Most people are familiar with Santa Claus, but do you know about his chipper young helper the St. Nicholas Girl? Anyone searching for Christmas content in Florida Chronicling America newspapers is sure to come across stories about the figure, or occasionally figures, who worked tirelessly leading up to Christmas to collect donations in order to provide poor children toys for Christmas. In this post we’ll provide a little more background information about the festive holiday woman.
Unlike many holiday traditions, we know the origin of the St. Nicholas Girl. She was the brainchild of Selene Armstrong, a journalist, who worked for The Washington Times in Washington D.C. In 1909, she published a front page article for the paper about Santa Claus’s visit to the newspaper office to accept the St. Nicholas Girl’s “aid in distributing presents.” In an interview Santa Claus granted to the Times, he requests that “every man, woman, and child who has a toy, a flower, a bright silver quarter or dollar, or anything else that will make happy the heart of a child, to send it to the St. Nicholas Girl at the Washington Times office” for distribution to “homes, hospitals, and asylums” on Christmas Eve. Armstrong developed the reputation “all over the United States as ‘The Christmas Lady’” according to The Pensacola journal, and other cities were inspired to incorporate the St. Nicholas Girl into their local holiday celebrations.
Newspapers served as an excellent tool to endorse the activities of the St. Nicholas Girl and encourage the general public to support her holiday work. The Lakeland evening telegrampromoted their version of the event in 1911, but that appears to be the only year they collected gifts in this manner. Historian Kevin M. McCarthy mentions that The Florida Times-Union supported the work of the St. Nicholas Girl in Jacksonville in 1912, saying “she encouraged the children to ask for what they really wanted, not so much what they needed” (49). However, McCarthy doesn’t mention if Jacksonville continued to call on the St. Nicholas Girl in the years to follow. One thing we know for certain having spent time reading about this tradition in Chronicling America is that the city of Pensacola enthusiastically embraced the St. Nicholas Girl from 1913 through at least 1922.
The St. Nicholas Girl is introduced on the society page of The Pensacola journal on November 13, 1913 with a narrative article from the point of view of a mother forced to answer the difficult question: “Does old Sandy Claus fill all the little children’s stockings?” Worried that her affirmative answer wasn’t quite truthful, the woman is reported to have gone to the newspaper office to ask them to enlist the help of the St. Nicholas Girl to provide gifts to all children in Pensacola. The next day, the society page reports the arrival of the St. Nicholas Girl “from toyland.” The article announces her intentions and in it she encourages all children, regardless of economic status, to write letters to Santa and send them to the newspaper so they won’t be missed. For the rest of the 1913 holiday season, The Pensacola journal promoted their Christmas Doll and Toy Fund, touting the support and involvement of the St. Nicholas Girl. Regular updates on fundraising and the gathering of toys were printed in the society section. After handing out the gifts collected through this initiative on Christmas Day, the paper declared the event a success and expressed desire to continue it in the future.
In the years that followed, multiple women served as the St. Nicholas Girl, and, at times, it even became a group effort. Through the end of our digitized run of The Pensacola journal, the work of the St. Nicholas Girl and reports of her benevolent deeds are a prominent features in the weeks leading up to Christmas.
Footnotes:  While she is usually credited in our papers as Selene Armstrong, she also went by Selene Ayer Armstrong prior to marriage and either Selene Armstrong Harmon or Mrs. Dudley Harmon after marriage.
 It is difficult to tell, however, if the St. Nicholas Girl truly brought toys to all children. Given the fact that The Pensacola journal was a white newspaper in the South during Jim Crow, it typically made note when both African American and white people participated in something. Since the stories about the St. Nicholas Girl don’t bring up race, we believe it is worth mentioning that this may denote that only white children had access to this program.
Citations and Additional Sources:
Kevin M. McCarthy. Christmas in Florida. Sarasota, Florida: Pineapple Press, 2000.
Many horror stories begin with the fateful decision to go explore an abandoned structure or particularly vacant part of the woods, with disastrous results to follow. Because of the role they play in popular imagination, this Halloween blog post is going to shed light on some of the many ghost towns that now dot the landscape in Florida. What is a ghost town? There’s not really one solid answer. Historian John Morris wrote the following in his work Ghost Towns of Oklahoma: “Each writer sets his own limits, depending largely upon the type and location of the places in which he is interested.” Ultimately in his book, he uses the term to refer to “hamlets, villages, towns, and cities (1) that are no longer in existence, all buildings and indications of existence have been either destroyed or covered by water; (2) where the remains of businesses and/or residential structures still stand but are largely unused; and (3) where, in cases of larger places, the population has decreased at least 80 percent from its maximum” (Morris 3). Many of the towns that dotted the Florida landscape in the early 20th century didn’t survive the Florida land boom of the 1920s or the depletion of natural resources (in the case of company towns). Consequently, our papers mention many places that could be classified as ghost towns according to this definition. We hope you enjoy this brief exploration of Florida ghost towns.
Hopkins, Florida was a company town that housed employees of the Union Cypress Company and was named after company founder George W. Hopkins. After a fire in nearby Melbourne in 1919, the company tried to recover, but ultimately shut down in 1925 following the death of its founder. While another company took over in 1928, they were ultimately shuttered by the Great Depression.
Santos, Florida was a primarily African-American community about “six miles south of Ocala on highway U.S. 441” which “received a post office” in 1883 (Nelson 1 and 3). The failed Cross Florida Barge Canal Project, which was authorized by President Franklin D. Roosevelt as a “federal relief program” in 1936, resulted in the destruction of Santos. According to Nelson, descendants of that community “celebrates the memory of the town annually by holding a barbeque and softball tournament” in order to ensure that its memory isn’t forgotten (Nelson 9).
Brewster, Florida is another example of a former company town that is now a ghost town. Established in 1910, Brewster was home to Amalgamated Phosphate, who, as the name suggests, mined phosphate for agricultural use. The company was purchased in 1918 by American Cyanamid, who ran the racially segregated company town until 1962. Photos of now abandoned Brewster can be found on the website Abandoned Florida.
Utopia, Florida, according to genealogists Kyle S. Van Landingham and Alma Hetherington, was founded in 1897 by Clifford Clements “between Lettuce and Cypress Creeks.” Clements was a hunter who operated the store, “but subsequent settlers in the community were fishermen” (Van Landingham and Hetherington Chapter 4). Some reports say Utopia never rebuilt after the 1928 hurricane that devastated the region, while other reports infer community decline started sooner, with the school closing in 1925. Either way, Utopia, Florida has been relegated to history.
Today we bring you a guest post by R. Boyd Murphree, Project Manager, Florida Family and Community History, Digital Services and Shared Collections, University of Florida, George A. Smathers Libraries. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org and is also on Twitter @boyd_murphree.
On May 3, 1901, fire consumed Jacksonville, destroying the heart of the city and creating a humanitarian disaster. Viewing the devastation, Gainesville newspaperman and Confederate veteran John W. Tenchobserved that standing amidst the ruins “but one thing remained to tell of the touch of civilization—the Confederate monument.” As he “gazed upon the bronze soldier on top of the marble shaft,” Tench “smelt the battle smoke” and like Robert E. Lee on the field of Gettysburg watching the slaughter and madness of Pickett’s Charge, the bronze statue looked “with tear-moistened eye upon the desolation beneath, triumphant, but not the victor.”
General Lee and his soldiers lost the Civil War, but the bronze soldier was part of a new Southern army of metal, marble, and granite engaged in a battle to honor, glorify, and promote the memory of the Confederacy, its leaders, and its soldiers. Ongoing controversy in the United States about the appropriateness of maintaining Confederate monuments in public places of honor make this a good time to examine the history of Confederate monuments in Florida, the power of the Lost Cause in the state, and the deep racism that made Florida a leading state in incidents of lynching and other violence against African Americans. The late nineteenth and early twentieth century Florida newspapers available in Chronicling America document these subjects in detail.
Confederate monuments were powerful symbols of the Lost Cause narrative of Southern history. The narrative sought to vindicate the Confederacy as a noble attempt to defend state rights and constitutional liberty rather than a treasonous rebellion dedicated to the defense of slavery that ignited a bloody civil war and ended in the defeat and devastation of the South. Most of the monuments were erected during 1890–1930, the high tide of the Lost Cause movement. The greatest exponents of the Lost Cause were the United Daughters of the Confederacy (UDC) and the United Confederate Veterans (UCV), organizations that exerted substantial political influence on Southern legislatures, governors, and local governments.
As a former Confederate state, Florida stood firmly in the Lost Cause camp. Some 5,000 Floridians died for the Confederacy. The state was the scene of small but intense engagements in battles such as Olustee, Marianna, and Natural Bridge. Although the first Civil War monuments in Florida were built to honor Union dead—the United States Army and Navy created monuments at Olustee and Key West—Ladies Memorial Associations (LMAs) funded the building of the first Confederate monuments in Florida during the later years of Reconstruction: the oldest Confederate monument in Florida was erected in Walton County in 1871 (Lees and Gaske, 38).
Until the 1890s, Confederate monuments in Florida were devoted to honoring the war dead of localities. In 1891 Pensacola built the first monument in Florida dedicated to Confederate war dead in general. Still standing in the city’s Lee Square, Pensacola’s Confederate monument is fifty feet tall. An eight-foot-tall-statue of a Confederate soldier stands on the summit. The base of the monument contains four panels, each honoring a different aspect of the Confederacy: war dead, President Jefferson Davis, Secretary of the Navy Stephen Mallory, and General Edward A. Perry (Lees and Gaske, 67-68).
Pensacola’s monument is significant not only for being the first monument in Florida to honor all of the Confederate war dead. The monument was also the first in the state to embrace the Lost Cause narrative by honoring Confederate leaders and extolling those who died as heroes who perished “FOR A CAUSE THEY BELIEVED TO BE JUST.” The local LMA raised the funds to build the monument; however, by the 1890s, LMAs across the South were consolidating into the UDC, a nationwide Confederate memory organization founded in 1895 and devoted to spreading the gospel of the Lost Cause. The UDC was largely responsible for funding and organizing the creation of Confederate monuments in Florida and across the nation from the 1890s on (Lees and Gaske, 68, 86-87).
One significant exception to this pattern of Confederate monument building was Jacksonville’s Confederate monument, the one John Tench wrote about in 1901. A private donor, Confederate veteran John C. Hemming, not the UDC, paid for the monument, which was erected in St. James Park in 1898—the park was renamed Hemming Park in 1899. The monument stands sixty-two feet and is topped by an eight-and-one-half-foot bronze Confederate soldier. Reliefs on the base depict the following figures: Captain J. J. Dickison, a legendary Florida Confederate cavalry officer; General Edmund Kirby Smith, Florida’s most notable Confederate general, whose statue still resides in Statuary Hall in the US Capitol Building, and whose name was recently removed from the Alachua County Public Schools main administrative building; and both Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson (Lees and Gaske, 77-82).
The unveiling of the monument on June 16, 1898, was a national event. Since April of that year, the United States had been at war with Spain, and Florida ports were the main bases for American troops preparing to invade Cuba. The Ocala Evening Star noted the “hearty meeting and cordial commingling of the old soldiers of both armies” as Union and Confederate veterans joined current soldiers from states across the nation to honor the event as a moment of reconciliation between North and South, now united in a common effort to defeat a foreign foe. The emphasis on national unity eventually became part of the agendas of the UDC and the UCV. Both organizations emphasized their loyalty to the United States and saw public allegiance as fundamental in getting the nation, not just the South, to embrace the Lost Cause narrative as the true history of the Confederacy and the Civil War. In addition, as many Southern politicians realized, if the nation endorsed the Lost Cause view that the Confederacy had fought to defend state rights and not slavery, the federal government was less likely to interfere with the strict system of racial segregation and denial of black voting rights that reigned across the South (Cox, 142-43).
Race, not reconciliation, however, was the determining factor in the construction of the Confederate monument at Olustee, the site of Florida’s most significant Civil War battle. The original Union monument at Olustee was built of wood and used as a temporary marker for a mass grave of Union dead. In 1899, the UDC lobbied the Florida legislature to appropriate money for the construction of a monument to honor the Confederate soldiers who had fought at Olustee. The legislature passed an amended bill that called for the expenditure of $2,500 on a monument that would honor both the Confederate and Union soldiers who served in the battle (Lees and Gaske, 196-97).
Although the UDC was officially for the national reconciliation that such a monument would represent, the fact that the vast majority of the Union troops at Olustee were African American made the inclusion of language honoring the Union soldiers unacceptable to the organization. Reporting on the controversy, the Bradford County Telegraph pointed out that “to decorate the graves of negroes along with the graves of the Confederate dead seems impossible for the society.” Bending to the will of the UDC, the 1901 legislature amended the 1899 law to exclude any mention of Union soldiers on the proposed monument, which was dedicated on October 23, 1912. Almost one hundred years later, in August 2011, the issue of race and Olustee returned to the news when the Florida Department of the Sons of Union Veterans of the Civil War proposed the construction of a monument on the battlefield’s state park grounds honoring the sacrifice of Union soldiers in anticipation of the sesquicentennial of the battle in February 2014. Echoing the earlier protests of the UDC, Florida’s Sons of Confederate Veterans opposed the building of a monument to “invading Federal forces . . . that will disrupt the hallowed grown [ground] where Southern blood was spilled in the defense of Florida.” The Union monument was not built (Lees and Gaske, 197-199, 291).
Bradford County telegraph-February 16, 1900
Bradford County telegraph-February 16, 1900
An earlier demonstration of the political power of the UDC and the UCV was dramatically and somewhat comically demonstrated in the US senatorial race of 1904 in Florida. In that election, several candidates vied for the seat, including Florida’s sitting governor, William Sherman Jennings. A native of Illinois who had moved to Florida in 1885, Jennings knew that his Northern background and name, which brought images to the Southern mind of loathed Union general William T. Sherman, would be fodder for his political opponents. When former Confederate general and original head of the UCV John B. Gordon died on January 9, 1904, in Miami, Jennings made it his mission to offer fulsome praise of the general during the heavily reported journey of the general’s body to its final resting place in Atlanta, where delivering one of the many funeral orations, Jennings declared, “Men like Gordon cannot die, they live forever in song and story . . .” (W. S. Jennings Papers).
Following the funeral, the governor ordered 1000 cards of Gordon’s portrait stamped with “Compliments of W. S. Jennings” across the top to send out to Confederate veterans in Florida (W. S. Jennings Papers). Even though the number of veterans was dwindling, they remained a powerful voting bloc in Florida Democratic primaries, where they looked to the candidate who would ensure the continuation and expansion of the state’s Confederate pension system. In 1904, Confederate pension disbursements made up almost 25 percent of Florida’s state government expenditures (Green, 1080-83). As veterans received the Gordon cards, many of them wrote to newspapers about the effrontery of Jennings’s attempt to make political capital from Gordon’s death. The Chipley Banner published a typical example: “What does Jennings care for the old Confederates? Not a blessed thing, except that he hopes to play upon the sentiments that bind them to the memory of their dead chieftan and secure their votes. He is a charlatan, a fakir, a demagogue . . . .” Embarrassed, Jennings lied about his responsibility for sending out the Gordon portraits, denying any role in the matter (W. S. Jennings Papers). He lost the election.
Governor Jennings’s encounter with the power of Confederate memory was brief and harmful only to his political ambitions. For black Floridians, the activities of the UDC and the UCV, especially the building of Confederate monuments and the emphasis on the Lost Cause, reinforced the demeaning and often deadly Jim Crow system of racial segregation and domination. The most horrible aspect of the enforcement of this regime was lynching. Florida had the highest per capita rate of lynching in the nation. Between 1890 and 1930, the period when most Confederate monuments were built, 195 African American males and five African American females were victims of lynching in the state (Bailey and Tolney, 230). Alachua County had at least twenty lynching deaths, the second highest number in Florida. Only neighboring Marion County with twenty-one had more (Adrien).
Alachua County’s history of racial violence and Confederate past came to a head in the spring of 2017, when the county commission voted to remove the county’s monument to its Confederate war dead from its location in downtown Gainesville (Tinker). The UDC dedicated the monument, known to longtime residents as “Old Joe,” in 1904. Standing eighteen feet tall, the monument supported a six-foot tall bronze and copper statue of a Confederate soldier holding a musket. Inscriptions at the bottom included language honoring the Confederate war dead as well as the Lost Cause: “THEY COUNTED THE COST AND IN DEFENSE OF RIGHT THEY PAID THE MARTYR’S PRICE” (Lees and Gaske, 88-91). In August 2017, the local UDC chapter removed the monument to Oak Ridge Cemetery near Rochelle (Caplan). Alachua County’s engagement in the Confederate monument controversy was a small but locally significant episode in the ongoing national debate over Civil war memory.
Cox, Karen L. Dixie’s Daughters: The United Daughters of the Confederacy and the Preservation of Confederate Culture (Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 2003).
Green, Elna C. “Protecting Confederate Soldiers and Mothers: Pensions, Gender, and the Welfare State in the U.S. South, a Case Study from Florida,” Journal of Social History, vol. 39. No. 4 (Summer, 2006), 1079-1104.
Lees, William B. and Gaske, Frederick P. Recalling Deeds Immortal: Florida Monuments to the Civil War (Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 2014).
Also see the William Sherman Jennings Papers at the University of Florida: http://www.library.ufl.edu/spec/pkyonge/JenningsWilliamS.htm. The Jennings quote about General Gordon comes from Box 1, Speeches, 1895-1905, p. 168. For Jennings’s order of the 1000 portrait cards of General Gordon see John A. Brice to W. S. Jennings, January 16, 1904 in Box 17, Correspondence 1904 January, p. 28. Jennings’s disavowal of the Gordon picture scheme is in Jennings to A. L. Woodward, undated, Letterbook (Personal) 1903-December-1904 July, p. 264
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.
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.
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).
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.
It’s difficult to talk about the history of aviation in the United States without looking at activities that took place in Florida. As we’ve discussed in the past, Naval Air Station Pensacola played an important role in U.S. military aviation history. But the same hard-packed white sand at Daytona Beach that attracted automobile enthusiasts also caught the attention of early aviators looking for a warm place to fly year-round; well before the Navy set its sights on Pensacola. One notable individual to take advantage of the natural runway at Daytona Beach in the 1910s was aviatrix Ruth Law. Today, we’ll look at coverage of Law’s winter seasons in Daytona as well as the headlines she continued to make in Florida after achieving national recognition for her flying skills.
Born May 21, 1887, Law and her brother were both known for being adventurous. While her brother Rodman became a stuntman, Ruth demonstrated an interest in aviation. Ruth Law was rebuffed by Orville Wright when she expressed interest in enrolling in their pilot training school because of Wright’s belief that “women were unfit to fly” (DeMace). However, she was able to convince Phil Page to take her on as a student in 1912, determined to learn not only how to fly, but also how to mechanically maintain her aircraft (Lebow 204-205). Her choice in instructor possibly played some role in her eventual employment in Daytona. People interested in aviation had visited the beaches near Daytona since 1909 with the intention of using the smooth sand and tree-free land as a runway. In 1911 Glenn Curtiss signed a contract with civic leaders agreeing that one of the pilots in his employ would make a series of flights from the beach. The popularity of these flights prompted the owners of the Clarendon Hotel to sign a contract with aviator W. Starling Burgess for the 1912 winter season “to furnish an airplane and pilot to fly hotel guests” from “January to April” (Punnett 16). The pilot furnished by Burgess for the 1912 season was none other than Ruth’s teacher Phil Page, who made daily flights when the weather permitted. Page opted not to return in 1913 and, instead, “the job was won by Charles Oliver, but not for himself.” Oliver served as the agent “for his wife, the famous pioneer woman pilot, Ruth Bancroft Law” who, despite only learning to fly in 1912, had already began to make a name for herself in the aviation field (Punnett 23).
The Daytona daily news enthusiastically covered Law’s flights during the 1913-1916 winter seasons; the paper even had the honor of “selecting the first person” to be her passenger. On January 12, 1913 “at least 5,000” people witnessed Law fly with Col. C.M. Bingham who “appeared to thoroughly enjoy the sensation of being carried through the air far above the heads of the big crowd.” Over the next four winter seasons, Law’s flights were frequently featured in the Clarendon Hotel section of The Daytona daily news, which served as a society section for happenings at the hotel. The paper also featured advertisements which promoted her activities. These ads include the aforementioned passenger flights with her (which cost $15.00-equivalent to about $360 in 2017), local programs featuring exhibition flights, and mention of the brand of oil and gas used by Law. While in Florida, she roused late sleepers with her “buzzing engine”, executed her first loop-the-loop, and threw a grapefruit/baseball from her airplane to the manager of the Brooklyn Dodgers (called the Superbas in our papers), becoming a part of one of the most iconic stories in Florida baseball history. The 1916 season would be her last in Daytona having decided to go to France to “enter the army aviation corps of the Entente allies.”
Given the seasonal nature of Law’s work, stories about the aviatrix aren’t unique to The Daytona daily news. If you search for “Ruth Law” in Chronicling America, you’ll discover a variety of papers from all over the United States that report on Law’s exhibitions and visits. Florida papers outside of Daytona tended to run stories about Law’s professional achievements year-round. Both The Pensacola journal and The Lakeland evening telegram ran Associated Press stories about her November 20, 1916 record-breaking flight “from Chicago to Hornell, New York” which “smashed the American cross-country flight record” (McGraw). Her flight, among other things, reopened discussions about the possibility of “aerial Mail Service” in the U.S., which became a reality in 1918.
Reading about Law in our papers, it becomes apparent that despite the fact that she broke records, her gender shaped how newspapers covered her accomplishments. Eileen F. Lebow discusses Law’s frustration with the media leading up to her Chicago-New York flight in Before Amelia: Women Pilots in the Early Days of Aviation saying that “if she (Law) was hoping the headlines would play down the ‘little girl’ aspect, she was wrong. Her youth and sex were emphasized” (Lebow 214). Despite wishing news outlets wouldn’t focus on her gender, some stories with this angle were intended to be complimentary. One story in The Pensacola journal discusses how Law is an example of “the modern woman” who, along with her peers, thrived in the public sphere rather than the home. Another article from 1916 mentions that Law was turning “little girls” into suffragists through her accomplishments. The article quotes one school girl as saying “’I noticed your picture on our bulletin board, where men usually show their faces. Now I am glad I am a girl, because girls can do just as wonderful things as men’” while a boy said “’it gives me great pleasure to see that a woman could beat a man at that stunt.’” However, even more than she disliked news coverage focusing on her gender, she resented that her gender kept her from becoming a combat pilot in World War I.
The escalation of WWI in Europe derailed Law and Ralph Pulitzer’s plans for her to purchase an “aeroplane superior in speed and carrying capacity than existing American types” to bring back to the U.S. (Lebow 217). Despite finding herself unable to purchase a European plane due to war shortages, Law nonetheless enjoyed studying the advances in aviation and expected “to return with new ideas for adoption in this country.” When the United States entered WWI Law wasn’t allowed to “fly in combat”, but she was “authorized to wear a military uniform” to help in fundraising and recruitment efforts (DeMace). Law would “bomb” cities with leaflets promoting the purchase of Liberty Bonds while wearing this uniform. Despite doing her part to help the U.S., in 1918 The Ocala evening star reported her being “peeved because the war department won’t let her go to France.” The paper argued that she should be allowed to fight because “if she was killed, as she probably would be, the principal effect would be to make our soldiers and our people more disposed to fight.”
After WWI, Law resumed her pre-war aviation career, sometimes offering commentary on the record-breaking attempts of others. The risky stunts in her repertoire, seen below in this article from the February 11, 1921 issue of The Pensacola journal, probably factored into her husband’s decision to announce her retirement without her knowledge in 1922. Despite her seeming lack of input in this decision, she nonetheless retired, prompting the Palatka daily news to quip that she “quit flying and settled down-instead of crashing as they usually do.” Ruth Law passed away at age 79 in 1970 but is forever remembered for her contributions to aviation and Florida history.
Punnett, Dick and Yvonne. Thrills, Chills, and Spills: A Photographic History of Early Aviation on the World’s Most Bizarre Airport-The Beach at Daytona Beach, Florida 1906-1922. New Smyrna Beach, Florida: Luthers, 1900
We have some exciting news for fans of digitization, preservation, and history. The Florida and Puerto Rico Digital Newspaper Project has been awarded funding from the National Endowment of the Humanities for a third digitization cycle! We’ll let you know as soon as newspaper titles are selected, but for now you can read more in our press release:
University of Florida Libraries Receive Additional $310,000 from the National Endowment for the Humanities
Digitization project provides free online access to historic newspapers from Florida and Puerto Rico
August 2, 2017
GAINESVILLE, Fla. — The University of Florida George A. Smathers Libraries was recently awarded supplemental funding from the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH) to digitize in excess of 100,000 pages of historic newspapers. The $310,000 NEH grant will provide additional funding support for the “Florida and Puerto Rico Digital Newspaper Project”, which is part of the state’s and territory’s participation in the National Digital Newspaper Program (NDNP). The award supplements earlier grants of $288,000 in 2015 and $325,000 in 2013, making the total award $923,000, the single largest direct award ever received by the Libraries.
Led by project director Patrick Reakes and project manager Melissa Jerome, the project is a collaboration between the University of Florida (UF) Libraries and the library at the University of Puerto Rico-Rio Piedras (UPR-RP). It will provide a national, digital resource of historically significant newspapers published between 1690 and 1963 from Florida and Puerto Rico.
“This additional funding is extremely important and provides the opportunity to substantially expand access to historically important newspapers in both Florida and Puerto Rico” said Reakes. “The Florida and Puerto Rico Digital Newspaper Project has always focused on two primary goals; to provide access to a large corpus of newspapers that previously had limited availability and also to provide a long term, sustainable option for archiving them in a format other than microfilm. By the end of this portion of the project we’ll have in excess of 300,000 pages digitized and they are all freely available to anyone who wants to use them.”