Five hundred years ago, on April 2, 1513, Spanish explorer Ponce de Leon sighted land he thought was another island in the New World. Both because of its lush foliage and because it was Easter season, which the Spaniards called Pascua Florida (Festival of Flowers), Ponce de Leon named it La Florida and laid claim to it in the name of Spain.
Today, of course, Ponce de Leon's "island" is the state of Florida, which plans to mark its 500th anniversary with dozens of events this year.
State and St. Augustine officials are hopeful the king and queen of Spain will come to Florida for the anniversary, but that visit has not yet been confirmed. However, a number of celebratory events are planned in and around St. Augustine, the oldest permanent settlement in what is now the United States and which has long claimed that Ponce de Leon made landfall just north of the city.
And just in time for the anniversary, a major new attraction is opening in the historic sector of St. Augustine. Colonial Quarter, a 2-acre living history museum created by the University of Florida and former Philadelphia 76ers owner Pat Croce, will have its grand opening March 16.
THREE CENTURIES OF SETTLEMENT
Within the complex, visitors will experience life in St. Augustine as it was in the 16th, 17th and 18th centuries. Features will include blacksmith and gunsmith demonstrations, a Spanish garrison town and taverna, a British colony and Publick House, a 55-foot caravel (a sailing ship) and a climbable, 35-foot replica watchtower. Everything in the Quarter, Croce says, had to be approved by archaeological departments of the city, state of University of Florida. Admission will be $10.99 for adults, $5.99 for children 5-12, and Croce expects to open the attraction March 1.
St. Augustine, already one of the state's most visited cities, expects to draw even more tourists this year with a number of anniversary events. On April 2, a 15-foot statue of Ponce de Leon will be installed midway between St. Augustine and Ponte Vedra Beach on a site that historians believe was indicated by a navigational notation in the ship's log.
The next day, costumed re-enactors in downtown St. Augustine will replicate the landing of Ponce de Leon. Also that day, a celebratory Mass will be conducted by Puerto Rico's bishop and cardinal at the city's Cathedral Basilica.
FOUNTAIN OF YOUTH
As the oldest continuously inhabited city in America, St. Augustine has many other historical attractions.
The only intact 17th century fortress in the United States, the Castillo de San Marcos is one of the city's most visited sites. Hotels that Florida developer Henry Flagler built in the late 1800s started the state on its way to becoming a major tourist destination. His Spanish Renaissance Revival-style Ponce de Leon Hotel, which today is Flagler College, is a National Landmark. Other historical attractions include the Oldest House, Oldest School, Oldest Store and Oldest Jail. And although the city has a Fountain of Youth, there is no evidence that Ponce de Leon ever was seeking its supposedly magical waters.
For further information on St. Augustine, click on floridashistoriccoast.com. Many other Florida cities have planned events celebrating the 500th anniversary, most of them annual events that have been placed under the 500th umbrella. Visit fla500.com.
MORE FLORIDA HISTORY
Florida is rich with many other historical sites, some centuries old, some of recent vintage. Here is a sampling:
The largest all-masonry fort in the United States, Fort Jefferson lies on an island 70 miles west of Key West. The bastion was used as a federal prison in and after the Civil War and its most famous prisoner was Dr. Samuel Mudd, sentenced to life imprisonment there as the physician who set the broken leg of Abraham Lincoln's assassin, John Wilkes Booth. After Mudd helped prison doctors treat yellow-fever victims, his sentence was commuted in 1869. The fort is part of Dry Tortugas National Park. Day tours are offered by boat ferry or seaplane from Key West.
INFO 305-242-7700, nps.gov/drto
This large bastion is one of best-preserved 19th century forts in the country. It fronts on the St. Mary's River on Amelia Island, north of Jacksonville. It was occupied by Union troops during the Civil War, and today costumed re-enactors play roles as Civil War soldiers. The fort is a state park and also has a campground, beaches and nature trails, and is known for excellent fishing.
INFO 904-277-7274, floridastateparks.org/fortclinch
Inventor Thomas A. Edison and automobile pioneer Henry Ford were great friends, so after Edison built a home on the Caloosahatchee River, Ford bought the house next door. Both houses are relatively ordinary, but then neither Edison nor Ford was ostentatious. Guests can peer into Edison's laboratory, where he conducted many experiments, notably seeking to make rubber from plants. On the grounds is also a museum with many of Edison's inventions. Historian-led tours are offered.
INFO 239-334-7419, edisonfordwinterestates.org
Ernest Hemingway Home, Key West
Hemingway bought this Spanish Colonial-style home in 1931 and lived there for several years while writing "For Whom the Bell Tolls" and other books. He worked in a study above the carriage house, reached then by a rope-and-wood catwalk from the main two-story house. Half-hour guided tours offered.
INFO 305-294-1136, hemingwayhome.com
Whitehall, Palm Beach
Open to the public as the Flagler Museum, this is the elegant Gilded Age home of oil baron and Florida developer Henry Flagler, who brought a railroad down Florida's east coast and built hotels in St. Augustine, Palm Beach, Miami and Key West. His 55-room mansion, built in 1902, was once called "the Taj Mahal of North America." Its entrance hall alone is so large that a suburban home could fit inside.
INFO 561-655-2833, flaglermuseum.org
Ca D'Zan, Sarasota
In this elaborate residence, patterned in part after the Doge's Palace in Venice, circus magnate John Ringling entertained screen idol Rudolph Valentino, humorist Will Rogers and showman Flo Ziegfeld. The 56-room home has Venetian glass windows, a 4,000-pipe organ, a playroom, period furnishings and art objects. In the same 20-acre complex are the Ringling Museum of Art; the Asolo, a restored Italian theater; and the Circus Museums, whose exhibits include the world's largest miniature circus.
INFO 941-359-5700, ringling.org