Historical markers abound in area
By Morgan Watkins
Published: Sunday, January 20, 2013 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Saturday, January 19, 2013 at 7:41 p.m.
A Civil War skirmish. An Indian village. A slave plantation.
These are pieces of Alachua County's history — a narrative with which many residents would be unfamiliar if not for the cast-aluminum markers noting historic spots throughout the county.
These Florida Historical Markers are placed at significant sites throughout the state to recognize historic people, events and resources related to a particular spot.
And Alachua County has more than most counties. It has more than 40 markers listed on the state Division of Historical Resources' website. Brevard, Leon, Palm Beach and St. Johns counties have similarly high numbers of markers, but many others have 10 or fewer.
The markers reveal how historic Alachua County really is, said Melanie Barr, a member of the Alachua County Historical Commission who has helped establish them locally.
“It sparks people's interest, and it helps them learn about history,” she said.
Barr remembers talking to someone at a luncheon who had no idea plantations used to be located in the county. Others don't realize there were Civil War skirmishes in downtown Gainesville, she said.
She helped establish the marker for Josiah T. Walls, Florida's first black congressman, who lived here. The marker outside the Historic Haile Homestead at Kanapaha Plantation, where she volunteers, attracts visitors who come inside to tour the house.
There are more than 750 markers in the state, said Michael Zimny, state historical marker coordinator with the state Division of Historical Resources. The earliest one dates back to 1960.
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Alachua County is one of the best represented counties in the historical marker program, he said. Many people make a point of stopping to view markers when they're traveling.
“It's just really, you know, a love of history,” he said, as to why people care about them. It's one of the state historical division's most popular programs.
To establish a marker, people must complete an application process. The state issues them after the State Historical Marker Council reviews and approves the applications, which it evaluates on a quarterly basis, he said. Basic criteria require that a property be a minimum of 30 years old and significant in Florida history or archaeology.
Markers are used to designate either a Florida Heritage Site, which is significant locally, or a Florida Heritage Landmark, which is significant on a state or national level, he said. A standard marker currently costs $2,130 — a fee the applicants must cover. The state usually processes 30 to 40 new applications for historical markers each year. The number of applications has remained steady even during tough economic times, although a marker sometimes will have multiple sponsors as a way of lessening the cost burden, he said.
The Alachua County Historical Commission has helped establish many of the local markers, Chair Ashley Wood said. It used to have enough funding from the Alachua County Commission to get a new marker or two each year, but money has grown scarce because of the ailing economy, Wood said. Now, the commission often partners with other people or organizations that foot the bill for the marker while the county advisory board's members complete the application.
Dedication ceremonies are held for new markers, which usually are attended by between 50 and 150 people and are “always a celebration,” he said.
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To establish a marker, evidence of a site's historical value must be provided.
Karen Kirkman, a member of the county's historical commission and the president and historian of the Historic Haile Homestead, said she enjoys doing the research for marker applications.
For every fact that appears on a marker, solid documentation must be shown to back it up. Primary sources are key, she said. The real challenge is boiling down the information to fit the space provided on the cast-aluminum markers.
She was able to use the diary of Serena Haile, who lived at the homestead in the 1800s, for the Historic Haile Homestead and Kanapaha Presbyterian Church applications. People might see those markers and pull over, learning about something that happened 100 years ago without having to do the research on their own.
“So I get great satisfaction when I drive by the homestead and I see somebody parked there reading our marker,” she said. “I just love that.”
One piece of Alachua County history Kirkman has noticed many people don't know about is that there were once plantations and slaves here. They don't think of Florida or this county as being part of the South in that way, she said.
Some Haile Plantation residents who visit the Historic Haile Homestead have lived here 20 years or more and say they didn't know a plantation once was here, she said.
But anyone who reads the historical marker outside knows that. For the people who establish such markers, that history means a lot.
Kanapaha Presbyterian Church had been hoping to establish a marker for 20 years before Kirkman offered to do the application pro bono if it could pay for the state's fee, said the Rev. Dawn Conti, the church's pastor. The church dates back to 1859, and its current site was built in 1886.
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Inside, the original yellow pine pews — handmade by slaves — and stained-glass windows remain. So do the original kerosene lanterns the church lights on Christmas Eve.
“Kanapaha Church is the mother church of all the Presbyterian churches in the area,” Conti said. “We're just really proud and celebrate that history and that connection with the area.”
The marker was dedicated in November 2012, for which a handful of church members dressed up in period costumes.
“We're here and we're alive and we're well — and we give thanks for that — but the history is just such a unique part of this church in that it has survived and kept going all of these years,” she said.
With the marker in place, now others will be able to learn about the history in which church members take such pride.
Alachua County already has many markers, but new ones are also in the works. A dedication ceremony for a new marker will be held on Feb. 23 at the Porters Community Center, which sits on the site where the University of Florida football team played its first home game.
From 1906 to 1910, the Gators played 15 home football games at a field known as the ballpark, said Gigi Simmons, president of the Porters Community Neighborhood Organization. The team's record: 14-0-1.
It's amazing that even longtime Porters residents like herself don't know the extent of their community's history, she said. The marker offers an opportunity to share this integral piece of the neighborhood's history.
“We want to draw attention to the marker,” she said. “We want to shed light on our community and let everybody know that our community is a significant part of this city.”
UF's prestigious football program has roots in the Porters community, and the marker makes people aware of that, she said.
It soon will be added to the county's lengthy list of markers, each of which stands as a testament to a slice of local history.
Contact Morgan Watkins at 338-3104 or firstname.lastname@example.org.