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Doris writes a weekly column for LaGaceta, the nation's only trilingual newspaper, which has pages in English, Spanish, and Italian.  Begun in 1922 for Tampa's immigrant community, it continues to thrive more than a century later.  Her column is titled "In Context," as it aims to put contemporary issues in the context of the past.

Playing tour guide: Georgia and Florida

My Dad loved to play tour guide and greatly enjoyed taking out-of-town visitors to see every little nearby spot of possible interest. My older sister has the same delightful quality and a more interesting city, but because she has lived in Columbus, Georgia for decades, I thought I’d seen everything in this old textile-mill town. Last weekend, however, I discovered two historic markers that were new to me, even though one of them said that it has been there since 1953. In its title alone, the sign is a perfect example of an obsolete approach to history: “Last Battle in War of 1861-65.”

What? War of 1861-65? Is that any kin to the War of 1812? No, it’s the Civil War, but if you don’t already understand the significance of the dates, the marker makers aren’t telling you. The first sentence says, “The last important land battle of the War Between the States was fought here April 16, 1865, resulting in the capture of Columbus by Federal forces.” So, as all unreconstructed Southerners know, this was part of “The War Between the States.” Not the Civil War, and certainly not the “War of Southern Rebellion,” nor its counterpart, “The War of Northern Aggression.” It was 150 years ago this spring, and we still haven’t truly decided how to refer to this horrific fight between Americans.

As with many self-aggrandizements in many towns, it isn’t entirely accurate, either. April 16 was two days after Abraham Lincoln was assassinated and a week after Robert E. Lee surrendered to U.S. Grant -- but that was merely the biggest army of the two sides. Confederate forces under Joe Johnston did not surrender to the Union’s William Sherman until April 26. Other units in the East hung on until May 4. Texas, as usual, claims its exceptionality with June 19, when Major General Gordon Granger landed at Galveston to inform slaves there that they were free. This now is celebrated by African Americans as Juneteenth. Giving the Georgia sign makers a really big break, I might grant that it can claim accuracy because of the qualifying “important,” but its chronology is far from the reality that readers have a right to expect.

It’s those details that Civil War buffs love to dispute. Most are interested in the military history and, until recently, they largely excluded social and economic history – and especially related to women. The new truly sign in downtown Columbus corrects that. It is shiny with metallic newness and titled “Civil War Women’s Riot.” Naturally, I jumped out of the car as soon as I saw it. It said:

“On April 11, 1863, during the American Civil War, sixty-five Columbus women armed with knives and pistols rallied at this site and marched down Broad Street raiding the stores of speculators before police could restore order. During the war many planters ignored the Confederate government’s pleas to grow food crops and continued to focus on cotton production instead, which was much more profitable but resulted in a food shortage that hit southern urban women particularly hard. Hoarding food and other commodities by speculating merchants made problems even worse. Women responded by staging riots all across the South, including in every major city in Georgia.”

It’s another change in nomenclature, as I always had read of these as “bread riots.” “Women’s riots” is much more appropriate, as it clearly shows political and economic action by women. (And rioting for more than merely bread.) I also learned something new from the sign in the phrase “every major city in Georgia.” I had known of women rioting because of food in Vicksburg, Richmond, and perhaps (vaguely) elsewhere -- but “every major city in Georgia” truly shows the extent of women’s objections to the war, or at least businessmen’s exploitation of it. Southern dissent is another topic that seldom has been given attention until recently, but some modern historians are rooting out facts that the magnolia and moonlight romanticists ignored. One example is Secret Yankees about Union supporters in Atlanta.

As the sign strongly implies, there was no reason for a food shortage – and Columbus was a prosperous town where people could afford to buy it. Its Chattahoochee River spun the waterwheels that powered textile factories, which were busy weaving cotton for uniforms, tents, and other increased wartime production – and yes, women worked in those mills. Money was being made, but some wanted more. Merchants, mostly male, especially hoarded medicines, coffee, tea, sugar, and other imported goods because the Union navy (infinitely more effective than any Confederate naval forces) blockaded incoming ships. The U.S. Navy also was quite effective at blocking outbound ships loaded with cotton for England, which long had been the major source of Southern profits.

Because cotton was blockaded, it would have made much more sense for plantations to grow corn or rice or anything edible for local sale, but farmers can be a conservative lot. They just kept doing what they always had done, despite its current stupidity. Most plantations had vegetable gardens maintained by slaves, though, and it was indeed urban kitchens that lacked food. Women not only understood this, but also acted on it. In an era when Southern ladies were portrayed as helpless and merely decorative, they got out their knives and pistols to feed their families. Women in today’s civil war scenarios should do the same.

* * *

I had a speech in Venice, Florida, just before going to Georgia, and both inspired some thoughts about downtowns. First and again, Columbus. Like other towns with economies based on riverside mills, its downtown decayed and almost died. Once again, though, the federal government came though with a plan: The Army Corps of Engineers deconstructed the dam that slowed the Chattahoochee to provide a constant source of water power, and now the river runs free again. Kayaks and white-water rafts zoom its rapids, while other people thronged the parks, pubs, and shops on the Saturday afternoon we were there. The old Greyhound bus station that took many a boy to and from Fort Benning’s infantry school now is crammed with barbeque seekers. Even in mid-afternoon, Mama Goldberg’s deli had a line outside its door, and the Springer Opera House where Ma Rainey and other African Americans began their careers often is sold out. I suspect that much of this change is because the state moved the region’s major college from the suburbs to downtown. Because I’m a suburbanite myself and a longtime patient at the USF Medical Clinic, I’m not sure I want the medical school here to do the same, but it’s something to ponder.

And now to Venice. We got there well before the evening speech and ate at Sharkey on the Beach – if you’ve not been there, go. Take your Yankee visitors, as it’s absolutely picture postcard Florida. To get to the beach, you go through downtown. Somewhat depressed in May, I’m sure the well-restored buildings attract happy crowds in January. I turned out to be glad to speak to the Venice Historical Society at their last meeting of the year, however, as it was witness to the town’s cultural generosity (and affluence). They gave several scholarships to seniors at Venice High School based on essays the students wrote on their favorite historical topic, and a $250,000 fundraising goal to restore a railroad car that had begun in September went over the top at this May meeting.

I had always assumed that the Italianate developers of Venice, Naples, and other such places were part of the 1920s Land Boom that targeted wealthy winter residents, but this is not entirely true. Instead, Venice first took off in 1925 as a retirement home for the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers. Granted, a few families had lived in the area since 1867, but Venice-Nokomis High School would not have its first graduating class until 1930 – and then with just eight students. Like Julia Tuttle on the East Coast, Bertha Palmer was key to the development of the West Coast.

A multi-millionaire realtor in Chicago, Palmer also was a Democrat and feminist who led women’s activities at the 1892-93 World’s Fair there. You can read about it and her in several of my books, but the point here is that she settled near Venice, in the community of Osprey, in 1910. Prior to her death from breast cancer in 1918, she designed and built a home there, The Oaks, that featured extensive gardens, ponds, guesthouses, as well as her own electrical and water systems. She eventually bought some 90, 000 acres in southwest Florida, where she also developed advanced methods of cattle breeding – and incurred the wrath of ranchers unaccustomed to fenced-in land.

Palmer sat on the stage with Democratic presidential nominee William Jennings Bryan in 1896, when he made his famous “Cross of Gold” speech, and I’d like to do some research on other possible connections between them. The Bryans retired to Coral Gables in 1917, after he resigned from the State Department because he objected to World War I, and Mary Baird Bryan led Florida women in working for the right to vote. She and Bertha Palmer doubtless knew each other, and I’d like to ferret out more on that.

Anyway, Palmer’s role as a developer of southwest Florida was very real, and that probably is connected to the fact that the railroad went south as far as Venice in 1911. She also was a union sympathizer, and although she had died by 1925, when the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers bought its land, she may have influenced that, too. The legislature chartered the City of Venice in 1927, and the Tamiami Trail, which ran from Tampa to Miami, opened in 1928. Local historians blame that for the town’s relative decline, as travelers could go further south on the highway instead of stopping at the railroad’s end in Venice.

Tamiami Trail, of course, is US Highway 41, and thus is another indication of how communities rise and fall depending on what their congressional representatives do with federal funding. Venice declined, but Betty Intaglia, the woman who invited me via the Florida Humanities Council, told how she had helped revive its now lovely downtown by involving herself with the Main Street Project. You may have heard of this program under the National Trust for Historic Preservation. Begun during the sainted, no-federal-spending Reagan administration, it has done a great job of restoration in Plant City and other nearby downtowns that had lost their glitter. I see on the internet that Florida’s Main Street folks will be having their annual conference at the Vinoy in St. Petersburg, another lovely downtown. So go to the Vinoy and to Venice, especially in summer when they need visitors. Sit on a veranda on a balmy evening. I guarantee you’ll enjoy it.

Doris Weatherford writes a weekly column for La Gaceta, the nation's only trilingual newspaper. With pages in Spanish, Italian, and English, it has been published in Tampa since 1922.
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