Long before year-round climate control became the norm, Florida’s earliest roadside attractions frequently scheduled their seasonal openings around or right before Thanksgiving weekend. These destinations often included gardens, springs, or other elements that showcased Florida’s natural beauty.
Some venues also integrated stories about the first Floridians who have lived on peninsular Florida for millennia. People today may think of destinations near Everglades National Park where members of the Seminole and Miccosukee tribes share their history. However, two attractions briefly operated in Pinellas County.
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One might assume that these Tampa Bay attractions would have shared the rich history of the lives of Tocobaga people and other nearby chiefdoms. In this regard, both failed after brief periods of operation.
The Lure of Pinellas Indian History
The history and culture of those who lived here long before Juan Ponce de León arrived on Florida’s Atlantic shoreline in 1513 — and long before other unknown journeys that may have happened before then — became an important part of the earliest marketing efforts to attract those wanting to vacation in or move to Florida.
Subsequent events, such as the Seminole War phase, added more Sunshine State storylines. Unfortunately, the tales told in most of the promotional literature got the story wrong. Many early American Indian-themed attractions in Florida suffered from similar flaws. Indeed, state authorities could not even create a historically or geologically accurate state seal.
A Village by Blind Pass
The November 18, 1928 issue of the St. Petersburg Times (now Tampa Bay Times) ran a story announcing that “Seminoles at Blind Pass Open Village To White Guests for First Time Today.” The article touted that “no change whatever will be noted … They will live in the same kind of primitive homes, with the same domestic routine.”
Ninety-five years ago, the northern portion of present-day St. Pete Beach near Blind Pass remained largely unoccupied. A two-lane bridge across Blind Pass opened in 1927. Traffic also began crossing the original span of Corey Causeway in October 1927. That span had replaced the McAdoo Bridge, a wooden toll bridge that entered the island at 87th Avenue.
Josie Billie, a Seminole spiritual leader and healer, came from his home at the Big Cypress Indian Reservation to supervise the village’s construction in 1928. The site included areas within and near Ron McKenney Park at 93rd Avenue. The first group of Seminole Indians arrived in early November.
Billie was one of the only Seminole Indians at this encampment fluent in English. While setting up the settlement, he worked in partnership with W. Stanley Hanson of Fort Myers. One of the few white residents of South Florida who spoke any American Indian languages, Hanson had gained trust within many of the Seminole and Miccosukee communities.
Visits to the Village
Billie and Hanson envisioned the Seminole Village at Blind Pass as a venue to share a positive story of ancestral cultural traditions. They planned for the village to remain open during the winter tourist season.
Shortly before Thanksgiving 1928, the village opened to the public. For 25¢, guests could witness life in the Seminole community, watch eagle dances, see alligator wrestling and ball games, and visit a small zoo that had wildcats and a bear. Hours of operation spanned from 8 a.m. until sundown.
The Seminole Indians who arrived brought their own livestock. They planned to live off the land by hunting on nearby uninhabited barrier islands. They harvested fish from Boca Ciega Bay. By December 1928, newspaper advertisements proclaimed that “You Haven’t Seen Florida Till You See the Seminoles.”
Pinellas Indian Historical Promotional Antics
Despite the efforts of Billie and Hanson, the St. Petersburg promoter they partnered with created publicity rife with stereotypes. Fletcher Park Bouton saw the village as an attraction that could bolster the sagging real estate market. A realtor and president of Southern Exhibitions, Inc., Bouton had a big Indian directional sign installed near Blind Pass Road.
Advertisements soon encouraged visitors to see the villagers as if they were performers in a circus show. One ad from late 1928 told parents to “Bring the youngsters — They will enjoy seeing real Indians.” Another encouraged guests to “come and see these interesting people just as they live in the Everglades.”
The Christmas Day issue of the Times in 1928 announced that Bouton arrived with a tree and gifts. According to the paper’s account of this publicity stunt, “it is expected many grunts of satisfaction will be the results of the gifts that reach the br***s and sq***s through the kindness of Bouton who takes a paternal interest in the tribe.”
The village closed in March 1929. The Seminole Indians returned for a second season, though this attraction ceased as the land boom ended.
A Brief Return Visit
Twenty-five years later, the Times included a story with a headline announcing that “Seminoles Invade Pinellas.” In the May 28, 1954 issue of the Times, columnist Dick Bothwell mentioned that “Sq***s Here to Beautify New Road” had gathered at a wooded site near the southern end of 34th Street.
A small group of Seminole women parked their cars and temporarily camped near the causeway approach for the original Sunshine Skyway Bridge, under construction at the time. They came to place Pangola hay in areas near the roadway to help control erosion.
Performing Around the Mound
By time the Skyway opened in September 1954, a major transformation took place near the region’s largest mound. In January 1954, the county’s Park Board debated a plan to build a large amphitheater at Philippe Park. Construction began in August.
County officials approved $65,000 for this project, with the City of Clearwater adding $10,000 from bond funding. With public dollars building the stage and grandstands, an large area of the park became a performance venue, complete with aluminum chairs and outdoor lighting for nighttime performances.
An organization known as the Florida Seminole Association signed a multi-year contract to lease the facility that taxpayers built. Why did authorities turn part of a county park into a performance venue, and put it in the hands of an outside group?
Florida Indian History Aflame
Winter Haven native John Waldrop Caldwell wrote Florida Aflame as his master’s thesis at the University of North Carolina. This screenplay dramatized attempts to remove Seminole Indians from Florida during the 1800s. Florida Aflame had its June 1953 debut at the Lake Wales Amphitheater.
Caldwell hired Ed Loessin as his director. Loessin had worked with the Unto These Hills outdoor theater performance that began in Cherokee, North Carolina, in 1950. With a cast of 68 and more than 20 scenes, Florida Aflame attracted Gov. Dan McCarty, his wife, and notable Seminole leaders to the first Lake Wales performance.
Shows continued through early September. Similar to any dramatic performance, Caldwell took liberties in telling the history of the Seminole people. Although his script generally followed the historical narrative, his original cast had few, if any, people of American Indian descent.
White actors contrived their rendition of the sacred Green Corn Dance, something few non-Indians have witnessed. Their gyrations trivialized a sacred ritual. Their take on stomp dances and purification ceremonies seldom seen by outsiders became show-stopping elements.
Caldwell wanted to bring Florida Aflame to Tampa Bay after its run in Lake Wales. He hoped that the move to Philippe Park would create a permanent location for shows “unto that mound.”
Florida Aflame-d Out
The production team left behind unpaid bills in Lake Wales. Despite some initial interest, having outdoor performances during summer months led to low turnout. Thunderstorms, humidity, and mosquitoes — things Seminole people had regularly endured on the frontier — scared away crowds in Lake Wales.
Financial challenges followed the performance as plays began at Philippe Park in January 1955. Large billboards announced the show on highways, but attendance remained low. On some nights, fewer people attended than the show had performers. With admission prices ranging from $1.50 to $3, funds generated could not even meet the payroll.
A Jan. 16, 1955 review of Florida Aflame in the New York Times incorrectly stated that Philippe Park had served as the site of battles between Seminole Indians and U.S. military forces. The review also mentioned Caldwell’s correct assertion that no Seminoles participated in his show due to “their resentment and suspicion of the white man.”
By the time the season ended in April 1955, outstanding debts rose along with temperatures. Two months later, the amount had soared to nearly $150,000. The Florida Seminole Association exited stage right on a path toward bankruptcy, leaving the county a publicly owned, unused amphitheater that obstructed access to much of Philippe Park.
County park staff seized costumes, makeup, and equipment by 1957. Wooden portions of the amphitheater continued to rot as Caldwell joined University of South Florida’s faculty. He taught in USF’s drama department during the school’s first-ever term in the fall of 1960.
By the time crews tore down what remained of the amphitheater in 1962, investigators from the notorious Johns Committee had used false allegations to ruin Caldwell’s teaching career at USF.
These two failed Pinellas attractions hardly represented the only times that Tampa Bay locals inaccurately portrayed Florida’s American Indians, or Indian populations more generally. Similar to complaints about collegiate and professional sports mascots in recent years, some Tampa Bay entities likewise made it their business to caricature Indian imagery.
Revisiting the Park
During the last 50 years, a growing number of people have questioned the naming of Philippe Park. Earlier narratives referred to Odet Philippe as the county’s first white settler, a surgeon in Napoleon’s navy, and a French count.
Later historians consider him the first “non-native” settler, since he was most likely of mixed race and probably hailed from the French Caribbean colony known today as Haiti.
J. Allison DeFoor, a descendant of Philippe, published a 1997 biography of this Pinellas pioneer. Never a doctor serving Napoleon, Philippe held enslaved people at his St. Helena plantation that included the park property. Additionally, no structures from his plantation remain. Significantly, Philippe’s headstone at the park sits atop an empty gravesite.
What clearly remains at Philippe Park are portions of the Tocobaga mound, a visible reminder of a people who flourished here for centuries. The site’s designation on the National Register of Historic Places is based on the Tocobaga presence, not Philippe’s 19th-century plantation.
Lou Claudio, a Safety Harbor resident, first proposed that County officials consider renaming the park in 2015. Moreover, Claudio pointed out that Pinellas County had no parks or roads named in recognition of the Tocobaga culture. He and others supportive of a name change discovered a pattern of deferral and delay.
Finally, a small step occurred. One entrance sign at Philippe Park was amended to add, “Historic Site of the Tocobaga Capital City.” Despite this change, the Tocobaga still have less prominence on their ancestral lands than a man who owned enslaved people.
Changing Narratives of Pinellas Indian History
Similar to the way Safety Harbor has started to confront Philippe’s troubled legacy, Indian Rocks Beach has tried to address legends of Chief Chic-a-Si. Unquestionably, stories about Indians traveling hundreds of miles to drink water from a sulphur spring at Indian Rocks no longer suffice.
A monument honoring the presence of the Tocobaga Indians was dedicated at Pinellas County’s Tiki Gardens — Indian Shores Beach Access in June 2022. Ironically, the Tiki Gardens attraction once on that site tried to portray “a South Sea island paradise in Florida.”
Presently, archaeologists, anthropologists, and artists work diligently to tell a more accurate story about the first Floridians. Gulfport resident Hermann Trappman at Neily Trappman Studio invests hundreds of hours to create his interpretation of the people who lived here for thousands of years.
Long after the Seminole Indian village at Blind Pass failed, Josie Billie worked with others to preserve Florida’s indigenous history. He also recorded traditional folk songs and information about cultural and spiritual practices. Until his death in 1980, he became a regular fixture at the annual Florida Folk Festival gatherings in White Springs.
Hungry for more information about the American Indian experience in Tampa Bay? Read about why Eckerd College has chickees on campus.