May 2022 is National Historic Preservation Month.
by: Ed Siarkowicz
President, Flagler County Historical Society
I first moved to Florida in 1992. Royal Palm Beach was a small community nestled in the woods and swamps between bustling West Palm Beach and a place called Loxahatchee, which was as “country” as country could get.
“At the outset I invite you to think of American history in quite a new way: not as a series of 'lessons' with dates and names and events to be memorized and 'recited' upon, but as a story of the past which will help you to understand the world in which you are living.”
— David Saville Muzzey, Gouverneur Morris Professor, Columbia University, 1945
The Palms West Chamber of Commerce was the driving force behind the promotion and development of the community. They had some very smart and talented people working for them who were driven to promote the area — attracting businesses, building the economy, and promoting recreational areas.
In 1995 I moved to St. Augustine.
South Florida was just too hot for my New York blood, and St. Augustine had a sentimental atmosphere about it since it was a destination for childhood vacations.
Some years later, I began hearing from friends that I had made at the Palms West Chamber of Commerce. “We’re thinking of relocating, how’s St. Augustine?” they all asked.
After telling them about history, character and ambiance, I asked the question — “Why are you wanting to relocate?”
Their collective answers still frustrate me to this day. “Royal Palm Beach isn’t what it once was. The trees are all gone. It’s one strip mall after another with no sense of character. The charm is gone, the population has exploded and crime has risen. This isn’t what we moved here for. It’s time to find another spot to call home.”
The first thing that came to my mind was locusts.
They descend, they take what they want, and when their resources are decimated, they move on to the next location, leaving behind a wake of destruction in an area that will never again be the same.
The history of Flagler County is as old as the Earth itself. Prehistorically, wooly mammoths, mastodons, giant ground sloths, smilodons (sabre toothed tigers) and armadillos the size of a Volkswagen Beetle crashed through some of the same foliage you see growing in your backyard. Megalodon sharks swam in the oceans. They snacked on great white sharks. We know we have these things because their remains have been found along creek banks, in C-Section canals, and in piles of dirt coming out of holes dug for retention ponds, swimming pools and fence posts.
We are not the first humans here. Native Americans hunted, fished, collected, cooked, and buried their dead here as early as 15,000 years ago. We know they were here because their spear points, arrowheads, pottery and burial mounds have been found in the same locations as pre-historic creatures. Just two years ago, a spear point the size of the palm of your hand was brought to the Historical Society. It came out of a St. Johns Park fence post hole — still razor sharp. It was dated 5,000-7,000 years old.
ITT and Garfield were not the first modern settlers of our area. What is now Flagler County started off as the agricultural commodity breadbasket of the Spanish military fort in St. Augustine in the 1500s. Pedro Menendez de Aviles led a reconnaissance party down our coquina ridge, just east of Old Kings Road, in September of 1565. He was looking for French sailors that had taken habitation in local Native American villages after being shipwrecked by a hurricane enroute to attacking St. Augustine. We have a 58 year-old urban legend of a group of High School boys spotting “conquistador armor” in Graham Swamp that we’re working on validating.
King George III’s chief cartographer, Johann Wilhem Gerard De Brahm, came through our area in 1765 mapping features, recording resources and making friends with indigenous people after England took Florida over from Spain.
Hewitt’s 1770 sawmill and dam cut the lumber to build the houses that sheltered 20,000 British loyalists in St. Augustine who had fled the northern 13 colonies during the American Revolution.
With the construction of Kings Road from Cowford (Jacksonville) to the Turnbull Colony (New Smyrna Beach), plantations sprouted up growing indigo, sea island cotton and sugar cane.
Enslaved African Americans were brought here by the British during what was a horrific time in history. Their collected stories of life, death, escape and expertise in carpentry, cattle rearing, rice growing and sugar production chemistry echo throughout our lands and forests.
These stories need to be told by their descendants to teach modern day people layers of history so that THAT history will never be repeated. We feel we have enough evidence from Bulow Plantation to have the Gullah Geechie historic corridor extended into Flagler County.
Native American tribes, having had enough of Europeans by the 1830s, began burning their plantations, which led to the Seminole Wars, which led to the Indian Removal Act and the Trail of Tears.
Osceola travelled through our lands en route to his capture under a white flag of truce near Fort Peyton, St. Augustine.
The Civil War, land booms of the early 1900s, women’s voting rights, racial injustices, agriculture and the ITT era — our history is unending in its good and bad. All are teachable lessons that can educate youth and their families and enrich the community.
The past needs to be brought to the present.
Flagler County is at a crossroads. We are currently undergoing one of the largest development booms in our history.
Do we plow it under, or do we search for artifacts through archaeologists that can tell the story of our local heritage and incorporate history kiosks into business districts?
Do we clear-cut it all, or do we preserve historic green spaces that are tax deductible to developers through such organizations as the Florida Trust for Historic Preservation?
Do we make our money building anesthetic cookie-cutter communities and strip malls, or do we consult with archaeological surveys and historians to discover not what we can get away with, but how we can enrich the community and create opportunities for educational experiences that tie into existing walking and biking trails?
Do we become known for our beaches only and have to shut tourism down when the next hurricane closes A1A for eight months, or do we capitalize on all Flagler County has to offer?
Do we fight our growing pains out on social media where nothing does anything to make a difference, or do we show up at City Council and County Commission meetings fired up to let our elected officials know what’s on the minds and hearts of their constituents? Are we a house divided and falling, or are we united in maintaining an agreed-upon quality of life?
Flagler County is at a crossroads.
Will your actions or inactions now turn THIS community into the place you’ll want to live 20 years from now, or will you go looking for a new “quaint” place to retire to when Flagler County has lost its curbside appeal?
Decide now on what tomorrow will look like.