Florida’s history is as vast and deep as the Atlantic Ocean, which carried the first European explorers to our shores. In 1513, Spanish explorer Juan Ponce de Leon arrived on the Florida coast, setting in motion five centuries of discovery and achievement, which paved the way for present day La Florida. As we celebrate the Quincentennial Anniversary of La Florida, let us not forget there are permanent exhibits dedicated to preserving our historical abundance.
Brush up a bit on the state’s storied past at sites like www.floridashistoriccoast.com and www.flheritage.com before you head out to see all the artifacts of our history, and prehistory which we’ve taken under cultural custodianship.
St. Augustine offers a wealth of history as the nation’s oldest, permanently occupied city. Today it stands as a tribute to its past, surviving five centuries, founded 42 years before the English colonized Jamestown and 55 years before the pilgrims landed at Plymouth Rock. Its history began with exploration, having been founded by the Spanish in 1565. When Don Pedro Menendez de Aviles came ashore, he named a stretch of land near the inlet in honor of Augustine, a saint of the Roman Catholic Church on whose feast day- August 28- land was sighted.
CASTILLO DE SAN MARCO 1 S. Castillo Drive (829-6506, www.nps.gov/casa) With its coquina exterior, impressive moat and authentic cannons, the fort is one of the city’s oldest relics, dating back to the 1500s. Construction of the masonry star fort began in 1672, 100 years after the settlement of St. Augustine. Coquina, Spanish for “small shells,” was made of ancient shells bonded together to form a type of stone similar to limestone. Native-American laborers and workers from Cuba built the fort using coquina quarried from the ‘King’s Quarry’ on Anastasia Island, in what is today Anastasia State Park across Matanzas Bay. The Castillo is the oldest masonry fort in the United States. During your visit to Castillo de San Marcos, there are many ways to explore the history of the park. Stroll through the fort’s casements and take in the exhibits. Brochures and maps are available to help guide you. Every hour a 25-minute video is shown that features cannon and musket firing sequences and outlines Castillo de San Marcos’s history. Rangers are on hand to give a variety of interpretive talks throughout the day on the history and culture of the park. Presentations by reenactors in period costumes give weapons demonstrations, as well as presentation on the life and experiences of the colonists. Amazing views of the city can be seen from the gun deck. Enjoy a restful break from sightseeing or a picnic in the fort’s green area. The Castillo de San Marcos is open to the public from 8:45 am to 5:15 pm every day of the year except December 25. Admission for adults (16 and above) is $7, valid for 7 consecutive days, and children (15 and under) are free but must be accompanied by an adult. The park grounds are closed from midnight until 5:30 am.
THE FOUNTAIN OF YOUTH ARCHAEOLOGICAL PARK 11 Magnolia Avenue (829-3168, 800-356-8222, www.fountainofyouthflorida.com) The oldest attraction in Florida is located in the first-known area explored by Ponce de Leon and later settled by Pedro Menendez de Aviles in 1565. The property was purchased in the early 1900s by Dr. Luella Day McConnell, leading to the discovery and preservation of significant, historical artifacts such as the landmark cross and silver salt cellar. A two-story globe tracks the voyage to the New World and the planetarium charts the exact constellation patterns that helped to guide explorers across the sea on April 2, 1513. The archaeological park sits along 15 acres of pristine Florida land and features a replica of a Timucuan village, live peacocks strolling the grounds, the spring house holding the original spring recorded in a 17th century land grant, navigator’s planetarium and Spanish outlook tower. Sample a taste from the natural spring well, fed directly from the Floridian aquifer, containing over 30 minerals believed to hold the secret to eternal youth. Tickets are $8-12, children under 5 are free. Open 9 am-6 pm daily.
THE LIGHTNER MUSEUM 75 King Street (824-2874, www.lightnermuseum.org) Housed inside the Ponce, one of Henry Flagler’s former grand hotels, the Lightner Museum offers a glimpse into the many splendors of the Gilded Age with artifacts including cut glass, Victorian art glass, costumes, furnishings and mechanical musical instruments, all elegantly displayed on the museum’s three floors. It also features such novelties as an ancient mummy and a stuffed lion that once belonged to Winston Churchill. Chicago publisher Otto C. Lightner purchased the building to house his extensive collection of Victoriana in 1946 and opened the museum two years later. He later gave the museum to the city of St. Augustine. The building is currently listed on the National Register of Historic Places. Admission is $10 for adults, $6 for active military with ID, $5 for college students (with I.D.) and children ages 12-18. Children under 12 are free but must be accompanied by an adult. Open daily from 9 am-5 pm.
FLAGLER COLLEGE 74 King Street (829-6481, legacy.flagler.edu/Tours-sp8.html) The private liberal arts college celebrated its own 40th anniversary in 2008, but the actual history of the former Ponce de Leon Hotel is much more expansive. The Hotel Ponce de Leon was built by Henry M. Flagler and serves as a reminder of his enterprise, diligence and commitment to high standards. The grand resort, built in 1888, has been designated as a National Historic Landmark and is considered one of the finest examples of Spanish Renaissance architecture. Legacy Tours of Flagler College highlight the architectural heritage of the former Hotel Ponce de Leon and other portions of the fascinating campus. Tours depart daily at 10 am and 2 pm from the main lobby (Rotunda) of the College at 74 King Street. Tickets are $10 for adults, $1 for children under the age of 12 and free to St. Johns County residents with a valid ID.
COLONIAL QUARTER 33 St. George Street (342-2857, 888-991-0933, www.colonialquarter.com) Step back in time at St. Augustine’s only living-history museum. As you stroll through this garrison town, leave today’s world behind and learn about life in another time. Visit with the blacksmith, carpenter or soldier’s wife as they go about their daily activities. The museum is open daily from 10 am to 6 pm. Check website for times of various demonstrations and live shows. Admission cost is $12.99 for adults, $6.99 for children 5-12 and free for children 4 and under.
ST. AUGUSTINE LIGHTHOUSE & MUSEUM 81 Lighthouse Avenue (829-0745, www.staugustinelighthouse.org) A Spanish watchtower, built in the late 1500s, was the predecessor of the present St. Augustine Lighthouse. The original watchtower became Florida’s first lighthouse in 1824 and the site of the oldest aid to navigation in the United States. By 1870, the tower was threatened by shoreline erosion and construction began on the current lighthouse. The new tower was completed in 1874. The old tower was swept out to sea during a storm in 1880. The St. Augustine Lighthouse rises 165 feet above sea level and contains 219 steps. At the top, a first-order Fresnel lens serves the beacon. The St. Augustine lens consists of 370 hand-cut glass prisms arranged in a beehive shape, towering twelve feet tall and six feet in diameter. Explore exhibits in the restored keepers’ house about the Coast Guard in WWII St. Augustine, shipwrecks, and the lives of the keepers and their families. Open daily from 9 am to 6 pm with extended hours during holidays and summer months. Admission is $9.75 for adults, $7.75 for seniors (60 & over) and children (age 12 or under and 44” or taller).
We’ve come a long way since Jacksonville was known as Cowford, but it all started long before there were bovines wading across the St. Johns River. The French thought this was a good place to make their first settlement in the New World; that is until the Spanish decided they wouldn’t tolerate Jean Ribault here in La Florida. But, long before the Europeans found our shorelines, Native-Americans enjoyed our area code since before even Europe was civilized. These are some the places to visit locally to discover our colorful history.
TIMUCUAN PRESERVE 11241 Fort George Road (251-2320, www.floridastateparks.org) While St. Augustine holds the distinction as ‘the nation’s oldest city’, its significance as the first European settlement is important, as it acknowledges the prior existence of the Timucuan Indians, thought to have existed in Florida for over 10,000 years. The park was established in 1988, and covers 46,000 acres of land first inhabited by the Timucua. The Timucuan Preserve is an educational and historical destination dedicated to sharing stories of their daily lives, epic battles and cultural traditions. On Saturday, July 6, a park ranger will share these historical tales at the Ribault Club on Fort George Island Cultural State Park. No reservations are necessary and the program is free.
FORT CAROLINE 12713 Fort Caroline Road (641-7155, www.nps.gov/timu/index.htm) The Spanish explorers weren’t the only Europeans to set foot on Florida soil. Fort Caroline memorializes the short-lived French presence in sixteenth-century Florida. Here you’ll find stories of exploration, survival, religious disputes, territorial battles, and first contact between American-Indians and Europeans on 128 unspoiled acres of Florida land. Long before Florida became a popular tourist destination, it was a pawn in battles between Spain, France, and Britain. Fort de la Caroline was built in 1564 to protect the first French settlement in the United States on the banks of the St. Johns River, in what is now Jacksonville.
The original Fort Caroline is thought to have washed away during the late 19th century, but a replica was built based on sketches by the settlement’s cartographer, Jacques le Moyne. The memorial also features the visitor center for the Timucuan Ecological and Historic Preserve (Fort Caroline National Memorial is a unit within the preserve) with a collection of rare Timucuan artifacts on display, most notably a wooden owl that is the largest wooden effigy recovered from an archeological site in North and South America. Open daily from 9 am to 5 pm.
KINGSLEY PLANTATION 11676 Palmetto Avenue (251-3537, www.nps.gov/findapark/index.htm) In 1814, Zephaniah Kingsley moved to Fort George Island and what is known today as the Kingsley Plantation. He brought a wife and three children (a fourth would be born at Fort George). His wife, Anna Madgigine Jai, was from Senegal, West Africa, purchased by Kingsley as a slave. She actively participated in plantation management, acquiring her own land and slaves when freed by Kingsley in 1811. With an enslaved workforce of about 60, the Fort George plantation produced Sea Island cotton, citrus, sugar cane, and corn. Kingsley continued to acquire property in north Florida and eventually possessed more than 32,000 acres, including four major plantation complexes and more than 200 slaves. Open daily from 9 am to 5 pm. Admission is free.
CUMMER MUSEUM OF ART & GARDENS 829 Riverside Avenue (356-6857, www.cummer.org) The Cummer Museum of Art and Gardens presents “La Florida: 500 Years of Florida Art” featuring 40 pieces including oil paintings, watercolors, sculptures, Earthenware, surfboards and video. This exhibition highlights works in the Cummer’s own collections, including landscapes by such well-known artists as Winslow Homer and Martin Johnson Heade. In addition, a selection of contemporary art from museums, galleries and collectors throughout the state celebrates the state’s creativity while demonstrating the increasing influence that environmental concerns play in Florida art. The exhibit is on view through October 6. Admission to the Cummer is $10 for adults, $6 for seniors, military and students. Children 5 and under are free. The museum is open on Tuesday from 10 am to 9 pm, Wednesday to Saturday from 10 am to 4 pm and Sunday from noon to 4 pm.