August 27, 2012

Florida: An Honorary Western State?

by Brandi Denison

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
1) Florida, like the Trans-Mississippi region, has a lengthy, but largely ignored religious history.

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.)

Via Suncycler
In addition to the Spanish Catholic missions, Florida was the site of the first Protestant religious service in North America. In 1562, Jean Ribault led an expedition of persecuted French Huguenots to North Florida. They founded Fort Caroline, which eventually grew into Jacksonville. This was a short-lived colony. In 1565, the Spanish killed Ribault and most of the colonists. This brief history might signal its absence in many narratives of American religious history, but Florida, like the West, undermines the traditional Puritan-based narrative of American religious history.

2) Like many places in the West, Florida boasts a harsh environment.

Via Medical Reserve Corps of Sarasota County
Admittedly, this might be my weakest argument. During the two tropical storms that hit in May and June, we received nearly 15 inches of rain in one week. My hometown of Grand Junction, Colorado doesn’t receive that much rain in one year. Nevertheless, like Westerners, Floridians are persistently aware of the land and its weather patterns. Instead of snow, drought, and wildfires, wind, tornados, and water batter resilient Floridians. While many people have been victims of hurricanes, tropical depressions, and tropical storms, it seems to me that there is a feeling of bravado for having lived through one. (I felt myself falling victim to this, as I was thinking, “15 inches, that’s all you’ve got, Mother Nature?”) This is not unlike the stories of blizzards I grew up hearing from old-timers, or even from one of Annie Proulx’s Wyoming short stories found in Fine Just the Way it Is.

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
The railroad was central to Florida’s population increase. In 1880, when Flagler was still planning the railroad, the population was around 250,000 people. By 1910, when he completed the construction of the railroad to Key West, the population had tripled to 750,000 people.

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.

This isn’t unusual for a state built on dreams. Flagler’s St. Augustine hotel never attracted the tourists he thought it would, and other entrepreneurs who attempted to attract tourists also ended up with empty luxury hotels. While Florida never had a mineral rush (with the expectation of a phosphate rush in the early 1900s), the boom-bust cycle of Florida fits the economic profile of many places in the American West. Its centrality in the economic downturn also signals that like the American West, Florida is not simply a peripheral state. It decides elections and directs the economy.

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
This hasn’t stopped people from trying. I’ll skip right over Disney World and mention their master-planned community—Celebration, Florida. Celebration was built on the idea that it was possible to recreate the past of small-town America by making Disney’s Main Street come to life. I only need to remind you of Amy DeRogatis’s excellent book, Moral Geography, which traces the settlement of Ohio by descendents of Puritans who were finally going to get it right. Celebration was a chance for residents to finally achieve the American dream of the perfect community.

The Oratory at Ave Maria University, via Saint Peter's List
In addition to Celebration, there’s Ave Maria, Florida, which was the concept of Tom Monaghan, the conservative Catholic founder of Domino’s Pizza. Ave Maria initially attracted attention because Monaghan stated that the community would prohibit birth control, abortions, and other practices forbidden by Catholic clergy. There was a strong outcry, and Monaghan backed off. Today, Ave Maria is like any other Florida master-planned community with the exception of the Catholic university located in the center of the community. Yet, how many other Western communities were founded on the strict religious ideas of its founder, only to assimilate to the surrounding culture?

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.

1 comment:

Jim Bennett said...

Fun stuff Brandi--and probably several cocktail parties worth of ideas. Here's a few more:

Water is a major issue in parts of Florida like it is many parts of the West: where to get enough of it to support new residents and at what cost to vanishing ecosystems.

Diversity: the vast differences in climate, ecology, culture, religion, demography, etc., within Florida remind me of the challenge of many Wests that we often talk about as well the size and diversity of many states within the West(s).

Immigration & Religion: the large percentage of foreign-born Floridians coming from predominantly Spanish-speaking and Catholic regions to the South link it with many border states in the West and South-west.