Florida: Weird, Wonderful, Unique

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Sands of Time

“Florida is America’s weirdest state, and also the one with the greatest influence on the other 49,” declared Craig Pittman to open his public presentation for the Estero Island Historic Society on Monday evening, February 11.

In his engaging, funny and wide-ranging presentation to an eager audience of 60 EIHS members and friends, Craig recounted some of the wilder stories from Florida’s history and culture, while showing how Florida-born trends have reverberated  throughout the United States. He brought along copies of his latest New York Times best-seller, Oh, Florida! for purchase by attendees.

Craig Pittman is co-author of Paving Paradise: Florida’s Vanishing Wetlands and has published several other books on Florida-related and environmental topics.

A native of Pensacola, Pittman has written about environmental issues since 1998 for the Tampa Bay Times. “I get to cover a lot of the really weird, wacky stuff,” he said. “Like pythons wrestling alligators for supremacy of the Everglades!”

Pittman noted various cheeky nicknames for Florida: The Punchline State, Gunshine State, Sinshine State. “Florida has weirdness everywhere you look,” the author said. Growing up in this state, driving through it or visiting as a tourist gives a glimpse, but to truly grasp the depth of Florida’s uniqueness requires a plunge into the past.

For example, the state’s first flag, flown in 1845, bore the simple motto: “Leave us alone.” Florida has earned many superlatives.

Florida has the most . . .

  • First-magnitude springs, by volume of water. Warm Mineral Springs became a medical-tourist haven for the supposed healing properties of its waters, while Weeki-Wachee turned into a tourist attraction featuring live “mermaids.”
  • Sinkholes – “some so large they could become a Disney attraction: Journey to the center of the earth.”
  • Fake dinosaurs, including 249 at Dinosaur World (there had been 250, but one was stolen).
  • Nudist colonies (for obvious reasons).
  • Places named after hell, or with that word in their name – including a local bay, Hell Peckney.
  • Invasive species in the USA, from the wetlands-strangling melaleuca and Argentine tegu with its venomous bite to pythons and giant African land snails that excrete toxic mucous. (Florida is the only state with snail-mucous-sniffing dogs.)

The state went from the least populous in the U.S. in 1940, to now the 3rd largest population, plus about 100 million tourists annually. Yet most residents and visitors are jammed along the coastlines and the Orlando attractions corridor, leaving low-density inland areas.

For a place we call paradise, said Craig Pittman, the state “is trying to kill us.” It’s the lightning, shark bite and hurricane capital of the world (with more recorded shark bites than even Australia).

Bad Behavior

Known as a “rogue’s paradise” when it was still a territory, Florida attracted quite a few pioneers who made a living by illegal means: poaching protected wildlife (nearly exterminating egrets to harvest their feathers for women’s hats), luring and wrecking ships, piracy and fake land-speculation deals.

Early residents of Pensacola illegally cut down trees on Navy property, designated for ship building. The law couldn’t prosecute because “half the Grand Jury members were perpetrators.”

Some politicians showed equal contempt for the law. Pittman cited the Mayor of Cedar Key, William Cottrell, who in 1890 hired a thug to serve as Marshal. The pair strolled around with shotguns and forced residents to obey quirky orders, such as to head-butt each other. The New York Times claimed Cedar Key was living under a “reign of terror.”

That reign ended when Cottrell attacked and turfed a federal Customs agent. U.S. President Benjamin Harrison sent a Navy ship to invade Cedar Key and capture the ruffian mayor. Out of jail on bond, a drunken Cottrell assaulted a police chief in Alabama and was shot dead.

Cottrell was the only U.S. mayor ever deposed by military coup. Pittman mused that Cedar Key should put on an annual Cottrell Reign of Terror Festival to re-enact the invasion. “It would give the Gasparilla pirates some competition!”

Colorful Florida Governor Sidney J. Catts started out as a backwoods Alabama preacher who declared: “Florida crackers have only 3 friends: Jesus Christ, Sears & Roebuck and Sidney J. Catts!” He was indicted while in office for cronyism.

Then there are head-scratchingly bad Florida ideas, such as the live-cockroach-eating contest put on by a pet store (first prize: a live python) that resulted in the death of the “winner” from choking on cockroach parts. Ugh!

The Sinshine State

Promoters have used sex and skin to sell Florida to Yankees for more than a century. Carl Fisher – who built the Indianapolis Speedway – not only dredged Biscayne Bay and turned the resultant muck into Miami Beach. He also promoted tourism in 1915 with images of scantily-clad (for the time) “sea vamps” to illustrate Florida’s warm winter temperatures with allure.

In the 1950s, Bettie Page went from school teacher to pin-up model, photographed wearing a skimpy leopard-print garment and cavorting with cheetahs and monkeys. She went on to Playboy magazine and the title Miss Pinup of the World.

Strip joints proliferate – some 50 in the Miami area alone. The first Hooters restaurant opened in Clearwater in 1983. And the movie “Deep Throat” was filmed in Florida.

The “Naughty Nympho” charged patrons for sex while her husband – a police detective – videotaped their activities from a closet and then blackmailed the johns. No wonder the TV show “Cops” was originally filmed in Florida.

While they don’t promote sex, nudist colonies naturally proliferate in the Sunshine State. During Hurricane Irma, the nudist resort Caliente offered to accept any storm evacuees, “and they don’t even need to pack any clothes.”

It’s Not All Bad!

Wackiness can generate creativity, said Pittman. The qualities that make Florida offbeat also lead to innovation. Air conditioning was invented here, by a doctor seeking relief for his patients.

The newspaper USA Today (launched in 1982) spun off from the daily Florida Today, founded in 1966; the first to publish short, capsule stories and run in full color.

Floridian Nat Reed wrote the Endangered Species Act that has become a national protective net for threatened wildlife populations, including manatees and Key deer. The Act’s successes include the alligator – once endangered yet now so prevalent that Florida has enacted SNAP: the Statewide Nuisance Alligator Program that relocates problem gators under 4 feet in length and renders larger ones into meat and hides.

As an aside, Pittman wondered why Floridians “build our homes in the habitat of gators, panthers and bears, and then get outraged when they show up on our porch or by the pool.”

The first working computer was invented, not by Bill Gates or Steve Jobs, but by Polk County resident and University of Florida graduate John Atansoff in 1941. The entrepreneurial founder of Amazon, Jeff Bezos (recently in the news for his battles with The Enquirer’s publisher) is a graduate of Miami Palmetto High School.

The state’s concealed weapons and “stand your ground” laws have been copied by many other jurisdictions.

And Floridians are resourceful. The town of Sweetwater was founded by a troupe of Russian-circus little people whose bus broke down. They made the best of it.

“Let your Florida freak flag fly!”

Craig Pittman concluded his talk by encouraging Florida residents and visitors alike to learn about and celebrate the state in all its oddity. And to work to protect its fragile, over-exploited environment.

 

SIDEBAR:

Future Speakers

Join the EIHS for its final 2 presentations of the season, at 7 p.m. in the 3rd-floor Community Room of the Fort Myers Beach Public Library. Presentations are free; donations are welcomed.

March 11

Dr. Tom Berson, Professor of Florida and Environmental History, will speak about The History and Significance of Florida’s Springs.

April 8

Eliot Kleinberg will share tales of Florida in the Civil War.

 

By Janet Sailian
janetsailian@gmail.com