Wednesday, May 20, 2009

In Old Florida

I entered the old state capitol in downtown Tallahassee through the back entrance late Saturday afternoon and started up the stairs near the rotunda, but a gentleman coming down the stairs told me that the museum was about to close. He was a little shorter than I am, a little older, had more beard, and there was an ID pined to his shirt -- he worked in the museum.

"Is that the new capitol over there?" I asked, gesturing toward the office building across the plaza. I'd seen a sign on it that said it was the capitol, but I wanted confirmation.

"Yeah," he answered. "It was finished in 1977."

We talked a little about how that wasn't the best time for memorable architecture, and a moment later he invited me to look around the museum with him as he closed up. We went through a couple of rooms and the more we talked, the more eager he seemed to tell me about what I was seeing. He must have sensed my tendency to be a regional history buff of wherever I go, however cursorily or temporarily. Someone who works at a place like the old capitol surely has antennae attuned to opportunities to talk about what he knows.

We came to an exhibit room called "Great Events at the Historic Capitol." This was, he told me, the first exhibit he himself had designed for the old capitol. "Let me show you a few things I think you'd be interested in," he continued. Sounded good to me.

At this point, another fellow walked into the room, a visitor like me, and my impromptu guide told him it was closing time. But in short order the other guy proved to be even more of a buff than me, so he joined our little group, and the museum employee told us about a variety of items on display and conversed with us about Florida history. And Southern history, and the history of the War Between the States, and other kinds of history. The other visitor was taller and fatter than I am, which made him pretty tall and fat, and roughly the same age as our guide. I knew this because they shared memories of watching The Gray Ghost as kids, a TV show based on the exploits of John Singleton Mosby that first aired in the late '50s, a little before my time.

The guide pointed out a number of flags hanging in the room, both official and unofficial flags over Florida at one time or another, including some oddities. Such as this one from the time of statehood in 1845, which proclaims the motto, "Let Us Alone," and the more explicit pro-secession flag of 1861, whose motto was, "The Rights of the South at All Hazards!" The large three stars of that flag represent those states that had left the Union by the time Florida did, indicated by lettering for South Carolina and Mississippi, besides Florida. Presumably the other 12 stars are like popcorn kernels waiting to pop. Eight more states followed Florida, so the designers must have been hoping for the secession of Missouri, Kentucky, Maryland and Delaware too.

The flag of the ephemeral Republic of West Florida, the Bonnie Blue Flag, wasn't on display, and we talked a bit about West Florida. "They know a lot more about West Florida in Louisiana than we do," noted our guide. The subject of the Conch Republic, and its flag, didn't come up.

A howitzer of Civil War vintage is inside a large box whose sides were almost all glass, right in the middle of the same room as the flags. There was considerable discussion about it, including the fact that it and another gun had once set in front of the old capitol when it was simply the capitol -- and our guide remembered playing on it as a child. Much more recently, it had been his job to squeeze it into the box, and it looked like a very tight fit. The gun was not, in fact, used by Confederates. It had been a Union gun, possibly even at Gettysburg, and after the war had come south with the U.S. Army. Eventually the state of Florida got it as an antique.

We talked of these things and more. I have a new appreciation for Florida history. It actually has a history. The panhandle, now living in the shadows of central and southern Florida, is arguably the taproot of the modern state. The state's history is interesting, anyway, by which I mean violent, especially in the 18th and 19th centuries. More about that tomorrow.



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