By Presleigh Johnson
Public history is everywhere. From signs all over St. Augustine to re-enactments and exhibits about surf culture, the Oldest Town is a treasure trove of history. Being a student at Flagler College is one of the best ways to learn about the St. Augustine community.
Alligators. Oranges. Sunny beaches. Spanish history. These images instantly fill your mind when you imagine Florida, or at least they do for me. They also filled the minds of 20e century tourists in the Sunshine State.
When I arrived in St. Augustine, I discovered the city by buying colored ice cream, seeing the Castillo de San Marcos and walking along St. George Street. These experiences are common ways for tourists to enjoy what the city has to offer. History and entertainment seem fused together in the oldest city.
While it seems like this city never runs out of things to see, many attractions that reflect St. Augustine’s wild and wacky history have long since disappeared and remain largely forgotten.
With the boom in car travel and road travel in the 20e century, attractions ranging from roadside zoos to citrus stands dotted the state — experiences that could be summed up as “Florida Kitsch.” A1A and US 1 were two highways known for their fun and kitsch attractions.
Roadside attractions and themed tourist experiences have been a statewide tradition for decades and St. Augustine was no exception, having its fair share of quirky fun. From encounters with ostriches to tragic tales, there was plenty to entertain tourists in the oldest city.
Reflecting the growing appeal of automotive-themed activities, Jim Casper opened the Parking Palace Theater in 1935 as St. Augustine’s first drive-in theater, showing all types of movies. He also opened Casper’s Ostrich and Alligator Farm in 1946, which had 8,000 alligators and an ostrich racing track. Yes, an 1/8 mile race track for ostriches. Young children could even hold ostrich eggs.
A giant alligator statue greeted visitors as they entered to see flamingos, snakes, a giant porcupine, and more. Pamphlets claimed it was not only the largest alligator farm in the state, but also the largest in the world. The Casper Ostrich and Alligator Farm later became known as “Gatorland” until it closed in the late 1980s. Tourism industry leaders were able to tap into the environment nature of Florida as a setting for encounters with exotic animals.
St. Augustine’s attractions weren’t just about alligators and animals, flora and fauna. A private collection, the Rose Museum welcomed downtown tourists to view a wide range of rose-themed items, including coins, china, and lace. Opened in 1955, the Rose Museum claimed to be a one-of-a-kind experience on St. George Street, comparing the long history of roses to the long history of St. Augustine.
For some, personal hobbies may involve travel, gardening, or chess, but for Charles Perry it was about creating a park for his half steam train. In 1963, he opened the Florida Southwestern Railway, moving his train to land on State Road 16. Tourists traveling the route could stop and pay 50¢ to ride the train on a circular track, then grab a hamburger.
History and the macabre seem to interest locals who open themed museums. At the Tragedy in US History Museum, visitors could see cars associated with the assassination of John F. Kennedy, as well as a version of Elvis Presley’s will and artifacts associated with torture. Other cars linked to fatal car crashes were also on display. Opened in 1965, the museum operated for more than thirty years before closing its doors.
Following a similar theme, the Museum of Weapons and Early American History opened on Spanish Street in the 1980s. Visitors could see a variety of historic weapons from across different wars and centuries.
Tourist attractions and entertaining museums from bygone eras remind us that Florida served as a land of exploration. Roadside attractions were a “direct descendant” of 19e cabinets of curiosities of the century, says Bob Nawrocki, chief librarian of the St. Augustine Historical Society. For Nawrocki, “The side shows of the traveling carnival era were a way to entertain people with the weird and the exotic… In St. Augustine, roadside attractions offered people the opportunity to entertain people or share their collections with others.”
Although none of these sites are around today, they reflect the many tastes of enthusiastic collectors, hoping to show their personal interests to a growing community of Florida travelers. St. Augustine, as a city with a storied past, has been home to some of the most random and wild attractions in the state.
Different road routes have changed over time, as has the nature of tourism in Florida, moving away from road trips to final destinations, especially theme parks. Despite this, the history and landscape of the oldest city still remains an attractive backdrop for presenting experiences based on natural environments, novelty and nostalgia.
Remembering these tourist experiences helps share the unique cultural heritage of fun memories this state has given tourists across the country and around the world.
Click here to view the St. Augustine Historical Society’s online collection.
Click here to browse more Florida roadside attractions.