It’s almost Father’s Day (a holiday that could also be referred to as national tie day J). As you prepare to give dear ole dad the honor he’s due, take a few minutes to take a trip back in time and recognize a few men who could be considered among Florida’s founding fathers:
(Juan) Ponce de León: While searching for the mythical fountain of youth, Ponce de León founded the oldest settlement in Puerto Rico and discovered Florida.
Born in Spain, Ponce de León began his exploration career as part of Christopher Columbus' second expedition to the New World in 1493. de León did not return to Spain with Columbus; he stayed in Santo Domingo (the Dominican Republic).
The Spanish crown soon encouraged de León to continue searching for new lands, in hopes of finding yet more gold and expanding the Spanish empire. Also around this time, he learned of a Caribbean island called Bimini, on which there were rumored to be miraculous waters that could rejuvenate those who drank from them (the fountain of youth).
His interest piqued, in 1513 de León led a private expedition to Bimini from Puerto Rico. In a month's time, he and his men landed on the coast of Florida instead. He did not initially realize that he was on the mainland of North America and instead thought he had landed on another island. He named the region Pascua Florida (feast of flowers) because he discovered it at Easter and because its vegetation was lush and floral.
His last expedition was another search for Bimini in 1521. His force of 200 men landed on the west coast of Florida, but were met by Native American warriors, who wounded many of the men, including de León, with arrows. Ponce de León died in Havana, Cuba, from this wound and was buried in San Juan, Puerto Rico.
Henry Morrison Flagler: An industrialist and a founder of Standard Oil, Henry Flagler was also a key figure in the development of the Atlantic coast of Florida and founder of what became the Florida East Coast Railway. Known as the father of Miami, Florida, Flagler also founded the city of Palm Beach.
Flagler began working for L.C. Harkness in Ohio as a store clerk. In 1853, Henry Flagler married Harkness' daughter, Mary. In 1867, Flagler became partners with John D. Rockefeller, an oil refiner in Cleveland, Ohio. The partnership emerged as the Standard Oil Company and, in less than two years, was leading the oil refining industry in the country.
In the winter of 1876, the Flaglers went to Jacksonville, Florida due to Mary's failing health. After Mary died, Flagler married Mary Flagler's former nurse, Ida Alice Shrouds. The couple honeymooned in St. Augustine, Florida. Disenchanted by the state’s mediocre accommodations, Flagler began a new venture: developing land and transportation systems throughout Florida.
In 1888, Flagler opened hotel Ponce de Leon in St. Augustine. Needing suitable transportation to bring guests to the hotel, Flagler purchased the St. Augustine & Halifax railroad, which later became the Florida East Coast Railway. Flagler continued to expand the railroad down the state’s east coast. Cities were established in conjunction with the expansion on the railroad, and Flagler continued to build luxury hotels to accommodate tourists visiting those cities. By 1912, the tracks extended to Key West – and on January 22, 1912, the first New York to Key West train arrived in the city with Henry and his third wife, Mary Lily, aboard. Henry Flagler died in Palm Beach on May 20, 1913.
Henry Bradley Plant: Involved with many transportation projects, mostly railroads, in the U.S. state of Florida, Henry Plant eventually came to own the Plant System of railroads which became part of the Atlantic Coast Line Railroad. Plant City, located near Tampa, was named after him.
Starting his career as a deckhand on a steamboat traveling between New Haven and New York, Plant eventually began working for the Adams Express Company, which delivered express packages by steamboat in its early years and later by railroad. After becoming one of the company's executives, Plant bought Adams's southern branches and formed the Southern Express Company in 1861. During the Civil War, the company delivered express packages and funds.
After the war, Plant purchased several southern railroads. Within 20 years, he had developed a vast transportation empire that included 14 railroads and several steamship companies. He built railroad lines throughout Florida and made Tampa the center of his railroad and steamship business. Plant extended the rail line from the city to Port Tampa, dug out the channel, extended the dock, and built the port to accommodate steamships and their high volume of traffic. By 1889, the deepwater terminal secured Port Tampa’s position as a major transportation hub.
Plant branded his network of railroads and steamship lines The Plant System. It was the most profitable transportation network in Florida during the 1880s and 1890s, connecting Florida producers with eastern seaboard consumers. Industries such as citrus, celery, lumber, and phosphate flourished across the state as The Plant System provided rapid, mass transportation of goods.
Plant also built many magnificent resort hotels in Florida—including the Tampa Bay Hotel, which cost $2.5 million to construct. His transportation network brought economic expansion to Florida as well as architectural beauty, attracting business, new residents, and tourism to the state. Henry Plant died on June 23, 1899.
Vicente Martinez Ybor: a Spanish immigrant, Vicente Martinez Ybor became a noted industrialist and cigar manufacturer first in Key West, and Tampa, Florida.
Vicente Martinez Ybor, born in Spain in 1818, left his homeland at age 14 to avoid mandatory military service. He settled in Havana, Cuba – home to many Spanish expatriates. Ybor learned the craft of rolling cigars as a hobby, but turned it into a business venture in 1856 and began his own cigar line. His most popular cigar was the El Principe de Gales (The Prince of Wales) and his cigar factory produced up to 20,000 cigars a day.
In 1868, the Ten Years’ War forced Ybor to leave Cuba and he settled in Key West, Florida. He rebuilt his cigar business but labor unrest and transportation issues forced Ybor to relocate once again. In fall 1885, Ybor purchased 40 acres of land northeast of Tampa. By the following spring, Ybor and his partners had established a company town and called it Ybor City. Within a few years, the city grew to 3,000 residents, and the area became famous for making fine cigars. It also became a center for Cuban culture in Florida, since so many of the cigar workers were from Cuba or of Cuban descent. However, Jewish, German, and Italian immigrants also flocked there to work at the cigar factory. By 1900, Ybor City was known as the cigar capital of the world.
When Martinez Ybor died in 1896, much of Tampa closed down to attend his funeral. He has been honored with a statue in and parts of Ybor City have been restored as a historic landmark district.
Henry Shelton Sanford: A diplomat and investor in the South, Henry Sanford was also a central figure in the formation of the Congo, anti-slavery activist, founder of Sanford, Florida, and innovator of Florida’s citrus industry.
As a college student, Sanford developed an asthmatic condition that caused his eyesight to deteriorate. This condition forced him to drop out of school and in 1841 he took a recommended sea voyage to Europe. He spent the next 8 years traveling, learning several languages, and studying throughout Europe. In 1847, Sanford began his decades-long career as a diplomat.
In 1868 Sanford began to invest his money in Florida, purchasing 12,547 acres of land in central Florida and founding the town which bears his name. He also established the 100-acre Bel Air Grove – the largest grove in the state at the time. He began experimenting with 100 varieties of citrus plants, leading to the production of new citrus fruits including the Jaffa, Mediterranean Sweet, and the Villa Francean.
Sanford continued to travel throughout the United States and the world. In 1876, he was named acting Delegate of the American Geographical Society with the goal of achieving independence for the Congo, convincing the US government to invest money in the Congo and working to abolish the slave trade from that country. Henry Sanford died on May 21 1891.
These are just a few of the remarkable men who helped shape our state into the thriving metropolis it is today. Are there any others you’d add to the list?