By: Cindy Bear, Guest Contributor

In 1926 one person prevented the final destruction of a massive sand mound used as a burial place by the Calusa people from about A.D. 1000 to 1700. Now, the story of Captain John Smith is shared on an interpretive sign at the Randell Research Center’s Calusa Heritage Trail at Pineland. Florida Humanities Council grant funds made it possible for us to develop that sign, and two others, for an expanded Calusa Heritage Trail through a newly acquired and restored five-acre property. Colorful illustrations by artist Merald Clark serve as “portals” drawing the visitor into scenes happening in earlier times at the location of the signs as based on archaeological research conducted at the Center. Text from historical and archaeological sources provided facts and details for our text.

The trail takes visitors along a preserved portion of the Calusa-dug waterway that once circled the burial mound we now call the Smith Mound in honor of Captain Smith’s heroics. A bench shaded by oak trees freed from invasive exotic plants that were previously choking native vegetation is dedicated “In Memory of the Calusa People.” At this spot, the sign describes and depicts the shape and vast size of the mound and its waterway when it stood undisturbed in this part of the Calusa town. Another scene shows a deceased young Calusa man attended at his burial place. The image transitions to the same place years later as family members return to his grave with food offerings placed upon mats, as described by Jesuit priests in 1743.

Low Mound, a midden-mound dating to about A.D. 300 – 400, is also accessed by the looped trail. Our sign explains that the remains of 23 different fish species uncovered in 1992 by archaeologists are evidence that people here relied on the Pine Island Sound estuary. The discovery of 1800-year-old papaya seeds at Pineland is shown through a drawing of ripe fruit being gathered near the midden. These people lived through a warm and stormy time and the shoreline was further east than the current Pineland shoreline. The differences between sea level rises of the past and those being experienced by Floridians today is explained on the sign with text and graphics.

Taken together, the signs allow visitors to transcend a divide between themselves and the people who lived long ago in the places they are treading. Here they can contemplate the power of art and science to allow an understanding of that which we cannot see, hear the sound of the wind through trees sprouted from seeds of trees that shaded the walk of a Calusa family, be reassured that we can all make a difference, and find tranquility and peace of mind amid one of Florida’s special heritage spaces.

You can visit the Randell Research Center’s Calusa Heritage Trail seven days a week, sunup to sundown. A picnic area is available. The Visitor Center, with restrooms, gift shop and restrooms is open Monday – Saturday, 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. For more information: or call 239-283-2062.


Cindy Bear is the coordinator of the Calusa Heritage Trail at the Randell Research Center in Pineland.

How do the humanities
anchor democracy?

We may live in a STEM-focused world, but the humanities remain crucial in helping us understand one another. And that is key to sustaining our democracy, writes Steve Seibert, our executive director. Read his thought-provoking essay, below.

In Praise of the Humanities
By Steven Merritt Seibert

Six Tampa Bay veterans took the stage to tell their stories of war. One, handsome and athletic, explained how he lost his leg from a roadside bomb explosion in Baghdad. He wears a blade-runner prosthetic and now operates a national nonprofit dedicated to helping veterans improve mental health through physical activity. One suffered traumatic brain injury in combat and, once home, threatened suicide. His wife joined him as they described their joint process of recovery. A Marine told of her rape by a fellow Marine and how she rebuilt her life. She now counsels other victims. After hearing these powerful accounts, the audience was invited to ask questions and tell their own stories.

Part of the national Telling Project, this was one of a series of Florida Humanities Council public programs across the state giving veterans a platform to talk about what their service to us meant. In Orlando, for example, a Gold Star mother described the searing pain in her head the moment her son was shot in Iraq. In Pensacola, a Vietnam veteran described how he tried to numb painful war memories with alcohol. Hearing the stories gave me a profoundly deeper connection with another’s human experience. It changed how I understand the challenges veterans face both in uniform and at home.

In other words, The Telling Project is an exercise in the humanities.

The humanities explore our heritage, culture, values, and ideas. Whether expressed through a study of history, languages, or human culture; through literature, music, or the arts; or as a discussion of religion, philosophy, or law, the humanities help us understand each other.

The humanities often slip past our intellectual defenses by appealing first to our hearts. See the play, listen to the lecture, read the book, or watch the documentary and we are moved to see with new eyes or through the eyes of others. We become wiser and more empathetic. What we know to be true might be affirmed–-or challenged.

STEM is not the enemy of the humanities, any more than the left side of the brain is the enemy of the right.

Much of the current educational focus is on the STEM disciplines: science, technology, engineering, and math. These are crucial pursuits, of course. America’s legacy of invention, innovation, and scientific discovery forms a critical pillar of our national success and character. But STEM is not the enemy of the humanities, any more than the left side of the brain is the enemy of the right. In times past, the great mathematicians and scientists were also the great writers and political thinkers. Artists of historical significance–think Leonardo DaVinci–made profound mathematical and scientific connections. The initial humanities disciplines included grammar and logic but also arithmetic and geometry. The arts and sciences have always been two sides of the same coin. In the words of Apple founder Steve Jobs: It is “technology married with the humanities that yield us the results that make our hearts sing.”

Several prestigious medical schools recognize this interconnection. Yale, Stanford, and Harvard, as well as the Universities of Florida, South Florida, and Miami, all provide “medical humanities” programs that train in disciplines such as literature, philosophy, and ethics. Why? Because the best doctors are not just technically proficient, but also understand human nature, can talk with grieving or anxious patients, and have the depth to make tough ethical decisions. Research shows that doctors who are more empathetic “burn out” less, and that their patients trust them more and have better health outcomes. This leads to lower health care costs and fewer malpractice claims, Daniel Orlovich, a physician at Stanford Health Care, wrote in a 2016 article, “How medical humanities can help physician burnout.”

Some of America’s most successful business and technology leaders were initially educated not in business, but in the humanities, according to media reports. LinkedIn founder Reid Hoffman earned a degree in Philosophy from Oxford; Carly Fiorina (Hewlett-Packard) in Medieval History and Philosophy; Michael Eisner (Walt Disney Company) in English Literature and Theatre; and Howard Schultz (Starbucks) in Communications. National political leaders follow the same pattern. Some examples, as widely reported: Hillary Clinton, Marco Rubio, and Bernie Sanders were all undergraduate Political Science majors; Jeb Bush majored in Latin American Studies; Ben Carson in Psychology; and Donald Trump in Economics. These lists stretch around the world, but the point is simple: STEM and the humanities are mutually enriching. It takes a surprising breadth of knowledge to operate a hospital, a company, or a nation.

For over 2,000 years the humanities have played the additional role of anchoring democracy. The ancient Greeks considered competency in the humanities the baseline for self-government. One needed to know certain things in order to perform one’s civic duties. And so it remains today. The humanities are the key to developing the capacity of a free people to govern themselves.

As Thomas Jefferson explained, “If a nation expects to be ignorant and free…it expects what never was and never will be.”

America was born from ideas; we were humanities-driven from the beginning.

Americans have always striven for knowledge. We read and build and invent. We discuss and quarrel and reform. America was born from ideas; we were humanities-driven from the beginning.

A working knowledge of history, law, civics, and philosophy protects our democracy, as does the ability to gently discuss these issues across the divides of race, age, gender, geography, education, and politics. Knowledge of foreign languages and cultures, economics and comparative religion is critical for keeping peace in a global economy. The humanities give us prepared voters, informed consumers, and productive workers. They foster a society that is innovative, competitive, and strong, a point made by the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in its 2013 report, “The Heart of the Matter.”

A friend once hosted a gathering of high-ranking officials from the Netherlands. He started the meeting by thanking the country they represented for its critical financial assistance during the American Revolution. The officials expressed amazement that any American would have both the historical acumen and the humility to recognize how much the Dutch were responsible for our existence as a nation. The relationships created at that meeting continue today.

E Pluribus Unum; Out of Many, One. In a free and diverse society, the path to One is through the rich forest of the humanities. Along that path, we become mindful of the lessons of history, the differences in culture, and the power of ideas. Our Republic, including its component parts of business, government, and community, is protected by discovering shared values. Neither tyranny nor mob rule can deceive a people who understand each other. These are essential lessons, and now is the time to embrace them—not to diminish their importance.

The humanities tell the stories that tie us together and to the wisdom of the past. I write in praise because they inspire us to learn, to think, and to understand.

STEVEN MERRITT SEIBERT is the Executive Director of the Florida Humanities Council.

How a beloved author learned to love Christmas in Florida


Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings at her home in Cross Creek in the 1940s: author of The Yearling, Cross Creek, The Sojourner, and many other novels and stories.
Image courtesy of Florida State Archives. This photograph by Erich Hartmann is part of the Rawlings collection at the University of Florida George A. Smathers Libraries.

“It seemed to me that my first Christmas at Cross Creek would break my heart,” wrote Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings, a journalist who left Upstate New York in 1928 for the wilds of the Florida subtropics.

Rawlings, who became one of Florida’s (and the nation’s) most acclaimed writers, knew she would miss the snow and the roaring log fires of traditional Christmases up North. But as she settled into the small Cracker community of Cross Creek 15 miles south of Gainesville, she began to experience “culture shock.”

“It was unreasonable to be outraged by a temperature of 75 degrees, hot blazing sunshine and red birds singing lustily instead of Christmas carolers,” she wrote in “American Cookery” magazine in December 1942. “I had moved to the subtropics, and the lush life had become my life. Yet the bland air infuriated me.

“In pique, I built a great roaring log fire in the living room of the old Florida farmhouse—and was obliged to fling wide all doors and windows. But as I set the table on the sunny veranda for Christmas dinner, the yellow flames in the open fireplace were comforting.”

Eventually she became acclimated to her new surroundings—with the help of her new neighbors. They taught her about Florida backwoods culture, and these lessons became material for her novels, short stories, and memoirs. Her novel “The Yearling,” about a boy who adopts an orphaned fawn, won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction in 1939.

In time, they also taught her how to celebrate Christmas Florida-style.

“The men, and some of the women, consider Christmas as one of the great days for hunting. That…goes back to something solid and important, when men made their living, pioneer fashion, in the woods. The relation of man to nature continues,” she wrote in the article, headlined “Christmas at Cross Creek.”

“It is the mode to cook for Christmas dinner whatever the men bring down with their guns. That, too, is stable and good…The men have brought it in and the women have cooked it, and an old, good way of life is maintained.

“The beverage is likely to be Florida ‘corn,’ or moonshine liquor, with, for the more delicate or puritanical women, home-made Scuppernong or blackberry or elderberry wine,” Rawlings wrote. “What the men hunt for Christmas dinner depends on what game frequents their locale. In the Big Scrub, in Gulf Hammock, in the Florida Everglades, it is wild turkey or deer. At Cross Creek, it is quail or dove or rabbit or wild ducks.”

The holiday celebration did not include decorating Christmas trees, she noted. Instead, her neighbors festooned their pine cabins with wild mistletoe and boughs of holly, bright with red berries. Rawlings grew to cherish these traditions and the sense of community that she felt with her new-found friends in the subtropics.

“I have come to love the lazy and casual Florida backwoods Christmas,” she wrote. “The function of all such festive days is to give us a sense of cozy hominess, of belonging to something stable and lovely. And it is all a matter of the things to which one is accustomed. Now that Cross Creek is ‘home,’ I should be as infuriated as on that first Christmas day, if snow fell, and sparrows pecked at ice. The red bird’s song is the accepted Christmas paean.”

How a worldly little lime found fame in Florida


Florida State Archives

After a winding journey some 500 years ago, a small, tart lime arrived in the Florida Keys. It had started out in southern Asia and was carried by Arabs across North Africa into Portugal and Spain. Explorers brought it to the Keys, not knowing of course that one day the sour, yellowish fruit would become a Florida culinary icon.

How that came about is a study in pioneer ingenuity –- or, as folks in the Keys might say, Conch can-do.

No one knows for sure who made the first pie with this worldly little lime, but it was after the 1850s, when Gail Borden invented sweetened, condensed, canned milk, which was sold at general stores. Before then, milk wasn’t readily available for folks who lived on the Keys, since dairy cows were about as scarce there as hens’ teeth. Hens, however, were there—and that meant Keys residents had eggs. And they had wild lime trees that sprouted in their backyards long after the Spanish explorers had sailed away.

One day, someone mixed a can of the sweet condensed milk with beaten egg yolks and spiked the concoction with tart lime juice. This creation became a custard that “cooked” from the acidity of the lime, jelling so that it didn’t need to be baked. More importantly, the confection packed a luscious sweet-sour taste that sparkled on the palate. It was an instant hit.

The custard was poured into a baked pastry crust and topped with a meringue of beaten egg whites, resulting in the first Key lime pie. Years later, people began using graham-cracker crusts and topping the pie with whipped cream—and baking the pies because of worries about salmonella in eggs.

These days, finding authentic Key lime pie can be tricky. There are imposters flavored by the bigger, greener, Persian limes that are sold in supermarkets around the country. But the widely available Persian lime just doesn’t have the same sharp tang, taste, or deep-yellow color as the Key lime.

Real Key limes are harder to find. A 1926 hurricane reportedly destroyed lime groves planted by commercial growers in the Keys. Groves are cultivated elsewhere now, although backyard trees still exist in Florida.

Still, after all its travels and travails, the Key lime is in Florida to stay. In 2006, the Legislature proclaimed that Key lime pie is Florida’s official state pie.

Florida’s Key Lime Pie recipe from 1964 postcard above

An authentic Key Lime Pie with native key limes. Note the creamy yellow inside. Key Lime Pie is world famous for a just-right tart taste.

4 Eggs
1 can Condensed Milk
1/3 Cup Key Lime Juice

Beat the yolks of 4 eggs and the white of one until thick. Add the condensed milk and beat again. Add the lime juice and beat until thick. Beat the 3 remaining egg whites until dry and fold in the mixture. Pour into a baked pie shell. Separate two eggs, beat the whites with two tablespoons of sugar until stiff and forms peaks. Spread on top of pie and bake in oven until meringue is brown.

2016fallcommunitiesFlorida Stories Walking Tours

Listen. These streets
have stories to tell.

Take a stroll through history with our free walking tours as your guide. Just download our Florida Stories walking tour app to your phone or mobile device. You’ll meet the dreamers and adventurers, citrus farmers, cattle ranchers, families, individualists, working people, industrialists – and many iconic characters who built this state, town by town.

Our latest tours – launching soon – are for Bartow, Lake Wales, Pensacola, and DeLand. Already available: tours of historic St. Augustine and Tampa’s Ybor City. Coming next spring: Key West, Fort Pierce, Tarpon Springs, Fernandina Beach, and “Guilded Age St. Augustine”.

Want a sneak peek? Listen below.

Interested in bringing Florida Stories to your community?


The Florida Humanities Council is currently looking for partner cities and groups to expand Florida Stories across the state. We are looking for communities that have a network of interested parties who could help provide content, images, and marketing plans as we expand the app. We have the platform and now we need you to bring this wonderful walking tour to your town. To get started contact Lisa Lennox at 727-873-2018 or

By Gary R. Mormino

This postcard reveals a bustling scene of hundreds of Ybor City cigar makers.

This postcard reveals a bustling scene of hundreds of Ybor City cigar makers. Courtesy of Special Collections, University of South Florida Library

In 1977, Ybor City was in steep decline. Few of the original inhabitants of this once-vibrant ethnic community remained. Seventh Avenue was a shadow of the thriving commercial center of years past—and ghost-like at night. But to a young historian, this weathered and wearied enclave was a dreamland.

It was different from any immigrant community I had ever seen. Or smelled. The aromas of fresh Cuban bread emerging from La Segunda Bakery mingled with those of the shredded, savory flank steak called ropa vieja (translation: “old clothes”!) served at the Alvarez Café and the “burnt” scent of dark coffee beans emanating from roasters at the La Naviera Mill. Add to that the fragrant, musty smell of tobacco leaf that wafted through the remaining cigar factories, mixed with the staccato sounds of Spanish and Italian, and you have a very special place.

Despite the obvious economic decline, many buildings lining the brick streets of this historic area just northeast of downtown Tampa remained visually stunning. I returned again and again to gasp at the monumental scale and grandeur of the immigrant ethnic society buildings so lovingly erected by the Cuban, Italian, and Spanish residents who established this community beginning in 1886. Monuments to immigrants, these structures suggested the grandeur they once evoked: three- and four-stories tall with opulent theaters and elegant dance floors, marble stairs and cast-iron balustrades.

I couldn’t wait to find out more about the people who built them and who lived in the small wooden cottages nestled throughout the neighboring streets. I wanted to know their stories. Many of the immigrants and their elderly children were still alive, I learned. In a race against time, I tracked hundreds down, traveling to their homes and tape-recording their memories. I also found some playing dominos and sipping café carajillo or caffé corretto (coffee with brandy) in the arabesque-tiled cantinas of the still-active ethnic society buildings.

In 1909, the reformer Lewis Hine brought his camera to Tampa to document child labor. His photograph of two young women working at an Ybor City factory scandalized Americans and resulted in national child labor legislation. Courtesy of Library of Congress.

In 1909, the reformer Lewis Hine brought his camera to Tampa to document child labor. His photograph of two young women working at an Ybor City factory scandalized Americans and resulted in national child labor legislation.
Courtesy of Library of Congress.

As the tapes rolled, tales of struggle and heroism poured forth and patterns and themes emerged. I met an exotic cast of characters that only a novelist could imagine—boliteros (numbers runners), los lectores (those who read books aloud to workers in the many cigar factories), and cafeteros (those who supplied workers with fortifying cups of Cuban coffee). I even met what were called stripper women, las despalilladoras, who stripped the tobacco leaves from the stems!

Some of these people stay deep in my memory—like José Vega Díaz. In 1980, my colleague and fellow historian George Pozzetta and I met this 94-year-old cigar maker who had arrived in Ybor City in 1892. He described how he and others supported revolutionary José Martí and his plea to free Cuba from Spanish rule. He recalled a fight in the 1960s when the urban-renewal wrecking ball cut a swath through his beloved Ybor City community. He and his wife Blanca resisted bureaucrats who demanded they vacate their home. Blanca pleaded, “I can’t, I can’t,” on eviction day—and was dead by sunset. He shared many other stories of his life, too, as well as his underlying philosophies. When asked about organized religion, he channeled his favorite author, saying: “You know what Victor Hugo say? In every town they have a school teacher. The school teacher is the light. But in every town there is someone who—wheeww—try to blow away the light. That is the preachers!”

When Ybor City was founded 130 years ago, its prospects seemed dismal. A company town for the cigar industry, it was a primitive outpost scoured by yellow and typhoid fevers. When I asked Paolo Longo, an immigrant from Sicily, his first memories of Ybor City in 1904, he replied, “Hhumph!! Zanzare e coccodrilli!” (mosquitoes and alligators!). Yet this community survived epidemics and wars, revolutions and labor strife.

“The cigar industry is to this city what the iron industry is to Pittsburgh,” wrote the Tampa Tribune in 1897. Millions of cigars—Tampa Nuggets, Hav-A-Tampas, Tampa Girls, and many more once-famous brands—ensured prosperity.  A Tampa-made cigar became a proper status symbol for the era’s growing middle classes.

To grade, de-stem, bunch, and fashion the tobacco leaf into puro Habana cigars, thousands of immigrants from Cuba, Spain, and Italy— “Latins” in the local vernacular—created an ethnic oasis in the Deep South, an industrial community in an agrarian state. Over 100 factories solidified Tampa’s reputation as “Cigar City.” Alas, only a handful of them still stand.

A “Reader” in cigar factory, Tampa, Fla. He reads books and newspapers at top of his voice all day long. This is all the education many of these workers receive. He is paid by them and they select what he shall read. Courtesy of Library of Congress.

The cigar factories were home to genuine celebrities and heroes, known as los lectores or “readers.” The practice of reading aloud to cigar workers began in Cuba and followed the migration routes of tabaqueros across the Straits of Florida. A distinct culture surrounded them. The fiercely independent cigar makers, not the factory owners, controlled the process. Workers hired lectores to read literature to them while they worked. Some readers sat on chairs, while others preferred elegant pulpits called tribunas. Workers secured the right to select the novels that were to be read to them. In a celebrated incident, two workers began quarreling over whether the Victor Hugo novel Ninety-three offended the sensibilities of the women workers. The argument spilled outside where a duel was held, resulting in a tragedy that the French author surely would have approved.

Tampa’s prosperity largely depended upon the skills of these 10,000 cigar makers. The immigrant laborers were anything but passive, either about their working conditions or political issues; indeed, Ybor City was a hotbed of radical ideas. Angelo Massari recounted how as a young man in Sicily, he became radicalized confronting a conservative Roman Catholic Church and a repressive state. “When in 1902 I landed in Tampa, I found myself in a world of radicals for which I was prepared,” he recalled. In Ybor City, anarchists and trade unionists, socialists and communists, battled for primacy.

Massari had left the impoverished Sicily because it was said that young men there had only three options: rebellion, stagnation, or emigration. He’d heard that in Tampa, “there is no shortage of anything.” Even coffee, someone told him, “they make in a big pot.” Massari emigrated and became a prosperous banker!

Consider the inspiring story of Jose Yglesias, arguably Tampa’s greatest native-born writer. Yglesias’s family came from Galicia, a poor region in Spain. Tales from there and Ybor City enrich his writing. His stories colorfully reflect the political passion of the cigar workers. “People date their lives from various strikes in Tampa,” he recollected. In 1902, his uncle, a reader in a cigar factory, was kidnapped by vigilantes determined to bludgeon the labor movement. When he returned, cigar makers held a one-day strike in tribute.

Latins may not have won many strikes, but they left a stirring cultural legacy. “Those cigar makers knew how to organize more than trade unions,” asserted Yglesias. Nothing speaks more eloquently of their immigrant resolve and dreams than their mutual-aid societies. Rarely in America have immigrants erected ethnic society buildings on such a scale and with such noble purposes as in Ybor City. These were monuments to immigrant dreams: El Centro Asturiano, El Centro Español, El Círculo Cubano, L’Unione Italiana, and La Uníon Marti-Maceo seemed more like cathedrals to the working classes than ethnic clubhouses.

Each of the societies erected impressive theaters, where performances in Spanish and Italian languages occurred weekly. “When great international performers like opera virtuoso Caruso came to Tampa,” remarked Yglesias, “it was cigar makers who booked them, not the Americanos.”

Thousands of Latins belonged to Ybor City’s mutual aid societies.Jorge Mascuñana Cruz proudly displayed his identification card of El Círculo Cubano (the Cuban Club). Courtesy of Special Collections, University of South Florida Library.

Thousands of Latins belonged to Ybor City’s mutual aid societies.Jorge Mascuñana Cruz proudly displayed his identification card of El Círculo Cubano (the Cuban Club). Courtesy of Special Collections, University of South Florida Library.

The societies also established modern hospitals and medical clinics to provide collective health care. The Cuban, Spanish, and Italian mutual aid societies hired physicians to work at the clubs, clinics, and hospitals.

But for all of the charm of the material culture of Ybor City—the wrought-iron balconies, the wooden cigar makers’ cottages, and the palatial theaters—it was the survivors’ stories that I treasure and remember most fondly. The story told by Manuel Alfonso illustrates the ethnic and racial fluidity within Ybor City. An Afro-Cuban, Alfonso maintained that respect, above all, mattered among neighbors. “We used to get along good,” he remembered. “When my grandmommy died in 1923,” he reminisced, “she was buried on Nocha Buena—Christmas Eve—which in Cuban homes always had a big celebration. The only black family on that block was my family, [yet] nobody on that block celebrated Noche Buena out of respect for her.”

History is never static. The original Ybor City characterized by scarcity gave way to the prosperous community of the 1920s. The Great Depression followed, walloping the cigar industries, and in a cruel symmetry, machines replaced hand rollers while radios replaced the readers’ voices.

World War II emptied Ybor City of young men, who wanted to prove to Uncle Sam that they were more American than Americanos. When G.I. José and Giuseppina came home, they wanted little to do with aging wooden casitas (small houses) or a cigar industry that had cratered. By the 1950s, African Americans constituted a majority of Ybor’s residents. Third-generation businesses closed. The Columbia Restaurant, a landmark Spanish restaurant that dates from 1905, and Ybor Square, small shops and antique dealers inside the original V.M. Ybor factory, stood as sentinels on opposite ends of the enclave.

The 1960s shook Ybor City to and from its foundations. Interstate 4 dissected the enclave and in a classic case of intended and unintended consequences, the Great Society’s efforts at social engineering failed miserably when urban renewal simply leveled hundreds of homes and businesses, leaving vacant blocks or new buildings that jarred the senses.

The late 19th century raised advertising art to new heights.Cigar labels, produced in Germany by a ophisticated process known as chromolithography, allowed consumers to choose the popular Victor Hugo brand. Consumers could also smoke cigars named after Shakespeare, Jules Verne, and Cervantes. Courtesy of Special Collections, University of South Florida Library.

The late 19th century raised advertising art to new heights.Cigar labels, produced in Germany by a ophisticated process known as chromolithography, allowed consumers to choose the popular Victor Hugo brand. Consumers could also smoke cigars named after Shakespeare, Jules Verne, and Cervantes. Courtesy of Special Collections, University of South Florida Library.

In the 1980s and ‘90s, young Tampeños found Ybor City a hothouse for artist studios and counter-culture bookstores. Guavaween, a raunchy Halloween parade down Seventh Avenue perfectly fit Ybor’s new sensibilities. The City of Tampa and developers built parking garages and a shopping complex, Centro Ybor, to boost the struggling enclave, hoping a festive marketplace would bring back crowds. Now, early in the 21st century, raucous bars, tattoo parlors, and musical venues define the newest iteration of Ybor City. The Church of Scientology moved into Ybor Square.
To be honest, I prefer the old Ybor City. I miss the elderly immigrants who quoted Victor Hugo and recounted the great strike of 1910. I miss the imperious Spanish waiters who had served patrons for decades at Spanish Park and Los Novedades, masters who effortlessly deboned a broiled pompano with only a knife and fork. Former Florida Gov. Bob Martínez once told me that his father worked as a waiter at the Columbia Restaurant and won a bet that he could take the food and drink orders for a party of 60 and never write anything down.

I mourn for an Ybor City that we lost long ago. So much of modern Florida is a recurring story of loss and lamentation: crystal springs despoiled by development, century-old orange groves replaced by condominiums, and kitschy tourist attractions taken over by mega theme parks. Florida is never static.

In 1980, Angelina Comescone, aghast at the current generation, recalled nostalgically, “In the evenings our parents would take us walking. We would sing as loud as we could, Italian, Spanish, and American songs.” She lamented, “Nobody walks anymore. Nobody sings anymore.”

And yet, as a historian, I know that every generation deserves its own music and its own Ybor City.

GARY R. MORMINO, scholar in residence at the Florida Humanities Council, co-authored The Immigrant World of Ybor City in 1987 with George Pozzetta. This article by Mormino, recipient of the 2015 Florida Lifetime Achievement Award for Writing, appears in the latest issue of FORUM magazine.

Who was Zora Neale Hurston? Get to know this singular woman, author of one of Florida’s greatest novels, Their Eyes Were Watching God; an independent spirit who didn’t let 1930s-era racial and socioeconomic obstacles stifle her creative genius; a folklorist who captured back-roads songs, stories, and otherwise-unrecorded lives in the turpentine camps and juke joints of our state.


Singing Along Back Roads: Recording Florida’s Cultural Treasures

Read about Zora in the words of the late Stetson Kennedy, who worked with Hurston on a “treasure hunt” to collect cultural information about Florida for the federal Works Progress Administration. Click here.


Re-Enacting Zora

Listen to our fascinating audio snapshot by scholar/actor Phyllis McEwen, who has brilliantly portrayed Hurston on stage since 1990.

Shove it Over

Hear Hurston herself singing a song she learned from a Florida railroad worker in 1933. The workers sang this when they were lining up the rails.

What is a Florida Cracker?

Florida folk singers will tell you all about the tough Scots-Irish pioneers who tamed the Florida frontier. They are the great grandparents of today’s Crackers. What did they eat and how did they survive here more than 200 years ago? How does their culture endure today? Enjoy the music and hear the stories below.

Florida Cracker Definition

These five-minute audio programs are part of more than 500 features about Florida in our searchable audio archive.

Cracker Music

Length: 5:56 Recorded: 7/1/2006

Songwriters talk about composing new songs honoring the heritage of Florida’s crackers.

Cracker Food

Length: 5:37 Recorded: 3/1/2006

Native Floridians look at some of the traditions and customs surrounding the food they grew up with.


FORUM Magazine Winter 2006

Cracker Country

Long before the Wild West, Florida’s rancheros, Seminoles, and Crackers were riding, roping (and sometimes rustling) our country’s first cattle on the steamy, subtropical frontier. That story, plus Patrick Smith, moonshiners, Bone Mizell, He-Coons, and lots more, in our newly digitized “Cracker Country.”

Browse digital issue

Over the past half century, Florida has changed from solidly Democratic to a two-party state that media, candidates, and analysts watch closely to see which way the nation’s political winds will blow. How did this happen? Why, going into the 2016 election year, does Florida qualify as a premier swing state? Below, Susan A. MacManus, respected Florida political analyst, explains Florida’s transformation.


Florida’s Transformation

Florida’s political evolution began with explosive population growth, sparked after World War II and continuing for decades. This boom transformed what was a mostly rural, white, poor population of less than 2 million into the nation’s third-largest state—a cultural mosaic of 20 million people who mirror the racial, ethnic, religious, age, and geographic makeup of the nation.

As people moved to Florida from the Northeast, Midwest, other parts of the South, Latin America, and the Caribbean, they altered the political landscape. A state that had been dominated by the Panhandle’s “pork choppers”—white, segregationist, conservative Democrats—grew into a demographic and political microcosm of the country. With voters now split among Democrats, Republicans, and independents, Florida has more Electoral College votes up for grabs than any other large state (29 EC votes in 2016, compared to eight a half-century ago). This has transformed Florida into the nation’s largest swing state, a political powerhouse.

It’s not surprising that Florida has voted for the winning presidential candidate in all but one year since 1964. And it’s not surprising that when political pundits are attempting to read the tea leaves, they look to Florida for clues. Read more.

And post your comment below. This year, will we again say, “As Florida goes, so goes the nation”?

As Florida’s population boomed in the 1950s, 26 African Americans—all self-taught landscape painters—succeeded despite Jim Crow racial and cultural barriers. They painted and sold idyllic depictions of natural Florida door-to-door and from the trunks of their cars along the East Coast. Today, known as The Highwaymen, they are honored for their legacy of resilience and ingenuity—and have been called “The Last Great American Art Movement of the 20th Century.”

Watch this video interview of Mary Ann Carroll, the only female member of The Highwaymen, the daughter of sharecroppers, with video producer Patricia Borns. “Only the strong survive,” she says. “A quitter never wins.”

Video Courtesy of Patricia Borns

Read this colorfully illustrated article about the new Florida Highwaymen Trail opening in Fort Pierce—home to most of the painters.
Painting by James-Gibson

Listen below to hear how The Highwaymen got started and thrived by working together.