It can be hard to treasure right where you live when you aren’t sure you like it very much. I am a native Floridian. Actually, I am a fourth-generation Floridian- a rarity these days. As a child, I did not think it was a special place but my grandparents did. They hauled me all over the state throughout my childhood hoping to open my eyes to its beauty. We went fishing along river banks, took long drives through the orange groves and stopped at every historical site on our path. Yet it was not until I had children of my own that I began to realize the distinct beauty and treasure within Florida.
The vivid memories of long-forgotten places came to mind. I began to see the land with new eyes and finding fresh perspectives in its rich history. I wanted to share my new appreciation with others, just like my grandparents had shared with me. Let me introduce you to my Florida, where history and nature are intertwined. Florida is a treasure waiting to be found!
History is our family’s favorite homeschool subject. We love reading about history and taking field trips to historical places. Here in Florida, we have the opportunity to study history spanning the discovery of North America to the present day. I find that a unit study approach is a perfect way to explore this area because it allows extra time for venturing down interesting and unexpected paths.
Creating a unit study can be as simple as pairing a destination with a piece of literature. By using state and county parks as your guide, you can easily travel back in time and bring Florida history alive for your whole family. Over the years, we have found the Florida State Park system extremely proficient in the preservation of historic places and their natural resources. At most parks, there are experienced Rangers who enjoy leading a tour or teaching a class.
St. Augustine is a great place to begin and perfect for a unit study because there is plenty of history for either a broad or narrow focus. It is the first city of “La Florida” and was a critical site to be conquered for power and protection. The entire city allows visitors to be immersed in the history of exploration, settlement and the North American territorial war. Castillo de San Marco State Park is the oldest masonry fort in North America and constructed with very distinctive architecture. The park offers wonderful tours with hands-on history lessons. Shooting the cannon is a boy’s dream. Literature picks for this area would be Maria by Euginia Price and Osceola and the Seminole Wars by Clifford Alderman.
Jacksonville is another wonderful city to visit. It offers a little-known landmark that played an important role during the Civil War. The Battle at Olustee in 1864 was a key spot between the north and the south where 10,000 troops entered into a five-hour battle which resulted in more than 2,800 casualties. The civil war is a lesson in the great cost of war and a reminder of the healing and solidarity that our country experienced. Young and old alike can learn together about the tumultuous events that changed the course of history.
Olustee State Park performs a re-enactment every February in honor of that memorable battle. My boys and I recently completed a Civil War unit study with a focus on Abraham Lincoln. We visited a small, traveling Civil War Exhibit at a local museum and went to the Rifles, Rails and History event at Wooten Park in Tavares. This marvelous event is held every year in October. It provides you with an up-close and personal look at the men who served along with their lives and encampments. As part of our unit study, we enjoyed reading Abraham Lincoln by D’Aulaires, Two Miserable Presidents by Steve Sheinkin and Abe’s Honest Words by Doreen Rappaport.
Next, I want to take you underground to the Florida State Caverns in Marianna. We have visited this fascinating exhibit of earth science twice in recent years. This particular spot can cover science and history together. It is fascinating to learn about the way water and minerals work together to form stalagmites and stalactites. It is like treasure hunting underground.
However, it is the history of the men who dug the paths through these caves that I love most. The depression-era will come alive for your children as they learn about the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC). The CCC was formed by President Roosevelt as one of his “New Deal” plans in 1933 to relieve our country during the depression. It was made up of men between the ages of 18-24 who were deployed throughout the country to create state and national parks, reforest the land, and establish an infrastructure needed to build more roads. The men made twenty-five dollars a month. Twenty dollars was sent directly to their families while they kept just five. Many of the treasures we enjoy today were created during the lifespan of the CCC. Funding for these projects was dissolved in 1942 as America joined the war efforts of WWII. One of our favorite books that touch on the Great Depression is A Year Down Yonder by Richard Peck.
Now let us go down the St. Johns River to Blue Spring State Park. If you have traveled there before, I bet it was in the wintertime to see the graceful manatee as they seek refuge in the warmer, natural spring from the colder river temperatures. The Thursby family home sits on the property at the park and serves as a museum of local history.
This family was instrumental in bringing steamboat traffic to the St. Johns River. They planted an orange grove and with the production of citrus, they were ahead of their time starting commerce between New York and Florida. Those were the pioneering days of Florida when cracker cowboys moved cattle across the state to sell them for high dollar. Our family seems to find this time period the most fascinating, as we revisit it often. Having two boys, there is generally a cowboy running around as we read aloud about our favorite time period. There are so many wonderful books, but I will narrow my choices down to Blaze the Wild Trail, by Millie Howard and The Last Egret by Harvey Oyer. Both of these will take you on exciting adventures in a close to a true depiction of life in Florida during the late 1800s.
Our last stop on this tour is in the towns of Enterprise and DeBary. Enterprise is home to a secret gem that I love sharing with friends, Green Springs. This is a Volusia County park that boasts wonderful oak-lined walking and biking trails that transport you back to old Florida. The spring is literally emerald green. It is the sulfur in the spring that gives it a magical quality which folks used to say had healing powers. This spring was home to fancy resorts in the late 1800s and early 1900s for those traveling by steamboat. The boats stopped right at the entrance to the resort where northerners could vacation and renew their youth.
If you happened to be a guest of Fredrick DeBary you would disembark at the next stop which was his hunting lodge. Mr. DeBary was the sole agent for G.H. Mumm & Co., the largest champagne company in France. This mansion is tucked away in the palmettos and sand and has seen overnight guests of American royalty. You will also find original copper plate paintings from John James Audubon hanging in the hall.
DeBary Hall is now owned by Volusia County and is preserved in detail. Visitors can take a living tour through the exciting history of this little-known river town. I recommend the guided tour which will help you understand why this is the best-kept secret in Central Florida. Mr. DeBary was an avid collector of birds and there is a curio of taxidermy birds that includes many that are now extinct.
A unit study on the history of wildlife in Florida can begin right here. I recommend The Story of John J. Audubon by Joan Howard, For the Birds by Peggy Thomas and The Flower Hunter by Deborah Kogan Ray.
Tapping into your community and area resources can provide a springboard to many unit studies. These adventures might just become some of the most cherished memories of your homeschool years. I recommend you pack a lunch, take your bicycles and always keep your bathing suits on hand as you meander your way throughout this beautiful state and its rich, engaging history. Now is the perfect time to get outdoors and explore the real Florida.