This month marks my one-year anniversary of being a Florida resident. In honor of this anniversary and the Republican convention in Tampa, please allow me to indulge an idea that has been brewing since I moved. Since moving to the Sunshine State, I have been gradually piecing together of my new state’s history and I have been struck by the similarities Florida shares with the American West. Allow me to walk you through my cocktail party argument (which, like most cocktail party arguments, is by no means thoroughly vetted—feel free to vet in the comment section).
|Via The Last Refuge|
I’m not just talking about the Spanish. (Although St. Augustine, established by the Spanish in 1565, is the oldest continuously occupied European city in North America. It served the dual function as a military fort and the base of missionary operations.)
2) Like many places in the West, Florida boasts a harsh environment.
|Via Medical Reserve Corps of Sarasota County|
3) Like the West, the arrival of the railroad transformed Florida’s landscape and population.
This point reminds Western scholars that the expansion of the railroad in the nineteenth century was not just a Western project, but a southern one as well. Florida’s railroad hero was Henry Flagler, a business partner of John D. Rockefeller. When he moved to Florida for his wife’s health in 1878, he was charmed by St. Augustine’s tourism potential. Lacking transportation and accommodations, Flagler did what any nineteenth-century oil tycoon would—he built his own railroad and hotel.
|Via My Life in Postcards|
Additionally, like the West, Flagler saw Florida as a gateway to greater trade relationships. Instead of Asia, Florida was the entry point to Latin America, Cuba, and the newly opened Panama Canal. Like the West, it was a land to be traversed for capital gain.
Finally, because of the railroad, business investors began to see Florida as a tourist site and as a place for new settlements. These investors started using booster campaigns to attract new residents, promising paradise. Many people came, but, like many immigrants to the West, they were disappointed to not find immediate paradise.
4) Like the West, Florida has been subject to intense boom and bust cycles over the twentieth and twenty-first centuries.
In 2007, when the rest of the country was still high on climbing housing prices, the Florida housing market tanked. The Florida housing market was the canary in the coalmine. When NPR’s Planet Money purchased and traced one of those “toxic assets,” they discovered that the majority of the mortgages were in Florida.
5) Like the West, Florida has inspired people to go on quests for mythical places, instilled the desire to create utopian communities, and is fertile soil for New Religious Movements.
The boom/bust cycle might be fueled on these dreams. Starting with Ponce de Leon’s quest for the Fountain of Youth, Florida, like the West, has inspired dreams of escape and perfection. Although I can’t recall specific movies, it seems to me that the fantasy of an idyllic orange grove in Florida is akin to the white-picket fence. To many people, Florida represents a place to get away from it all and to start anew. (Of course, as New West historians, we know that this is never possible, and Florida’s folly can be confirmed through Tim Dorsey’s novels.)
|Via the Village Voice|
|The Oratory at Ave Maria University, via Saint Peter's List|
I could go on. There’s the Catholic New Religious Movement of Our Lady of Clearwater, the theme park of the Holy Land Experience, and the diversity of religious practices that comes with Cuban immigration. Like the entrepreneurs of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, religious leaders have seen opportunity in Florida to establish communities set apart from the pace of modern life.
I’ll leave my extended points here, but I also would like to mention that like the West, Florida’s history has been defined by a history of immigration and racial, ethnic, and religious diversity. Additionally, like many Westerners, Floridians tend towards libertarian political ideas and general enmity towards the federal government (Governor Rick Scott’s refusal of federal funds linked to the ACA is a case in point). Like the West, Florida is a mixture of rural country (with many acres under federal control) and concentrated city centers. Finally, might Florida serve as St Louis did, as the entry point into the “final frontier?”
Ok, so this is just a fun little exercise. Florida is NOT the West in many ways—the fact that my crackers are always soggy is a constant reminder that I’m not in Colorado anymore. Nevertheless, I find it useful in thinking how a concentrated study of religion in the American West does not need to be regionally specific. Instead, the themes that emerge from a regionally-based study can help us to see the rest of American religious history (or even in points outside the US) in new light.