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Day 16: Georgia On Our Mind
April 4, 2021
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Day 14: A Deep Dive Into the Deep South
April 2, 2021

Day 15: Peanut Butter and Pirates on the Road to Florida’s Coast

pirate museum photo

Most recently updated on May 15, 2023

Originally posted on April 3, 2021

We are Florida-bound today as we begin week 3 of our virtual journey.

So, we make a U-turn out of Montgomery and head back through another region of south-central Alabama.

We travel on Interstate 85 east for a few miles before we turn south on Highway 231.

After about an hour, we zoom through the city of Troy, a town of less than 20,000 that has a remarkably young median age of 26 years.

One big reason for the youthful demographic is the fact this community is home to the main campus of Troy University, a college with a total enrollment of nearly 15,000 students.

Troy is also the birthplace of the late Congressman John Lewis, who was a key participant in the 1965 march from Selma to Montgomery we discussed in our Day 14 journal yesterday.

The town was also the home of both Kid Rock and Hank Williams Jr. at one point. The duo filmed their music video “Redneck Paradise” at the Double Branch Bar here. That’s where Hank Williams Sr. and his band “Drifting Cowboys” used to occasionally play.

The community is served by the Troy Messenger, one of the oldest newspapers in the South, having been founded in 1866.

Just 15 minutes down the road is Brundidge, a town of about 2,000.

alabama map

The community was established shortly before the Civil War when George Collier opened a store in the area.

Brundidge is best known for its peanut butter.

In 1929, Brundidge native J.D. Johnston started a peanut butter mill in town. The product sold well during the Great Depression because it was cheap and provided nutrition.

In the 1930s, Johnston’s plant was producing 2 million jars a year, helping the town sustain its economy during that economic downturn.

In the early 1930s, brothers Oscar and Grady Johnson started another peanut butter mill on the other side of town.

In the late 1940s, larger mills became to take over the local peanut butter industry.

Johnston’s factory kept producing until the 1960s. The Johnston Peanut Butter Mill is now a museum.

Brundidge pays homage to this local industry with a Peanut Butter Festival in late October. The event attracts 7,000 people in a typical year and includes music, a parade and a recipe contest.

Another hour down Highway 231 is the town of Dothan, a community of 71,000 people in the southeast corner of Alabama. Dothan is only 20 miles west of Georgia and 16 miles north of Florida.

It’s another town known for its peanuts as well as its nuclear power.

The Alabama and Creek tribes lived in this region for centuries at the intersection of two Native American trade routes.

The first Anglo settlers were nine families that came in the 1830s to harvest timber. A fort was built to provide refuge for the new residents when they felt threatened by the Native tribes. The fort was abandoned in 1840. Dothan was incorporated in 1885 and named after a town in the Bible.

In 1889, the town was the scene of an agricultural riot after the city imposed a levy on cotton wagons that came through town. Farmers protested and got into a gunfight with law enforcement. Three members of the Farmers Alliance were killed.

In 1893, the Alabama Midland Railroad connected Dothan with Montgomery. That line allowed the transportation of farm goods, timber and cotton.

The cotton industry was destroyed in this region in the early 1900s when boll weevils settled in and decimated the cotton crop. That’s when farmers decided to plant peanuts. The town of Enterprise near Dothan honors the boll weevil in a half-joking manner by placing statues around town, thanking the insect for forcing the switch from cotton to peanuts.

The peanut processing industry took hold in Dothan in the 1920s and 1930s. The town proclaimed itself the “Peanut Capital of the World” in 1938.

The legumes are still a big industry in this region. It’s estimated that more than half of the nation’s peanut crop is grown within 100 miles of Dothan.

In the fall, the city hosts a 10-day National Peanut Festival at the National Peanut Farmers Fairgrounds that attracts 200,000 people in a typical year. George Washington Carver spoke at the first of these festivals in 1938. A statue of him at the fairgrounds marks the occasion.

There’s also the G. W. Carver Interpretative Museum downtown that showcases the historic contributions of African-Americans.

This Elvis Presley tribute is one of 60 peanut statues in downtown Dothan, Alabama. Photo by Deep South Magazine.

In addition, Dothan has more than 60 peanut statues around town. They were built by local artists to raise money for various causes. The first statue was dedicated in 2001. Today, there is a popular golden peanut statue as well as an Elvis Presley peanut statue that had to be moved indoors due to the threat of theft. The statues are part of the “Peanuts on Parade” campaign organized by The Downtown Group.

Dothan has also begun to promote itself as a sports tourism area. In 2021, people who attended tournaments in town spent $13 million, a new record.

The Dothan region is also a center for the nuclear power industry.

In 1977, the Joseph M. Farley Nuclear Generating Station opened the first of its two units east of downtown. The second unit began operating in 1981. The facility is still operating with license renewals extending to 2037 and 2041.

The Farley plant is owned by Alabama Power and is operated by Southern Nuclear. Each unit produces more than 900 megawatts of power. Each unit received approval in October 2020 from federal regulators to boost their output. The combined 1,900 megawatts are enough to power 450,000 Alabama homes. Almost 20 percent of Alabama’s electricity is generated at Farley.

The plant employs 900 people on its 1,800 acres. Since 1992, that site has also included a certified wildlife habitat that includes a 90-acre lake and a bluebird nesting program.

Before we leave Dothan, we need to note one tiny area of town.

It’s a triangle-shaped block behind the Civic Center. It includes a stop sign, a yield sign and a street sign.

The 20-foot by 20-foot by 9-foot lot is in the Guinness Book of World Records as the “World’s Smallest City Block.”

A marker was placed on this lot in 1964 after it was named by Ripley’s Believe It or Not as the smallest city block in the world.

The triangle used to be the home of a snack shop as well as a two-story building with a gas station on the first floor. The buildings were eventually demolished and the property apparently became smaller as streets were widened.

I do have to note that Matt Cain, a popular pitcher for the San Francisco Giants who retired in 2018, was born in Dothan.

Entering Florida

It only takes a few minutes driving south on Highway 231 to cross the border into Florida.

The Sunshine State is usually thought of as a large geographic area. However, its 54,000 square miles puts it only 26th among states, only slightly bigger than Arkansas. It’s not even the largest state in the Southeast. That honor goes to Georgia.

Florida makes up for its size with its population. Its nearly 22 million people places it third, behind only California and Texas and ahead of New York. The population is 51 percent white, 27 percent Hispanic, 14 percent Black and 3 percent Asian.

Florida is mostly flatland. Its mean elevation of 100 feet places it in a tie with Louisiana for 48th place. Only Delaware is lower.

Florida does have 8,400 miles of coastline. Only Alaska has more. That coastline includes 4,510 islands of at least 10 acres. Again, only Alaska tops that. In fact, in Florida you’re never more than 60 miles from salt water.

It’s also the only state with a living coral barrier reef. It’s the only such reef in North America and the third largest in the world.

Florida’s annual median household income of slightly more than $59,000 places it 43rd among states.

Florida does boast a $1 trillion annual economy, the fourth largest of any state. Its number one industry is tourism. In a normal year, 126 million tourists flock to Florida, a number second only to California.

florida map

Agriculture is the second largest sector of the economy. Growers are boosted by a longer growing season as well as greenhouses. Among the top crops are oranges, tomatoes and sugar cane. Nurseries and dairy products are also plentiful. Florida produces 70 percent of the nation’s annual output of citrus fruits.

Florida also has a long history of racial strife, especially in the Panhandle.

You come across evidence of that history less than a half-hour after crossing the border.

The community of Marianna sits near the center of the Panhandle.

The town was founded in 1827 by Scottish entrepreneur Scott Beveridge, who named the new settlement after the middle name of his wife and the first name of the wife of his business partner.

At the time, Marianna was one of many sites in Florida with estates that relied on slave labor.

One of the large-scale operators was John Milton, who owned a plantation in Marianna that used hundreds of slaves.

Milton was elected governor of Florida during the Civil War era. After the war, he opposed the Confederacy rejoining the United States. He told the state Legislature that “death would be preferable to reunion.”

Milton was good on his word. He reportedly killed himself at his estate with a gunshot to the head as Union troops were marching through the Florida Panhandle.

Marianna, however, was just getting started with racial unrest.

In the latter part of the 1800s, violence flared in Marianna as well as Jackson County. More than 100 people were killed between 1869 and 1871 in what was known as the Jackson County War.

From 1900 to 1930, Florida had more lynchings per capita than any other state.

One of these violent incidents happened in this region in 1934.

Claude Neal was arrested on charges of raping and murdering a white woman in Jackson County. The Black farmhand signed a confession using an “X” for his name. For his safety, Neal was moved 200 miles to a jail in Alabama.

However, a mob found Neal, killed him, then dismembered the corpse. They brought his body back to Jackson County and hung it from a tree at the courthouse in Marianna.

The following day, the local sheriff cut down Neal’s body from the tree. Local citizens demanded the sheriff put the body back up. He refused. So, white rioters attacked Black residents and destroyed some of their homes. The governor ordered in National Guard troops to quell the violence.

In the early 1940s, Cellos Harrison, a Black farm worker, was convicted of murdering a white gas station attendant. That was conviction was overturned by the U.S. Supreme Court. Harrison was re-arrested for the crime, but he was lynched by a mob before his new trial could begin.

Perhaps the most heinous of all the racial violence occurred at the Arthur G. Dozier School for the Boys. The large-scale reform school operated in Marianna from 1900 to 2011. For a time, it was the largest juvenile reform facility in the United States.

Throughout the school’s history, there were reports of abuse and violence at the campus. Historians believe at least 81 students died at the school.

In 2015, an investigation by University of South Florida researchers discovered more than 50 burial sites at the school as well as evidence of a “rape dungeon.”

The researchers returned in 2019 and found 27 more graves. The search was concluded in October 2020, although it could be reopened if researchers are presented with evidence of other bodies.

In October 2021, some past attendees of the Dozier school asked the state to compensate them for the abuse they encountered.

In 2019, Colin Whitehead, the Pulitzer Prize winning author of “The Underground Railroad,” released his novel “Nickel Boys.” The book is based on the abuses at the Dozier school.

In January 2023, a memorial was dedicated on the school’s former grounds to recognize the abuse suffered by students at the facility.

Today, Marianna is a community of 6,200 residents, of whom 50 percent are Black and 46 percent are white. Its median annual household income is $27,000 and the median home price is about $185,000. The poverty rate is listed at 28 percent.


After leaving Marianna, we hook up once more with our old freeway friend, Interstate 10.

We’ll be heading eastbound on this busy highway the rest of the day.

This virtual route takes you through the middle of the eastern half of the Florida Panhandle.

Just outside Marianna we enter the Eastern Time Zone after spending 10 days in the Central Time Zone.

An hour later, we come across the state capital of Tallahassee, our 7th state capital and the 100th city we’ve spotlighted on our trip.

This region was occupied for thousands of years by native tribes who built earth mounds. The first European explorers came through in 1528. The diseases they brought with them had nearly wiped out the Native American population by 1607. Most of the remaining Apalachee tribe members left. Their departure inspired the settlement’s name of Tallahassee, which means “abandoned field.”

The history of the Panhandle is a complicated one that is detailed in a feature report on this site.

This part of Florida was bustling in the early 1800s.

Tallahassee was named the territorial capital in 1824 as a compromise. Officials in St. Augustine and Pensacola both thought it was too far to go to each other’s towns for state government business. So, they chose Tallahassee as the midway point.

Tallahassee began to grow after that designation. It was in the heart of the state’s cotton country, which also made it a center of slave trading.

Colleges were established in the 1840s and 1850s, eventually turning Tallahassee into a university town. Between Florida State University and Florida A&M, there are more than 50,000 college students in the area. It’s one of the reasons the median age here is 27 years, quite a bit less than the state average of 42 years, the fifth highest in the nation.

During the Civil War, Tallahassee was the only Southern state capital east of the Mississippi River that was not captured by Union soldiers.

After the war, cotton became less important, so the economy shifted to citrus, lumber, cattle ranching and winter hunting preserves. Today, the economy is mainly driven by government and education. It also remains a distribution center for the nearby timber and agricultural industries.

Tallahassee has also been the scene of civil rights action. There was a 1956 bus boycott after two African-American college students were arrested for violation of segregation rules on a city bus. The boycott last 7 months. It led to the repeal of the segregated seating regulations.

The city was also the lightning rod for the 2000 presidential election recount between George W. Bush and Al Gore as that election came down to Florida’s 25 electoral votes. Bush was declared the winner by 537 votes out of more than 6 million cast in the state.

In 2016, Tallahassee took a direct hit from Hurricane Hermine, a storm that caused $45 million in damage here. In 2018, Hurricane Michael blew through with 155-mile-per-hour winds.

Today, Tallahassee’s population of nearly 200,000 people ranks it 9th among Florida cities.


It’s another 2 ½ hours eastbound on Interstate 10 before you finally reach the Atlantic coast.

Along the way you get a good look at the smaller towns that make up this northern stretch of Florida. You also pass through the Osceola National Forest.

Finally, you enter the city of Jacksonville, a community of largesse in both population and area.

Jacksonville now has 960,000 residents. That makes it the most populous city by far in Florida, dwarfing second place Miami’s 435,000 people. Jacksonville also has more people than any other community in the Southeast and is the 11th most populous city in the country.

In addition, its 747 square miles makes Jacksonville the largest city in terms of acreage in the continental United States. There are four cities in Alaska that have more land area.

Interstate 10 comes to an end in Jacksonville when it hits Interstate 95 after a 2,460-mile ride from Santa Monica, California.

This region, where the St. John’s River meets the Atlantic Ocean, was inhabited for centuries by the Timucua tribe. The French established the colony of Fort Caroline in 1562. The Spanish took over in 1565, destroyed that fort and built another one.

In the late 1700s, the British had control of the area. Plantations were built along the river to grow cotton, indigo, rice and vegetables. Timber was also harvested for the British Navy.

Spain took control again before ceding the territory to the United States in 1821. The town was platted in 1822 and named after Andrew Jackson, who was the first provisional governor of the territory before becoming president.

During the Civil War, Jacksonville was a major port for the Confederacy and was consequently blockaded by Union forces. When Union troops seized control of the city, many freed and runaway slaves sought refuge here.

A fire in 1901 destroyed 2,300 buildings, killing seven people and leaving 100,000 homes. The city emerged from the ashes, building a modern skyline to replace the frontier settlement.

Among the major redevelopment efforts have been the improvements to Jacksonville Port. Those projects continue to this day. The latest is a harbor deepening that was completed in May 2022. The upgrades have turned Jacksonville into a major deep water port for both civilian and military use. It’s the busiest port authority in Florida.

The defense industry continues to be a major component of the city’s economy. Jacksonville has the third largest military presence in the United States. Banking, insurance, healthcare and tourism are also important.

In 2000, voters approved the Better Jacksonville Plan, a half-cent sales tax that lasts until 2030 and is raising $2.2 billion for projects. About $1.5 billion is going to roads, transportation and infrastructure. Another $500 million is slated for public facilities. The rest is earmarked for environmental and economic development.

In March 2019, the Make It Right Project, an organization that is spearheading efforts across the country to remove statues and other symbols of the Confederacy, targeted Jacksonville by putting up a billboard calling for the removal of the Monument to the Women of the Southern Confederacy in the city’s Confederate Park. The statue was dedicated in 1915 and is seen as a remnant of the “Lost Cause” movement that glorifies the South’s efforts during the Civil War. The monument was sprayed with red paint in June 2020 during protests by the Black Lives Matter movement.

In May 2023, the last remaining piece of a Confederate monument was removed from a city park across the street from City Hall.

In early June 2021, the Acosta Bridge was lit up in rainbow colors in celebration of Pride Month and in support of the LGBTQ community. The colorful display came on the heels of Governor Ron DeSantis signing a bill banning transgender girls from playing in youth sports contests. The Acosta Bridge has been lit up in different colors in the past, including for Fourth of July and Memorial Day. There were colorful displays on the bridge in summer 2021 for Juneteenth and sickle-cell awareness.

The Friendship Fountain in Jacksonville, Florida, is the world’s largest tallest water fountain. Photo by Florida Memory.

The city’s film history is also being spotlighted these days.

Officials at Norman Studios are working to preserve Jacksonville’s film history from the 1910s when New York filmmakers came during the winter months to make silent movies. At one point, there were 30 production studios here that took advantage of Florida’s warmer winter months. Oliver Hardy made his first film here in 1913. The first full-length color film in the United States was produced here in 1917. Jacksonville was the birthplace of Metro Pictures, which eventually merged with other production companies to become Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, also known as MGM. Jacksonville’s early film era ended when Los Angeles emerged in the 1920s as a film center.

The Norman Film Studios, developed by in 1915 by the Eagle Film Company on the site of a former cigar factory, is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. The designation recognizes the studio’s role in producing “race films” that were designed specifically for African American audiences. Among the films were two all-Black feature length westerns.

Today, the city is once again enjoying some success with movie making. About 60 films have been shot here in recent years, including the HBO presidential election drama “Recount.”

Finally, the city is the locale for the Friendship Fountain. The waterworks display opened in 1965. It’s the world’s largest and tallest water fountain. Three pumps push 17,000 gallons of water a minute as high as 120 feet into the air. The constant display of waterworks has left the fountain in need of repairs over the years. In 2011, the city spent $3 million to fix the fountain and install new pumps. In November 2019, a $6 million improvement plan was approved.

Checking Out the Nation’ Oldest City

It doesn’t get much older than St. Augustine, Florida.

The town 45 minutes south of Jacksonville just off Interstate 95 is the oldest continuously settled city in the United States.

The community, which sits on a peninsula between two salt water rivers, gives us our first glimpse of the Atlantic Ocean on this virtual journey.

It’s a region that was originally inhabited by the Timucua tribe that also occupied the Jacksonville region.

It was first visited by European explorers in 1513 when none other than Ponce De Leon came through, believing he had found the Fountain of Youth here.

The town was founded by other Spanish explorers in 1565 when they destroyed a French fort and built a fort of their own. It was named St. Augustine, the bishop of Hippo on whose feast day the Spanish explorers had first spotted the coastline. When it landed on shore, that Spanish contingent consisted of 1,500 soldiers, colonists and the first slaves to be brought to the United States.

In 1586, British explorer Sir Frances Drake proceeded to sack and burn the city. The city rebuilt and was a center of activity in the Florida territory for more than 200 years.

In the mid-1880s, Henry Flager, a co-founder of Standard Oil with John D. Rockefeller, came to Florida and bought four railroads in the St. Augustine region and tied them together into a transportation network. In 1888, a railroad bridge was built over the St. John’s River. The rail system eventually became the Florida East Coast Railway, which ran from Jacksonville to Key West. Flagler also built hotels, a hospital and churches in St. Augustine.

Like many Southern cities, St. Augustine was a center for civil rights action in the mid-1900s as the city refused to integrate lunch counters and other business establishments. In 1964, the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. was among those arrested in a civil rights protest.

Today, St. Augustine is a town of slightly more than 15,000 people that is 81 percent white. The economy relies on sports fishing, commercial fishing and tourism.

There are plenty of things here for tourists to visit.

The Fountain of Youth Archaeological Park in St. Augustine, Florida, is thought to be the likely landing spot of explorer Ponce de Leon. Photo by Atlas Obscura.

The 15-acre Fountain of Youth Archaeological Park is touted as the likely landing spot of Ponce de Leon. A natural spring was located here and that may have led to his belief in a youthful fountain. The Spring House in the park lets you sip some of the water from its underground aquifer.

Nearby is the Castillo de San Marcos National Monument. It took the Spanish 23 years to build this complex. It was finished in 1695 and served as a fort for 200 years, protecting Spanish Florida from British forces as well as pirates. It’s the oldest structure in St. Augustine and is the oldest masonry fortress in the country. The former fort is also only one of two such facilities built with coquina limestone. The star-shaped fort sits on 20 acres and still has some of the soldiers’ rooms as well as gun decks.

Not too far away is the St. Augustine Pirate and Treasure Museum. The 5,000-square-foot facility has 800 pirate artifacts, including the world’s only surviving pirate’s chest. It also has one of only three surviving Jolly Roger flags.

It might seem odd to dedicate a museum to a group of violent seafarers who boarded ships and took items that didn’t belong to them. However, historians say pirates played an important role in colonial life. They plundered ships off the African coasts, bringing gold, silver, spices and other valuable items to people who lived in the original 13 colonies. The colonists were able to purchase these goods at lower prices than their mother country of England charged. Historians also note that most pirates weren’t at sea that often. Many spent considerable time on land, fixing up their ships or even tending to their farms.

Another possible local connection to piracy can be found on a small road near the museum. Treasury Street is the nation’s narrowest street at 6 feet 1 inch wide. It connected the Royal Treasury on Bay Street to the waterfront. It was built just wide enough to allow two men to carry a chest of gold from docked ships. The design was reportedly to protect against pirates trying to steal gold from merchants between the bank and the bay, although that theory is disputed by some historians.

Another historic structure near downtown St. Augustine is the nation’s oldest wooden schoolhouse. A home was built on this site in the mid-1700s. It was sold to Juan Genopoly in 1780. He built a new two-story home shortly after 1800 and converted the first floor into a school. The last class was held there in 1864. Today, the Oldest Wooden Schoolhouse Historic Museum & Gardens showcases refurbished structures that show what home and school life was like in the 1800s.

On the outskirts of town is the St. Augustine Alligator Farm Zoological Park. The facility opened in 1893 as a small reptile exhibit. Today, it has 24 species of crocodilians and is the only place in the world to display all these species. It also contains other reptiles, amphibians, mammals and birds.

Our stay in Florida will be brief.

I would have loved to once again visit Miami, where I spent a week in spring 2001.

Or to take a short jaunt to Cape Canaveral, the home of the main NASA launch site two hours south of St. Augustine.

Or to spend some time in Orlando, the self-proclaimed Theme Park Capital of the World that receives 62 million visitors in a typical year. That tourism is mainly directed at the region’s dozen amusement parks, including Walt Disney World and the Universal Studios resort that is home to the new Harry Potter theme park.

Or even travel one hour southwest to Lakeland, a community of 121,000 people where my father grew up. You get to Lakeland by taking the James Henry Mills Parkway off Interstate 4. There is a monument to Mills, who received the Medal of Honor during World War Two, in a Lakeland park. Mills was a native of the region and also my grandfather’s cousin.

Alas, we need to leave Florida tomorrow after only one day and cruise up the coast to Georgia.