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/

Orange and clove pomanders: Very vintage and aromatic

My 1940s directions call for covering fruit with cloves, but others suggest making patterns with the cloves.

My 1940s directions call for covering fruit with wholes cloves, but others suggest arranging the cloves in lines or patterns.

Years ago, our Florida family made pomander balls for holiday gifts: oranges studded en masse with cloves, rolled in spices, and hung from ribbons.

These fragrant fruit-and-spice pomander balls were a time-honored way to add a hint of fragrance to your home, long before companies attempted to manufacture good smells and put them in a spray can.

The Old Farmer’s Almanac says the practice went back as far as medieval times. (http://www.almanac.com/content/seasonal-crafts-how-make-orange-pomanders)

The ladies are discussing "that Oxydol sparkle" on the back of a recipe in Mom's old book of clippings.

The ladies are discussing “that Oxydol sparkle” on the back of a recipe in Mom’s old book of clippings.

The directions my mother used, clipped from an unidentified magazine, are still taped in the black ledger book where she began to collect recipes and household tips in the 1940s.

They note that the pomanders can also be made with apples, lemons, or limes. We usually used oranges.

The full directions suggest storing the pomander for three or four weeks to dry, but in Florida, the following steps for quick preparation seem best.

1. Spread lots and lots of whole cloves on waxed paper.

2. With a small nail or sturdy toothpick, pierce holes in the skin of the fruit, from one end to the other and as close together as possible without splitting the skin.

3. Now stick whole cloves in the holes. Make additional holes where needed; fill the holes with cloves, so that the fruit is covered with them (or feel free to use less, as picture at top).

Ribbon hangers for a pomander (from Mom's clipping book).

Ribbon hangers for a pomander (from Mom’s clipping book).

4. Combine equal amounts of ground cinnamon and powdered orrisroot, or use a mixture of spices with orissroot.

The recipe at Old Farmer’s Almanac  suggests 1 teaspoon ground cinnamon, 1 teaspoon ground cloves, 1 tablespoon ground nutmeg, 1 tablespoon allspice, and 1/4 cup powdered orrisroot.

5. Roll the clove-studded fruit in your spices until the fruit is coated. Our 1940s directions suggest using ground cloves with a lemon and ground nutmeg with a lime.

5. After fruit is rolled in the mixture, place in a shallow baking pan and bake at 300 degrees F for 4 hours. Cool.

6. To make a hanger, tie a long narrow ribbon securely around the fruit, making a knot at top. Leave about 4 inches of ribbon for a loop, and tie with ribbon ends with a bow. The 1940s directions suggest wrapping the ball in “metallic mesh or hat veiling, and it’s ready for Santa to deliver.”

I seem to be all out of hat veiling.

The Waterhouse Museum by artist and journalist Thomas Thorspecken. See http://www.analogartistdigitalworld.com/2011/01/maitland-historical-society.html

The Waterhouse Museum by artist and journalist Thomas Thorspecken. See http://www.analogartistdigitalworld.com/2011/01/maitland-historical-society.html

The orrisroot is the key ingredient, and acts as a fixative. Our directions say to get it from a drugstore, but, like the hat veiling, that’s no longer workable for most of us. A health-food store that sells bulk spices is a better bet.

A few years ago, during a holiday visit to the Waterhouse Museum — a lovely Victorian house in Maitland, Florida — I remembered the pomanders because some were on display, along with other natural crafts.

Even if we don’t make pomander balls, it’s fun to think about them and those rich, natural aromas of citrus and cloves. For more on the Waterhouse, visit http://artandhistory.org/waterhouse-museum/

Orlando’s really big star

The 1950s incarnation of Orlando's Christmas star

The 1950s incarnation of Orlando’s Christmas star

The classic holiday movie “Miracle on 34th Street” (1947) begins with the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade in New York. The movie has always reminded me a bit of Orlando’s two largest downtown stores during the postwar era: Ivey’s and Dickson & Ives. Even if they weren’t as big as the Manhattan Macy’s and Gimbels in the movie, they were of the same genre.

In “Miracle,” Macy’s Santa (Edmund Gwenn) tells a frazzled mom (Thelma Ritter) that she can find the toy she’s seeking at Gimbel’s. As it turns out, shoppers love that spirit of cooperation.

A shopping mother played by Thelma Ritter praises Macy's Santa in the 1947 "Miracle on 34th Street."

A shopping mother played by Thelma Ritter praises Macy’s Santa in the 1947 “Miracle on 34th Street.”

In Orlando, Ivey’s and Dickson & Ives cooperated too through the big illuminated star that hung between them for the holidays at the city’s core intersection, Orange Avenue at Central Boulevard.

“Two of Orlando’s largest department stores may brood across the avenue at each other all year long. But their combined light shines out at Christmas,” the Orlando Sentinel reported in 1956.

The star debuted the year before, 1955, at a cost of $2,500. It was the brainchild of Dickson & Ives’ owner, Wilson Reed, according to his daughter Peggy Reed Mann, and was the ancestor of the big star that still graces the intersection each year, thanks in large part to the efforts of the late Jack Kazanzas.

In the late 1990s, it looked as though the star might be on its way out. The plexiglass was cracked, city officials said, and repair estimates were prohibitive.

“It just burns me up that everything has to be constantly changing,” Kazanzas said. He had grown up in the Orlando, the child of parents who had a business in the city for 40 years. He knew the downtown star was a powerful symbol for longtime residents, a reminder of the glory days for retail in downtown, before the first malls hit the area in the 1960s.

Orlando's star with its tiara of lights

Orlando’s star with its tiara of lights

In 1998, using glue and glass cleaner, Kazanzas was able to get the star into shape for its annual appearance. He kept on raising money. “I’ve watched Orlando grow and change, and I’d just like to hold on to some of the things I remember for Christmas,” he said.

The star itself — designed by Orlando sign wizard Bob Galler in 1984 — was saved, and the “tiara” of sparkling lights, designed by Orlando’s Cindy White, and added in 2005.

Each year when I see the star, I remember the stores that once surrounded it, and I remember Jack, who died in August 2010. The star now officially bears his name, and news reports of its annual appearance note that the Jack Kazanzas star once again is with us for the holidays.

Jack Kazanzas in 2009 (courtesy of Rob Smith Jr.)

Jack Kazanzas in 2009 (courtesy of Rob Smith Jr.)

In “Miracle on 34th Street,” Santa Claus, played by Edmund Gwenn, works in a department store. Kazanzas loved to wear an elf hat as he served coffee and bagels to OUC workers and fans of the star on the early Sunday morning each year when it was returned to its annual place. He had that same magical “Miracle” spirit. And he showed that with enough caring and effort, we surely don’t have to lose everything from the past we hold dear.

Hitting the sauce on Thanksgiving

CranberrySauceA family friend once gave my mother a real-Florida recipe for cranberry-orange relish that involved putting the ingredients through a meat grinder. In search of a replica, I’ve found tasty relishes online, including recipes laced with oranges, with mint, with liqueurs, and some with the general suggestion that it is SO uncool to like plain old jellied cran sauce, the kind that comes slurping out of the can.

My friend Martha notes that no other food sounds quite the same as it escapes its packaging. I still like it. So, with a nod to that vintage saucy cylinder on a plate, here too is a Florida recipe from the website of a citrus co-op, floridasnatural.com, that includes apples as well as oranges.

Ingredients

  • 4 cups cranberries, sorted and washed
  • 2 apples, cored, peeled, and sliced
  • 2 oranges, peeled and sliced
  • 1/3 cup Florida’s Natural® Premium Orange Juice
  • Up to 1 cup sugar (to taste)
  • 1 tbsp. orange zest

fresh-orange-and-cranberry-relishGrind cranberries, apples, and oranges using a food processor or blender, and stir until mixed evenly. Add orange juice and orange zest. Add sugar to taste: for a tart relish, use about 1/2 cup; for a sweet relish, use about a cup. Chill and serve.

Here’s the original link: http://www.floridasnatural.com/lifestyle/recipes/main-dishes-and-sides/fresh-orange-and-cranberry-relish

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.

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.