In the pines of Florida, Christmas everlasting

The perpetual peace garden at Christmas, December 2013.

The perpetual peace garden at Christmas, December 2013.

Way back during the Seminole Wars, a peaceful place in the Central Florida pines became Christmas, every day. Long-ago soldiers named it in 1837, but we owe its role as a North Pole of the South to the history and work of the Tucker family.

We know the story’s beginning thanks to Capt. Nathan S. Jarvis, a U.S. Army surgeon who kept a journal about his war adventures.

Capt. Jarvis arrived at St. Augustine by steamboat in June 1837 and, by mid-December, was with troops deep in the interior of Florida. They trudged past a deserted Seminole town, crossed the Econlockhatchee River, and on Dec. 25, reached a pine barren on what’s now Christmas Creek in east Orange County.

Fort Christmas Historical Park in east Orange County, Florida, includes a re-creation of the original 1837 structure.

Fort Christmas Historical Park in east Orange County, Florida, includes a re-creation of the original 1837 structure.

The soldiers built a stockade made of upright 18-foot pine logs, sharpened at the top, and named the place Fort Christmas. In just a few days, most of the troops were ordered to move deeper into Florida, leaving the fort and the area largely deserted until about 1860, when John R.A. Tucker and his family settled nearby.

The only means of travel was by oxcart or on horseback, and the Tucker home became a stopping-place for travelers. After the community gained a post office in 1892, a member of the Tucker family was in charge for much of the next century.

In 1916, Lizzie Tucker got the job, taking over from her husband, Drew. In 1932, the mantel passed to their daughter-in-law Juanita, who stayed on the job for more than 40 years. Juanita Tucker was 101 when she died in 2008, then the oldest resident of Christmas and the one who had done the most to put it on the map.

Juanita Tucker at the Christmas, Florida, post office in the 1940s. (Florida State Archives)

Juanita Tucker at the Christmas, Florida, post office in the 1940s. (Florida State Archives)

“She got the community together. She was good at that,” her son Cecil A. Tucker II said after her death. “Anytime that people had a need, she would find some way or someone to help out.”

The old Christmas post office (the same building shown in the picture of Juanita Tucker at the window).

The old Christmas post office (the same building shown in the picture of Juanita Tucker at the window).

“The post office was always the one place people could count on to get information and help,” Juanita Tucker once said. “That’s what made it such a wonderful job. There were so many ways I was able to help people that had nothing to do with the post-office business.”

About 1937, the Tuckers moved postal headquarters to a one-story white-frame building with a small porch. When the highway through Christmas was widened to four lanes, that 1937 post office was moved from the south side of the road to the north side, where it still resides in a peace garden at Colonial Drive (S.R. 50) and Fort Christmas Road.

A mosaic at the peace garden in Christmas, Florida.

A mosaic at the peace garden in Christmas, Florida. It’s on State Road 50, about 20 miles east of Orlando.

Asked what he would most like folks to know about the community of Christmas, Cecil Tucker didn’t mention his family, often called “legendary” in Florida ranching lore. In a state where people consider themselves old-timers if they’ve been here since 1960, the Tuckers have a hundred years on them.

For him, his family’s legacy is all about the spirit of Christmas, in both global and local aspects.

“This community has a spirit of helping each other,” Tucker said. “If any place has the Christmas spirit, this is it.”

Christmas, and the Fort Christmas Historical Museum, is 20 miles east of Orlando, en route to Kennedy Space Center, Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge, and Canaveral National Seashore in Titusville. See http://www.nbbd.com/godo/FortChristmas/

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To Bedford Falls, with love

Piper Rae Patterson as radio actress Sally Applewhite in Orlando Shakes's "It's a Wonderful Life: A Live Radio Play." (BroadwayWorld.com)

Piper Rae Patterson as radio actress Sally Applewhite in the Orlando Shakespeare Theater’s “It’s a Wonderful Life: A Live Radio Play.” (BroadwayWorld.com)

I haven’t watched the 1946 movie “It’s a Wonderful Life” for years. There’s a lot to do around the holidays and it’s more than two hours long – and, besides, the part where befuddled Uncle Billy (Thomas Mitchell) makes a big mistake and the frantic George Bailey calls him “a silly stupid old man” – that part always makes me sad.

Like Uncle Billy, I tend to lose things.

So I’m grateful to the Orlando Shakespeare Theater, and its production of “It’s a Wonderful Life: A Live Radio Play,” for reminding me of the essence of this story – of how one hard-working man, George Bailey, gets to see how life would have been different without him in Bedford Falls.

In this 1940s “radio play,” five skilled actors portray more than 40 different characters and bring us the essence of the story and of the time, just after World War II. The actress Suzanne O’Donnell, for example, gives voice to characters ranging from Violet, the bad girl of Bedford Falls, to Bailey’s little daughter Zuzu and to his mother, Ma Bailey, played in the movie by Beulah Bondi.

Bert (Ward Bond, left) and Ernie (Frank Faylen) in Frank Capra's "It's a Wonderful Life" (1946).

Bert (Ward Bond, left) and Ernie (Frank Faylen) in Frank Capra’s “It’s a Wonderful Life” (1946).

This “radio play” helped me see the story with fresh eyes and remember the characters, from mean Mr. Potter to the original Bert and Ernie, who serenade George and Mary Bailey on their wedding night with the old song “I love you truly.”

Capra-corn? My “sophisticated” younger self probably thought so. But there’s so much to this piece of true Americana and the history of our reactions to it. As the good  Wikipedia article on the movie notes, a 1947 FBI memo even suggested that Capra represented “Communist” values and the movie “deliberately maligned the upper class” by “attempting to show the people who had money were mean and despicable characters.”

Thomas Mitchell as befuddled Uncle Billy. It's all OK in the end.

Thomas Mitchell as befuddled Uncle Billy. It’s all OK in the end.

Maybe this kind of popular movie is as close to a shared secular mythology as we Americans have – that is, a meaningful story in which audience members of varied ages know the characters and many lines and can experience meaning by watching or hearing it together.

We may know the outcome, but the story still moves us, brings its lessons home, including the thought that “no man is a failure who has friends.” And that includes Uncle Billy, too.

For more on the Orlando Shakespeare Theater, visit http://www.OrlandoShakes.org

A taste of Sweden in Sanford

Singers at the annual St. Lucia Festival in Sanford, Fla.

Singers at the annual St. Lucia Festival in Sanford, Fla.

Folks who go to the annual St. Lucia Festival in Sanford have a chance to sample some Florida-pioneer culinary treats. (In 2013, it’s December 14; see sanfordstlucia.com.)

I’m not talking grits and gator nuggets – not this time.

Think Swedish coffee, pickled herring, and lingonberries. And glögg (a beverage), cabbage rolls, meatballs, brown beans, maybe something called Jansson’s temptation, a variety of cakes and cookies, and Swedish pickles.

A Swedish coffeepot. Thanks to Patty Sundberg, "From the Deep Quiet."

A Swedish coffeepot. Thanks to Patty Sundberg, “From the Deep Quiet.”

Festival coordinator Teri Patterson once told me she is especially fond of the pickles. “You just can’t beat a breakfast buffet that includes Swedish pickles, Swedish coffee and a few Swedish cookies,” she said.

But Patterson’s heritage as the descendant of Swedish immigrants means a lot more to her than good eating. With fellow historians Charlie Carlson and Christine Kinlaw-Best, she has written several publications for the Sanford Historical Society on the area’s Swedish heritage, including “The Swedish History of Seminole County.”

“As far back as I can recall I always enjoyed listening to my family’s stories,” Patterson wrote.

“Many were collected and told so beautifully by my grand-aunt Olga Vihlen Hunter. “In each family there seems to be a person who gathers the facts about their ancestors. These facts remind us of their hardships and successes that have contributed to who we are today.”

New Upsala Presbyterian Church, 1902 (Sanford Museum)

New Upsala Presbyterian Church, 1902 (Sanford Museum)

Patterson’s great-grandfather came from Sweden to America and “settled among Swedes in the community of New Upsala,” now in Sanford.

“Over the years this Swedish community has mostly disappeared, . . . but a few remaining historical places remind us of their pioneering past,” she writes.

“These New Upsala Swedes played a major role in developing Central Florida’s great citrus industry.”

Pilgrims, schmilgrims

"The First Thanksgiving, 1621," by J.L.G. Ferris. Library of Congress

“The First Thanksgiving, 1621,” by J.L.G. Ferris. Library of Congress

I fret about this every year: As our commercial culture jumps from Halloween to Christmas, where is Thanksgiving? My favorite holiday seems in danger of disappearing.

I’m talking about American folklore—pilgrims, Squanto, corn pudding, pie, family and friends, gratitude for survival and for the harvest.

But, according to the dean of Florida historians, Michael Gannon, the first North American Thanksgiving actually took place in Florida, and that’s even more forgotten.

Pilgrims, schmilgrims. Our shores were home to a thanksgiving celebration in 1565, decades before the doings at Plymouth Colony in 1621.

The Grinch who stole Thanksgiving

Prof. Michael Gannon. Courtesy Tampa Bay Times

Prof. Michael Gannon. Courtesy Tampa Bay Times

Gannon, now distinguished service professor emeritus of history at the University of Florida, wrote about Florida’s first thanksgiving in 1965, in his book “The Cross in the Sand.” He described the 1565 feast as “the first community act of religion and Thanksgiving in the first permanent European settlement in the land.”

Twenty years later, the good professor would be jokingly dubbed “the Grinch who stole Thanksgiving.”

A reporter called Gannon in search of a fresh angle for a holiday article, and the professor told him about Thanksgiving, Florida-style—how on Sept. 8, 1565, Spanish explorer Pedro Menendez de Aviles had joined in the celebration of a thanksgiving Mass in the St. Augustine area, followed by a meal at which the explorer’s men supped with local Indians.

On the menu: Garbanzos and seafood

Pedro Menendez de Aviles. Library of Congress

Pedro Menendez de Aviles. Library of Congress

The Spaniards probably served their shipboard staples: salt pork, garbanzo beans, ship’s bread (or hardtack) and red wine. The natives would have supplied the good eating: seafood from our coastal waters, Gannon said.

After the interview and an Associated Press story, Gannon found himself besieged by talk-show hosts. Reaction was strongest in Massachusetts.

“You’ve caused a firestorm up here,” one interviewer told him, reporting that Plymouth’s town leaders were meeting about the Florida insurgency.

Now, things have calmed down. When reporters asked a few years ago about other claims to the first Thanksgiving (Texans and Virginians have theirs, too), officials at Plimouth Plantation in Plymouth, Mass., adopted a conciliatory tone. When it comes to original feasts of “American” thanksgiving, they also noted, the best claims belong to Native Americans.

Giving thanks at St. Augustine, 1565

Giving thanks at St. Augustine, 1565

By the way, Michael Gannon’s book “Florida: A Short History” is an indispensable introduction to the state’s past, as is his “History of Florida in 40 Minutes” (University Press of Florida, 2007). For a great article about Gannon, see Jeff Klinkenberg’s profile at TampaBay.com, http://www.tampabay.com/features/humaninterest/the-remarkable-michael-gannon-his-history-is-floridas-history/1098373

All-American Bird

Franklin-Benjamin-LOC-headIf Ben Franklin had had his way, the turkey might be more than the centerpiece of America’s Thanksgiving menu – it might be our national bird as well.

Franklin thought the bald eagle was for the birds. At least that’s what he told his daughter Sarah.

“I wish the bald eagle had not been chosen as the representative of our country,” Franklin wrote in a humorous letter in 1784. “He is a bird of bad moral character.”

Eagles were too lazy to fish for themselves.  They just loitered about on some dead tree until some hawk made a catch. “When that diligent bird has at length taken a fish . . . the bald eagle pursues him, and takes it from him,” Franklin wrote.

turkeyIn contrast, Franklin found the turkey “a much more respectable bird” and “a true original native of America.”

UnderwaterTurkey

Photo courtesy of the Florida State Archives, FloridaMemory.com

Thanks to historian Dana Ste.Claire of St. Augustine for telling me about Franklin’s view of turkeys several years ago.

Like Florida sometimes, turkeys don’t get much respect.

In a typical 1950s ad for a Florida attraction, Rainbow Springs, the noble bird even had to pose being carved underwater.

That’s a fine way to treat such a respectable piece of poultry, Franklin might say.

World’s Largest Pinup? Daytona’s Red Diving Girl

This Red Diving Girl incarnation is 1 of only 3 or so in the world, says Stamie Kypreos, owner of the shop. The most beautiful gal at Daytona doesn’t sport a bikini. And tattoos? Not for the Red Diving Girl, the nearly 20-foot icon that has adorned Stamie’s swimwear shop at 8 N. Ocean Ave. since the days when the Beatles were new.

A few years ago, I chatted with the shop’s founder, Stamie Kypreos, who grew up in Orlando, where her family moved from Greece when she was 7. (Mrs. Kypreos died in 2010 at the age of 97.) She had married her late husband, Theodore, also in Orlando in 1935. A dozen years later, wen Harry Truman was America’s president, Kypreos opened her shop on Ocean Avenue and began selling swimsuits to ladies and gents.

When I visited her a decade ago, Mrs. Kypreos was 89. She paused during our chat to ask a shopper how she was doing during a dressing-room session of trying on bathing suits. The suits were fine, the shopper replied; it was the body she was trying to fit into them that posed a problem.

How many thousands of times in more than 50 years must Kypreos have heard this kind of fretting. The pounds! The thighs! I’ll never look like . . . Betty Grable, Marilyn Monroe, Audrey Hepburn, Twiggy, Cindy Crawford, Halle Berry. . . . The beauty icons have changed, but the quest for the perfect bathing suit remains.

Kypreos took these cellulite dramas in stride. “I love my little place,” Kypreos said.

Diving into history

Outside the shop, which looks the same but was closed on the Sunday when I recently stopped by, the big gal in the red suit just keeps diving, suspended in a perpetual, graceful swoop. This incarnation of her, owned by the Jantzen company of Portland, Ore., is one of only six ever made; few survive. One of the statue’s sisters was once suspended from the ceiling of the American Advertising Museum in Portland, which I’m sad to see closed in 2004. The Red Diving Girl symbol has been around for decades longer; she holds a high place in the history of both advertising and sport. In her day, she was considered a glamour gal as groovy as Grable.

The company that became Jantzen didn’t start out to make bathing suits. John A. Zehntbauer and Carl C. Jantzen founded it in 1910 as the Portland Knitting Co., a business that made sweaters and woolen hosiery. The enterprise sidestroked into the swimwear business when members of the Portland Rowing Club asked it to produce a wool rib-knit rowing suit about 1913. In 1918 its name was changed to the Jantzen Knitting Mills.

Early bathing suits at Daytona Beach

Early bathing suits at Daytona Beach

Around that time, the pastime of sea bathing — jumping into waves while holding on to a rope attached to an offshore buoy — was being replaced by the sport of swimming. Women needed swimwear that wouldn’t slow them down.

By the early 1920s, Jantzen was in the market, touting its product with the slogan “the Suit that Changed Bathing to Swimming.” Soon, the company was ready for a national sales push, and husband-and-wife artists Frank and Florenz Clark went after an image to use in ads, according to Jantzen archivists.

http://archivalclothing.com/2010/08/

The Jantzen swimsuit factory

Florenz Clark went to a Portland amateur athletic club, where she watched women divers training for the 1920 Olympics. Inspired by their grace, she and her husband came up with the image of a woman diver in a red Jantzen suit, soon christened the Red Diving Girl .

In a saucy suit resembling a long tank top, the Diving Girl became something of a craze. In 1922, Jantzen printed 10,000 Red Diving Girl stickers that were distributed in store displays, which people grabbed up to paste on the windshields of their cars. Massachu- setts banned the decals from auto windshields.

 Pinups and beach parties

George Petty's airbrushed version of the Jantzen Red Diving Girl became popular in the 1930s and 1940s. The `Petty Girl ' was a successor to the Gibson Girl , an ideal of American beautyBy the 1930s, billboards featuring the work of artist George Petty and others had transformed the Diving Girl into a long-legged, airbrushed dish. The “Petty Girl ” became a popular pinup in the 1930s and 1940s and is said to have been the first centerfold, in Esquire magazine. She didn’t have to worry about her weight, of course; she was an illustration.

In 1959, a mannequin company in Los Angeles transformed the Red Diving Girl , now in an elasticized strapless one-piece, into three dimensions and made six 191/2-foot fiberglass versions of her to be used on signs.

One of the six made its way to Miami and, in 1965, to a happy home at Stamie’s by the World’s Most Famous Beach. She has been there ever since, despite repairs from storm damage in 1980 and the day-to-day toll of humidity and salt air. Her once-white cap is now painted red to match her suit and dainty toenails. A girl must keep up with fashion, after all.

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Magic Carpets Made of Steel

Florence Dickinson George Dickinson Joy Dickinson Sligh Blvd Train StationMy family are railroad people, no strangers to the Orlando passenger station on Sligh Boulevard. After the traveler among us has climbed up into the train, we wave at the long windows sliding by, vanishing into the horizon. Sometimes we go there just to take photos.

Much has changed since the station debuted with a roaring big celebration back in the Roaring ’20s, but the old Spanish Mission station, designated a city landmark in 1977, has remained a working part of America’s railroad heritage, and its new role as a SunRail station has given it a brighter future.

When Atlantic Coast Line officials planned the station in the mid-1920s, they sent architect A.M. Griffin to California to study the Spanish missions in cities such as Santa Barbara and San Juan Capistrano. With its twin bell towers, arches, and tile roof, the station became the Atlantic Coast Line’s very Pacific Coast-style gift to Orlando. It survives as the sole Mission-style station in Florida.

Built at a cost of nearly $500,000, the depot opened in January 1927 with elaborate ceremonies brimming with railroad executives and Orlando dignitaries. The interior overflowed with potted palms and flowers. The Lions Club quartet sang, two bands played, and exuberant speakers hailed a “new era of progress and expansion.”

 The arched letters that spell Orlando were designed by the station’s architects in the 1920s. One of the station’s finest features remains the curved rendering of the word “Orlando” over the entrance facing the trains. It doesn’t hurt that the city’s name is pretty in itself. The folks who picked it back in 1857 must have known it had more marketing potential than its predecessors, Fort Gatlin and Jernigan.

I also love the colonnade of arches that extends out from the station. There our family would wait in the 1950s and ’60s for visitors from western Pennsylvania, our particular slice of up North. Among them were my Northern grandparents, Florence and George Dickinson, always decked out in their best: For her, hat (with silk flower), gloves, corset, suit, stockings, high-heeled pumps, serious purse and the little suitcase called a train case. Granddad wore a snappy fedora, starched dress shirt, double-breasted suit, pocket handkerchief, polished shoes.

Orlando’s Atlantic Coast Line station bustles in the 1930s. Courtesy of the Orange County Regional History Center.

Orlando’s Atlantic Coast Line station bustles in the 1930s. Courtesy of the Orange County Regional History Center.

You dressed for travel then. It was an occasion. And my Granddad Dickinson wouldn’t have traveled any other way except by train. He was an engineer for the Pittsburgh and Lake Erie line. Not too many years after he wore his double-breasted suit to visit Florida, he would depart this world at the throttle of his engine during heavy snow, the victim of a heart attack. His last act was to stop the train safely. The railroad gave my grandmother a gold watch to honor that.

Granddad would be happy to know that people are still traveling to Orlando by rail, on trains that bear names from his era – the Silver Meteor and the Silver Star – names that still trail a hint of adventure. And he would be happy about the survival of a station where thousands of travelers  – old, young, rich, poor, black, white – have come and gone over the years, as they rode their father’s magic carpets made of steel.