Images of Alachua

About the Exhibit

An early view, c. 1900, of Alachua Avenue in Gainesville

The Sources of the Images
 
In the decades after the Civil War, Alachua came to the attention of northern immigrants because of its burgeoning citrus industry. A new breed of explorers came south, not to search for legendary cities of gold, but to assess land prices and the potential for agriculture.
 
The first portion of this exhibit features a literal offspring of this southward migration. James Calvert Smith (1879-1962) was born in Tacoma, near present-day Micanopy, the grandson of a New York immigrant and land promoter. Smith's recollections of his family's citrus business and of the devasting 1895 freeze that wiped out most growers in the region are captured in the narrative of his autobiography and in the nostalgia of his artwork. The Freeze, says Smith, ended his future as orange-grower and spurred him into the field of commercial art. He abandoned Florida for New York City, became an associate of Norman Rockwell, and created hundreds of illustrations for newspapers and magazines before eventually returning to Florida to work for The Times Union in Jacksonville. His life, best told in his own words and pictures, is presented here from the holdings of the P.K. Yonge Library of Florida History.
 
One of Smith's sketches depicts a steam launch operating on Payne's Prairie at a time of flood. The sink holes of Alachua, and especially the mysterious prairie, sometimes dry for decades and at other times a navigable lake, have fascinated visitors for centuries. The second part of the exhibit contains a selection of turn-of-the-century postcards that immortalized locations still visited by residents and tourists today. Included among these are wrecked steamers, which overturned and beached themselves when "the plug was pulled" on the waters of the prairie in the 1880s. In this millennial year of 2000, Payne's Prairie is a swampy expanse of tall grasses intermingled with ponds and rivulets. Yet only two years ago, it was so bloated with water that State Road 13, the main artery bisecting the plain, was closed to traffic due to overflow. A brief account of how and why Payne's Prairie changes from pasture to lake is presented in a transcript of an article from Beautiful Florida.
 
The 1890s was the era of the Kodak camera craze, and thousands of amateur photographers focused their eyes and lenses on the Sunshine State, immortalizing it in paper and emulsion. The third part of the exhibit, the photographs of Harrison and Flora George, are an example of one such effort, and come to us courtesy of their grandson. The reason for the George's visit to Alachua in 1897 remains unknown. According to family history, Harrison George, a veterinarian in the Department of Agriculture in Kansas City, brought his wife Flora to Florida for a second honeymoon. The photographs he took provide snapshots in time of farms in the Gainesville vicinity and of popular tourist highlights, such as the giant sink of the Devil's Millhoppper.
 
Finally, in a last section, the exhibit features selected maps of the area and a few of the sketches of J.M. Rickards, a land surveyor for the railroad companies. In the mid-1880s he traversed Alachua and Levy counties on foot and by mule, recording the physical features of the landscape with an eye to economic developement. His plat book of field sketches contains many minature vignettes of homesteads and farms that he passed along the way. They are an unusual and unique view of rural Alachua.
 

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Updated April 1, 2000