Monday, April 29, 2019

Manhattan in Florida

Late 1800s photo of men standing on hotel dock in Astor, FL labels this photo as a view from the depot
of two hotels in Astor in the late 1800s.
Drive through the hamlet of Astor today. You certainly won't think about big city life. The rural community hugs the Ocala National Forest on one side and the St. Johns River on the other. About 1,500 people call Astor home.

Yet the settlement was once called Manhattan by one who knew what he was talking about - William Backhouse Astor. In 1874, the wealthy New Yorker bought some 12,000 acres in what is today Astor. He and two partners laid out a settlement that he named Manhattan. Astor poured energy, imagination, and funding into the community, but it never came near resembling its northern namesake. In fact, even in the early days, many people called the settlement Astor.

The region's settlement is explained in a 40-page local history published as a project of the Astor Kiwanis Club in 1982.  The History of Astor on the St. Johns, Astor Park, and the Surrounding Area was compiled by A. Wass de Czege. (There's an enlarged third edition with 64 pages, but I've never seen it.) I like the one I have because it includes some reminiscences of then-elderly people who'd been around Astor in much earlier days. I'll write about them next month.

As was usual in the late 1800s, the land and climate in Astor were extolled to northerners as abounding in healthful qualities. William Astor built a church, school and general store, set aside land for a cemetery, planted orange groves, and created a botanical garden. He built two hotels - one named the Astor House - but never stayed in either of them. He preferred to stay on his yacht (25). That gives you some indication of his standard milieu. He wasn't just any rich Yankee. His family was the famous - and famously rich - Astor clan. His wife ruled New York society during the Gilded Age.

Astor even built a railroad in his southern Manhattan. The Kiwanis Club's booklet says the settlement thrived for a while. Visitors reported finding no vacancies at the hotels. Astor's wealthy friends built winter cottages. Many new settlers invested in and grew citrus and bananas.

Then two things happened: Astor died in 1894, and a severe freeze in 1894-95 devastated the area's citrus industry and banana growth. Astor's son, John Jacob Astor IV, did what he could to reinvigorate the community, in part by turning to forestry industries.

But John Jacob Astor IV went down on the Titanic in 1912.  His son cared little for the town, and "the 'Astor dream' was over," (28) reports the Kiwanis booklet.

But the town survived. Astor heirs sold what was legally known as the Manhattan Grant to the Duluth Land Company (29), which marketed land to immigrants in Minnesota who'd come primarily from Finland. Periods of growth and recession followed, until the town settled into its current configuration. Today, small homes and fish camps nestle in a riverfront setting surrounded by the majesty of a national forest, and life unfolds in the way of small towns everywhere.

In some ways, better than Manhattan.

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