mexico and weighed 242Y2 pounds, the largest fish of this variety ever put on the scales was taken in a net by commercial fishermen at the Indian River inlet at the lower end of Daytona Beach. Hundreds of tarpon are caught every year off Ponce de Leon inlet at Daytona. Bluefish, amberjack, sea-bass, salt-water trout, red snappers, sheepshead, pompano and the gigantic jewfish, which averages 150 pounds and frequently exceeds 500, are only a few of the varieties of fish which anglers going out from Daytona Beach may expect to bring home.