BILL COTTERELL: Florida tourism didn't start with Disney or SeaWorld
Everybody knows how Florida’s tourist-driven population boom really took off after the war, spurred by interstate highways and cheap air fares that made our attractions more attractive.
Well, that’s true — but wrong war, maybe.
A retired Florida A&M University professor maintains the Sunshine State’s reputation as a vacation spot really began after the Civil War. John Foster believes the teaching and writings of the abolitionists burnished the image of what was then a backwater of the United States.
They hoped to change Florida’s agrarian frontier economy to a place of greater freedom.
Railroads and steamships of the Reconstruction era made the sunshine easier to reach.
The Florida Historical Society in Cocoa recently published Foster’s “At the Dawn of Tourism in Florida,” a magazine-sized tome subtitled “Abolitionists, Print Media and Images for Early Vacationers.”
Long ago, when big city newspapers and national magazines were an influential source of information and image-making, Northerners enjoyed reading about Florida’s fair weather, beaches and sprints. Just as the popular press spread fanciful legends of the Wild West, Northern publishers — many of them abolitionists — fed readers a steady, idyllic image of lakes, rivers and sunny beaches in Florida.
Although it had been a slave state, the third to secede from the union, Florida was not as disliked as some of the more famous battleground states.
Foster said New York travel companies booked vacation travel via steamship, often with stops in Savannah.
“There has never such a crowd as there has been this season, and still they come. The hotels are full and would be were there twice as many of them,” the Oswego Daily Palladium wrote in March of 1875. “It is plain that Florida is to be a greater place for winter tourists than Saratoga is in summer. Already the number in ... Florida exceeds the aggregate of the summer crowd at Newport, Saratoga and Long Branch. Every winter brings more, and new hotels keep going up.”
It sounds a little like spring break sometimes.
“The crowd of northerners in Florida are a lot like boys just let out of school, it is one continuous frolic and holiday. Finding themselves really safe, out of the rigors of northern winter, and in a climate of flowers and fruit and sunshine, they give themselves up to enjoyment.”
Foster said in an interview “thousands and thousands of tourists” passed through the northern part of the state in the 1870s. He cited a New York Times article of October, 1874, estimating that 50,000 visitors had spent time in Florida in the past winter.
“This is a state in the 1870s that didn’t have 200,000 residents,” he said. It was common for residents to put out signs offering rooms to rent, he said.
His books, filled with pen-and-ink illustrations from publications of the period, are well-documented and extensively detailed. It’s not light beach reading but, for the self-quarantined history buff, Foster provides a wistful, entertaining look at an important era of Florida’s history.
Bill Cotterell is a retired Tallahassee Democrat capitol reporter who writes a twice-weekly column. He can be reached at email@example.com