THE 1930s AND EARLY ’40s GAVE MANY TRAVELERS their first look at Florida from the seats of their newly mass-produced cars. Still unspoiled natural vistas met flashy tourist traps, an intimation of what would come to define the state. U.S. roads for the first time allowed widespread travel along both coasts and through the interior. A golden era of roadside attractions, yet most of them for whites only, vied for attention with the beaches. Adventure and luxury travel were giving way to a flood of tourism. But it wasn’t yet very crowded. The post-World War II boom had yet to arrive.
Much of that Florida still exists for better or worse, a faded patchwork of its glory days (even during The Great Depression) before it was bypassed by newer attractions and finally today’s Interstate highways. It is of course impossible to take a road trip in 1940 without a time machine, but these old arterials are offered a new vitality from travelers who rediscover them with 80 or 90 years of perspective. Early roadside attractions now evoke Pop art that came 30 years later and the roads themselves are a rebuke to the fast and impersonal Interstate system that replaced them. If those newer highways are all about reaching your destination, these old roads are more about the journey.
Road trips have proved appealing during a pandemic, too, where it is potentially easier to social distance. Several national publications declared it the “summer of the road trip” and one called road trips “the new normal,” but they also pointed out the trips often led to COVID-19 infections. At the same time, taking to the open road is akin to Ishmael taking to the sea “whenever it is a damp, drizzly November in my soul.” The roads or the sea offer the chance for a mythic journey that can be emotionally and psychologically curative, even transformative. Maybe everyone at one time or another needs such a geographic cure.
If you’re thinking of hitting the road this year, stay safe and consider these routes. Or just enjoy this trip in the pages of Florida Weekly. It will take you to a motley assortment of amusements that were witness to a distant time, many of them still around to be seen in one form or another.
Eastside motorists — Old Dixie Highway and Route 1
The Old Dixie Highway, built starting in 1915, was the first paved interstate road in the U.S. connecting the North to the South. It wasn’t a single interconnected highway but a patchwork loop that extended from the Michigan-Canada border to Miami, in all some 5,800 miles of two-lane road.
Much of it has been renamed over the years as portions were absorbed by the U.S. Route system, local towns and counties. More recently, governments have considered renaming their portions of the road because the word “Dixie” symbolizes slavery and racism. Riviera Beach renamed its stretch the President Barack Obama Highway in 2015, and other areas now are considering their own changes.
At the time it was built, its racial meaning may have been implicit and understood by its primarily white travelers. But the main purpose of the name “Dixie” by a conglomerate of builders — business owners, state governments and the auto industry — was to present a friendly image of the South to Northerners, according to a history of the road by Arcadia Publishing. It was for many the first easy connection between these U.S. regions, where some nerves from the Civil War were still raw. The idea for the highway had been first proposed by Carl Graham Fisher, who established Miami Beach, as a savvy and wildly ambitious plan to bring Midwestern tourists there. It worked.
Later, U.S. Route 1 (1926) paralleled and in some portions aligns with Dixie Highway, running from the Canadian border in Maine for 2,400 miles south to Key West.
U.S. A1A (1927) runs parallel to 1 through the barrier islands down to Miami Beach. Farther south, it merges with 1.
1. Bongoland Ruins at Dunlawton Sugarmill Gardens is just off 1 at 950 Old Sugar Mill Road in Port Orange. The botanic gardens are part of an old sugar plantation and mill destroyed during the Second and Third Seminole Indian Wars and used as a Confederate camp during the Civil War, the Botanical Gardens of Volusia Inc. says. It maintains the 10 acres that was mistakenly labeled as the ruins of a Spanish mission to attract tourists back in 1939. From 1947 to 1953, a doctor who leased the land ran the mostly unsuccessful Bongoland amusement park and built now-crumbling concrete dinosaurs.
2. Clyde Beatty Jungle Zoo was Fort Lauderdale’s first big attraction. It lasted from 1939 to 1945, run by a noted animal trainer and circus performer who brought lions, elephants and other animals, as well as clowns and acrobats, to the 25-acre property decked out in fauxjungle Florida glory. It was shut down in 1945, the South Florida Sun-Sentinel reported, due to neighbors’ complaints as the city grew; lions roared at night and monkeys, as well as an “occasional” hippo, escaped. Officials passed a law prohibiting keeping wild animals in city limits, ending the business.
The area is now a Fort Lauderdale residential and commercial area called Victoria Park, home to the Stonewall National Museum & Archives documenting LGBT history, Gateway Shopping Center and Victoria Park Hotel.
A Fort Lauderdale Daily News story on Dec. 21, 1941, notes that Beatty performed to a “capacity crowd” that day, aweing them with his usual act with “ferocious beasts of the jungle.” The headline next to that story reads, “Hitler Admits Nazis are Facing Trouble.”
3. Take a dip in the Atlantic at Lake Worth Beach and visit the location of the original Lake Worth Casino and Baths. It was built in 1922, Palm Beach County History Online says. The facility was rebuilt after a 1947 hurricane and today has no gambling — which the city outlawed in 1939 — but it is still named the Casino & Beach Complex at 10 South Ocean Blvd. It features a grand ballroom for events, a design inspired by the original 1920s architecture and an oceanfront park with shops, restaurants and a city pier.
4. The former Rainbow Tropical Gardens in Boynton Beach was billed by a 1940s Florida travel guide as a “cameraman’s paradise,” 12 acres full of exotic tropical plants along with a wishing well. While it was destroyed during the 1947 hurricane, the Gardens’ café that opened in 1929 survived. Today it is Benvenuto Restaurant & Banquet Facility at 1730 N. Federal Highway.
5. What would you do for true love? Latvian immigrant Ed Leedskalnin created a fantastical, larger than life world made of stone — one he kept on creating for 28 years until his death, single and alone, in 1951. The Coral Castle he left behind in Homestead and a garden of immense limestone sculptures that weigh as much as 30 tons each stand as a monument to romantic obsession, as well as a love of astronomy. It’s now on The National Register of Historic Places.
“Coral Castle stands as a tribute to its creator and the amazing capacity of the human imagination,” according to The National Register nomination form, an achievement of art, engineering and sculpture. Once located in Florida City where guests were charged a 10-cent admission, its creator moved it to Homestead in 1937, where he charged 25 cents and obsessively continued to build.
As the story goes, Leedskalnin was 26 when he fell in love and was engaged to Agnes Scuff, 16. She called off the wedding at the last minute, saying he was too old, but he believed instead he was too poor. He came to the New World to make his fortune and get her back, living in Canada, then working at a labor camp in Washington State and later moving to San Francisco, where he helped with a cattle drive to Texas in exchange for fare to Florida. He bought an acre of Land in Florida City and used the native oolitic limestone to begin building his life’s work. He worked secretively, alone and at night. His enormous sculptures either had a domestic theme such as a bedroom with twin beds and a cradle, or often featured astronomical designs such as planets. Ed tried in vain to contact Agnes, who never saw the work.
Added note: Rock artist Billy Idol was moved by the story. He wrote and recorded his 1987 hit “Sweet Sixteen” about Ed and Agnes, taping the official music video at Coral Castle Museum, at 28655 S. Dixie Highway.
6. The Key West Aquarium opened in 1935, pioneering open-air aquariums with a 15-cent admission for adults and 5 cents for kids. It was part of the Works Progress Administration Program during The Great Depression, along with other local attractions, in famed Mallory Square, at 1 Whitehead St.
Southwest Gas Guzzlers — U.S. Route 41
The 2,000-mile-long U.S. Route 41 (complete in 1928) runs along the Southwest side of the state before angling Northeast to the Georgia line, where it continues to Michigan. The portion from Miami to Tampa is the Tamiami Trail.
7. State Road 84 is the original Alligator Alley, a name the state adopted after the American Automobile Association, which opposed the road, said it would serve only as an “alley for alligators.” The Alley brought travelers from Naples to the Fort Lauderdale area starting in 1968 as an alternative to the stretch of U.S. 41 known as Tamiami Trail built-in 1926, which runs from Tampa and on through Naples to Miami. The Alley was rebuilt in the late 1980s and early ’90s as the last section of Interstate 75.
8. U.S. 41 (Tamiami Trail) offers a slower, more scenic experience crossing The Everglades. Joanie’s Blue Crab Café & Miccosukee Indian Restaurant in Ochopee is a good place to stop for a meal on the Alley, though Joanie’s Facebook status at press time was closed due to the pandemic with plans to reopen. Miccosukee Indian Village at mile marker 36 also makes a great stop with its museum to explore Miccosukee life, alligator “wrestling” demonstrations and a restaurant. The website notes the Village is temporarily closed to the public during the pandemic but the gift shop remains open Friday to Sunday from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m.
9. Tin City Waterfront Shops at Fifth Avenue in Naples was a 1920s fishing industry hub. As the road continues north of Fort Myers, U.S. 41 used to pass through downtown Bonita Springs where it is now called Old U.S. 41, a hub of early Florida tourism that has been restored by preservationists. A newer stretch of 41 later bypassed it.
10. Along Old 41 in Bonita, you’ll find Shangri-La Springs, a resort and spa that first opened as the Heitman Hotel in 1921. The restored property now features a garden, spa and farm-to-table restaurant as its boutique hotel undergoes renovations.
11. The nearby Everglades Wonder Gardens with its wildlife and botanical features was originally the Reptile Gardens opening to Tamiami Trail tourists in 1936.
12. The site also included the original Shell Factory & Nature Park, which was destroyed by a fire in 1954. Since then, it has been on U.S. 41 in North Fort Myers. The late Tom Cronin and his wife, Pam Cronin, saved the place from extinction with a major overhaul after buying it in 1997. The 18-acre attraction offers 50,000 square feet of retail space with millions of shells, a nature park, minigolf, a zipline and a massive collection of exotic taxidermy animals.
13. U.S. 41 now cuts through North Port. But a 1930 Florida map shows the original Tamiami Trail following the path of what is now State Road 776 where it crosses the Myakka River. At the El Jobean bridge you’ll find the El Jobean fishing pier, made up of an old section of railroad trestle, and The Bean Depot Café & Museum at 4370 Garden Road in Port Charlotte. While a Facebook update showed the Depot Café, which is housed in a 1922 building that was once a train station and post office, was still closed due to the pandemic at press time, the owners look forward to reopening with live Bluegrass music on Wednesdays and many weekends.
14. Sarasota Jungle Gardens started charging tourists for admission as early as 1936, its website reads, and opened in 1939 with 10 acres of botanical beauty, birds and animal shows, at 3701 Bay Shore Road. The zoo now includes some 200 animals, including tame pink flamingos.
15. Would you be tempted if I offered you for lunch some “Rattlesnake in Supreme Sauce” or “Snake Snaks?” Nothing remains of the old 1937 Rattlesnake Headquarters that was a canning plant for Eastern diamondback rattlesnake meat — the area was infested with them — and a reptile attraction. A welcome sign described it as such: “Dignified-Fascinating-Educational.” It used to sit on the Tampa side near the southern base of The Gandy Bridge on U.S. Route 92 (constructed in 1926). The bridge connects Tampa and St. Petersburg, just west of U.S. 41. In 1944, the attraction’s owner George K. End died of a rattlesnake bite.
16. On U.S. 92 on the St. Pete side, Sunken Gardens is on the National Register of Historic Places and billed as “St. Petersburg’s oldest living museum” at 1825 4th Street North. A plumber and gardener named George Turner Sr. in 1903 purchased the land that became a bigtime botanical attraction, draining a shallow lake to produce the “sunken” gardens. Today, regular adult admission is $12.
Interior Sunshine — U.S. Route 27
U.S. Route 27 (completed in 1926) is among the early roads cutting through Florida’s interior. It runs for 1,400 miles to Indiana.
17. With more than 200 acres of gardens and hiking trails that make up a bird sanctuary, Bok Tower Gardens at 1151 Tower Blvd. in Lake Wales offers plenty of space for social distancing as well as its famous 205-foot-tall Singing Tower with a 60-bell carillion, all mirrored by a Reflection Pool and standing atop Florida’s Iron Mountain, named as such for being among the highest points in the Florida peninsula at 295 feet above sea level. There also is a 1930s mansion to explore. The park claims 23 million people have visited since it opened in 1929. Founder Edward K. Bok was a Netherlands immigrant, a Pulitzer Prize-winning author for his autobiography and an editor, among his other accomplishments, who wintered here from Pennsylvania. He died in 1930 and was buried at the base of his tower.
18. Silver Springs State Park contains Florida’s first big tourist attraction, popularized in the late 1800s via river travel, east of Ocala at 5656 E. Silver Springs Blvd. While the 4000-acre park now is open, including its famous glass-bottom boats allowing tourists to peer down into the clear natural springs, it is encouraging social distancing measures. The first glass-bottom boat tours took place here in 1870, though today’s boats are much improved. Scenes from 1930s Hollywood classics “Rebel Without a Cause,” “Distant Drums,” the James Bond flick “Moonraker” and “Creature from The Black Lagoon” were filmed at Silver Springs. It also was the site of a Rattlesnake Cannery, moved there from Tampa after the original owner died of a rattlesnake bite in 1944. ¦
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