Florida may be perceived as a young state, but our history is centuries old and our pre-history dates back thousands of years. The Sunshine State has been built on a rich history of diverse peoples who lived here before us, as well as a diverse mix of peoples who now call Florida home. Today’s Floridians are proud of our heritage and committed to making it yet another reason to visit our beautiful state.
Sunshine State History
America’s fourth most populous state has been home to Native Americans for more than 12,000 years. Spanish explorers were the first Europeans to come to our land; in 1513 Ponce de Leon named our state after a holiday, Pascua Florida, the Feast of the Flowers, and in 1565 Pedro Menendez de Aviles founded St. Augustine, the oldest continuously occupied city in the continental United States. The French and British also controlled Florida during its colonial period, and symbols of their presence remain with us today.
Florida became a U.S. Territory in 1821 and a state in 1845, after planters from Virginia and other Southern states established cotton plantations in our fertile northern clay soils. And far to the south, the U.S. Navy installed a modern coaling station on an uninhabited island, Cayo Hueso (Key West). Florida seceded from the Union from 1861 to 1865, but afterward Congress enticed homesteaders to our peninsula. A state-designed 1880s railroad boom connected ports to the inland, accommodating trade and a burgeoning tourism industry rooted in Florida’s historic places and peoples and natural resources.
By the 1920s new, affordable automobiles and modern asphalt highways coming directly from Chicago and New York ushered in the Florida Land Boom and an influx of middle-class tourists. World War II brought intensive establishment of modern military installations. As the nation’s launching site for manned space flights beginning in the 1960s, Florida became the world’s premier gateway to space.
Sunshine State Heritage
With so much history, Florida has much to offer the heritage tourist. St. Augustine’s Castillo de San Marcos is a National Monument. Pensacola has four National Register historic districts, including the Pensacola Naval Air Station, a National Historic Landmark district. In Tallahassee, Mission San Luis tells the 1600s story of Apalachee Indians and Spanish clerics. A few miles away, the restored 1902 Capitol houses the new Florida Center of Political History and Governance.
In Miami, the 1920s Biltmore Hotel, a National Historic Landmark in Coral Gables, is near the internationally famous tourist destination, the Miami Beach Art Deco National Register Historic District. Heading toward the Keys, Henry Flagler’s 1912 Florida East Coast Railway Overseas Highway (the proposed Florida Keys Overseas Heritage Trail) still provides the sole overland link to Key West.
In Tampa, Ybor City, a National Historic Landmark district, celebrates Cuban, Spanish, and Italian heritage. The Greek community of Tarpon Springs represents Florida’s traditional sponge diving industry. The Zora Neal Hurston Festival is held annually in Eatonville which has a National Register historic district, and is the oldest African-American incorporated municipality in the nation.
Near Gainesville, tourists and residents alike flock to the home of Marjory Kinnan Rawlings and Dudley Farm Historic State Park. At Kennedy Space Center, Launch Pad Complex 39 is National Register listed because of exceptional significance in the development of the nation’s space program.
Sunshine State Preservation and Promotion
Florida’s heritage tourism, built upon four decades of programs defined by the National Historic Preservation Act, is supported by citizens, private corporations, and elected officials. This year, for the first time, Florida’s Division of Historical Resources initiated a study, Economic Impacts of Historic Preservation in Florida. Through a federally funded grant, the study examines direct economic benefits and concludes that for every dollar awarded in Florida’s historic preservation grants, two dollars return to the state in direct revenues. Total annual revenues from private investment, brick and mortar, and heritage tourism yield over $4 billion.
Florida communities such as the internationally acclaimed Miami Beach Art Deco District, Key West, Pensacola, St. Augustine, and Orlando are just a few that have benefited.
Some of the long-range effects of heritage tourism may be seen in partnerships which brought about the transformation of deteriorated 1930s Miami Beach Art Deco District neighborhoods. Since 1977 the investment of nearly $6 billion in private monies has returned nearly $73 million in federal income tax credits. These efforts restored hotels, restaurants, and neighborhoods, making the Art Deco District an international destination.
Today in St. Augustine, archeologists are uncovering the original 1565 site where Menendez occupied a Native American village. The National Park Service recently re-opened that city’s historic fort, the newly restored National Monument, Castillo de San Mar-cos. Two million tourists annually visit the Castillo and other sites such as the St. Augustine lighthouse -- the first in the nation to be transferred under the National Historic Lighthouse Preservation Act of 2000 from the Department of the Interior to private nonprofit ownership.
Florida State Parks were named America’s Best State Parks in 1999, in part because of the development of historical and archeological resource partnerships. Of 155 state parks, 46 have resources listed in the National Register of Historic Places. Since 1984 Florida’s state parks have successfully utilized nearly $4 million in state historic preservation grants for projects ranging from restoration to interpretive exhibits for public education. Fran Mainella, who led Florida State Parks for 12 years, was named director of the National Park Service in part due to her leadership in historic preservation during her tenure in Florida.
Many of Florida’s military installations are themselves historical treasures, and we have facilitated a partnership between our Division of Historical Resources and the Department of Defense to ensure their preservation. Many installations still utilize historic offices, homes, and hangars built during World War II. Eglin Air Force Base near Pensacola, for example, encompasses more than 1,300 recorded archeological sites and two National Register historic districts.
State acquisition of lands for both environmental and cultural reasons has also been a priority. Our current Florida Forever program, and its predecessor, Preservation 2000, have dedicated $300 million a year to purchase and protect more than 1.25 million acres. Outstanding historic and archeological sites purchased through these programs include the Key West Customs House, the Apalachee village site of de Soto’s 1539-1540 winter camp (now in the shadow of Florida’s Capitol), and the Letchworth Mounds in Jefferson County (containing the tallest earthen mound in the state).
Leadership for the Future
All these efforts will now be overseen and coordinated by the new Florida Historical Commission, created by legislation that I signed into law last year. Modeled after the successful Texas Historical Commission, the 11-member body combines both federal and state preservation responsibilities by making recommendations regarding everything from National Register listings to federal- and state-funded grants-in-aid to legislative initiatives. This timely initiative streamlines Florida’s commitment to pursue preservation as an economic engine responsive to the needs of one of the nation’s fastest-growing states.
In Florida we are very proud of our history and our status as the world’s premier visitor destination. The preservation of Florida’s historic fabric has required and received substantial commitment from the public and private sectors on an ongoing basis. This commitment is part of what Florida is all about. This stewardship preserves the properties and stories that will enable future generations of residents and visitors from throughout the world to experience our heritage. #ForumJournal
Publication Date: Fall 2002