Signs of Florida's Times Reveal State's History

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A marker is as basic a communications device as ever devised, but still is highly effective in educating the public about state and local history.

You've likely seen them planted along rural roadsides or rooted in a bed of city cement, but what you might not know is that from Key West to Pensacola, nearly 750 historical markers offer a high-profile lesson in Florida history.

Beginning with a marker posted in 1960 at the site of a Civil War-era arsenal in Chattahoochee, six decades of signage reveal in concise and rich descriptions how history happened here.

It's here in Gadsden County... and Leon County... and Okeechobee County... and Suwannee County... and nearly everywhere else.
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Travel north of Groveland in Lake County, then head down Lake Emma Road to discover a ghost town of sorts. A marker here pegs the site of Villa City, a fledgling community doomed by a harsh freeze in the winter of 1894. The community's last original building was razed in 1968 so that today, Villa City exists only in archival images.

Drive through Dixie County on US 19 and you'll reach a marker announcing Suwannee Old Town. It may not seem like much now, but 200 years ago, this was populated by members of the Upper Creeks and was one of North Florida's largest Indian villages. And then Andrew Jackson showed up.

A century earlier, the action was south of Sebastian Inlet State Park on Orchid Island. In 1715, this is where 1,500 men, women and children sought shelter when a dozen ships bulging with gold and silver were destroyed by a hurricane. Although happy to be alive, they were likely a little miffed when Henry Jennings, an English pirate, sailed in and stole a chunk of the treasure they'd been laboriously salvaging from the wrecks.

Who knew there was this much history waiting to be discovered?

Michael Zimny, probably.

The Science of Signs

As Florida's Historic Sites Specialist, Zimny works with a rotating group of three historians that reviews approximately 30 to 40 applications received annually from organizations, government groups and individuals.

While it's up to the applicant to cover the marker's $2,130 cost, it's up to the council to determine the eligibility of the site and review the proposed text. If all things move swiftly, says Zimny, it will take between six to 12 months for a proposed site – most likely an historic structure, archaeological site, cemetery or battlefield – to be approved, after which an additional two months are needed to work with the applicant and focus on finalizing the marker's text. After that, Sewah Studios of Marietta, Ohio, will fabricate the 30-inch x 42-inch cast aluminum marker as they've done for 747 others since 1960.

"The whole process is an art and a science," explains Zimny. "The art is crafting the right words since the information is pretty dense. You can have 1,235 characters max, about 16 lines, and everything is important: Dates, facts, names, chronology... And since there's a chance of an error or multiple errors, the science is making sure that all the information is historically correct since once it's cast, it's cast."

And if there's a mistake? Small errors can be corrected, but glaring errors or damaged signs may require that a new marker be made. Who pays? Depending on the extent of the error, and who made it, maybe the state, maybe the sponsor.

The Future of History

A marker is as basic a communications device as ever devised, Zimny says, but he nonetheless appreciates their effectiveness in educating the public about state and local history.

Even from a distance a marker may be able to tell you something, primarily when it was made. Green markers with the state seal were erected from the 1960s into the mid-1990s. Since then, dark blue signs with the Florida Heritage seal have been the latest style. Look closer and a passage at the bottom of the marker will indicate if the site is a Florida Heritage Landmark, which has state and/or national significance; or a Florida Heritage Site, which indicates local significance.

Sometime in the future, markers may become even more effective when they receive a high-tech makeover. There's some discussion regarding the addition of QR (quick response) codes that will link the visitor to additional information via smartphone technology.

"That will link them to a database where they can access more details and our photo archives," says Zimny. "And we're also updating the database to include the marker's GPS coordinates so you can more accurately find them.

"Speaking of that, geocachers are often our eyes. They routinely inform us about the condition of our markers since sometimes they're damaged, vandalized or stolen."

Of course, the majority of markers remain in prime condition, silently conveying information about a site 24/7. Asked about the most interesting marker he can think of, Zimny considers his 747 choices.

"Let me confine that to ones I've worked on," he suggests. "There's one on Fort Lauderdale Beach where protestors held a 'Wade-In' in an attempt to de-segregate the beaches during the Civil Rights Era. That's a relatively recent event which has state and national significance.

"Then there's a pair of historic banyan trees in Palm Beach County which were planted from saplings and have grown up to be unique landscape features. In north Central Florida there was a steam locomotive that was used in the timber industry before it fell off a bridge into the bottom of a river. Eventually they brought it up, restored it and placed it in a plaza in northeast Tallahassee."

Making Their Mark

Considering it can take a year or longer to work through the process, applicants are understandably thrilled when their marker is approved. After that, does a man with a shovel just head out and plant the plaque?

On the contrary.

"When an applicant's proposal is approved, this is very much a proud moment for them," Zimny says. "Usually the group that submitted the application will create a dedication ceremony with citizens there to celebrate their efforts. Their signs will be revered over time – over decades – and that feeling never really goes away."

For more information on finding locations, reading descriptions or applying for an historical marker, visit flheritage.com/preservation/markers.

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