Monthly Archives: March 2015

2015 Trip 1, March 22-27, Florida in Winter

Miami Beach, FL Wednesday, March 25

The blog has been quiet since we have been quiet, not doing much of any major notice. Not that Miami Beach (South Beach) has been quiet; that would really be unusual. No, Chris and I are in our laid back mode, letting the party goers and expense account people have a good time. Miami is host to a major tennis tournament now and a music festival, the Ultra Music festival, and the Winter Music Conference is also underway in Miami. There is tremendous spill-over to Miami Beach. The Ultra Music festival is for electronic music by DJs, etc. If you know what I am talking about, great. If not, I don’t understand it any better and can’t explain it more. But while it is not my style of music, it certainly keeps the place hopping.

View from our room at Marriott Stanton

View from our room at Marriott Stanton

Tonight (March 25) we are at our second lodging in Miami Beach, the Marriott Stanton at about 2nd and Ocean Drive. The Marriott is on the beach and has an outdoor pool. After checking in this afternoon, we just lazed at the pool. We are likely to be doing the same thing Thursday during the day. Just a half block south of us is Nikki Beach, an outdoor party/event place that is rocking away and will probably be blasting through the night. No tickets needed for us to get the vibe.

HGVC on Ocean Drive

HGVC on Ocean Drive

Miami Beach life guard stand

Miami Beach life guard stand

We spent Saturday through this morning (March 21-25) at the Hilton Grand Vacations Club (HGVC) at about 14th and Ocean, about 12 blocks north of the Marriott. HGVC is across the street from the beach, there is a park across the street between us and the ocean. HGVC has no pool, we have spent the last four days at the beach under an umbrella. The days have been glorious, mid-80s with a slight breeze.

Our last blog posted mentioned that Miami Beach was founded 100 years ago so this is a new town. This was a slender sand spit, with New Jersey Quakers trying to grow coconuts and avocados. That failed and years of dredging up muck from Biscayne Bay to build up the island and the construction of a bridge from the mainland began the land rush of the 1920s. A 1926 hurricane and the 1929 stock market crash put an end to that. The advent of WWII with its Florida training camps for the military brought another boom after the war-aided by the advent of air-conditioning. The late 1960s and 70s brought another crash but its re-birth is credited to historic preservation of the old hotels, aided by artists and gays. Now it is a very hip place, a hub for many people from Europe and South America.

Tuesday night we attended two of the birthday celebratory events being held. The first was a Jackie Gleason marathon. Okay, just like I don’t understand electronic music, many of you may not have heard of Jackie Gleason. He was a comedian, radio, movie and TV show personality in the 1950s and early 1960s. Some of his shows were based out of Miami Beach and he helped publicize Miami Beach as a travel location. Obviously many of the people in Miami Beach don’t remember Jackie Gleason either. There were only about 25 people in attendance.

The wall cast at New World Symphony. We chose a spot with a back rest, even though it meant looking through the leaves

The wall cast at New World Symphony. We chose a spot with a back rest, even though it meant looking through the leaves

So, we went across the street to the New World Symphony. I won’t go into details about the Symphony but it has an 7,000 square foot outdoor wall that is used as a super sized movie screen. This evening the 90 minute pilot episode for the TV show “Miami Vice” was broadcast. At least this showing was slightly better attended, possibly 200 people. Miami Vice was a police show running from 1984 to 1989 that influenced popular music, dress, etc. Based in Miami Beach, the TV show actually primarily used South Beach locations which helped again to popularize South Beach.

Continued, Thursday March 26

Our beach view of the music concert

Our beach view of the music concert

Ocean Drive street scene

Ocean Drive street scene

Tonight’s birthday celebration was a major music concert held on the beach at 8th and Ocean Drive from 5 pm to midnight. A huge music shell and seating was constructed on the beach; tickets ranged from $79 to over $1,000. We went early and just listened from the beach way far away where the sitting was free. A very few of the 40 musicians we had heard of (Gloria Estefan, Andrea Boccelli); most we had not (Afrobeta, DJ Zog). After 30-60 minutes we decided it was not worth it. We walked back along Ocean Drive, watching the people; the street had been closed for the event.

We have been coming to Miami Beach for 14 years, usually spending 7-10 days here in mid-March. It is impossible to say we know the Miami area (population 400,000, metro Miami going up to Palm Beach is 5.5 million) but we are comfortable knowing Miami Beach (population 90,000).

Beach scene

Beach scene

We have certain places we go most years, adding in some new places. Actually you have to try new places, changeover in restaurants is high. Property values have skyrocketed, forcing out most Mom and Pop restaurants. This year we discovered that Jerry’s Deli, just two blocks from HGVC, closed last summer. It’s old-fashioned, deli-style menu must not have resonated with the new crowds.

New construction is constant, to a degree. Year one a building is shuttered. Year two a sign is up listing some new condo or hotel will be built on the site. Year three some construction is underway. Year four, construction is almost done. Year five (if all has gone well), the building may be open and operating. Magazines and newspapers are advertising the newest and fanciest condos and apartments. Condos usually start at over $1,000,000. I saw one advertisement this time for condos in a new building priced from $5,000,000 to $40,000,000. Supposedly foreign buyers are providing much of the impetus.

Sunrise on the beach

Sunrise on the beach

But all of that is moot for us. We come, sit on the beach, walk a bit, go to some cultural events depending on the weather, and go back home. Which is what is happening this year. The weather has been great so it has been pretty much all beach and pool time, practically no walking around. Trip 1 draws to a close tomorrow as we fly home. It has been a pleasant two month excursion through a varied Florida landscape.

Ed and Chris March 26 10 pm

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2015 Trip 1, March 20-21, Florida in Winter

Miami Beach Saturday March 21

Flat Florida landscape with cattle

Flat Florida landscape with cattle

Night and Day. We left quiet little Ruskin FL for Miami Beach. It is 250 miles in distance but a whole ‘nother world. We could have driven via the interstate but once again drove the two lane roads, east across the entire state and along the shore of Lake Okeechobee. Towns in the interior part of the state are few and far between. The area’s RV and mobile home parks are definitely not in the high rent district. Cattle and tomato growing transferred into sod and sugar farms.

Lake Okeechobee is the seventh largest freshwater lake in the United States. It is only about 10-15 feet deep and is an integral part of the process of keeping the Everglades fresh. There is a long history of how the water has been used and abused. Today there are watershed districts trying to manage competing demands for use of the water in addition to the need to not diminish the flow to the Everglades. There is a 30 foot high dike around the lake with a 110 mile long walking/biking path on top of the dike. I would not recommend it as a walking path. There is absolutely no shade and at Florida heat, it would be about the last hike I would want to undergo.

Arrival in the Miami area brings back the wide highways, speeders, high density of new skyscrapers, etc. The normal 10-15 minute drive into South Beach across the causeway next to the cruise ship harbor was bumper to bumper, 50-60 minutes of stop and go driving. Pedestrians are everywhere, never waiting for a light.

The next five days are probably beach days, depending on weather. 2015 is the 100th birthday of Miami Beach and there will be a few celebrations this week. Part of the allure of Miami Beach is the architecture. Art Deco for some of the oldest hotels from the 1920s; the Miami Modern movement from the 1950s with over-the-top hotels and motels.

Fish Shack restaurant in Ruskin

Fish Shack restaurant in Ruskin

In contrast, little Ruskin began life in 1908, named after John Ruskin, a social critic and utopian. Tomato growing (Di Mare Fresh and Pacific Tomato are two big firms still operating in the area) was its major crop and activity until after WWII. Suburban development has occurred but there is no downtown, not even nice strip development. The two most popular and highest rated restaurants on TripAdvisor are a hot dog shack and a fish shack. And I do mean shack. The cooking facilities look like an enclosed car port; the dining area is picnic tables under a larger car port type enclosure. We did try the hot dog place, it was good barbecue. The crowds keep coming and the parking lots are always full. Not everything has to be artisanal with modern vibe architecture to be good.

Resort at Little Harbor

Resort at Little Harbor

The marina at The Resort at Little Harbor

The marina at The Resort at Little Harbor

Our lodging for the last three weeks, the Resort at Little Harbor combines hotel, timeshare, and townhouse condominiums. It has two restaurants, three pools, and a marina. The staff was always friendly. The beach area is on Tampa Bay, not the Gulf of Mexico so the wave action is less.

The Gulf beaches in this area have been highly rated consistently. However, we found them too highly priced. There were also articles in the Tampa paper how horrendous the traffic is going to Clearwater Beach. Clearwater Beach is on an island. There are less than 2,000 parking spaces. During Spring Break, 10,000 vehicles try to access the beach. One person we met in the elevator at Little Harbor went to the Gulf beaches and just had a horrendous drive. When we were at Siesta Key three weeks ago, there was little public beach access and no parking. Not for us this year.

Gambel mansion in Ellenton FL

Gambel mansion in Ellenton FL

Friday we drove into Ellenton and visited a state park memorial “mansion”. The building was home to an early pioneer. He moved here from the Tallahassee area in the 1840s and raised sugar cane primarily-with the major assistance of slaves. However, his luck was rotten. Storms, fires, diseases combined to force him to turn the plantation over to his creditors in 10 years. The home was the hiding place of the Secretary of State of the Confederacy when the Civil War ended and he escaped to Europe rather than facing charges.

The Tampa area (Clearwater, Tampa, Sarasota, Bradenton, etc) does offer numerous activities across a range of interests. We enjoyed the time here at little Ruskin.

Ed and Chris Saturday March 21, 11 pm

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2015 Trip 1, March 19, Florida in Winter

Ruskin FL Thursday, March 19

The weather people reported last night that the Tampa area weather has been 7-8 degrees warmer than usual for all of March. Temperatures that would normally be in the mid to high 70s have been in the low to mid 80s. We decided to take a chance and sit outside in the sun for two hours today and drove to Myakka City.

The drive was on two lane roads, suburbia giving way to cattle farms, tomato farms, and then horse farms with scattered housing developments cropping up here and there. The destination was Herrmann’s Royal Lipizzan Stallions Horse Farm. As you probably know, Lipizzan stallions were a special horse bred in Austria in the 16th century to perform special movements in aid of the cavalry. These jumps involve long training and great strength.

Our Myakka City destination

Our Myakka City destination

The Herrmann horses are direct descendants of the Austrian horses. The background given by the web site is short on substantive details and long on a connection to the Disney movie in 1963, The Miracle of the White Stallions. The movie tells the story of how the Lipizzans were saved at the end of WWII by the actions of Colonel Herrmann and General George Patton. The movie is not the best source for historical accuracy and I have no quick access to a more detailed and accurate history. Whoever was a hero or a villain is not crucial to our day, but the idea that the horses might have died out does give some greater pizzazz to the event.

A young stallion being trained

A young stallion being trained

We went to Herrmann’s to watch the outdoor training session of the horses, sort of spring training for Lipizzans before they take to the road for a summer of shows around the U.S. We arrived about an hour early since we had read on TripAdvisor that most seats were in the sun. We managed to snag two top row bleacher seats (so support for our backs) primarily in the shade. My quick count indicated about 500 people were in attendance, including three bus loads of people.

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My sister is the dressage expert in the family, dressage being the type of movements described as where horse and rider are expected to perform from memory a series of predetermined movements. We watched four horses performing during the show. The highlight is when a Lipizzan does one of its special jumps in the air. My descriptions are not as visually great as you may need but one involves a backward kick while the other is a straight up jump.

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Two mares putting on a riding demonstration

Two mares putting on a riding demonstration

Since this was training also, we heard the riders talking to the horses. Evidently in competition, no verbal commands are allowed. The horses were treated at the end of each session, each time with sugar. The announcer mentioned that carrots and apples are given also but since the carrots can make the stallions froth from their mouth look red (almost bloody to us in the stands) they only use sugar during these public trainings.

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We learned that: only stallions are used for the “Airs above Ground” movements that require great strength; their mares usually birth four foals before being retired; the Lipizzans live longer than most breeds, usually 35-40 years old; that the standard white coat of the Lipizzan takes seven years to grow out from the dark birth color; and that the stables here also house several rescue horses.

Ed and Chris March 19 10:15 pm

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2015 Trip 1, March 17-18, Florida in Winter

Ruskin FL, Wednesday March 18

The Ringling. One simple name. The advertising/branding people were listened to. One simple name that comprises several different components on 60 plus acres on Sarasota Bay in Sarasota, FL. The Ringling includes the John and Mable Ringling Museum of Art, the Circus Museum, Ca’d’Zan-the winter mansion of John and Mable Ringling, the Tibbals Learning Center, Bayfront Gardens, and the Historic Azolo Theater. We spent 7.5 hours here today exploring the complex.

Many of us above a certain age associate Ringling with the Ringling Brothers Circus (aka Ringling Brothers Barnum and Bailey Circus). John Ringling was one of the five Ringling Brothers that began their circus in Baraboo WI in 1884. Circuses were immensely popular in the late 1800s and early 1900s and John became wealthy. He invested in oil, railroads, real estate, and ranching and became one of the wealthiest men in America.

John and Mable, his wife, set up a winter home in Sarasota and believed in the area. They spent time in Europe searching out new circus acts-and bought art masterpieces also. A mansion was begun in 1924 and completed in 1926. John and Mable had no children, Mable died in 1929 and John in 1936. John built an art museum and it opened in 1930. When he died in 1936, he left the art museum, house and grounds to the State of Florida. The circus portion of the grounds was added after WWII.

The Ringling mansion, Ca'  d'Zan

The Ringling mansion, Ca’ d’Zan

We arrived at 9:45 A.M. for the 10 AM opening of the buildings. Our first stop was Ca’ d’Zan which means “House of John” in Venetian dialect. While it might be called John’s, Mable was responsible for the design features and the architects labeled their drawings: Home for Mable Ringling in Sarasota FL. We toured the first floor, passing on the extra cost docent tour of the second and third floors.

The Court in the Ringling mansion

The Court in the Ringling mansion

The mansion had a staff of seven for upkeep and partying, with movie stars, politicians, circus people and others who kept the parties hopping. There is a ballroom, grand dining room, court area, etc with all of the back room preparation area you might find in a large restaurant. The colored windows look onto a terrace and Sarasota Bay. The building style is Venetian Gothic, mimicking looks the Ringlings fancied after their trips to Europe. Unfortunately Mable died after only three years here. John’s second marriage was described as brief and contentious. The Great Depression caused John’s finances to fall apart and at his death he had $311 in cash plus his home, museum and art work. There was a brief comment that probate and litigation were troublesome after his death but the house, museum and art work did end up as a gift to Florida.

One of the original Ringling circus wagons

One of the original Ringling circus wagons

Our second stop were the two buildings focused on the circus. One building was built in 1948, the second in 2006 with an addition in 2012. Building one houses circus wagons, the Pullman railroad car John and Mable used for traveling in the U.S, and other memorabilia. A docent tour described the items which evoke an earlier time in America. Most of these items related to the days of the circus when circuses traveled by train from small town to small town. For instance, in 1928, one Ringling circus took up 100 rail cars. There were 46 flat cars with wagons, 27 stock cars for animals, 22 coaches for people, 3 cars with advertising people, a dining car, and a car for John Ringling.

In those days, the circus was in town for one day. Advance teams arrived in town at 3 AM and started setting up the big tents and food areas. A few hours later the work tents would arrive with the people and animals coming last. All would be up and functional, frequently for an afternoon and an evening show. The entire town would normally shut down so everyone could attend the circus. Before the evening show was done, the tear down had begun to get the show on the road for the next stop.

The circus would have 1300-1500 people who had to be fed three times a day. Sleeping accommodations were provided. Dressing areas provided. Medical care and veterinarian care provided. Animal housing provided. Practice areas provided. A midway and food area provided for customers. It was a big operation, well oiled with everything marked and in its proper place for quick dismantling and re-assembly. In fact, the docent indicated the U.S. Army monitored the circus operations twice because the circus was more efficient in its organization.

For us, circus memories do not go back to the days of small town visits, but in large arenas in large cities. Our daughters rode in a cart pulled by elephants in the parade. Chris and her mother were petrified but it turned out great. You many not have read it but just recently Ringling announced that the use of elephansts in the circus will be phased out.

Overview of a portion of the Tibbals Howard Brothers model circus

Overview of a portion of the Tibbals Howard Brothers model circus

The back yard area    of the model circus

The back yard area of the model circus

The second building, the Tibbals Learning Center, has added new displays, many of them interactive and touchscreen, that update the circus to today’s modern era. For us, however, the major feature in this building was the model circus exhibit. Howard Tibbals is from Tennessee and a businessman who was hooked on the circus at an early age. Over 50 years, he built a scale model circus massive in its scope. It replicates a Ringling Brothers circus, although it is named the Howard Brothers circus since when Tibbals started this as a teenager, Ringling Brothers would not agree to the use of its name. No matter, 50 years later Tibbals donated most of the money for this building and spent a year of his time re-locating the model circus to its new home here.

Feeding the performers and workers in the Howard Brothers model circus

Feeding the performers and workers in the Howard Brothers model circus

Entering the circus

Entering the circus

Under the Big Top

Under the Big Top

The model shows the train yards with the rail cars; the back yard where the performers and animals rest, eat, and practice; the big top with the acts, the attendees, even the folding chairs (that actually fold) that the people sit on; the midway with sideshows and restrooms; etc. Even Tibbals the builder has no idea how many individual pieces are included. Detail is all important to him; the interior of the ticket taker booth (which no one can actually see) has people with a type writer, a calculator and a cash drawer with scale model money. It was pretty amazing.

The courtyard at the Ringling Museum of Art

The courtyard at the Ringling Museum of Art

Ringling Museum of Art with Rubens works

Ringling Museum of Art with Rubens works

Our final stop was the Museum of Art, the original focus of the gift to the state. Ringling and his wife were into Baroque art, from the period of the 17th century , when art themes were dictated heavily by the Catholic Church in response to the Reformation. These are large canvases, so the rooms of the museum are tall and the canvases immense. Artists such as Rubens, Titian and Tintoretto dominate this period and the Ringlings picked up many of them while contemporary art collectors were focusing on more modern works.

The museum was designed as a pink Renaissance-style palace with 21 galleries. The courtyard is topped with statues. We spent our last two hours of the day here, including a docent tour. The paintings dazzle but at the end of a long day, the art probably did not receive the attention it deserves.

We finished off the day with another serving of Working Cow ice cream at Kimi’s Ice Cream. Thursday will probably be another day out and about, Friday, like Tuesday, may be spent by the pool and/or beach.

Ed and Chris 3/18 midnight

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2015 Trip 1, March 16, Florida in Winter

Ruskin, FL Monday March 16

ART DAY!

One of Dali's Masterworks, two stories high

One of Dali’s Masterworks, two stories high

St. Petersburg was our destination today and we spent the day looking at art. Stop number one was the Dali Museum in a building opened in 2011 built specifically for this collection of Salvador Dali’s (1904-1989) works, along the waterfront of Tampa Bay. The building was constructed to be the vault for all of the more than 2,000 works in the collection, even in a hurricane.

Interior of Dali Museum with staircase and atrium

Interior of Dali Museum with staircase and atrium

The collection was started by an Ohio businessman, Reynolds Morse, in 1943. He and his wife, Eleanor, collected Dali’s works for several decades, becoming personal friends with Dali and his wife Gala. The collection grew until, according to the docent’s account, the traffic it generated was a problem and city officials in Beachwood Ohio told the Morses to limit the traffic. Big mistake. Through a combination of circumstances, St. Petersburg gained the entire collection. Today it is housed in a building with a soaring double helix interior staircase, like DNA, and a glass atrium comprised of 1,062 glass triangles, no two of which are alike. The museum is a major draw, bringing tourists into St. Petersburg.

Dali's Last Supper showing mathematical layout

Dali’s Last Supper showing mathematical layout

Dail was a Spaniard who spent part of his life in the U.S. He is known for “his technical skill as a painter and shocking quality of his imagination”. His early work was as a surrealist, but his later work delved into religion, science, mathematics and practically anything that stirred his imagination. The collection here includes works in film, writing, clothing, jewelry, etc. Exhibits detail his completed works plus initial drawings and sketches indicating the mathematical connection behind some of the drawings.

Besides the permanent exhibit, there was a special exhibit that demonstrated similarities between how Dali and da Vinci “shared an ambition to use the tools of art to explore the whole of the human experience, from math and anatomy to motion devices, religion, and visual perception.”

I have not always been a major fan of Dali, but the time today clearly demonstrated how striking and detailed his paintings were. The museum displays both his huge masterworks and his small, intimate paintings. It was time well spent.

One of the Chihuly works

One of the Chihuly works

After Dali and lunch, we went to the Chihuly Collection. Dale Chihuly is an artist in glass that seems to emerge everywhere we travel. The collection here blossomed after St. Petersburg and Orlando organized Chihuly exhibits and the St. Petersburg one drew a phenomenal response. Local people said, Hey, maybe we should make this permanent. After some initial difficulty raising funds due to the 2007-2009 recession, this building was constructed just to house a special collection of Chihuly works. It is located along the waterfront, across from a park so the setting adds to the enjoyment of the visit.

We caught a docent tour and were able to hear details about most of the glass works in the exhibit. Color and imaginative use of shapes and settings distinguish the exhibit from other glass artists.

We left St. Petersburg having filled our day with enjoyable art. If our schedule was different, we might have returned here later in the month to watch the St. Petersburg Grand Prix, where Indy style cars race along a 1.9 mile course in downtown St. Pete’s. We saw the spectator stands being erected and concrete barriers placed along the race track for the event on March 27-29. Seems like it would be a spectacular way to end March.

Ed and Chris 3/16 8 pm

A few more Chihuly art works. Click on them for larger views if desired.

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2015 Trip 1, March 14-15, Florida in Winter

Ruskin FL March 14-15, Saturday and Sunday

Saturday was a day of leisure around the resort so Sunday we returned to our job and vocation-travel. We set out for Fort Myers Florida, about 110 miles south of Ruskin. Our journey brought us to the Winter Estates of Thomas Edison and Henry Ford. You might think it an unlikely combination but Thomas Edison was a mentor to Henry Ford, did some research for the Ford Motor Company, and they became friends, despite a 16 year age difference.

The Thomas Edison House and Guest House in Fort Myers FL

The Thomas Edison House in Fort Myers FL

The Edison and Ford Winter Estate Complex is located along the Caloosahatchee River in Fort Myers. Thomas Edison enjoyed fishing and was not pleased with the fishing or weather in St. Augustine, FL, his first foray in looking for a winter retreat. Upon a friend’s recommendation, in 1885 he headed for Fort Myers. At that time, Fort Myers was small and isolated. The railroad ended north of Tampa and Edison took a boat to this area. He found land that he liked along the river a few miles up from its mouth with the Gulf of Mexico. Within a year his home was built-although the building was made in Maine and shipped here for final assembly. His architect didn’t fully understand Florida and had the home made from spruce trees-juicy food for termites. As we learned in our visit to Apalachicola, long leaf pine construction was impervious to insect problems and Ford used that in his home built later.

The location where the pier at the Edison House had been located

The location where the pier at the Edison House had been located

While the title of the property is termed estate, it is not palatial. Certainly the homes are more than comfortable and required a large staff to keep the place running. Henry Ford did not purchase his property until 1916 and spent less time here. Edison maintained a research laboratory on the premises so he and assistant researchers could work here during the winter months. Ford only visited, his businesses required his presence up north at a more constant level.

The Ford House at Fort Myers

The Ford House at Fort Myers

The Florida research lab at Edison and Ford Winter Estates in Fort Myers

The Florida research lab at Edison and Ford Winter Estates in Fort Myers

We took a guided tour of the properties, visited the museum and research lab, and read exhibits and listened to videos. I won’t try to provide a biography but will note a few items. A. Edison always felt his invention of the phonograph was his greatest achievement. B. Edison’s early success came in improvements to the telegraph. C. Many of Edison’s patents (1,093) were due to his creation of an industrial research laboratory, probably the first one, where skilled researchers worked under his direction. D. He did not invent the lightbulb, but the first commercially successful one. E. He had many failures, including a decade long effort to improve the iron ore mining process. F. He ran for many years a large Portland Cement manufacturing concern that provided the concrete for the building of Yankee Stadium.

(Atlas Obscura has an interesting little video about Edison’s last breath being sent to Henry Ford in a test tube. http://www.atlasobscura.com/places/edisons-last-breath-henry-ford-museum)

Ed and Chris 3/15 11 pm

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2015 Trip 1, March 13, Florida in Winter

Ruskin, FL Friday March 13

Nowadays much of America is similar. Strip shopping areas, subdivisions of neutral color homes, urban centers with science centers, art museums, shopping malls. We are trying to visit at least some of the slightly different parts of the country.

Street view of Ybor City

Street view of Ybor City

Cuban toast for lunch

Cuban toast for lunch

Friday we visited one such, Ybor City, a part of Tampa. We stopped at the Ybor City Museum State Park located in a former Italian bakery and strolled the streets of the city. We had Cuban toast for lunch and talked with Arturo Fuente Jr., the grandson of one of the long time cigar makers. Cigar stores are abundant on the main street. You recognize early on that this is one of a few communities in America where you do not complain about smoking.

The retail store for Tampa Sweethearts cigars

The retail store for Tampa Sweethearts cigars

Ybor City Museum State Park

Ybor City Museum State Park

Ybor City is trying to maintain its uniqueness. Now, after urban redevelopment flattened buildings, interstates divided its neighborhoods, and suburban development emptied city neighborhoods, Ybor City is gaining new economic strength but through the new drivers of economic development, tourism and eating/drinking out.

As we have noted in other posts, Florida developed late in U.S. history, particularly when you consider most development started in the east and worked its way west. Tampa was a small village in the late 1800s with a good port. Henry Plant built the railroad system on the Gulf side of Florida, similar to Flagler’s efforts on the Atlantic Coast. Plant’s railroad reached Tampa when it was still a small village.

At the same time, Cuba was under Spanish control. One of Cuba’s products was cigars. Due to political strife in Cuba, as it was trying to seek independence from Spain, making cigars was difficult. Don Vincente Martinez Ybor was a Spaniard wealthy from the cigar manufacturing business. He sought a stable location for his cigar making business. Initially he set up shop in Key West Florida but the lack of reliable transportation or potable water forced him into looking elsewhere.

The port and city of Tampa were mentioned to him as a potential location. The few business people in Tampa recognized the potential economic driver of the cigar business and in 1885, they underwrote 50% of the purchase cost for land for his business. They also agreed to provide police protection in case of any potential labor strife. Ybor offered his workforce free housing in casitas, small bungalow style homes. His factory became the largest in the world. Ybor City became a thriving cigar making community, as other cigar manufacturers joined Ybor here. (Ybor City was annexed to Tampa in the early 1900s.)

Due to the strife in Cuba, workers thronged to this new community. Unrest in Italy added another immigrant population to work in the town. They were joined by immigrants from Germany and Romania, as well as Spaniards direct from Spain, not just from Cuba. America’s recently freed slaves were also part of the workforce. Ybor City became a melting pot of races, religions and ethnic groups. The access to the port provided a means to ship in tobacco from Cuba. The new railroad lines provided direct distribution to the entire United States. Eventually, Ybor City became the cigar manufacturing center of the world.

A museum display trying to portray the scene in the factory with the reader' s  box.

A museum display trying to portray the scene in the factory with the reader’ s box.

Besides the free company housing, the cigar manufacturers offered a new and unique benefit. Each cigar factory had a reader. This was a person, hired by the workforce, that for four hours each day read to the workers. During the course of the reading time, workers would hear the daily news, then a classical book, and then a current novel. The reading was in Spanish, so the other immigrant groups would learn Spanish at work. The reading of the novel frequently brought family members to the outside of the factory so they could hear the reader through the windows. Quite a unique set up.

The Spanish social club

The Spanish social club

Similar to some other cities, Ybor city offered local immigrant mutual aid societies. Each immigrant group had its own cultural center. This provided social activities, medical services, and a meeting place after work-for the men. Ybor City was a true melting pot. However, Tampa, like all of the south, had Jim Crow laws. While the factory floor was exempt, other parts of town were segregated. Due to the laws of genetics, within individual families, skin tone varied. Family members were frequently unable to attend the same activities based on their skin color. Ybor City was not perfect, other class stereotypes existed to decide who was management and who was labor. Labor strife was not unknown here.

The heavy Spanish influence made Ybor City an early US home base for Cuban efforts to obtain their independence from Spain. José Marti, recognized as a leader in a Cuban independence, visited here often. Residents of Ybor City provided money, materials, and soldiers for the Cuban revolutionary efforts. Teddy Roosevelt and his rough riders, along with other US soldiers, were stationed here during the war between the United States and Spain in 1898. Ybor City still has a Rough Riders parade annually.

As strife was gaining ground, but before war was declared, Spain forbade the shipping of Cuban tobacco to other countries. Ybor City cigar makers managed to buy a year’s supply of tobacco before the embargo was effected. Fortunately for them, the war ended soon and Cuban independence provided them with a continuous supply of tobacco.

The cigar industry ruled in Tampa until the depression began. Cigar making machines, loss of disposable income, and the introduction of cigarettes brought about the near collapse of the business. Today a few small cigar manufacturers exist, others have moved to the Dominican Republic but maintain the business headquarters here. Of course, the U.S.-Cuba relatonship has ended the supply of Cuban tobacco to the U.S.

So Ybor City and its unique history went away. The uniqueness of the readers, the cigar industry world dominance, the easy mixing of immigrant groups with its mutual aid societies no longer exist. In other ways, Ybor City reflected several American trends; subsidies to businesses, the role of railroads in shaping new towns, interstate construction and VA loans only to new houses decimating urban dwellers, the destruction of unique city areas in the name of redevelopment, even the political control of Tampa politics for decades by the illicit, underground gambling bosses.

Flamenco dancers at the Columbia restaurant

Flamenco dancers at the Columbia restaurant

It does not take all day to visit Ybor City. We took a street car to downtown Tampa and walked along their riverfront. We returned to Ybor City to have dinner at the Columbia restaurant. This is Tampa’s oldest restaurant and possibly the largest Spanish restaurant in the world. Family owned since 1905, the restaurant takes up a full city block and can seat 1700 people in 15 dining rooms. We had a great meal and watched 45 minutes of flamenco dancing. But, we chose to have Working Cow ice cream for dessert back in Apollo Beach by Ruskin.

View from Tampa's RIverwalk

View from Tampa’s RIverwalk

Ed and Chris 3/14/15 Noon

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2015, Trip 1, March 11-12, Florida in Winter

Ruskin FL Thursday March 12

One of the alligators along Hillsborough River canoe trip

One of the alligators along Hillsborough River canoe trip

Back to Nature and the “Real Florida” as the Florida state parks like to advertise themselves. Today was a four mile, two-hour canoe trip down the Hillsborough River. Canoe Escape was our outfitter. They are located just outside of the Hillsborough River State Park which also rents canoes. Canoe Escape provides shuttle service from the end of the run; the state park only rents canoes and you paddle down stream and back upstream. The two-hour paddle down stream today was tiring enough, I am not sure we would have made a return paddle upriver.

Setting off on the canoe trip

Setting off on the canoe trip

Anhinga drying wings

Anhinga drying wings

The Hillsborough River runs from northeast of Tampa into downtown Tampa. We paddled a portion that is outside of the city and is preserved for 20 miles and 16,000 acres. The river provides 75% of the drinking water for Tampa. It is brownish in color due to the presence of tannic acid from trees in the swamps and flatwoods. We have observed this in several other rivers in parts of several states in the U.S., West Virginia, Michigan, Minnesota, etc. This outfitter had also been recommended by Adventures Unlimited that we used in Milton FL at the beginning of our trip.

Paddling along the Hillsborough River

Paddling along the Hillsborough River

Today’s weather forecast had changed several times in the last 36 hours. Always warm but possibly cloudy, rainy, foggy, etc. We took our chances and drove to the location. The day ended up being a combination of cloudy and sunny although the river is under a canopy of trees for most of the length we traveled. Rain has pushed water over the banks into marshlands so it was periodically challenging to stay within the river itself.

Hillsborough River

Hillsborough River

I had checked out the river and the outfitter on Tuesday after one of the airport runs. Chris, however, was still nervous due to the uncertain weather forecast, the presence of alligators, and the overflowing stream banks. Once it was completed she acknowledged that it was a good adventure and worth the trip.

And yes, we saw alligators, probably 8-10. Chris’ motto is no eye contact and keep paddling so we only have one picture of an alligator. They ranged in size from about three foot to about eight foot-we did not stop and measure them. The most frequent bird was the anhinga. We saw several, usually perched on a log of a tree with wings outstretched. They dive under the water for fish and periodically have to dry out their wings.

Wednesday we hiked at Little Manatee River State Park, just about 30 minutes away. The day was also hot and we experienced our first major bout with insects. Insect repellant was partially effective; we used an “environmentally sensitive” product. I always have my doubts whether the environmentally sensitive products are as effective as the heavy chemical ones.

Little Manatee River State Park

Little Manatee River State Park

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This hike was the least enjoyable of our hikes. The heat and bugs detracted from the hike, the scenery has now become old hat of the “Real Florida”; stream and/or marsh, bald cypress, pines, saw palmetto, grass lands, sabal palm, hardwood forests. In my opinion, there were no “Oh, Wow” vistas. This park does offer numerous equestrian trails and an equestrian campground.

To reward ourselves after the hike, we stopped at an ice cream parlor and had Working Cow ice cream, home-made in St. Petersburg and tasting delicious. Thursday’s reward for the canoe ride was more mundane but just as refreshing, jumping in the pool here at the resort. The pool we used faces one of the channels, not the bay itself. We have seen dolphins back there as well as pelicans, terns, etc.

Ed and Chris 3/12/15 9:30 P.M.

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2015, Trip 1, March 4-10, Florida in Winter

Ruskin, FL Tuesday March 10

A headline in the Tampa Tribune recently stated that the Florida Strawberry Festival ran out of shortcake for their strawberry shortcake desserts late in the afternoon of the last day of the festival. The 500,000 or so people were able, for the first time, to eat up all of the shortcake. We almost had the same problem here.

Sarah, Sarah, Deb and Rebecca joined us in Ruskin late Thursday evening and we have been enjoying being together. They returned to their northern homes today. One of their requests when we did meal planning was for strawberry shortcake. It made sense, besides a family favorite, we are at the peak of the winter strawberry season in Florida. We had no idea how popular it would be. When Chris and I were at the Florida Strawberry Festival on March 3, we bought fresh strawberries. We could have purchased a flat of strawberries for $12, a half flat for $7, or two quarts for $5. We said to ourselves, well a half flat is way too much even if it is a better buy. We bought two quarts. Well, from Thursday night through Monday night, we went through 4 dozen Bisquick shortcake biscuits ( a box and a half of Bisquick), 11 or 12 quarts of strawberries, and 3 large containers of instant whip cream. The price of really fresh strawberries was only $1.67 at the grocery store and all of the strawberries came from Plant City, just an hour away.

Friday and Saturday, while warm, were mainly cloudy with temperatures in the 70s (F). Sunday and Monday the sun was shining most of the time with the temperatures in the 80s. We combined relaxation with activities. Probably our most notable group outing was a three-hour boat ride on Tampa Bay Sunday. We chartered a small boat whose captain was a woman recently retired. She and her partner have set up a retirement business of boating charters. This area has a good number of fishing charters but few aimed at people who just want to enjoy the scenery. They are filling this niche.

Pine Island in Tampa Bay

Pine Island in Tampa Bay

Sarah and Sarah on the boat

Sarah and Sarah on the boat

Captain Patti and her boat

Captain Patti and her boat

We were able to see mangrove swamps and the bay. We stopped at an island in the bay. Officially the island is called Pine Key but it also has a nickname of Beer Can Island. It can become a party location on a nice afternoon but our venture there showed everyone pretty subdued and just enjoying the great weather on a Sunday afternoon. Some of us waded in the water, looked for shells, walked around the island or just laid on the sand. It was a relaxing ride and enjoyable time together.

Our resort is only minutes from the Manatee Viewing Center that we reported on in an earlier post. We made sure each of our visitors was able to make a trip to the waters and see manatees up close.

Birds on wing at Myakka RIver State Park

Birds on wing at Myakka RIver State Park

Alligator at Myakka River State Park

Alligator at Myakka RIver State Park

Turtle, favorite food of the alligators, sunning itself at Myakka River State Park

Turtle, favorite food of the alligators, sunning itself at Myakka River State Park

Deb and Reebecca on tree top board walk at Myakka River State Park

Deb and Reebecca on tree top board walk at Myakka River State Park

View from the observation tower at Myakka River State Park

View from the observation tower at Myakka River State Park

Saturday we visited Myakka River State Park. We had read about a tram ride through the park in which wildlife can normally be seen and it offers a tree top board walk. While we did see alligators, turtles and egrets, the adventure was less dramatic than I expected. The tree top board walk was the first one in the U.S. but it was short and anticlimactic. The view from the top of the observation tower we climbed was impressive though. The tram ride provided a narration about the landscape but was pretty slow-paced.

At the Orioles vs. Phillies game in Sarasota FL

At the Orioles vs. Phillies game in Sarasota FL

At the ball game

At the ball game

Florida is home to the Grapefruit League; spring training camp for 15 baseball teams in locations across central Florida from the Atlantic Coast to the Gulf of Mexico. Our people have differing allegiances so we chose a game relatively close to attend. The Orioles home base is in Sarasota, about 45 minutes away. They played the Philadelphia Phillies Monday afternoon. Rebecca is not a baseball fan so we dropped her off at the Ringling Museum of Art in Sarasota which includes art, gardens, the Ringling mansion and a circus museum. She was not able to visit everything.

The Orioles spring training stadium holds 8500 people and appeared to be almost sold out. The Orange shirts of the Orioles fans might have slightly outnumbered the red jerseys of the Phillies fans. Every seat is close to the action; you need to keep an eye out for foul balls headed your way. The Phillies won 1-0 on a solo home run. None of us came away with sunburn, all of us came away full of ball park “delicacies”.

Evenings were for conversation and hot tubbing. The crock pot we purchased came in handy to have meals ready whenever we chose to eat. Chris and I recounted how we had relished our March get-aways in Miami Beach when we were working. That week get-away always refreshed us and sent us home knowing that snow would be melting and temperatures warming up in MN. Hopefully the four of them will return home and find spring just around the corner.

Ed and Chris 3/10/15 9 pm

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2015 Trip 1, March 3, Florida in Winter

Ruskin, FL Tuesday March 3

A day of contrasts. An American genius, Frank Lloyd Wright, and then low brow entertainment with pig racing.

Annie Pfeiffer Chapel designed by Frank Lloyd Wright at Florida Southern College in Lakeland FL

Annie Pfeiffer Chapel designed by Frank Lloyd Wright at Florida Southern College in Lakeland FL

Traffic was tied up on the Interstate this AM so we took back roads to Lakeland, FL, Population 100,000. The roads passed through citrus groves, cattle farms and phosphate mines. Florida is the leading U.S. source for phosphate, a primary ingredient in agricultural fertilizer. On one road, an abandoned phosphate mine has been recycled into a state park with highly rated off-road biking trails.

Roof line of Watson Fine Administration Building, Florida Southern College

Roof line of Watson Fine Administration Building, Florida Southern College

Why Lakeland FL? Well, Frank Loyd Wright of course. When thinking of Frank Lloyd Wright, Fallingwater, Taliesin East and West, Spring Green WI, or Chicago’s collection of Wright houses might come to mind. But in Lakeland FL is the largest single concentration of Wright designed structures, his only planetarium, his only built village, his only domed water feature, only theater in the round, and his last stained glass window.

Stained Glass in Danforth Chapel, Florida Southern College

Stained Glass in Danforth Chapel, Florida Southern College

How did this happen? In 1938, Wright was at the peak of his notoriety. He had just completed Fallingwater and the Johnson Wax headquarters. He was on the cover of Time magazine. He was 70 years old and Dr. Ludd Spivey, President of Florida Southern College contacted him. FSC was a small, religious based college and Spivey was looking for a way to differentiate his school. He challenged Wright to design and build a truly unique American educational institution, not one that copied European institutions with red brick and ivy. Spivey had no money but Wright accepted the challenge after visiting the site in Florida. (At this time in Florida history, central Florida was still pretty much Hicksville.) Over the next 20 years, Wright and the college collaborated on building 12 of the 18 structures Wright designed.

We took a fantastic 2.5 hour guided tour of the Wright portion of the campus; the residential portion is not Wright designed and there were a few traditional college buildings present when Wright started his work. His first thought was that the buildings in existence would have to be demolished to give his work a clean slate; but relented saying the comparison would better show off his buildings.

Sky view through Watson FIne Building

Sky view through Watson FIne Building

Interior lines of Watson Fine Admin Building

Interior lines of Watson Fine Admin Building

I do not know how much you know of Frank Lloyd Wright and we are certainly not experts. He is a colorful character and his biography would make for interesting reading, if you are so inclined. The American Institute of Architects declared him the greatest American architect of all time. He designed buildings and their interior furnishings. He expected to have complete control over the design and building. He originated several design theories and was famous for making the building suit the land on which it was sited, rather than the reverse. He also was autocratic and his buildings are known for leaky roofs.

A portion of the esplanades

A portion of the esplanades

Support column designed to resemble an orange tree

Support column designed to resemble an orange tree

View looking out from the Ordway Arts Building

View looking out from the Ordway Arts Building

During the tour we saw such buildings as the Theater in the Round with great acoustics; the original library which was built by female students during WWII (the college instituted a program in 1939 for free tuition in exchange for student labor to construct buildings, 3 days of class and 3 days of work, in WWII all the male students were gone so the women continued the building); the mile long series of esplanades that connect buildings in which the supports resemble orange trees and are trimmed in copper to provide a green tone; and finished at the Usonian House, a recently constructed example of modern American living that should have been faculty housing in 1939 but it was unable to be completed until now.

Interior and furnishings designed by Wright but just completed in Usonian House

Interior and furnishings designed by Wright but just completed in Usonian House

I could go on and on about the design and building process. If you are interested in reading further, the website http://www.franklloydwrightatfsc.com has detailed information.

After lunch, we drove to Plant City FL. Plant City is the home of the Florida Strawberry Festival. The Plant City area is known as the capital of the winter strawberry crop in the U.S. The Florida Strawberry Festival draws 500,000 people during its 11 day run. Numerous people had recommended to us that we attend this festival. Now, coming from Minnesota with an 11 day state fair that draws over 2,000,000 people, we were initially hesitant. Plant City is almost directly in the path we would take back to Ruskin, so we gave it a shot.

Strawberries on sale

Strawberries on sale

The Festival was a pleasant experience. It is a large county fair in our opinion. Lots of kiddie rides, the horticulture exhibit pales in comparison to other fairs, it has the standard vendors selling food, jewelry, trinkets, home nutrition aids, etc. We encountered a vendor who also attends the MN State Fair; they sell electric switchplates that are made in West Virginia. There are several tents with free entertainment and one large stage with bigger name entertainment. Strawberry shortcake and milkshakes are for sale at numerous stands.

Pig racing at the Florida Strawberry Festival in Plant City FL

Pig racing at the Florida Strawberry Festival in Plant City FL

There were two unusual forms of entertainment that we tried to see; lamb jumping and pig racing. Our time at Florida Southern meant we missed the lamb jumping so I can not tell you if the lambs jump fences or if people jump over lambs. We did make it to one of the pig racing exhibitions.

Four young porkers are lined up and enticed with Oreo cookies to run around a small track. The winner gets a whole Oreo cookie; the other three have to share a second Oreo. There is the usual audience cheering for their favorite pig. For an encore, four other pigs come out, jump into a pool of water, swim to the other end and then race back to the starting point. We can attest that while pigs may not fly, they can swim.

A long day but one filled with interesting contrasts.

Ed and Chris March 3 9:30 PM

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