Osceola County Welcome Center and History Museum

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Posted 2023-03-03 by Gail Clifford MDfollow

Visiting the Osceola County Welcome Center in History Museum on Irlo Bronson Drive AKA Route 192 in Kissimmee, Florida, just south of Orlando is a fascinating walk back through time. From Maude, the cow who could climb the courthouse steps, to a "ride-through saloon" where cowboys could ride right up to the bar to order a high-grade whiskey, proposed aviation laws, recognition as both the nesting bald eagle and lightning capital of the lower 48 and artistic monuments, the museum highlights events that are uniquely Osceola. The advent of Walt Disney and his dream of Walt Disney World occurred long after cattle roamed around unfenced ranges.

Florida's first people, though, came by following herds of wild beasts and by sea. They lived along the coast, later moving inland along rivers and marshes and throughout prairies and hammocks, setting up villages and returning to remote hunting camps for centuries. Some 350,000 people inhabited Florida when the first Europeans arrived in the 1500s.

Due to the many decades of Spanish occupation, very few people, especially Americans, knew much about Florida when it became an American territory in 1821. Few Americans had ever seen an alligator when the Revolutionary War was being fought in the 1770s. The rivers, lakes, swamps, and wildlife would keep all but the hardiest from travelling into the interior to areas that are now Osceola County.

Osceola County was formed from parts of Brevard and Orange counties, and Kissimmee was designated the county seat of government. The region grew rapidly with merchants, churches, and entertainment offering an oasis to homesteaders living in smaller communities. The county's namesake, Osceola, was never a chief but is remembered as a great fighter and resistance leader. His arrest while approaching truce talks under a white flag and later, his death in an Army prison in 1838 at age 34 created the legacy of the undefeated Seminoles. On May 12, 1887, the Florida Legislature established Osceola County, honoring the name of "a warrior of great distinction."

Wandering through the museum, you'll find interesting facts like Osceola County has the highest concentration of nesting bald Eagles in the lower 48 United States. The abundant lakes, vast open spaces, and proper nesting trees allow Osceola to be one of the best places in the United States to see this majestic bird.

In the late 19th century, only the wealthy could travel to the warm climate of Florida. They found wild, unpaved, unpopulated land with unique natural landscapes, vastly different from anything found in northern states. Even in the dead of winter, visitors enjoyed golf, swimming, hunting, and boat rides. Hotels and tourism built an industry around these visitors which allowed for travel writers, poets, and artists as well as conservation pioneers to capture enchanting images of the local rivers, swamps, and marshlands.

Time to drain the swamp.
In the late 1870s, Central Florida was an enormous wetland area. Creeks, rivers, and swamps flowed South and fed into the Kissimmee River. During the rainy season, water would spill over shallow banks and flow into the Everglades, This watery environment was not ideal for people who viewed Central Florida as a wasteland. The challenge: The state of Florida, short on cash after the Civil War and reconstruction, saw the land as an asset that could be turned into farming land, if only it wasn't so wet. Enter Hamilton Disston.

In June of 1881, Hamilton Disston, a Philadelphia entrepreneur, made a deal with the state of Florida to drain much of the swamps and dredge a river highway from Lake Tohopekaliga to Fort Myers on the Gulf of Mexico. In return, he would own half the land he drained. Later, the state of Florida, still in need of cash, convinced Disston to pay $1,000,000 in exchange for four million acres of land. Disston selected Kissimmee as his company headquarters. While he was setting up canal and drainage projects, he was also promoting land sales. He built the Saint Cloud Mill where his canal was made between the two Tohopekaliga Lakes.

Hamilton Disston's goal of draining the swamp was to sell land. And he did, as did others. Where Disston paid $0.25 for an acre, he could now sell for $1.25 to $10. Promoting sales in northern states and London, England, local men would take potential buyers out by steamboat or in later years by car to see choice sites as well as exotic Florida landscapes. The population expanded for decades due to these efforts.

Kissimmee soon became a bustling boat-building port as steamboats carried freight and passengers between Lake Tohopekaliga and the Gulf. Settlers found plenty of work building steamboats needed to carry dredges and laborers to remote areas being drained. Water levels dropped.

By 1884, Disston had drained 2,000,000 acres, opening Florida's vast interior for farms, railroads, and real estate development. His land sales campaign reached throughout the United States and Europe. Speculators came to take advantage of Disston's rolling empire. Common immigrant laborers settled nearby to work in the sugar and rice fields, build or operate the dredges carving the canals and draining the land. Even with this dredging, flooding can still occur, especially during the hurricane season months of June through November.

Long before sports' March Madness existed, Marsh Madness was described as an overwhelming audio experience when entering a Florida marsh. Entering these wetlands, you'll hear trills, squawks, grunts, and single-note calls that birders quickly recognize. So many animals, birds, amphibians, insects, and reptiles found homes in these areas, as have snakes, soft-shelled turtles, and alligators.

Fishing and hunting became big draws to the area. The Lakes of Osceola County contain some of the best bass fishing in the country.

This remains Gator country: Our fear and fascination with the swamp is often instilled by the presence of the alligator. Although a healthy respect is justified by its ability to exert 2000 pounds per square inch of jaw pressure when it bites, few realize the crucial role it plays in sustaining and balancing life in the swamp.

By the late 1880s and 1890s Kissimmee's business district grew along Broadway, now home to the state's oldest courthouse still in use today. Nearby, substantial homes and churches built from pine and cypress burned in fires, leading to masonry buildings followed. In 1901, the city's first electric power plant was completed, and the original kerosene streetlamps were replaced with arc street lamps.

In the early 1900s, the Grand Army of the Republic Association purchased the former Disston plantation property and promoted sales of city lots and farmland to northern Civil War veterans with the claim that Saint Cloud had the "climate with no extremes." Veterans bought the first 100 lots for $50 each and were given 5 acres in the country for the purpose of farming. The development on East Lake Tohopekaliga would become home to the largest concentration of Union Army veterans in the South.

At this same time following the Civil War, as Florida was for sale, expansion attributed to innovation and technologies helped those in search of something better for their families.

Florida offered things that people wanted, land and freedom. Industrial innovations by the 1880s reached Central Florida so it was finally experiencing the advances enjoyed in the north ten years earlier like steamboats and machinery. People could now move more freely and go to new places. Dredging opened canals, allowing for wetlands to be used for agriculture. Trains could run along tracks more quickly. Military roads, like those mapped by General Abraham Eustis during the Civil War, became regular trade routes.https://www.weekendnotes.com/georgefest-eustis-florida/

"At night people would sleep by the music of the panthers and wolves, which must not have been very soothing to them, but it eventually helped to mold the strong characters of our first settlers and gave them strength to fight for a foothold in the wilds."
-Myrtle Hillard Crow, 1987

Founding family residents of Osceola County at the turn of the century included a diversity of settlers. They come from other countries, other states, and other environments. Cowmen, Seminoles, former slaves, veterans, and immigrants from England, the Caribbean islands, and other points came here to ranch, farm, log, timber, and for other industrious efforts. When they arrived, the first task was to build a home to protect the family.

In 1909, the Grand Army of the Republic Association bought the defunct St. Cloud Sugar Plantation and sold the first 105 acre lots for $50 each, eventually making the settlement home to the largest concentration of Union Army veterans in the South, second only to Chicago in the nation.

Homes built reflected the needs of how the family lived and used the home. Whether rambling Victorians, colonials, Queen Anne homes with gingerbread woodwork, squat bungalows, colonial revivals, American foursquares or prairie style homes, you can see many examples near Kissimmee's Courthouse Square.

As people moved to Florida, they brought their cultures and cuisine, but they had limited access to ingredients and staples easily found back home. Many adapted their recipes to the food sources found in the wilderness and waters of Osceola County, and they learned to cook whatever was available. "Cracker cooking" might include cornbread, swamp cabbage, collard greens, and scrub chicken (gopher tortoise). Some are still enjoyed today.

The moniker "cracker" came about based on the sound of the whip the cowmen used, not the derogatory term used further north in later generations.

One cracker necessity was cooking outdoors, often on an open fire with a kettle supported on 3 stones. Florida's hot days made cooking during midday very uncomfortable. Rising before dawn, a housewife prepared bread, biscuits, and meat to feed the family.

Early medical treatment and medicines were very limited, and settlers often depended on natural and unusual remedies to treat illness and injuries. When a doctor was not available, frontier storekeepers gave out medical advice and stocked purgatives such as Castor oil, as well as basic remedies like Vicks Salve mentholatum and mustard plaster. All-purpose cures used for cuts and wounds included whiskey, moonshine, or turpentine made from Florida pine trees.

Kissimmee's role as a center of commerce expanded when the railroads of Henry Plant and Henry Flagler gained a large share of the 10 million acres of swampland the state offered to railroad promoters. Everywhere the railroads went, new communities followed. Plant's Kissimmee to Tampa route took advantage of a state grant offering 13,840 acres for each mile of track completed.

Cattle facts in Osceola County:
Residents are proud of their cattle ranching heritage. Some early settlers gained vast fortunes from selling cattle, and it remains a major industry today. The men and women who hunted, raised, and sold beef cattle did so during wild times and in a wild environment. Rarely glamorized, Florida's cowman lived a rough life, moving the cattle through scrubs and swamps while encounters with wild animals, cattle rustlers, and horse thieves kept them constantly wary. Cattlemen drove their cracker cattle across the state from Central Florida through swamps and scrub to Tampa and boarded them on steamships for millions of dollars in Spanish gold.

Don't call them Cowboys!
Unlike the Cowboys of the West, Florida cattlemen are referred to as cowmen or cow hunters. A cowboy would not be able to survive the rough Florida frontier wilderness, wildlife, and weather. Sometimes

Osceola County remains one of the state's largest beef cattle producers and home to one of the largest ranches east of the Mississippi River.

Ranch rodeos have been around for years, but it took Milt Hinkle to organize the first big time Kissimmee Rodeo in the early 1920s. The Texas born Cowboy is said to have known Wyatt Earp, Bat Masterson, Annie Oakley, Pancho Villa, Geronimo, and Cole Younger. The man who had toured with Wild West shows brought portable chutes and bucking stock for a downtown rodeo.

This Silver Spurs Rodeo's heritage is traced to the horse racing pastime of the early ranchers. The Silver Spurs Club was created after a BBQ at the ranch of charter members Geech and Connie Partin in 1941. Over the years, the club grew from the original 16 members to more than 300, and today it sponsors one of the nation's most prestigious rodeos.

Citrus crops:
Christopher Columbus introduced citrus, including oranges, to the island of Haiti in 1493 and by the mid 1500s, Spanish missions contained groves of fruit trees. The orange seed, perhaps transported by natives as they migrated further south, took root along trails. These sour wild oranges would later become the stock of one of Central Florida's largest and most productive industries.

Agriculture, generally remains a vital industry to the region. Land promoters used handbills to call attention to the easy money that could be made in produce and touted Florida's cheap available land, mild winters, and near year-round growing season as reasons to invest in Florida. People came to farm the land, growing a diversity of crops for themselves and to ship to other markets.

Citrus dominated other produce as a leading cash crop and brought the sweet smell of success to Osceola County. Citrus grown here was shipped to London, New York, and other big city markets. After the railroad arrived, the Central Florida area became the largest shipper of oranges in the world, and thousands of groves prospered. At first, oranges were packed with Spanish Moss and shipped north in barrels hauled up the St. Johns River by steamboats. Spoilage was a major problem. While wood crates improved the situation, it was Doc Phillips who helped solve this issue with his innovations to the orange industry and ability to transport orange juice as a concentrate by the 1950s.

Nearly every swamp in Florida was logged between the late 1800s and 1940s. There were sawmills, logging camps, and turpentine stills scattered in the forest around Kissimmee, Narcoossee, and Saint Cloud.

Seminoles find safety in the swamps:
Generations of Seminoles lived, farmed, hunted, and eluded the army throughout the Kissimmee River Valley. They also raised cattle, becoming the first Kissimmee cowmen.

Florida would be the last frontier east of the Mississippi River. Scattered Seminoles carried out the last of the eastern Indian resistance movements, stretching from the end of the War of 1812 through 3 Seminole Wars and right up to the Civil War period. As soldiers drove the last few hundred Seminoles deep into the Everglades, pioneer settlers came to homestead the land.

Today's Seminole tribe comes from a small number of survivors of centuries of battle with various governments. These Seminoles, including plantation born Black Seminoles, raised cattle on the Kissimmee Prairie. The term "cowboy" was used for plantation slaves in the Carolinas who tended cattle. Bonded by marriages and a shared enemy, Native Americans and escaping plantation slaves blended their cultures, traditions, and skills.

As a group, Seminoles no longer live in Osceola County, but they have settled in other areas of the state. Some 3,000 Seminoles were first moved to Oklahoma reservation land by the late 1850s under order of President Andrew Jackson. About that many live in southern Florida today. They established businesses related to tourism, heritage, gaming as well as more traditional careers such as cattle ranching and growing citrus. A part of the Seminoles' story remains in Osceola County.

Headwaters to the Everglades:
The world-renowned Everglades watershed begins with Reedy and Shingle, two small creeks in Osceola County. It is estimated that a drop of rainfall deposited along Shingle Creek today will take a full year before ultimately completing a 350-mile journey into Florida Bay and the Gulf of Mexico.

Walt Disney and theme parks arrive in Central Florida.
Walt Disney begins scouting for a location for a new theme park on the East Coast and travels to Orlando as part of this mission in 1963. By 1965, Walt Disney begins purchasing large chunks of land in Florida, using dummy corporations to avoid a land speculation boom. After Disney's death from cancer, the Magic Kingdom opens for guests on October 1st, 1971. The resort was named Walt Disney World as a tribute to Walt Disney.

1973 SeaWorld Orlando opened its gates to gas on December 15th, 1973. This made Orlando Florida a multi-park vacation spot. Universal Orlando Resort opened June 7th, 1990.

All the theme parks donate to charity and provide employment for many Florida residents.

In 1970, The population of Osceola County was around 25,000 people. In 2019, the population grew to around 375,000 people! We can thank a great amount of the population growth on tourism. In 2018, 75 million visitors came to Orlando. This number made Orlando "America's most visited destination."

The remains an important cultural institution that helps to both preserve and promote the history and heritage of Osceola County, Florida.

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