There are many things that I can say about Dade Battlefield Historic State Park. I have been attending the reenactment for 25 years, since the 150th anniversary event. I know this park probably better than any other park, except the one I work at.
I am copying this from the weekly blog of state park history by Phillip Werndli. I am reprinting it here, along with some interesting photos from the state archives. His column this week was from Jim Stevenson, who is a legend among the Florida Park Service. I will add my own comments before Stevenson's. In 1976, Stevenson came up with a plan to redesign the park towards a more appropriate usage. One thing not yet done from the original plan that I would like to see, is filling in the ditch in the middle of the battlefield.
Below: From the 1950s, the entrance gateway into the park. The stone arch was built in 1922 when the park first opened. Notice that the dirt road and a cattle guard below the gateway to prevent cattle from getting into the park.
Outside the battlefield gates, the local town of Bushnell is a forgotten town. There is no reason for anyone to visit Bushnell other than two parks, which are both memorials to fallen soldiers: Dade Battlefield, and the nearby veteran's cemetery. Both are entered from side roads, and not along major roadways.
Dade Battlefield is Florida’s version of the Battle of Little Big Horn. What happened here was a defining moment & pivotal event in the history of Florida.
Yet the park itself is almost forgotten. It is a tiny, 80-acre state park. The museum is one small room that can only accommodate very few people. The park has only three full-time employees. This is really sad, because this park should be so much more. Approximately 110 men (including 3 Seminoles) died horribly on this spot, yet it seems like not enough is done in their remembrance.
Well, every park needs a development plan. What should be there, and what should not. For those of us who have been doing this event for years, we felt that the softball field, tennis court, and shuffleboard courts were not appropriate for this sacred site. Apparently the local people had a different opinion.
Below: Statue of Civil War soldier next to the museum. The stone pedestal has a date of 1922, when the park was first developed. I guess at the time they couldn’t find any statues of soldiers in 1830s uniforms.
Below: Construction of the museum at Dade Battlefield, 1957.
Below: Photo from 1976 of the museum at Dade Battlefield; badly in need of redesign. Notice windows on the side, and the built-in fan below the ceiling at the end of the room. (No air conditioning.) The dugout canoe on the wall does not have anything to do with the history of Dade Battlefield.
Below: A gatling gun used to be in front of the breastwork at Dade Battlefield. Richard Gatling invented it in 1861, and was not related to Dr. John Gatlin who was killed here. This Spanish-American War era gun is not a proper interpretation of an 1835 battlefield.
From: Werndli, Phillip
Subject: Weekly Florida State Parks History Note #35
Retired Chief Naturalist Jim Stevenson is still feeding me stories from his time with the Florida Park Service. Many of us who do public meetings can relate to this story. Thanks for Jim for sending this to me:
Florida's 1976 Bicentennial Celebration brought about enhancements to some of the state historic sites in the state park system. These enhancements were opposed by the United Daughters of the Confederacy (UDC) at Gamble Mansion State Historic Site near Bradenton, by the Sons of Confederate Veterans at Fort Clinch State Park at Fernandina, and by the citizens of Bushnell at Dade Battlefield State Historic Site.
For decades, the citizens of Bushnell and Sumter County had considered Dade Battlefield State Historic Site to be "their city park." Little attention had been given to the historical significance of the site even though the 1835 battle was the beginning of the Second Seminole War and was the third most costly victory of American Indians over the U.S. Army. There was a museum with a statue of a civil war soldier mounted in front and a portion of the original battlefield was mowed and planted with exotic azaleas, and adorned with concrete monuments to fallen officers. There were recreational facilities, not normally provided or compatible with an historic site, such as a softball field, tennis court and shuffle board court. A paved, one lane road and a large drainage ditch crossed the battlefield.
Our plan for the Bicentennial was to restore a portion of the battlefield to more closely resemble the natural condition of the site in 1835. This would include removing the non native trees and landscape plants, closing the road to through traffic, eliminating the ditch by installing large culvert pipe, and reducing mowing on the battlefield. We initiated a complete renovation of the museum with interpretive exhibits and planned to remove the statue of the civil war soldier. We also replaced the concrete monuments with lighter pine stumps with the names of the officers burned into the wood. In order to further emphasize the historic atmosphere and reduce active recreation, we planned to eliminate the softball field and dilapidated tennis and shuffle board courts. A new tennis court was to be constructed in town by the Division of Recreation and Parks.
Before beginning the project, we met with Sumter County Commissioners on site to sell them on the concept and explain the details of the plan. They expressed support for the project. However, a short time later, the retired Superintendent of Sumter County Schools, Mr. Broward, opposed the project. He stirred up a hornet’s nest of opposition to "Tallahassee's" plan to change their park and the county commissioners decided that they agreed with him.
A public meeting was held in September 1975 in the Sumter County Courthouse for the State to explain our plans and to give the citizens an opportunity to comment. The Division of Recreation and Parks was represented by Mike Bullock, Chief Planner of the Bureau of Design and Construction, and Jim Stevenson, Chief of the Bureau of Park Programs. District Manager Johnny Feaster and Park Manager Carl Parks were also present.
When we arrived at the courthouse, we knew we were in trouble because of the number of pick-up trucks and the gathering crowd. The court chamber was packed and people overflowed into the foyer and down the stairs. Mike and I were seated at the front like sacrificial lambs and flanked by the state senator and county judge. I decided to wear my uniform under the mistaken assumption that this conservative community respected men in uniform. I began the presentation by reminding the audience of what a special historic site this is and how its management and use should be comparable with the significant national historic sites elsewhere in the U.S. After my attempt to persuade, Mike, using professional drawings, explained the improvements that we intended to make. When he finished and returned to his seat, the tirade began.
Speaker after speaker, beginning with Mr. Broward, denounced our proposed assault on "their" little park. He shook has finger at me and said "Mr. Naturalist, you may know a lot about plants but you don’t know nothing about history." Another old timer feebly stood leaning on his cane said, "I helped to dig that ditch in 1918 and you ain't going to cover it up." Another angry citizen said that if we wouldn't mow the battlefield he would bring his tractor into the park and mow it himself. Being proper bureaucrats, we sat quietly with expressionless faces. It was a long, miserable evening that neither of us ever wanted to experience again. When it was over, we quietly slipped out of the courthouse and were relieved when we crossed the county line.
After being figuratively tarred and feathered, I referred to that public meeting as the "2nd Dade Massacre" and I was Major Dade. I was ready to abandon the entire project; however, Director Ney Landrum was able to negotiate the implementation of most of what we had planned. Although the statue of the civil war soldier is gone, the ditch and the concrete monuments are still there.
In 1985, I coordinated the first reenactment of the Dade Battle in the pine woods of the original battlefield. The reenactment has been conducted annually for the past 24 years and attended by thousands of spectators. The event has significantly raised awareness of the state and national importance of this historic site.
Footnote: Mike Bullock enjoys telling of how, during the public meeting, he pointed at me every time someone angrily criticized our plan. After all, most of the proposed changes were my ideas. I wonder if he really did?
Jim Stevenson (former Bureau Chief)
September 15, 2010
Here are some excerpts from a Tampa Tribune article about that meeting:
SUMPTER COUNTIANS AMBUSH STATE ON BICENTENNIAL TRAIL
Tampa Tribune February 16, 1976
Excerpts from that article:
"Not until the state government folks pushed their bicentennial trail through here did they learn what the revolution was like."
"But Bushnell would rather the state people detour the bicentennial trail somewhere than restore the Dade Battlefield State Historic Site the way lots of folks here fear they're going to restore it."
"People heard the state was going to let the weeds grow, even in the baseball field, take out the tennis court, move the kids' playground, cause rattlesnakes to become the prime visitors of the bicentennial checkpoint and generally make that park, the park that has been the playground of generations of Sumter Countians, a replica of virgin land, which surrounds the park."
"In September, community leaders organized a public hearing in the local courthouse, the largest gathering in that old courtroom since a murder trial a few years back and the town folks listened to the state boys make their presentation."
"Major James Stevenson, accredited now with spearheading the state's reformation effort was ambushed that day with his small contingent of resources troops by Bushnell folks who knew one thing for sure, they didn't want the bicentennial trail to trample their park."
"Probably feeling a bit like Major Dade, Stevenson admitted the other day by phone, 'I've been massacred.' He is chief naturalist for state parks."
One resident was quoted:
"See this man that's proposing this thing is a naturalist. He's not a historian. He'd do quite well in a nursery some place, or something like that, but not making decisions about historical places."
The editor of the Sumter County Times was quoted as saying:
"It was kind of like a lynching. A subdued lynching, let's put it that way."
Our records indicate that the Sumter County Commission passed a resolution against the improvements. A division report states that the only person who voiced support at the meeting was Frank Laumer, historian of the battle and its long time narrator.
After several months, the Division presented modified plans and park improvements were finally pursued.
Phillip A. Werndli