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

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.

 

The Marvelous Richard Halliburton

Channeling Halliburton In one of my favorite childhood photos, a friend and I are playing dress up. She’s princess-elegant in a long dress, but I’m swathed in a scarf and shorts, a smiling child with a too-curly perm trying to channel some Indian elephant boy out of Kipling. Now I think perhaps I was channeling my inner Richard Halliburton. Although once a renowned emblem of travel adventure, my Halliburton has nothing to do with the aluminum travel cases of that name, or with the multinational Halliburton Corp. He has to do with the worlds he opened for me and many other children through his Complete Book of Marvels.  First published in 1941, it has long been out of print but still rates stellar reviews on Amazon.com. “My favorite book of all time,” notes one, in a thought echoed by others.

Richard Halliburton's Book of MarvelsHalliburton’s Marvels  educated generations of young Americans about geography, history, and culture, as the Wikipedia article on him notes. (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Richard_Halliburton)

Reading Halliburton never felt like “education,” though. It was like diving into magical adventures, and Halliburton did literally dive in – to the Panama Canal, to a pool by the moonlit Taj Mahal, where great white lotus blossoms drifted on the water. He rode elephants and perched on the Golden Gate Bridge during its construction. And he took along his young readers in friendly prose that never condescended.

To see the Taj Mahal, the Pyramids or even the Golden Gate Bridge – these were goals outside my family’s experience. For us, moving from Pennsylvania to Florida was a magical as it got – and nothing to be sneezed at. Travel, beyond family visits, was something other people did.

And, in truth, Halliburton’s kind of adventurous travel was beyond most of us. When I read him as a child, I didn’t realize he had already died. His last adventure began in March 1939, when he and a crew set out from Hong Kong on a Chinese junk, the Sea Dragon, to sail across the Pacific. Instead, they vanished, and Halliburton was declared dead in October 1939. He was 39 years old.

I had always thought of him as my own private childhood passion – me and my inner elephant boy – and was shocked and pleased to discover, in 2001, a magazine article by the literary icon Susan Sontag, titled “Homage to Halliburton.”

She had loved him too. And his sad end, she noted, could not taint the “lessons of pluck and avidity” that she and I and so many others drew from reading him.

Sontag’s essay helped me see that Halliburton’s most important gift was opening for us not only the world of travel but the idea of being a writer. “What is a writer but a mental traveler?” she asks. “When I acknowledge to myself that I’m interested in everything, what am I saying but that I want to travel everywhere. Like Richard Halliburton.”

What indeed.

halliburton

To Old Florida and Beyond

Joy Wallace Dickinson (left) with grandparents Bill and Alice Wallace and the truck for the family's new business, the B&D Market in Winter Park.

Joy Wallace Dickinson (left) about 1950 with grandparents Bill and Alice Wallace and the truck for the family’s new business, the B&D Market in Winter Park.

Welcome! If your memories or interests include sandy beaches, orange blossoms, and all that’s old and “real” Florida, I hope you’ll find this a fun, interesting spot to perch every so often in your travels across the vast, astonishing worldwide web.

I love writing about Central Florida’s past, and my heart remains there, even when I wander. Right now, I’ve wandered on a visit to California, where I once lived.

I’ve been reunited with three dear women friends to celebrated friendships forged more than 50 years ago, at Orlando’s Howard Junior High School. My ties to one of these friends, Debbie Staton Cook, reach back to a bond forged between our families in the 1940s when her uncle, Ted Staton, sold my grandparents the house in which I now live.

We four have talked a lot about how our youth in Orlando shaped our lives: about the teachers who inspired us, about good times at the Central Florida Fair, playing records at Bill Baer’s on Orange Avenue, about trips to the beach, about listening to our teacher read us The Lion’s Paw in elementary school. And yes, we’ve probably talked, too, about the pumpernickel rolls at Ronnie’s restaurant.

I carry my Central Florida past with me wherever I wander.

Joy Dickinson's 2012 painting of Orlando's Spanish Mission Train Station used a vintage postcard for inspiration.

Joy Dickinson’s 2012 painting of Orlando’s Spanish Mission Train Station used a vintage postcard for inspiration. (Credit: Joy Wallace Dickinson)

I admire folks whose roots go deep into Florida’s sand, and I cherish too my heritage as one whose family came from the North, from the steel country of Pennsylvania. My father and grandparents traveled in my granddad’s woodie station wagon, but my mother and I journeyed by train and arrived at the Sligh Boulevard station. Modeled on the missions of California, this 1920s station remains my most-loved Orlando building.

Especially for my grandfather, Bill Wallace, Orlando was truly a city of dreams. Back in Pennsylvania when I was a small child, he often asked me, “Now, where are you going to go to college?” And I would respond with the much-rehearsed, “University of Florida.” In the end, my college was Florida State, but it was all the same to him. It was in Florida, his final and best-loved home. May we never forget its history, including the parts that may be difficult to embrace and understand.

Vintage roadside signs, including the iconic jaws at Orlando's Gatorland, are among the topics that inspire Joy in Florida. (Credit: Joy Wallace Dickinson)

Vintage roadside signs, including the iconic jaws at Orlando’s Gatorland, are among the topics that inspire Joy in Florida. (Credit: Joy Wallace Dickinson)

In this space, my goal is to embrace my name (not always easy) and focus on what’s joyful in Florida and beyond. We’ll probably venture into wide-ranging subjects including travel as a single, older woman; books, especially cozy mysteries; Florida-related art and pop culture; vintage roadside signs and other uses of typography; Orlando’s historic Lake Eola Park; the other sunshine state, California, so like and so different from Florida; writing tips and inspiration; and the occasional historic or family recipe. And maybe even coffee. This is one writer who is fueled by coffee. Let’s have a cup. I’m so happy you’re here.