In our last column we discussed two pieces of Miami memorabilia and one remarkable piece of railroadiana that are the oldest known in and of the genres noted: the oldest piece of marked Miamiana, the 1823 hand-written abstract for the 94,100 acres of Miami and the oldest known marked piece of Dade County memorabilia, the 1878 Revenue Collector’s book as well as the oldest piece known to exist of U. S. railroad memorabilia, the ribbon worn by each of the participants in the ceremony for the breaking of ground for the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad (B & O) on July 4, 1828. How was I fortunate enough to acquire those incredible pieces would be and is a valid and quite legitimate question and the answer(s) is/are below.
We begin with the first of the three pieces which came into our possession, the B & O ribbon. Now, in discussing this piece we must state that it is one of three or four known to exist, two of which are in the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad Museum in Baltimore. The ribbon is white, silk-like, with gold letters and artwork and it reads as follows: “Commemorating the Breaking of Ground for the Balto & Ohio R. R. by Charles Carroll of Carrollton, Last Surviving Signer of the Declaration of Independence, July 4, 1828.” The drawing (picture) of the event appears in several B & O and railroad fan publications, each of those showing the participants wearing the ribbon. So, how did this writer come into possession of this wonderful piece?
From early 1976 until February of 1978 I was general manager of the famous New York Gaslight Club, at 124 East 56th St. in New York City and because we were a city club (not a country club) we were closed on Sundays and on all federal holidays, allowing me time to “schvengy around” and go to the numerous antique and memorabilia shows held frequently in the Big Apple.
On one particular day I went to one of the shows then held regularly at either the Park Avenue or the 92nd St. Armory, and as was and is my wont, I moved (and still do!) from dealer to dealer my staccato question: “Got any railroad or trolley items?” which was repeated over and over again as I went from booth to booth. At one particular booth the dealer, a woman, said, “yes, I have some kind of old ribbon from, I think, the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad.” I knew immediately what it was but acted non-plused regarding the spectacular piece. I asked what she wanted for it and after some pleasantries and accompanying bargaining we agree on a very fair price. I gave her a check and she promised to send it to me in New York because she lived in Connecticut. About a week later it arrived, held safely in place between two pieces of what I think must have been lucite, the edges heavily taped. It was (and is) a true gem and remains in a place of honor in The Bramson Archive.
But what about the Miami and Dade County pieces?
Some years ago I was Adjunct Professor of History at F I U (now at Barry University and Nova Southeastern University) with several of my classes at the “main” campus out on SW 107th Avenue, just south of Tamiami Trail, the former site of the old Tamiami Airport. Because driving out there from Northeast Dade was a long and arduous journey I usually took the F I U bus from the Biscayne Bay Campus down to what is now the Madique Campus, where that class was held.
I had, in one of my Florida history classes, a very nice young man who had one parent who was a full-blooded Seminole Indian. He loved the class and contributed regularly and one day, after class, I was seated on the bus awaiting departure when I happened to notice him walking toward the parking lot but thinking nothing of it. However, a few minutes later, I noticed him walking back in the direction of the bus carrying a brown paper bag. When he got to the front door of the bus, he jumped aboard and handed me the package. (I usually sat in the first row of seats behind the driver). “Professor Bramson,” he said, “for you!” and jumped off the bus.
Opening the package I was somewhat bewildered, as it looked look a quite old, well beat up book, with some masking tape along the spine helping to hold the covers in place. My immediate thought was “what is this? I don’t collect old books.” (I do, but only if Florida or railroad-related). When I opened the book, my body tingled with excitement for written in long hand, in purple ink, were the words “Revenue Collector’s Book, Dade County, Florida/1878” Needless to say (write) and even though I am saying (writing) it, I was excited beyond words.
While I didn’t recognize many of the 32 names in the book, I certainly did recognize Mr. and Mrs. Sturtevant (Julia Tuttle’s parents) and Mary and William Brickell. There were 32 names in the book and the total tax collected in Dade County for that year was $3600.00! Indeed, I was excited!
The next day I called my friends, John Shipley, then-director of the Florida collection at the Miami-Dade Public Library and Dawn Hughes, then-archivist at the Historical Association of Southern Florida, now HistoryMiami. Asking each if they had anything that old, I received the same answer from each of them: “oh my god, Seth, where did you find it? We don’t have anything Dade County marked that is that old,” hence I learned that I was in possession of the oldest piece of marked Dade County memorabilia in existence. (How it turned up where it did and “the rest of the story” is another story for another time.)
And what about the 1823 hand-written abstract? As we have previously written on Mr. Berkwitt’s fine website, several years ago I made the largest single purchase of historic Florida memorabilia ever made by a—now note the disclaimer words—private individual in the history of the state. (That, of course, makes it clear, I hope and trust, that it is likely that the State Museum or one or more of our great universities in Florida might have made one or more larger purchases of said memorabilia, but none have ever come forward to state that they have). That collection, as previously explained hereon, was the collection of the late, great Florida carpetbagger, scalawag, lieutenant governor and amasser of massive amounts of Florida land, William Gleason, no relation to Jackie!
Some years ago (time flies when you’re having fun, so I don’t remember exactly when) I was invited to give a talk on the history of the Florida East Coast Railway in Sebastian, near Vero Beach, in, I think, Indian River County. Following the talk a sweet-faced, somewhat portly gentleman with a full head of silver hair came up to me and after thanking me for the talk and telling me how much he enjoyed it, introduced himself. In his sweet, soft, Florida cracker accent, he said, “Seth, my name is Johnnie Hiott and I wonder if you have ever heard of William Gleason.”
I looked at him, smiled, and said “William Gleason? You mean the man who came to Florida after the Civil War, who was a carpetbagger and a scalawag, who became lieutenant governor of Florida, acquired thousands upon thousands of acres of land, brought the courthouse back to Biscayne (now Miami Shores) from Juno in 1900 by boat, was kicked out of Dade County for doing nothing worse than William Brickell had done, moved to Eau Gallie (and as I was speaking the man’s eyes were widening substantially), had numerous businesses there and throughout the state and became Eau Gallie postmaster? That William Gleason? Nope,” I continued, “never heard of him!”
Suffice to say, ladies and gentlemen, and to quote one of the greatest and most famous lines in the history of moviedom, “Louie, I think this is the beginning of a beautiful friendship.” And it was.
Over the course of several years, on our way home following the Jacksonville railroad memorabilia show, we would stop and stay overnight at one of the Marriotts in Melbourne, and for Sunday breakfast, Johnny was always our guest. By the second or third year we had a fast friendship and it was then that Johnnie told me—just like in “Willie Wonka and the Chocolate Factory” that he was looking for somebody who would be the right person for him to sell the collection to. I was, and he did, and the Gleason collection, numbering not thousands but tens of thousands of documents is now safely ensconced in The Bramson Archive, one of the prime items (besides the only two known to exist in Dade County Julia Tuttle signed letters, the Mary Brickell signed letter, the Ada Merritt signed letter and the numerous Lemon City, Fulford and Ojus letters) in the collection.
Next time, we move on to discuss more of the gems in the largest collection of FEC Railway and Florida transportation memorabilia in the world and the largest private collection (private as opposed to the museums) of Miami memorabilia and Floridiana in the country.