Welcome to Florida Time, a weekly column about Florida history: from the Civil Rights Movement to the Miami Riots, famous governors, notable novelists and the state’s lost businesses.
Readers: This writer was a young Florida journalist and history buff when the search began for millions of stories that make Florida what it is.
One of the first sources this writer came across was the legendary 1939 "A Guide to the Southernmost State," now known informally as the "WPA Guide to Florida." It is indispensable for any lover of Florida and its history. My copy, a 1987 facsimile, has been loved to death. It’s worn and its pages are falling out.
Related: Florida history reads: Eliot Kleinberg’s picks
Under the Federal Writers Project, part of President Franklin Roosevelt's Works Progress Administration, writers seemingly went down every country road gathering documents and taking down the tales of folks who would tell them.
Florida Time archives: Get caught up on the stories you’ve missed
In the case of the Florida guide, what resulted is a remarkable snapshot. It portrays a Florida still in the Depression and yet to be rescued by World War II and the infusion of federal money.
It was a sleepy place with only about a million souls from Key West to Pensacola, unrecognizable from today's heavily developed behemoth.
Some of the writers who toiled on the WPA Guide went on to greatness. They include Zora Neale Hurston, whom we visited last year, and Stetson Kennedy, who would stand up to hate and become a Florida legend; we’ll visit him soon.
Back then, the WPA Guide pointed out that Florida’s "northern area is strictly southern and its southern area definitely northern."At the time, railroads and steamship lines were the norm, and airlines a luxury.
The book said visitors could expect "acceptable living quarters and meals for transients in all sections of Florida." And, in a grand understatement, "prices generally higher in winter."
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The book describes major cities and offers no fewer than 25 tours — pre-interstate highways.
It’s candid about bugs, snakes, hurricanes and the state’s 1920s boom. And, unusual for those times, it dared to point out the obvious but then politically incorrect, by noting that despite high rates of disease and death among blacks, only seven counties had hospitals built for them.
The book is also loaded with period photos of a different time for which some might pine and others wish good riddance. Or a little of each. That’s Florida.
Next week: Florida’s great writers
Last week: The rise and fall of three of Florida’s wealthiest men
From a reader: Hi, I enjoy the column very much. I just saw and listened to the [Reader Rewind episode] about Hot Shoppes in Miami. I’m curious about it and wonder if it was connected to the Hot Shoppe chain founded by Bill Marriott before he began the Marriott Hotel chain. They were similar to Howard Johnson’s and there were several in the DC area. I believe they started in the early 50’s. They were well established by 1957. I never saw one here in Florida. - Mimi G.
Eliot Kleinberg has been a staff writer for the past three decades at The Palm Beach Post in West Palm Beach, and is the author of 10 books about Florida (www.ekfla.com). Florida Time is a product of GateHouse Media and publishes online in their 22 Florida markets including Jacksonville, Fort Walton Beach, Daytona Beach, Lakeland, Sarasota and West Palm Beach. Submit your questions, comments or memories to FloridaTime@Gatehousemedia.com. Include your full name and hometown. Sorry; no personal replies.