Royal Palm State Park Re-Dedication
November 30, 2016
By GFWC Florida President Mary Powell
From an address delivered November 17, 2016
As President of the GFWC Florida Federation of Women’s I would like to thank Lynda Randolph, District 11 Director and the clubs in this District that have participated in making this event happen – specifically The Woman’s Club of Coconut Grove, GFWC Woman’s Club of Homestead, the GFWC Miami Springs Woman’s Club, GFWC El Portal Woman’s Club and the Dade County Federation of Women’s Clubs which encompasses all of the clubs in this area. I’m sure that it has taken countless hours and lots of members to make this event such a success – I am very impressed.
When Lynda Randolph first mentioned this project to me and invited me to be part of it, I was so excited and thrilled to receive so much information about Royal Palm Park and the Florida Federation of Women’s Clubs involvement in its beginnings.
In an effort to get a feel for the year 1915-1916, I went back and re-read a book by Patrick D. Smith called “A Land Remembered.” This book is about 3 generations of MacIvey’s and their challenge to survive, to prosper and to thrive in Florida beginning in 1863 until 1968.
On the first page of the book, which begins in 1968 and then jumps back to 1863, it mentions coming to a park bordered by stately Royal Palm trees.
That’s what we are doing today – Remembering this Land and our stately park bordered by Royal Palms and our beautiful State of Florida.
“A Land Remembered” begins in North Florida around Fernandina – and that happens to be where I’m from – Fernandina. Near that area is also where GFWC Florida Federation of Women’s Clubs began in 1895. Visionary leaders at the Village Improvement Association of Green Coves Springs called together members from the VIA Orange City Woman’s Club, the Crescent City Woman’s Club, Tarpon Springs Woman’s Club and Fairfield of Jacksonville Woman’s Club to form a Federation of Florida Clubs and to officially become a part of the General Federation of Women’s Clubs.
Can you imagine traveling across the state from Tarpon Springs to Green Cove Springs or from Orange City. Many traveled by train and riverboat – VIA of Green Cove Springs is on the St. Johns River just south of Jacksonville.
That’s when our Federation began in Florida and like so many other states, women took up causes and gathered together to form clubs and organize in an effort to have a collective voice for change in their communities.
When we celebrate club anniversaries, I’ve often read that many of our clubs began in an effort to beautify communities and to have some influence over getting the cows and the pigs off the streets. One club was clever enough to capture the wild pigs that roamed their streets and then sell them back to their owners, often to the husbands of the members – what a great idea for a fundraiser.
Clubwomen of GFWC first began expressing interest in conservation as early as 1896 and advocacy for green spaces rapidly became a central concern. By 1902 GFWC had created the Forestry Committee, the precursor to today’s Conservation Committee. Clubwomen across the country became active participants in the fight for national parks.
In 1905-1909 the Governor of Florida, Napolean Bonapart Broward, was all for draining “The Swamp” so that development could continue into this area. Edith Gifford and Mary Barr Munroe had a different idea. If we destroyed it all, what would be left of the beauty that is this park and South Florida for those who come after us.
In 1906 Edith Gifford introduced a Resolution at the General Federation of Women’s Clubs National Convention to form a Conservation Department, and Mary Belle King Sherman from the Colorado Federation became Chair of that department in 1914, where she advocated for the establishment of the National Park Service. As President of the General Federation of Women’s Clubs from 1922-1926, she was Nicknamed “The National Park Lady,” and was instrumental in helping to establish six national parks. Specifically she became a force in lobbying for the creation of Rocky Mountain National Park in 1915, and was involved in the campaign for the Grand Canyon National Park in 1919. As Conservation Chairman, Sherman threw the full support of the General Federation of Women’s Clubs behind the creation of the National Park Service, which became a reality on August 25, 1916.
In particular we appreciated her involvement with the dedication of Royal Palm Park in 1916 when she said in part:
“It is to the great credit of the Florida women that they had the vision, in these days of commercialism, to save one of their most beautiful natural scenic places for park purposes. Natural scenery becomes our greatest asset when we use it for recreation – for giving rest and encouragement to the weary and toil worn of this generation and for the development of the boys and girls of today into good citizens of tomorrow.
“I know of no other state which is doing such good work in conservation along so many lines as the Florida Federation of Women’s Clubs, and in addition you have the distinction of being the only state federation to have secured a state park.
“People build monuments of costly structure to perpetuate the memory of themselves to somebody else, but none of these is as worthy of praise as the setting aside of one of the God given beauty spots for the enjoyment of the men, women and children of the land.
“Florida is rich in its natural resources, and doubly rich in having men and women who appreciate the beauty of the state and recognize the need of saving it.” End quote.
Procurement of Royal Palm Park would not have been accomplished without the lobbying work done by the 1914-1917 Florida Federation of Women’s Clubs President, May Mann Jennings. It was a unique time for Florida Federation because of the history May Mann Jennings had with the Florida Legislature, having served as Florida’s First Lady during the 1901-1905 Governorship of her husband, William S. Jennings, and serving as hostess for her father, Austin Mann, while he served in the late 1800’s in the Florida Legislature.
It was interesting that during that time while living in Tallahassee she married William S. Jennings on May 12, 1891, and was escorted down the aisle by the full legislative membership – she definitely had some influence over them.
With this background and her boundless energy she was more than qualified to lead the fight to stop exploitation and to save Royal Palm Hammock.
The last day of the Legislative Session for 1915 was about to occur and they would not meet again for two years. But on June 2nd, the house passed the Royal Palm Park Bill and on June 5, 1915, Governor “Park” Trammell approved and signed into law the first and only State Park created by a Legislative Act. By this law, the Florida Federation of Women’s Clubs became the only Federation in the United States to own a State Park. Soon after the law was passed Mary Lily Kenan Flagler donates 960 acres as an endowment thus increasing the park to 1,920 acres.
By 1921, 2080 more acres are donated by the state, making Royal Palm a 4,000 acre state park.
And the rest of this story of “A Land Remembered” is that the Florida Federation of Women’s Clubs took charge of the park, hired a ranger, built a lodge, cut roads and maintained the park in perpetuity until it was deeded to the National Park Service and became part of the Everglades National Park in 1947.
The women of the Florida Federation of Women’s Clubs met the challenge, they accomplished their goals, they rose above the idea of failure, they did it!
May Mann Jennings said in her dedication of the Park in 1916 and as President of the GFWC Florida Federation of Women’s Clubs, I too state: “With the power in me vested as President of the Florida Federation of Women’s Clubs, I hereby re-dedicate this Royal Palm Park to the people of Florida and their children forever.” Thank you.
Minnie Bell Johnson
Minnie Bell Johnson is described by her fellow clubwomen as the happiest person they know, with a smile that brightens the whole room. Having just celebrated her 100th birthday, she has many reasons to smile. During her time with the Portland Woman’s Club (Oregon), she has served as both the club treasurer and club president. She’s still an active member to this day, voting on issues and club elections, and participating in projects like handing out personal care products to homeless women at the Rose Haven Women and Children’s Day Shelter.
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