We had started to follow the shore of the Gulf of Mexico and have been working back toward it. It is a matter of only forty-odd miles directly west of Gainesville to our first glimpse of the far-famed Suwannee River, which we cross at Old Town, and resume our northward trek, through the still heavily forested Gulf-border counties of Dixie and Taylor, on to Perry with its gigantic cypress mills. This part of the Gulf shore is, next to the Everglades, the wildest and least developed part of Florida. Its forests are full of big game-and we mean big game-and the lakes and innumerable swampy streams which flow southwestward into the Gulf between the Suwannee and the Apalachicola are filled with game fish.
We are heading for West Florida, but to reach it we have first to travel northward and inland to Tallahassee. The natural route for a Gulf Coast Highway would be to cut across Jeffer son County in a straight line westward from Perry to Wakulla, but the engineering difficulties of road-building over marshy ground, and the great number of streams to be spanned by bridges, dictated the postponement of that section of the planned road, spoken of locally as the “Perry cut-off.” The highway, therefore, continues northwesterly from Perry to Tallahassee, the state capital, before it swings again, southward, to the shore of the Gulf.
One of the elements of Florida’s charm is that she shows such a bewildering variety of faces to those who visit her. No two spots in Florida are alike. Each community, each county, each geographical section, has characteristics all its own, so that it is as impossible to generalize truthfully about any part of the state as it is about the state as a whole. Not many years ago it was sufficient description of West Florida, the horizontal strip stretching westward from the Suwannee River, to say that it was the old agricultural section of the state, far more akin to the bordering states of Georgia and Alabama than to the newer Florida of the peninsula. To a degree, that is still true. Here, in this tier of counties lying north of the Gulf of Mexico, more of the spirit of the Old South, its manners and customs and outlook on life, has been preserved than in any other part of Florida. But it is in this same section that the most striking new industrial developments in Florida are under way, and now that modern highways have made West Florida accessible to the motorist, winter visitors to Florida have begun to discover its hills and its rivers and beaches, to be charmed by the unspoiled simplicity of its countryside and intrigued by the opportunities for exploitation and development which it offers.
The nearly 200 miles of coastline running roughly east and west between Apalachicola and Pensacola was the last stretch of Florida waterfront to become accessible by motor car. The Gulf Coast Highway, a wide, paved, level road, has opened up a region which tourist visitors to the Florida peninsula are just beginning to discover. These beaches and little towns along the Gulf were inaccessible from East or West but only from the North until the new highway was finished. Georgia and Alabama knew them, and so did the inland people of this strip of Florida. For generations they have been summer resorts for the folk from the hot, upland cotton country. Now they are beginning to attract winter visitors and to grow, perhaps faster than most other parts of Florida, in their permanent year’round population.
Tallahassee, seat of the state government, always surprises the visitor from outside by the steepness of its hills. The atmosphere of Tallahassee is that of a typical southern city. It has remained almost untouched by the influences brought into eastern and southern Florida by the new population from the North and the winter influx of tourists. The state Capitol and other public buildings follow closely the general American pattern for such structures. Besides being the capital of the state Tallahassee is the trading center for a broad agricultural area extending many miles in all directions. It is, consequently, the focus from which the major highways of all of West Florida radiate.
Tallahassee is the exact east-and-west center of Florida, 213 miles from Pensacola on the West and the same distance from St. Augustine on the East. Its site was selected in 1823 by two commissioners. A Dr. Simmons set out from Pensacola, the territorial capital of West Florida, to meet a Mr. Williams, the commissioner from St. Augustine, the territorial capital of East Florida, to locate a central point between the two at which the new single capital of the Territory of Florida should be established.
Florida had been ceded to the United States two years before, in 1821; but while it was a single territory its people had attempted to administer its affairs from two separate capi tals. The country of the lower peninsula, unsettled and uninhabited except by Seminole Indians, runaway slaves and fugitives from justice, did not figure in their calculations. It was agreed that Dr. Simmons and Mr. Williams should start, each of them at the same hour of the morning of the same day, and travel along the Indian trail on horseback until they met, and the place of their meeting should be the location of the new capital. It was a rough-and-ready but practical way, and much less costly than a scientific survey would have been, to find the east-and-west center of the Territory. Each took twenty-three days on the journey, and when they arrived at a little Indian settlement in the hills each had travelled approximately the same distance, 213 miles.
The Indians called their hill town Tallahassee, meaning “place consecrated to the Sun Gods,” and the territorial government at its first legislative council, held in a log cabin on a corner of the present State House grounds, on November 8, 1824, decided to retain that name for the new capital.
The designation by the Indians of Tallahassee as “place consecrated to the Sun Gods,” is supposed to refer to a Spanish mission which had been founded at this spot in 1704 and where the Franciscan fathers first preached Christianity to the Indians of inland Florida. Even though their conversions did not last, the sanctity of their mission and its high purpose was apparently recognized and respected by the savages. The mission was guarded by a fortified stockade called Fort San Luis, but both were abandoned early in the 18th century after frequent raids by English settlers and their Indian allies from the North, and the only traces found of this earliest settlement at Tallahassee were a cannon and some iron implements half buried along the road to St. Augustine.
In pre-Civil War days Tallahassee was the chief center of fashionable and cultural life in Florida. The present Capitol building was begun in 1839 and completed in 1845, the year when Florida was admitted to statehood.
Apart from the state government departments and buildings, the most important and interesting institution in Tallahassee is the Florida State College for Women, beautifully housed in a Tudor-Gothic group of vine-covered buildings which in themselves surround the school with an atmosphere of learning. The resemblance to some of the ancient schools of England has been frequently commented upon, although the college only dates from 1912. More than 2,000 students are enrolled in the college of Arts and Sciences, the School of Education, the School of Home Economics and the School of Music. It was the first State College for Women to be admitted to membership in the Southern Association of Colleges and Secondary Schools, and also the first State Women’s College in the South to gain a place on the approved and accredited list of universities of the Association of American Universities, the highest accrediting authority in America’s educational field.
Another important educational institution in Tallahassee is the Florida Agricultural and Mechanical College for Negroes, situated on a 350-acre tract and equipped with fine buildings and dormitories. It operates on a system which makes it available in one way or another to every young Negro in the state seeking and qualified for higher education. There is a Summer school, with five short courses for those who can give no more time to schooling; a School of Agriculture, Home Economics, Liberal Arts and Sciences, Mechanical Arts, and Nurses Training School. The attendance is about 700 young colored men and women annually.
An interesting historical point off the main highways, south of Tallahassee on a long arm of Apalachee Say, is the old settlement of St. Marks. It was long a military center of border warfare. The English built a fort there in 1718 as a protection for the commerce of their little port against the Apalachee Indians. In 1798, after Florida had come back under the Spanish flag and England had lost all of its colonies to the northward, General William Bowles, a fire-eating royalist, attempted to regain Florida for the British crown. He enlisted the Creek Indians, and with their cooperation seized the Fort of St. Marks. He did not hold it long. General Jackson occupied it in 1818 on his march to Pensacola Bay. In 1836 the first railroad line in Florida was built from Tallahassee to St. Marks. During the Civil War the Confederates won a victory here in the historical battle of Natural Bridge. The Natural Bridge is a level tract of ground under which the St. Marks River dives, to reappear at the surface farther on.
A few miles south of Tallahassee on the way to Apalachicola one passes one of the most pleasing natural beauty spots in all Florida. This is Wakulla Spring, only lately becoming widely known, attracting an increasing number of visitors. A mile and a half off the main highway, reached by a winding drive through thick forests, Wakulla Spring has a wild beauty and charm which has not been spoiled by artificial attempts to prettify its surroundings. The spring itself rises from a cavern deep in the lime-stone rocks, 200 feet or more below the surface of the broad, crystal-clear lake which its waters form. Great shoals of fish, fantastic grottos in the rock and curious forms of under-water vegetation make the trip around the lake in the glass-bottomed boats seem like peeking through a crack in a door opening on a strange and unknown world. An amusing spectacle for tourists is the curious antics of “Henry, the pole-vaulting fish,” who performs on command at the bottom of the spring. The waters flow out of the spring at the rate of more than 150,000 gallons a minute, forming a river which furnishes a unique opportunity to observe much of the typical wild life of Florida at close range without discomfort. Almost every variety of wild fowl, especially cranes, herons and ducks of many kinds, nests and feeds along the wooded shores, while many kinds of reptilian life, turtles, alligators and serpents, are to be seen swimming in the waters or basking on the banks, with a keen-eyed guide in the boat to quickly point out and identify these and the luxuriant vines and trees along the banks.
Edward Ball, brother-in-law of the late Alfred I. Dupont and manager of his estate, has spent half a million dollars in the development of Wakulla Spring.
Apalachicola, at the mouth of the river of the same name, was a seaport before the white men came to Florida. Up and down the Apalachicola River, which is still navigable for small craft and cargo barges clear across Florida and well up into Georgia, the Indians from the interior were paddling their canoes to trade with those along the shore of the Gulf, when Hernando DeSoto first landed here to repair his ships in the natural harbor and establish a base of operations for his expedition to discover the fabulous riches of the hinterland. The King of Spain had commissioned him Adelantado or GovernorGeneral of Florida, with authority to raise the flag of Spain and the Holy Cross of Mother Church over all the land he might discover, and to keep for himself half of the treasure he might find or take from the heathen natives.