Henry L. Carrigan, Jr.
I always thought I would live in Florida. I spent every summer of my childhood and youth in West Palm Beach, Florida, and loved it so much I went to college there. Of course, I spent most of my summer days at the beach, soaking up the sun’s renewing rays—who knew they weren’t good for you; it sure felt otherwise—surfing what passed for waves—the only time I caught some good waves was the day after a hurricane—fishing and riding small boats on the open ocean, and eating fresh oranges, grapefruit, mangoes and coconuts from the trees around our house.
Florida was a magical place for me when I was young. I loved to roll the names of the counties off my tongue (Volusia, Dade, Duval, Okeechobee). In the old days, the first number on license plates in Florida indicated a particular Florida county based on size; thus, if you saw a plate with a number 1, you knew the car was from Dade County (Miami); 2 was Duval (Jacksonville); 6 was Palm Beach County, and I still have one of those old license plates. I can remember how thrilled I used to be when the Sunday Palm Beach Post published every June a hurricane map. I always kept it and tracked every storm as it developed and moved our way or out of our way. I’ve even tracked a few storms as they passed right overhead and gone out in the front yard during the eye of the hurricane to marvel at the actual calm before the storm.
I collected all the postcards and brochures I could about Florida. I left no corner of the state unturned, and in my youthful zeal I even wrote an outline for a history of the state, or, more to the point, a kind of tourist guide to Florida.
When I was young, Florida still seemed like an old place, full of legends, pristine beaches and endless possibilities. Restaurants then sold little booklets about Florida history, and I picked up a few. I marveled at the 1928 hurricane that blew fiercely across West Palm Beach and into Lake Okeechobee, sweeping the water out of the lake and killing thousands of people in its wake. As a result of the hurricane—which struck long before the storms were named—the Army Corps of Engineers built a dike around the lake so that such an event would never happen again. This storm is the centerpiece of Zora Neale Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God. My fancy was also struck by the barefoot mailman, who walked on the beach from Miami to Melbourne, delivering mail to shacks in old Florida.
I can still recall my excitement every summer when we piled into the car—which did not have air conditioning; or better yet, which had 450 air conditioning: four windows rolled down with the car going 50 miles an hour—and headed down U.S. 17 toward West Palm Beach. The interstate highway system was just a twinkle in the eye of the federal government—I remember having one of my Dad’s friends take us down to a pretty desolate spot near Manning, South Carolina, and announcing that the new road was going to come through there—so we drove those two-lane blacktops through towns like Savannah and Brunswick, Georgia, and Jacksonville. While the highways ran through pine forests and scrub palm lowlands, they were also terrifying. I’ve seen more than one car pass another and not make it back to its rightful side of the road.
By the time we hit Florida, we got onto the mostly four-lane U.S. 1, the famous highway that stretched from Miami to Maine, and motored fancifully—though my Dad didn’t think so, I’m sure, with two kids arguing in the back seat—through what for me were jeweled Florida towns: St. Augustine, Cocoa Beach, Melbourne, Stuart, Fort Pierce, Vero Beach, Jupiter, Juno Beach, and West Palm. We often stopped off in St. Augustine to visit the Old Jail or the old Spanish fort; in Fort Pierce, we always stopped for boxes of fresh Indian River citrus and some of that ice-cold fresh squeezed orange juice (on a recent trip to Lakeland, I spent a day driving through groves near Lake Wales and Auburndale, stopping to guzzle some of that orange and grapefruit juice, which set memories of my youth coursing through my mind much like Proust’s madeleine.); took a break at Planter’s Peanut Shoppe somewhere outside of St. Augustine, where there stood—to my mind, anyway—a giant statue of Mr. Peanut; and watched some beautiful sunrises and sunsets rise and fall on the Indian or the Banana River. We often stopped off at Marineland, which opened in 1938, and is the reason that porpoise shows are so popular at today’s aquariums. By the time we pulled into Palm Beach County, weary after a twelve-hour road trip, the salt smell of the Intercoastal Waterway revived our spirits, as we looked forward to weeks of frolicking at the beach, fishing at the Juno beach Pier, eating Royal Castle hamburgers (which served tiny hamburgers washed down with their famous Birch Beer), and driving out to Lake Okeechobee and being terrified of swerving off of State Road 80 and into one of those legendary bottomless canals that lined both sides of the highway.
In the 1960s, Florida still seemed “old” to me, a wonderful paradise of clean beaches, mysterious legends, glittering downtowns (where movie theaters really did advertise air conditioning as a way to get cool and the where the screens were still big), and juicy citrus fruit. Back then, I had an unobstructed view of the ocean from the window of my grandparents’ house until Best Western built a hotel on the beach across the road. The state still had several natural wonders then, including the Everglades—now a shell of its former self—Homosassa Springs, the St. John’s River, the Indian River, even Lake Okeechobee.
By the early 1970s, though, I could feel the change in the air. Back in 1963, a visionary already known for some colorful animated films flew over central Florida and decided that he would build a tourist paradise near Orlando. The Mouse that roared destroyed “old” Florida as we knew it. All of a sudden rivers were diverted and the Disney folks were gobbling up land and diverting all roads to central Florida. Not only did the Disney monolith drain and divert rivers, encourage the construction of interstate highways, destroy cattle farms and citrus groves, and create an artificial world, it also sucked away the life of the small towns and the tourist attractions that defined old Florida.
When the park opened in 1972, Florida was a new place. Retirees moved in droves to new planned developments and the mobile home became a ubiquitous mode of living. The half-time residents of the state—who live there from November to April to avoid the snows of Milwaukee and Chicago—now roll in on I-95 or the Florida Turnpike, faceless and flat roads that stretch endlessly into the horizon, with few landmarks to indicate that you’re in the Sunshine State.
Although I had always thought I’d live in Florida, I had pretty much decided against it by the time I left in 1977. However, my love of my “old” Florida never left me, and I seek out the old whenever I can get down there or when I see a book about the Sunshine State.
To that end, I was so pleased to pick up recently (at BookExpo America) Gary Mormino’s superb walk down memory lane, Land of Sunshine, State of Dreams: A Social History of Modern Florida (University Press of Florida, 457 pages, $34.95, 2005). Mormino’s story begins in post-World War II Florida and moves up through the flawed Presidential election—in which the corrupt Florida governor and his cronies played such a major part—of 2000. For anyone interested in the history of Florida, for anyone new to the state who wants to learn about its recent past, and for anyone interested in how the Sunshine State has been transformed by many forces into a “land of dreams,” Mormino’s book is essential reading.
He covers a wide spectrum of topics, ranging from the internationalization of Florida and the graying of Florida (the retirement boom) to the changing face of tourism in Florida and the beach. On the changing face of tourism, for example: “On the eve of the Mouse, alligators still reigned as Central Florida’s cultural icon. In 1940, Owen Godwin bought 15 acres south of Orlando on U.S. 441. A third-generation Cracker, Godwin genuinely shared his love of natural Florida. Filling a pit with water and reptiles, he called his slice of paradise, Gatorland.” Those old enough will remember walking through huge gator jaws to enter the park.
Mormino also shrewdly observes that even the tourist attractions of old Florida were just as much Madison Avenue as natural phenomenon. “Cypress Gardens succeeded because it offered something for everyone . . . To a public not yet saturated by cable television and cynical about packaged entertainment, Dick Pope [who built Cypress Gardens] created something beautiful and entertained crowds with thrilling water sports and pure corniness (such as playing a piano on skis) . . . Florida’s Silver Springs [home of the famous glass-bottomed boats], Marineland, and Cypress Gardens were as much deliberate human constructions as they were natural phenomena. There was nothing inevitable about the invention or success of Sunken Gardens or Weeki Wachee [where mermaids entertained visitors and where women lined up to be one of the mermaids]. Neither tourism nor nature is destiny. In the end, tourism relies upon manufactures images, carefully crafted and packaged.”
On Florida’s agriculture: “Indian River oranges and Ruskin tomatoes, as much as the beach and postcard, helped shape Florida’s image as a winter paradise and bountiful dream state.”
The beach has come to define Florida, whether it’s the smooth sand of Daytona on which cars drive up and down or the white sands of Sanibel Island. It wasn’t always so; in 1870, Charles Pierce wrote that “the beach was as remote and forbidding as the vast Everglades. No one thought of building much near the ocean, because it would eventually sweep any structure away. Beach land was cheap, particularly compared to the good farmland behind it.” Not so in the twenty-first century when houses and condos dot the beaches of Palm Beach, Broward (Fort Lauderdale), and Dade (Miami) counties. “By 1950, Florida’s 35 coastal counties counted a population of 2 million, while 750,000 were scattered among the 32 noncoastal counties. Between 1950 and 2000, Florida’s coastal counties added 10 million new residents while noncoastal counties grew by slightly less than 3 million.”
Mormino writes his story with grace and eloquence. If you’ve ever been to Florida and fallen in love with the state (and I’m not talking about Disney World here, which isn’t Florida), Mormino’s beautifully evocative and elegant social history is for you.
Henry Carrigan dreamed of being a rock ‘n roll star with a life of coast-to-coast tours and wild parties with Van Morrison and Joni Mitchell among others. But books intervened, and instead he went to Emory University to major in Religion and Literature. Later, teaching humanities in college, he took up writing about books—this time to avoid reading students’ papers. Henry soon became Library Journal's religion columnist, then religion book editor for Publishers Weekly. While working as editor-in-chief for Northwestern University Press and editing classic books for Paraclete Press, he still continues to write for LJ and PW, as well as the Washington Post Book World, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, the Cleveland Plain Dealer, the Charlotte Observer, ForeWord magazine—and now, BiblioBuffet. And he still enjoys playing his guitar. Henry can be reached at