Fishing for sport is one of the district’s winter attractions luring hundreds of visitors. The average weight of Osceola County black bass is said to be six pounds; the record, sixteen pounds, two ounces. Fishing camps, guides and boats are always accessible.
Returning from Kissimmee through Orlando again, it is a short drive northward to Sanford, at the head of navigation on the St. Johns River. Sanford is the capital of the world-famous region known as “The Celery Delta.” But before we reach it, suppose we turn off the highway, between Lake Mary and Longwood, to look at the oldest living object in the United States and the largest east of California. This is the Giant Cypress.
This great tree stands where it has stood for 3,500 years. That is the estimate foresters make of the age of this largest known specimen of “The Wood Eternal.” The only tree in North America that is known to be older stands in Mexico. Five hundred years before Homer wrote the Iliad, more than 1′,500 years before the birth of Christ, three thousand years and more before Columbus discovered America, this huge tree has stood. It has reached a diameter of 17Y2 feet. It may once have towered to a height of 300 feet, but its upper central branches were shattered by lightning in some prehistoric age, and its total height now is but 125 feet. A lightning rod guards it against future thunderbolts. The great tree and the land immediately surrounding it have been taken over by the county and designated as a public park, with provisions for its preservation against vandalism and forest fire.
Here in Seminole County we are still surrounded on all sides by citrus groves, but the great crop of this region is celery. From the 5,000 acres of celery fields lying in the tri angle enclosed by the lakes which form the headwaters of the St. Johns River, the annual yield of celery averages close to 2,000,000 crates, bringing into the district in hard cash from $3,000,000 a year upward, nearly half of which represents a clear profit to the growers and marketing agencies. The Sanford growers have developed celery culture to the peak of scientific perfection. Their methods have been adopted wherever celery is grown. Most of the hazards of celery cultivation have been eliminated through years of research and practical experience.
Celery growing is, in effect, a year-’round agricultural operation, requiring the investment of a large amount of capital to produce large returns. In addition to the cost of the land, which in this favored section may easily run to $500 an acre, including drainage canals and ditches, there is another $250 an acre or so to be invested in the necessary system of sub-irrigation, by which the water from flowing artesian wells is supplied to the growing plants in precisely regulated quantities. Fertilization for celery is expensive, but attempts at economy in the use of fertilizer usually result in a net loss on the season’s operation. Preparation of the seed bed begins in July, a measured area being sown daily for several weeks. In September transplantation of the young celery plants begins, proceeding on a planned time schedule so that the crop will come to maturity not all at once but day by day, enabling cutting and shipping to be planned to feed the celery into the market in a steady flow over a period of months, instead of having it all dumped at one time, with a resulting break in the price. As the celery stalks approach cutting time they are protected by the application of bleaching paper, applied vertically in long strips down both sides of each row, but tucked around each bunch of celery so as to keep the sun from reaching any part of the plant except the projecting upper leaves. Sunlight develops chlorophyll, the mysterious agent which turns growing things green, and celery eaters want their celery stalks white. Cutting and shipping celery begins in the Sanford district between Thanksgiving and Christmas and continues until June. In these seven months more than 5,500 carloads of celery roll northward out of Sanford.
It is 200 miles down the St. Johns River northward to Jacksonville. For many years the Clyde Line operated a passenger and express steamboat service on the river between these two points. It was abandoned partly because it seemed no longer profitable and partly because of the difficulties of navigation created by the pest of Florida’s fresh waters, the water hyacinth. This beautiful flower, whose purple blossoms and green leaves, spreading over and often completely covering the surface of streams and lakes, are greatly admired by tourists, constitutes a perennial and costly problem for which Florida has not yet found a practical solution.
This pestiferous vegetation was first introduced into Florida as a decorative plant, from its native habitat in Brazil. So long as it propagated only in the land-locked lake in which it was originally cultivated it did no harm; but in a flood season the hyacinths were washed out of the lake and scattered among the waterways of all Southeast Florida. They quickly increased and multiplied until by the time of the World War they had become so wide-spread as almost to preclude the navigation by small boats of many of Florida’s most popular streams, and before long they were even obstructing the channels and impairing the fishing in the larger rivers and lakes of Central and Southern Florida.
The water hyacinth germinates from seeds at the bottom of shallow fresh water ponds or sluggish streams. As soon as the young plants have developed the air sacs, like tiny green balloons, the roots come away and the whole plant rises to the surface, where the air sacs keep it afloat, and its leaves and blossoms develop. It gets its sustenance entirely from the water. Immensely prolific, it multiplies so rapidly that many instances are recorded of wide streams and good-sized lakes being so thickly covered with the water hyacinth that it was possible for a man to walk across them merely by laying a ten-foot board on top of the floating hyacinths, the sustaining power of the plants’ air sacs preventing him from sinking. Boat propellers quickly become fouled by the hyacinth; few canoeists care to undertake paddling through hyacinth-infested waters.
The floating plants are carried down by the current. If they reach salt water or even water that is moderately brackish they quickly die; but enough of them come to maturity in fresh water to drop their seeds where they will grow a new and bigger crop for the next season. Most of the communities in Florida fronting on fresh water lakes have to maintain crews of workmen whose job it is, by means of rake-like tools, to keep the waters free from the hyacinth. Numerous devices for the wholesale reaping of the hyacinth crop have been devised, but the most effective method is the use of horse-drawn harrow-like devices, which many farmers use, spreading the hyacinth over the land, where it has a considerable fertilizing value as it decomposes.
Poisonous sprays are effective against the water hyacinth, and there is no question that the pest could be exterminated by their use. The difficulty here is that Florida cattle are very fond of the water hyacinth in its green state, and will stand shoulder-deep in the shallow waters where it grows, to eat it. Since the cattle men who pasture their herds on unfenced land have been able to block every attempt at compulsory fencing laws, there is no way to keep cattle from eating the hyacinth in most of Florida’s streams and lakes, and the poison which kills the hyacinth also kills cattle. Therefore the state has not been able to put into effect the one method of exterminating the water hyacinth which has been proved successful by tests.
In spite of the difficulty of navigation caused by the water hyacinth, some enterprising young business men undertook in 1933 to revive cargo traffic on the St. Johns River. Using craft especially built for the purpose, Diesel-engined, shallow draft, broad of beam and sharp at the bow, this JacksonvilleSanford freight line has built up a carrying trade which covers all of central Florida by truck connections at Sanford, distributing merchandise from Jacksonville as far west as Tampa and as far south as Miami, and bringing back to Jacksonville shipments of citrus, celery and other products of South and Central Florida. One of Sanford’s local prides is that General U. S. Grant, when President, turned the first spadeful of earth for the town’s first railroad connecting Sanford with Tampa.
In and around Sanford there is an increasing influx of tourists and winter visitors, who find relaxation amid the restful surroundings of the Seminole County countryside.
The St. Johns River is fresh water all the way down to Palatka, 55 miles south of Jacksonville. One of the oldest communities in the state, Palatka is of special importance as the site of the largest cypress lumber mill in the world. The casual tourist around Florida can distinguish a cypress sawmill from a pine sawmill by the quantity of finished lumber piled up in the yards. It takes three years for cypress to season sufficiently for shipment. Once seasoned it lasts almost forever. When the great cypress doors of St. Peters in Rome were taken down after 1500 years of exposure to the weather they were found to be still in good condition.
Palatka is the center, too, of a wide area on both sides of the St. Johns River in which numerous old settlements, surrounded by old but still producing orange groves, furnish the winter homes of families who have been coming to this part of Florida annually for generations. Not far from Palatka are the Penney Farms, a philanthropic establishment endowed by James Cash Penney, the chain store magnate, as a place of refuge and retirement for superannuated Protestant ministers and their wives. The venerable parsons sink their denominational differences and live in peace and comfort, each in his own independent apartment or cottage, and thoroughly enjoy each other’s society.
The city is the trading center for the Hastings Irish potato district. At East Palatka is a unique Florida industry, a cannery for Irish potatoes.
Near Palatka, on the road to Jacksonville, is a winter resort, Green Cove Springs, whose popularity goes back to the days before the Civil War. Its center of attraction is a flow ing spring of pure water which has been developed for swimming and in connection with which a hydrotherapic institution is operated.
Palatka’s particular pride is its municipal azalea garden.
Although Palatka is recognized as one of the industrial centers of Florida, since 1932 it has taken its place as the site of one of the greatest tourist attractions in the state, the Ravine Gardens, where grow the largest single collection of azaleas in the world on public display. In a unique Florida setting of natural ravines eroded to a maximum depth of 120 feet by springs which flow from the hillsides, there are interspersed with magnolias, hickory, dogwood, live-oak, pine and bay, more than 105,000 azaleas, ranging from pure white to deep crimson, forming a blanket of color along the sides of the ravines while more than 2,000 Japanese magnolias, 11,000 palms and over 200,000 other tropical plants add to the beauty of the scene. A five mile winding drive encircles the 85 acres, with seven and a half miles of foot paths.