The Dickman Family of Ruskin

I just recently refinanced two houses in Tampa and I noticed that the real estate growth in Florida, particularly in upscale properties, is still going strong.  Downsizing is also on the rise and I noticed several estates up for sale online, none more intriguing than the Dickman mansions on Dickman Island in Tampa Bay in Ruskin.

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The 212 acre Dickman Island in Tampa Bay

Few Florida families have had a bigger influence in the development and growth of a Florida community as the Dickmans in the town of Ruskin along Tampa Bay’s eastern shoreline.

In 1906 a utopian socialist college President named George McA. Miller wanted to start a college based upon the ideas of the English writer John Ruskin.  Previous institutions had failed up North, but this time Miller had the support of A. P. Dickman and his two brothers.  They helped Miller acquire a staggering 13,000 acres for the school and surrounding community by trading all their Missouri farmland.


President George McA. Miller’s Swiss Style House

Dickman played a major role in the setting up the Ruskin Commongood Society where college students could pay their tuition and fellow farm members could purchase more land by working in the Society’s fields and workplaces.  Ruskin was an isolated and unusual community for a decade, but that situation would quickly change.


The A. P. Dickman House off US41

A forest fire destroyed all but three of the college buildings in 1919 and the intrusion of US41 and the Florida Land Boom undermined the development of the community.  Ruskin soon became just a small, farming community between Tampa and Bradenton.

The Dickmans, however, continued the spirit of Ruskin.  Son Paul B. Dickman organized the Ruskin Vegetable Cooperative in 1941 and helped make Ruskin one of the most famous tomato growing places in the world.


In Summer The Ruskin Vegetable Coop

If you drive through Ruskin on US41 today you will still see the name of Dickman on real estate and business operations and if stop off in the Ruskin Library, you can see journals of the college and the days of the Commongood Society.

Master Bath/Spa

The Glenn Dickman House Bathroom has an Oriental Touch

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Florida In Summer Means More “Springs” Days

It’s summertime in Florida and millions are speeding  to the Sunshine State’s 663 miles of real beaches to escape the heat and humidity.  This makes sense since no place in Florida is more than an hour and a half drive to the coast.

Yet thousands of Floridians are heading to Florida’s springs, where cooling waters between 70 and 75 degrees offer swimming, snorkeling, scuba diving, kayaking, canoeing, and tubing.  Florida has more first magnitude springs (that’s 64.6 million gallons of water every day) than anywhere else in the world.

And the good news: most of the top springs are in Florida State Parks or county parks where picnic facilities and campgrounds add land recreation. Since many people would prefer to stay at a motel or bed and breakfast, we’ve selected our favorite Florida summer springs located near towns.

ICHETUCKNEE SPRINGS STATE PARK, off US 27 near Gainesville, is the best tubing spring with 3.5 miles for tubes, canoes and kayaks and an in-park shuttle. Scuba is allowed only in winter and this place gets jammed with University of Florida college students on weekends.


Ichetucknee’s Sheltered River Is Cool Summer Fun

WEKIVA SPRINGS STATE PARK , just 10 miles north of Orlando, is a delightful water oasis in an urban area. Kayak and canoe to the headquarters by the St. Johns, family swimming, and twenty miles of hiking and biking trails. It’s too crowded, however, for tubing and scuba.


The Family Swimming Hole at Wekiva

RAINBOW SPRINGS STATE PARK, off I-75 east to Dunnellon, was once a famous private tourist attraction, but now it’s Florida’s second best tubing spring with rentals and a tube launch 1.4 miles south of the head spring where swimming is the key.  There is a huge campground and nearby motels.

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Rainbow Springs In Summer

DeLEON SPRINGS STATE PARK, off I-95 north of Daytona, is probably the most kid-friendly spring with its huge pool and lifeguard staff.  There is kayaking, canoeing, paddle boating, and snorkeling.  The old Spanish Sugar Mill Restaurant allows everyone to make their own pancakes.


DeLeon Springs Has A massive Swim Area

BLUE SPRINGS State Park (Volusia), off US 17-92 to Orange City, is not a giant spring, but it has a spectacular swimming area, a slow tube float, fun snorkeling area, and kayaks and canoes in the adjacent ST. Johns River.  The manatees will be gone in summer. This park is a short drive from Daytona Beach.

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Less Crowded, Less Expensive Summer Beach Alternatives

Summer is beach time in the Sunshine State for Floridians, but not only are as many tourists now coming to Florida in summer as in winter, there is a higher percentage arriving by automobile.

If your pocketbook is a little low this year and you don’t like crowded beaches you might want to consider these alternative beach destinations.

Instead of Miami and Fort Lauderdale, think of visiting the Florida  Keys .  The summer image of hot, humid, and hurricanes seems to scare people away from the Keys.  Last year 106,000 tourists packed Key West in March, but only 36,000 arrived last August.  Do you really think hurricanes can’t hit Miami?

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Beach at Fort Zack Taylor in Key West

Instead of Daytona Beach, visit nearby New Smyrna Beach where there are summer concerts, a boardwalk, good restaurants, and a similar beach.  Dr. Beach calls NSB as one of the ten best beach towns in Florida and Travel and Leisure lists the town as the only Atlantic Coast town that is a “cool surf town.”

Besides, if you are a history buff like me, you can stay at the 1885 Riverside Hotel and Spa – something that Daytona Beach does not have.

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1885 Riverside Hotel & Spa in New Smyrna Beach

If Sanibel and Captiva Islands are too rich for your blood, an alternative is Fort Myers Beach.  If you want a beach village of shops and restaurants, stay at the north end of the Fort Myers Beach.  If you want the rustic tropics, stay at the southern tip so you can go into Lovers Key State Park where you can canoe, kayak, or swim.


Lovers Key State Park at Ft Myers Beach

Instead of Sarasota, visit Venice or Englewood (the Charlotte side).  The shops and sites of Venice are near the hotels and condos near Venice Jetties.  Laid back with great fishing and boating at Stump Pass State Park is Englewood, where giant condos don’t block the sky.

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A Lazy Day at Stump Pass, Englewood

Saint Petersburg Beach and Clearwater Beach can be packed with automobiles from commuting mainlanders, but, despite popular Johns Pass with its restaurants and shops, most of Treasure Island is family-oriented and resembles vacations at the beach from the past.

Panama City and Pensacola Beach get really packed on weekends, and while Destin can get its crowds, Destin Beach spreads out to less developed beach sites.  It is the same great white sands and home-spun fun.


Destin With Its Great White Sand

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Florida Is Losing Its Old Landmarks

The destruction of the Belleview Biltmore, the largest and oldest wooden hotel in the United States, is another reminder to me that if you can’t preserve a historic structure as a new beginning, it will probably be lost for future generations.  The 1897 icon created by Henry Plant for his Victorian railroad tourists could not be saved despite the efforts of several preservationist groups..

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End of Belleview Biltmore (Tampa Tribune photo)

Tobacco Road (1913), Miami’s oldest bar and nightclub, closed this fall and was demolished.  Not even the ghost of Al Capone could save it though fans have preserved most of its interior and neon sign in hopes of resurrecting it somewhere along the Miami River near its old haunt.

As a historian, I am always asked about “things old” and Florida still has many landmarks.  The oldest continuous hotel and oldest continuous bar are both in Fernandina Beach’s historic downtown.  The Florida House (1857) was the vacation spot for U.S. Grant and Andrew Carnegie, and a place for Jose Marti to plan for smuggling rifles into Cuba from Jacksonville.

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Florida House – The Oldest Hotel

Three blocks away on Centre Street is the wonderful Palace Saloon (1878), the last tavern to close during Prohibition and haunted by the long time bartender who burnt to a crisp in the backdoor apartment.  The historic bar and wall murals alone are worth a visit.

The oldest continuous restaurant in Florida is Tampa’s venerable Columbia Restaurant (1903), believed to be the largest Spanish restaurant in the nation, perhaps the world.  You should take a walking tour of the many beautiful dining-rooms from the original corner room saloon to the wine cellar.

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Just one of the Columbia Restaurant rooms

You can’t use the word “old” in Florida without mentioning Saint Augustine, the oldest continuous “European” city in the United States.  Despite a lot of misuse of the term “oldest” you do have the oldest fort and oldest house.  More important you can visit the oldest tourist attraction in the Saint Augustine Alligator Farm (1893).  The oldest continuous bed and breakfast is the delightful Kenwood Inn (1865), a three-story house with 13-bedrooms, a pool, and two ghosts featured on a television series.

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The Kenmore Inn of St. Augustine

Although people have been coming to Silver Springs by steamboat as early as the 1870’s, the oldest continuous modern-type tourist park was Cypress Gardens (1939-2009), now incorporated into the new Legoland Florida park.   Visitors will recognize the famous gardens although seeing giant lego women in hoop skirts will probably give old-timers like me a few nightmares.

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Lego Women At old Cypress Gardens

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New Resorts and Renewed Resorts Headline Florida’s Summer

As a preservationist, I am pleased when developers renovate an older hotel up to modern standards, but I really get excited when the strip down and rebuilding results in awarding winning new hotels.  Miami Beach has two new resort hotels in this category.

In the heart of hectic South Beach is The Redbury, a 69-room Rock and Roll freestyle resort built from the vacant and totally gutted old Fairfax Hotel on the corner of Collins Avenue  and 18th Street.  Lorenzo’s Restaurant provides the pizza and pasta for parties perhaps at the cool rooftop pool.  The only shortcoming for the Redbury, you must share facilities across the street with the Raleigh to have beach facilities.

floridatraveler The-Redbury

The Redbury Is A Travel & Leisure pick

Further North the old Traymore Hotel at 2445 Collins Avenue was stripped down and rebuilt into the Metropolitan by Como, the first American-based resort by that chain.  This is a quiet paradise for couples who like rooftop hydrotherapy pools, luxurious rooms, and a meal at the laid-back Traymore Restaurant.

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The Traymore Restaurant

Although its brand new, I have to happy to announce that after years of hotels turning into condos, Saint Petersburg Beach finally has a new hotel, the Hotel Zamora, at 3701 Gulf Boulevard.  And this is not a noisy family resort – it on the Intracoastal Waterway, not the beach.  The Castile Restaurant is right on Boca Ciega Bay, but its lounge is on the rooftop with amazing views of Long Island and the wide beach.

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The Zamora Caters To Romantic Vacations

Orlando always has new hotels but let me point out two.  The Aloft Orlando Downtown gives Orange County the type of boutique hotel facility that will boost the area’s nightlife and help Amway Center events.  As a Starwood Hotel, it’s even dog-friendly.

floridatraveler aloft hotel

Orlando’s New Boutique Downtowner

While most of the activity at WDW has been with doubling Disney Springs (Downtown), it was nice to see the old Royal Plaza Hotel at 1905 Hotel Plaza turned into the B Resort and Spa, a more luxurious alternative for Buena Vista visitors.  As a new hotel, there are a lot of good deals being offered.

 I would be remiss to the kids and parents if I didn’t tell you (or is it warn you) that next month Florida’s Legoland will be opening its Legoland Hotel right at the main entranceway to the park.  You can expect the 152-Lego themed rooms and facilities to live up to the expectation of Lego fans.

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If You Love Lego

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Florida’s Best Beachfront Bed and Breakfast Spots

May and June are great months to spend on Florida’s beaches – the water has warmed up and the summer crowds, dominated by families, have not descended upon the Sunshine State.   Here are some of my favorites:

Fernandina Beach, in the northeast tip of Florida, is a wonderful Victorian town filled with B&Bs, but our criteria is for “beachfront” and the award-winning Elizabeth Pointe Lodge on the Atlantic Ocean offers a Nantucket-style vacation along a great 13 mile beach.  With service including daily breakfast to luncheon meals to evening wine and hors d’oeuvres, the staff gets raving reviews from visitors.

 FLORIDATRAVELER elizabethpointe

Five hundred miles to the south in Florida’s other B&B paradise Key West is La Mer & Dewey House on the beach at the southern end of Duval Street. This is an adults only four-diamond, Conde Nast type of resort with 19 rooms with oceanfront balconies.

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La Mer Looks Onto Key West’s South Beach

This is a good time of the time for visiting Florida’s low key Panhandle beach communities and a good choice for a laid-back vacation is Lisbeth’s Bed and Breakfast By The  Sea in tiny Seagrove Beach.  It is across scenic Highway 30-A from the Gulf, but the service and breakfast is first class and the unique Victorian Village of Seaside is a mile down the beach.

Henderson Park Inn in Destin is a 32-room beachfront B&B selected by as the #1 most romantic hotel in North America.  I am not so sure about that rating but visitors love the restaurant, the service, and the amazing Destin beach.

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Henderson Park Inn On Destin Beach

On the Florida Gulf Coast is the long time favorite Harrington House on casual Holmes Beach on Anna Maria Island.  There is a main house and bungalows in the scenic Bed and Breakfast By The beachfront complex as well as top notch service.

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Harrington House on Anna Maria Island

If you want something old-fashioned and very private there is the five cottages and private house complex of Islands End Resort, located on the southernmost tip of 26 miles of St. Petersburg Beach.   The waterfront tropical oasis is a block from Pass-A-Grille Beach, but you’ll feel you’re living on a small Caribbean island.

You can enjoy historic Saint Augustine as well as the Atlantic beaches if you stay at the beach house or cottages at Beachfront Bed and Breakfast over at Saint Augustine Beach.   If the Space Coast is your favorite vacation spot, you should look into the Port d’Hiver Bed and Breakfast Inn on Melbourne Beach.  This beachfront entry is one of the most romantic and luxurious inns in the United States.

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Beachside Luxury in a B&B

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The Legend and Myth of the Highwaymen

There are two historic buildings in Fort Pierce that pay tribute to Florida’s most popular impressionistic landscape artist – the Albert Ernest “Bean” Backus House and the Bean Backus Art Gallery, dedicated to his work.


Bean Backus: Dean of Florida Landscape Artists

 While Backus (1906-1990) is viewed by many to be Dean of Florida Landscape Artists, he is widely and incorrectly associated with the rise and story of Florida’s most interesting twentieth century art group – the Florida Highwaymen, a group of vigorous African-American artists who have produced for sixty years over 100,000 landscapes of Florida.


Bean Backus Art Gallery and Museum

While Backus, a white artist of some note by 1960, loved to teach local Fort Pierce artists his deft and bold use of his palette knife to quickly cover his canvas into a colorful masterpiece, he had just one future Highwayman as an art student.   But that painter was Alfred Hair, a man with a vision that selling Florida art to tourists was a better occupation than working in a field or digging a ditch.

 Hair also realized that an unknown black artist could not sell his work for the $200 Backus made in his studio.    Thus, he developed a style which he called “Fast Painting” still emphasizing the bright colors and romantic designs of Florida beaches, roadways, and tropical plants, the type of topics a new Florida resident would be willing to put in their bedroom for $25.


Alfred Hair: THE Highwayman

His paintings sold quickly and soon  he was training a half dozen black youths from Fort Pierce to copy his technique.  There was no “art movement.” Each artist selected his own topics and designs.  Most painting was done in neighborhood backyards.  And quantity was the key – sometimes the artists had all-night sessions to produce 20-24 paintings  each to distribute the next day to shops and stores along US1

 People who own early Highwaymen paintings (I own one), will notice how they saved money by purchasing cheap 4′ by 8′ sheets of Upson board and cutting them into four 2′ by  3′ common size.   The frames of Highwaymen works were often made from crown molding purchased as scraps from construction sites.    Regular art supplies were rarely used by many of the artists.


Alfred Hair Painting on Upson Board

In 1970 Alfred Hair was murdered in a dispute over a woman, but the twenty-nine-year-old artist had developed a cottage industry that would not stop.  By 1994, when promoter Jim Fitch gave them the moniker of The Highwaymen, there were 26 original artists whose works were on display along Florida’s East Coast.

The Highwaymen may have been a mercenary, individualistic group of artisans, but they motivated thousands of new Floridians to paint and draw Florida’s beauty in many mediums.  It might be romantic to think these unspoiled landscapes were sold along the Florida roadside, but their impact of Florida art can not be denied.

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