Florida's Sesquicentennial
as a State

By Frank Howard
December 19, 1994

Florida began seeking statehood in 1839 when it drew up a proposed state constitution. It became a state in March 1845 after President John Tyler , on his last day in office, signed the act granting statehood as the 27th State to join the Union.. The Territory of Florida was not a populous place at that time as there were estimated to be only about 55 to 60,000 people, counting slaves and Indians (these latter two groups comprised almost half of that population), in the whole state. Many were attracted to the new state as the population had soared to some 150,000 people by the onset of the Civil War.

Wakulla County, as you recall, was carved out of the oversized Leon County just 2 years before statehood (1843).

Florida withdrew from the Union in January 1861 and remained an Independent Nation until April of that year. Although the State of Florida then joined the Confederacy, some notable portions remained under Federal Authority. (Key West and the fortifications at Pensacola being the most important.) Key West was already one of the largest and most prosperous cities and it's fortifications were certainly needed in time of war.

As has been recounted on these pages, many Floridians contributed to the war efforts. Recall what has been written about the manufacture of salt here in Wakulla and adjacent counties and realize most populated coastal counties were busy in the same process of dodging Federals in very localized but still active warfare. Elsewhere some 16 to 17,000 Floridians went off to war. (Plus some 1,000+ more who felt strongly enough to join the other side, the Federal Forces.) By 1865 some 5,000 of this group would be dead. This figure may seem small compared to population numbers of today, so, put them in perspective by noting the number of registered voters then to be about 15,000 for the state!

Although spared the agony of a military capture (by the action in Wakulla County at the Battle of Natural Bridge) only a short time later, May 1865, Tallahassee was flying the Federal flag over the capitol building. This signaled the beginning of the Carpetbagger period. During the period to about 1870, Florida was racked by an epidemic of terrorism brought on by the wave of outsiders being placed in government positions who were little more than cheats and swindlers. This period of time has been labeled a "Tragic Era" and also as a time when Florida was "putrid."

Also during this time Florida's population had grown to some 190,000. By the 1880's many things had happened to bring a little prosperity to Florida. The first being the expansion of the citrus industry. The second was the influx of railroads, in the Tampa area and then the great railroad from Jacksonville toward Key West (the Key West "Extension " was not completed until 1912, just two years before the first airline in Florida was established). Phosphate was discovered and shipments of this mineral began.

An interesting side note for this period is Earthquakes in Florida! A total of 3 occurred during 1879 and 1880. The two quakes of 1879 were of intensity VI (Mercalli Scale). Rest easy, as the only other shocks felt in Florida were from quakes in other areas.

1898 was a good year for Florida development. The Spanish-American War brought many U. S. Troops into camps at Tampa, Miami, and Jacksonville. Many of these troops would later return as tourists and new residents.

The series of cold years of the middle 90's culminated in the great freeze of 1899 which ended the citrus industry in the northern part of the state. The record for statewide snowfall during this year still stands. The population has, by now, grown to over 500,000 for the state.

1901 saw the great fire of Jacksonville which destroyed over 2,000 buildings including 10 hotels and over 20 churches. Almost 150 city blocks were destroyed.

1915-20 saw preparations for, and service in, World War I. This included such as the first successful carrier launched aircraft at Pensacola and the first guided missile testing at Arcadia.

As has been noted on these pages in the past, 1920 is well remembered in Wakulla county as the year farmers had to began tick killing programs and dipping vats for cattle became a necessity . Florida now had a population of almost 1,000,000 .

The Great Hurricane of 1928 was probably the greatest disaster of all time as it killed so many people not all were ever counted (many were migrant workers). Estimates are in excess of 2000 dead, so many that funeral pyres were required to take care of the large numbers of bodies. This writer's grandfather was a Marshal stationed in that area at the time. He noted gangs of people would descend on the rail cars of food sent in as relief and attempt to take the foodstuffs by armed force . Some were shot doing so.

The 1930's saw another killer storm (in 1935 - 400 killed). Also a real growth spurt occurred in population , especially in white people, as the population was now almost 2,000,000 with only about one fourth non-white. In the past the population was generally close to 50% white-nonwhite with a gradual increase in percentage of white people beginning after the Civil War.

The 30's saw a tremendous growth in trucking and truck farming as roads were being improved and paved. 1939 also marked the beginning of the Highway Patrol and the introduction of State Game Wardens.

The 1940's saw war coming as in 1941 aliens were rounded up from all over Florida. Many were housed, of all places, in the Orange Bowl Stadium. There were several incidents of spies being landed on our shores only to be captured. Such was the case for 2 spies over on the Apalachicola River whose camp was discovered by one of those "1939 model" Florida Game Wardens.

World War II brought many people to Florida. Here in the Bend area some of our beaches became off-limits to us as war games were played out on them with mockup landing craft. Other beaches such as Alligator Point and St. George Island felt the thud and thunder of thousands of 50 caliber ammunition rounds as fighter planes shot at targets nearby.

Panama City became a ship building center as people from there and the surrounding counties became pipe fitters and welders turning out Liberty ships. Pensacola was already the "Annapolis of the Air", but it quickly increased many fold as the thousands of needed Navy Fliers were trained there. Panama City also became the site of a large Air Force gunnery school. Many thousands of rounds were fired into sand dunes there.

This writer's family displayed a 4-star flag in the front window of our home. Late in the war one of the stars was changed to a gold star. One hated to see those gold stars displayed especially when there was only the one star in the window as it meant, for too many of us, a Dad or a brother would not be returning home.

As was the case after those other wars, many of those stationed in Florida returned as either tourists or residents. Ask those of Wakulla County about the time when the trains passed through (Sopchoppy and ...) with all those G.I. faces showing in the windows, how many local young ladies smiled and waved so vigorously as to attract some one back to the area. Anyway, by 1950 the population is almost 3,000,000!

By this time frozen Orange Juice is the thing and the citrus industry is big. Florida beef cattle industry is ranked 12th in the nation. And the first rocket is launched from Cape Canaveral. The quest for space travel is on and Florida is the place for it.

The 1950's saw other large developments such as the Jim Woodruff dam at Chattahoochee. Began in 1947 and completed in 1957. An interesting note here is that many of the little used hardwoods cut from the intended lake bottom (1949-50) were sawn into crossties for foreign railroads, a number of these going to a place soon to be on everyone's mind; Korea. The Federal Highway Act of 1956 began all our Interstate highway system including some 1500 miles in Florida.

Now somewhere around 10,000,000, Florida's population seems to be increasing by doubling every few years. Where do we put the next 10 million? In 1906 there were 296 automobiles in Florida, not even 90 years later there are some 10,000,000 motor vehicles or about one for every pocket. Where do we park the next 10 million? Are we studying the course we have been on well enough to know it is the one we want to remain on for the future of our State. Are we studying and remaining mindful of the mistakes of our past enough to guide us around similar ones in the future.

more articles by F. Howard
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