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Context Florida: Ed Moore: Florida icons – remembering how we got here

Wednesday, February 12, 2014

Recently I had the chance to play tourist in our national Capitol. Nothing quite gets my thoughts flowing as much as walking in the places where so many great leaders have trod.

Years ago I was in a small breakfast meeting in then Republican Leader Bob Dole’s office. He pointed to where my chair was placed and said that is the spot where the ballot box was placed when Thomas Jefferson was elected president.

I was moved by the sense of place and the importance of remembering those who have come before us, their lives engaged in building and growing a nation.

Florida also has grown, but before air-conditioning and other conveniences, moving to Florida was challenging and often dangerous.

Remembering our past was rekindled last week while reading about bills filed by Sen. Joseph Abruzzo, D-Royal Palm Beach, and Rep. Bill Hager, R-Boca Raton. They want a statue of Henry Flagler placed in the Capitol courtyard. Private money would pay for it.

This raises larger issues about who we honor and the value of statues seen all across the country in parks, public buildings, museums and even in our colleges and universities. Here in Florida, Flagler College is named for Henry Flagler and a statue honoring him is located at the entrance to Ponce de Leon Hall.

Most Florida schoolkids knows the name of Ponce de Leon, but many don’t know Flagler. While Ponce de Leon “discovered” Florida, he left no lasting impression. Flagler, on the other hand, did. His contributions to Florida are enormous.

Flagler came to Jacksonville for his wife’s health. He saw opportunity. He set about building and expanding a railroad down the east coast, building hotels at key points along the way. He lured northeners to the state and provided them with grand accommodations. The Florida East Coast Railway, under his control, eventually traveled across the water to Key West.

He started by building the Ponce de Leon Hotel in St. Augustine in 1885. He then extended the railway south. He built the Royal Poinciana Hotel and then the Palm Beach Inn (later to be renamed The Breakers) and then ran the rail line to Miami.

Flagler was unrelenting in his efforts to create and to build. As he said, “I am contented…but not satisfied.”

In 1905, at the age of 75, Flagler decided that Miami was not far enough, so he set about to build 128 miles of rail across water from Biscayne Bay to Key West, then Florida’s largest city. He knew the Panama Canal would create new opportunities for this fledgling state and he sought to profit. These were not government projects; they were Flagler’s.

The Florida we know today was built upon the foundation laid by people like Flagler.  Florida should follow the example in Washington and create our own Capitol statuary area using private funds but public design, to honor those who built our great state.

Then our children can learn about the sacrifices made and the visions created by these Florida icons.

Ed H. Moore, President of the Independent Colleges and Universities of Florida, writes and lives in our capital city, Tallahassee.

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