The Orange Blossom Special was a deluxe passenger train on the Seaboard Air Line Railroad and connecting railroads between New York City and Miami in the United States. It usually (always?) ran winter only, around December to April.
It covered 1372 miles on the Pennsylvania Railroad from New York City to Washington, D.C., the Richmond, Fredericksburg and Potomac Railroad from Washington to Richmond, and the Seaboard Air Line Railroad from Richmond via Raleigh, Columbia, and Savannah to Miami. A section went to Tampa and St. Petersburg winter season only.
The train started on November 21, 1925 and was the brainchild of SAL president S. Davies Warfield, who wanted to capitalize on booming development in Florida at the time. Warfield believed Florida was a land of opportunity, and with fast, luxurious trains he could lure influential (not to mention wealthy) business leaders to the Sunshine State. In February 1926 the train took 35 hours New York to West Palm Beach (Seaboard track didn’t reach Miami until 1927).
Spurred by the success of Henry Flagler and his rival Florida East Coast Railway in attracting travelers, the Orange Blossom Special became famous in its own right. It was renowned for its speed and luxury. E. M. Frimbo, “The World’s Greatest Railway Buff”, offered this account of a dining car chef who had worked aboard the train:
“Our chef…spent nine of his forty-three years with the Pennsylvania Railroad as chef on the celebrated all-Pullman New York-to-Florida train the Orange Blossom Special—the most luxurious winter-season train ever devised by man. Nothing even remotely resembling a can opener was allowed on the premises. All the pies, cakes, rolls, birthday cakes were baked on board under his supervision. Cut flowers and fresh fish were taken on at every revictualing stop, and the train carried thirty-five hundred dollars’ worth of wine, liquor and champagne—these at pre-Prohibition prices—for each run.
The service was suspended during WWII to free the equipment for carrying troops. Its last run was in 1953. This market is now handled by Amtrak’s Silver Star.
A similar locomotive painted to resemble a locomotive of the time, and lettered Orange Blossom Special is currently being moved from its long-time display location at the Church Street Station in Orlando, Florida to the Gulf Coast Railway Museum in nearby Tampa. Plans are for a multi-year restoration to active status for eventual excursion service.
The train and the song
It happened during the maiden run of the new streamlined train at the Jacksonville Seaboard Railroad Station that Ervin T. Rouse and Robert Russell “Chubby” Wise saw this train. Rouse and Wise wrote the “Orange Blossom Special” song as a fiddle tune. The tune was first recorded by Ervin and his brother Gordon one year later in New York. Bill Monroe recorded Rouse and Wise’s tune in 1942 (with Art Wooten on fiddle) and popularized the tune. Johnny Cash named his 1965 album after the song. The song was also recorded by Bill Ramsey and Don Paulin.
This popular tale explains the fascination which led Ervin Rouse and Robert “Chubby” Wise to write the now famous fiddle tune. However, historically the Blossom was never “streamlined” and used Pullman heavyweight sleepers, diners, and some coaches of the winter Tampa run. The Blossom may have used some lightweight cars sporadically in mixed consist with the Pennsylvania Railroad which hauled the Blossom in the Northeast Corridor. If Rouse and Wise did see a streamlined Seaboard train in 1938, it was most likely the “Silver Meteor” which was streamlined with its stainless steel coaches. The name of this train was chosen by a public contest. The Seaboard’s lightweight trains later became known as the Silver Fleet. This included the Silver Meteor, the Silver Star and the Silver Comet. The train did receive modern EMC E4 diesel locomotives in 1938, but continued using heavyweight Pullmans and American Flyer coaches until its demise in 1953. It is also possible the songwriters saw one of the Twin Cities Zephyrs at the Jacksonville railroad station in 1935. The Chicago, Burlington and Quincy Railroad brought the train to Florida at the invitation of the Seaboard Railroad. It toured the state, making stops in both east and west coast Florida cities, where the public was able to both view and tour the Zephyr; Jacksonville was one of the stops on its Florida tour.
By BUNNIE NICHOLS
News-Press Staff Writer
Evelyn Luettich Horne of Estero – who was born on Mound Key in 1922 and has-been the Koreshan Unity’s “Girl Friday” since 1940 – is living history says Fort Myers Beach author and historian Rolfe Schell.
Horne says life’s greatest gift to her has been the wonderful memories she has of special people and places.
She said her childhood memories include things such as her chats with Thomas Edison every Sunday at her Estero home, a shiny new dime she received as a Christmas gift from Henry Ford at a holiday program in Fort Myers, mouth-watering Koreshan fish frys on Fort Myers Beach and eating delicious biscuits with one of the area’s most famous pioneers and best cooks, Grandma Johnson of Mound Key.
Her later memories, she said, are just as special – learning to bake in the Koreshans’ bakery, serving dinner to Marjorie Stoneman Douglas in 1945 in the communal dining room, meeting John Pennekamp during his visit to the utopian settlement, talking with Leonard Bernstein at the unity’s Rising Tide Cottage on Fort Myers Beach, writing a column called “Around Estero” for the Fort Myers News-Press for 15 years and studying horticulture and c9Qking with the last Koreshan – Hedwig Michel
Horne said she talked with Schell, author of “1000 Years on Mound Key,” when he lectured on the history of the key at the Koreshan Library-Museum in Estero recently. “He told me I was living history,” she said.
Most of 125-acre Mound Key in Estero Bay and the Koreshan settlement in Estero were donated to the state in 1961 by the Koreshan Unity. The unity had acquired most of the key from early homesteaders. The religious pioneers’ Estero settlement is now the Koreshan State Historic Site and Mound Key is a Satellite facility of it.
Schell’s book, which discusses the ancient Calusa Indians’ habitation of the key as well as the Spanish explorers, pirates and pioneer settlers who lived there, contains an old plat that shows the island acreage homesteaded by Horne’s grandparents – Antonio and Mary Fernandez and Carl and Rose Luettich.
Antonio Fernandez, an emissary from a Portuguese church, came to the island in 1889 with his wife and three daughters to provide religious guidance to fellow settlers, but ended up becoming a fisherman in order to survive.
“My other grandfather, Carl, met and heard Dr. Cyrus Teed (founder of the Koreshan Unity) speak in 1893 in San Diego,” Horne said. She said her grandfather followed the charismatic physician back to Chicago and joined the Koreshan Unity to help make plans to create a utopian community in Estero.
Horne said her grandfather was a member of the second group of Koreshans who came to Estero in 1894 from Chicago. She said soon after his arrival at the settlement, he moved to Mound Key with his wife and son, Charles, to became the fisherman for the pioneer community.
“My father, Charles, also a fisherman, married Dora Fernandez, Antonio’s daughter, in 1913 and left the Koreshan family,” Horne said. She said they bought a 40-foot houseboat and docked it on the south side of Mound Key.
“My dad and an archeaologist, Dr. Rasmussen, made one of the most unusual archeological finds on Mound Key in the early 1920s – a skeleton of a Calusa Indian,” Horne said. “The skeleton, which was found four-feet down in the key’s 40-foot-tall Calusa Indian shell mound, was sent to the Smithsonian.”
Horne said she was born Aug. l1, l922, aboard the houseboat. She said her two sisters, Henrietta Luettich Davenport and Mary Luettich Carter, were also born on the houseboat several years before her.
“My sisters were educated at Damkohler’s School on Mound Key,” she said. “The tiny wooden schoolhouse opened about 1918 and closed in 1925. All that’s left of it now is a pile of rubble.”
Horne said her family moved to a house in Estero when she was 3 because her brother, Charles Jr., was about to be born. “My father became the fishing guide for the Estero Inn, which burned long ago, during the winter season and also pursued his interest in plants,” she said. “When I was 10, Thomas Edison began coming to our home every Sunday afternoon to talk with my father about botany. We had a banyan tree that was a large as the one. at the Edison Home.”
She said she remembers Edison’s beautiful white hair. “And, he was so warm and friendly,” she said. “He held my hand when he talked to me.”
Horne said her father still spent every summer fishing Estero Bay and her whole family stayed with him on the Mound Key houseboat
“I have a lot of very fond memories of Mound Key,” she said. “Those were fantastic summers. Living on Mound Key, with the settlers, was just like being part of one big family. We all looked out for each other. I learned how to swim fish and boat there and fell in love with the outdoors.”
Horne, who has two large greenhouses at her Estero home, said she developed her life-long interest in botany from her Mound Key summers. “Things really grew there,” she said. “The settlers planted many rare fruit trees. We took nature walks on the island all the time. I learned about the plants, animals, shells and birds. And, we also found Indian glass, pottery, shell tools and beads. It was a fascinating place to grow up.”
Horne said her father had to bring drums of drinking water from the settlement down the river on his 20-foot fishing boat to Mound Key because there was no water source on the tiny island, She said the water came from the settlement’s artesian wells, “We had to let the water sit over night so the sulfur would settle to the bottom and it didn’t smell so bad,” she said
Swarms of mosquitoes were another problem. ”We always had a smudge pot burning at the front door of the houseboat and old fishing nets were burned at night to provide smoke to repel the mosquito swarms,” she said.
Another less pleasant memory, she said, was the sinking of her grandfather’s sloop, the Ada. “My, grandfather had to catch all the fish for the settlement family, which included 200 people,” she said. “One night he was trying to bring the sloop up the Estero River loaded with 3,000 huge Florida clams and it sank because of the heavy load.”
She said her grandfather would bring back 300 to 400 pounds offish every night to the Estero settlement. “The bell at Bamboo Landing would be rung when his boat approached about 4 a.m. and everyone would rush down with butcher knives and pans to clean the fish,” she said.
Horne said her grandfather fried beautiful, big, black mullet for the ladies of Koreshan during fish frys at his fish camp at Big Carlos Pass on the south end of Fort Myers Beach, “That was long before Estero Bay became polluted,” she said. “The cooking also began on Mound Key.
She said as a child she knew one of the area’s most famous pioneers and best cooks Grandma Johnson. Grandma’s husband, Frank Johnson, was the first modern settler to homestead Mound Key in 1891.
“I used to sit in Grandma Johnson’s kitchen window and watch her bake her famous biscuits,’ Horne said. “She was a darling pioneer lady who loved all us kids and was always ready to feed visitors a fantastic dinner. She was one of the sweetest, kindest people I’ve ever known.”
Horne recalled that the Johnson’s home was built atop the key’s highest mound fantastic and had a view of Estero Bay.
Grandma Johnson, who was .called one of the “most worthy and interesting of Lee County’s pioneers” in a 1906 edition of the Koreshans “The America Eagle” newspaper, now rests in a tiny cemetery on Spring Creek Road. “After I graduated from Fort Myers High School in June of 1940, Allen Andrews, the editor of ‘The American Eagle came to my house and asked me to help with the Koreshan Solar Festival,” Horne said. “I’ve been working for the unity ever since. My husband, George, has been the unity’s maintenance man for 40 years.
After the Solar Festival, Horne said she went to work at the settlement’s general store and also helped out in the communal dining room.
“Arthur Moore, who came over from England, was the store keeper,” she said. “About 1948, the River View Inn was opened. My mother was the cook and I helped wherever l was needed.”
Horne said she also helped out at the unity’s nursery when potting needed to be done and guided the 10 a.m. botanical garden tours.
“Sometimes we would have two school buses and it took three of us (xx words missing from text xxx) managed.to raise two children- Darlene Horne Johnson of Estero and Charles William Horne of San Carlo Park. She also helped start the Estero River Homemakers, the Estero River Garden Club and the Estero River Lions Club, all of which are gone today.
Horne said she was close friends with 50 Koreshans and has written detailed personal histories on 30 of them. “I helped care for the last five Koreshans during their final years,” she said. The last one, Hedwig Michel, died in 1932 at the age of 90. I was so impressed by them. They were such hard working, good, loving, giving people. It was the least
I could do to repay them. I got such an education there. Those 50 people and their children gave me my greatest memories. The family reunions and festivals were unforgettable.”
She said one Koreshan lady, Bertie Boomer, inspired her to study painting. “I took public and private lessons for about 10 years and taught 20 children for two years during the Estero Methodist Church’s summer program,” she said. “I even had a showing of my paintings at the 1974 Lunar Festival.
Horne said her hobbies today are cooking and gardening. “For many years I made all the jellies and chutneys that were sold in the Koreshan dining room,” she said. “The mango chutney was well known. All the garden clubs wanted to-take some home.”
She also writes a cooking column, “What’s Cooking?” – for the 83-year-old” American Eagle” and works five days a week at the Koreshan Unity Foundation’s Pioneer Educational Library-Museum on Corkscrew Road in Estero.
The Koreshan Unity Foundation, Inc. is a not-for-profit corporation dedicated to preserving and publicizing the history of the Koreshans and their one-or-a-kind utopian community.
“It is a pleasure to come to work.”