May Mann Jennings & the Creation of Royal Palm State Park

Park Postcard UF00091225
Image from the America’s Swamp Collection in UFDC

On this blog we’ve looked at a few issues related to how events associated with the American Conservation movement, including the founding of the National Park Service and the establishment of the first National Wildlife Refuge on Pelican Island, were covered in our digitized newspapers. Today, we’ll look at the efforts in Florida, spearheaded by May Mann Jennings and other Florida women, that led to the creation of Royal Palm State Park. Royal Palm is notable because it was the first State Park in Florida and later served as the “nucleus” of Everglades National Park.

While most front page headlines in our papers about environmental issues focus on men as policy makers, in the early 20th century, Florida women played a prominent role in early conservation efforts in the state. According to historian Leslie Poole, women “helped set the environmental agenda in Florida” that was “often a reaction to problems created by male-dominated industry, development, and government” (Poole 7). Poole argues what motivated women to get involved in environmental causes was their desire “to try to clean it up or repair it, as they did at home, especially when it threatened the health of their children, neighbors, and community-both human and nonhuman” (Poole 77). Prior to the passage of the 19th amendment, women had a limited voice in government in the traditional sense. To compensate for this limitation, women utilized their social networks, including women’s clubs and organizations, to lobby for the creation of Royal Palm State Park as well as other causes including improving education, better medical facilities, and prohibition. The work of groups like the State Federation of Women’s Clubs and local affiliated organizations may have less frequently made the front page, but they received considerable coverage on the society pages of various Florida papers.

Jennings Fl Memory
Photo of May Mann Jennings, taken in 1901 while serving as Florida’s First Lady. Image retrieved from Florida Memory

One of the most prominent women involved in environmental efforts during the early 20th century was May Mann Jennings, who is referred to in our papers as Mrs. W.S. Jennings. Jennings was born in 1872 in New Jersey, but her family moved to Crystal River, Florida in 1874. Highly educated and interested in politics, Jennings worked as a legislative assistant for her father when he served as a member of the Florida House of Representatives. During her father’s campaign for the position, she met William Sherman Jennings, future Governor of Florida, who she married in 1891. After marrying, she was involved with various civic groups within the state including the Florida Federation of Women’s Clubs (serving as its president from 1914 to 1917), the Y.W.C.A, and the Florida League of Women Voters. Jennings is considered to be the “Mother of Florida Forestry.” Her lifetime involvement in the custodianship of Royal Palm resulted in her appointment to the Everglades National Park Commission prior to its dedication by President Harry S. Truman in 1947. Her involvement in Florida society and politics means that reports of her activities can be found throughout our papers.

The idea of reclaiming the Everglades to make the land usable had been popular among white Floridians since the mid-19th century. W.S. Jennings, May’s husband, supported the project while Governor. During his term he received “a patent to the lands south of the Okeechobee in the name of Florida” and hired an engineer “who surveyed glades lands in the Miami area” to determine what would be necessary to drain the area. After completing his term he remained involved in dredging efforts (Dovell 190). Jennings’ successor, Governor Napoleon B. Broward, promised to pursue Everglades’ drainage to make the land suitable for agricultural use in his successful election campaign. While we now view the Everglades as a rich and unique ecological system, at the time the land was viewed as empty and awaiting human use. However, there were those in the state, such as May Mann Jennings, who sought to conserve areas of the Everglades to preserve its beauty.

Reclaiming a Watery Wilderness
The Sun (Jacksonville)-March 10, 1906

Jennings learned of the existence of Paradise Key-which would be preserved as Royal Palm State Park-from fellow Florida Federation of Women’s Clubs member Mary Barr Munroe. Munroe was involved in a number of environmental causes in Florida and suggested “the group try to protect” the area at the 1905 FFWC convention. The Paradise Key area is a “hammock” or grouping of trees that form an ecological island in their shade. This particular hammock was notable for having “almost one thousand royal palms, tall and majestic trees native to the state that towered 100 feet or more in height” (Poole 86). It was the presence of the palm trees that led to the name of the park. Jennings used her ties in Tallahassee and network of politicized women to lobby the state to purchase and allow them to maintain the land. Achieving the creation of the park became a legislative priority for the FFWC during the 1915 legislative session, and they were ultimately successful. The land was ceded to them by the state, making them the custodians of the first State Park in Florida.

Receiving custodianship of Royal Palm State Park necessitated that the Florida Federation of Women’s Clubs secure funding for maintenance of the area, including hiring a custodian for the grounds. One early plan to raise money included sending out foot-long strips with slots for coins to women’s clubs throughout the state with the intention of raising “a mile of dimes” for park upkeep. In a letter printed in the January 2, 1916 edition of The Pensacola journal, Jennings estimated the mile of dimes would provide over $6,000 for the endowment fund. Beyond fundraising efforts targeting the general public, the FFWC were also “assisted” by the County Commissioners of Dade County and, in 1921, the legislature not only expanded the park by 2000 acres but also granted the FFWC $2500 in funding for the park annually. Poole argues that the legislature’s support of “Royal Palm State Park signified the state’s rising participation in a park movement that was sweeping the nation and redefining conservation to include preservation of landscapes” (Poole 95).

Royal Palm Hammock Jennings.jpg
Pensacola journal-February 6, 1916

The park was dedicated in November of 1916 to much fanfare and the event was covered extensively by the state press. Newspapers in the early 20th century frequently featured travel reports, especially positive ones that highlighted the virtues of Florida. Because of this, there are many stories in our paper which either focus on or include positive reviews of Royal Palm State Park. In Florence P. Haden’s retelling of her visit for The Pensacola journal she states that the “men were as intent as college boys in their work of naming the trees” and that the park “will interest scientists and tourists.” Another report about the “Charms of the East Coast” discusses the FFWC’s “purpose…to preserve the quietness of the forest as a sanctuary for the birds of the air, and things that crawl.” In reality, the FFWC made considerable changes to the hammock and, as Poole points out, “Florida’s first park was no model of wilderness preservation. Its female creators had very definite ideas of what they wanted the park to be, and much of it involved manipulation of the landscape with little care about saving the neighboring wetlands-indeed, most favored the state policy of draining the Everglades for agricultural production” (Poole 98). Despite these well-intended mistakes, the work of women like May Mann Jennings, who worked tirelessly for parks in Florida, contributed significantly to the Conservation movement in early 20th century Florida.

A Visit to the Hammock
Pensacola journal-December 26, 1915

May Mann Jennings’ papers have been digitized and can be found in the “America’s Swamp: The Historical Everglades Project” in UF Digital Collections.

 

Citations and Additional Sources

Chapman, Ann E. “American Conservation in the Twentieth Century.” National Parks Service. Accessed May 20, 2017. https://www.nps.gov/nr/travel/massachusetts_conservation/American_Conservation_in_the_Twentieth_Century.html.

Dovell, Janius E. “The Everglades, a Florida Frontier.” Agricultural History, Vol. 22, No. 3 (July, 1948): 187-197.

Poole, Leslie Kemp. “Let Florida Be Green: Women, Activism, and the Environmental Century, 1900-2000.” PhD diss. University of Florida, 2012. (UFDC UFE0044352).

Vance, Linda Darlene Moore. “May Mann Jennings, Florida’s Genteel Activist.” PhD diss., University of Florida, 1980. (Internet Archive 99209).

Vance, Linda D. “May Mann Jennings and Royal Palm State Park.” The Florida Historical Quarterly, Vol. 55, No. 1 (July, 1976): 1-17.

 

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