Friday, November 28, 2014

Utopia it wasn't

Historic photo of log cabin in Tillman, Florida, in the 1890s.
This 1890s Florida Memory photo shows a log cabin in
Tillman. The settlement predated the Indian River Catholic
Colony, which predated today's Palm Bay.
Photo credit: Florida Memory
My acquaintance with Palm Bay has always been from the interstate, as we travel to and from my in-laws' home farther south. To me, Palm Bay was a midcentury fabrication that had been planted in wilderness in the 1960s, and then had swelled to vast proportions. Another Deltona. It certainly wasn't where I expected to find remains of the pioneer Florida Indian River Catholic Colony.

I was intrigued when I first learned of the Catholic Colony, which existed from about 1911 to 1914. My enthusiasm waned when I saw references to the colony as being a "land company." Florida's history is riddled with land company endeavors. Given the name Catholic Colony, I had half-expected a utopian community - an exercise in communal life rooted in faith. The reality was more mundane. The colony was a settlement attempt that failed, and decades later Palm Bay steamrolled over the ghost town's remains. Except for St. Joseph Catholic Church, the colony's church and possibly the oldest building in Palm Bay. The church's website says the settlers were so disillusioned with the land company they refused to use the place of worship provided for them, and instead built one by themselves.

Just how bad could the Florida Indian River Catholic Colony have been? For one, it started in a spot that already had a name, Tillman, and some settlers. Second, it apparently oversold Florida's virtues to such an extent that reality proved unbearable.  The rise and fall was swift: The company filed as a for-profit corporation in 1911, and by 1914 a Fr. Gabriel Ruppert was guiding disgruntled settlers in the building of their own simple church. The church's website says the people "were not favorably disposed to anyone closely associated with the Florida Indian River Catholic Colony."

The colony was a development company based in North Dakota, according to the diary of a Dr. Watson who treated the settlers in Florida. He wrote that German and Slavic farmers from the Midwest had been lured to Florida by promises of two crops a year in a tropical paradise.

Online sleuthing has uncovered what appears to be a slim promotional booklet published by the company. The only copy available is in the Special Collections Department of the University of Florida George A. Smathers Libraries. I hope I get to read it. In keeping with my optimistic nature, I like to think that somewhere within its 14 pages, good intentions abound. A settlement scheme that flounders because of ignorance or inexperience would be understandable. One rooted in the efforts of get-rich-quick schemers would not be. Nor would it be very Catholic.

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