Presidential Trail Launched in Time for GOP Convention

During the Cuban Missile Crisis, the Peanut Island bunker off Palm Beach was where Kennedy would have evacuated in the event of a nuclear strike.

With the Republicans holding their convention in Tampa in late August, VISIT FLORIDA is looking to remind the GOP faithful and political buffs that the Sunshine State has its own important role in presidential history even though none of the chief executives called the state home.

VISIT FLORIDA recently launched the Presidential Trail, highlighting sites around the Sunshine State with connections to various presidents.

“The Sunshine State is no stranger to presidents,” insisted Pam Forrester from VISIT FLORIDA on Friday. “From north to south and on each coast, Florida has welcomed presidents for centuries. Museums, attractions, hotels and restaurants tell the story of Florida through presidents who have visited, convalesced or even held state summits.”

The president with the most ties to Florida may be Andrew Jackson. One of the nation’s most decorated heroes from the War of 1812, Jackson led American forces that invaded Spanish Florida in a campaign against the Seminoles in 1817 and 1818. Jackson’s actions, which had the ambiguous blessing of President James Monroe, led to America purchasing Florida from Spain in 1819 after negotiations conducted by then-Secretary of State John Quincy Adams. Jackson would serve as military governor of Florida in 1821 before running for the White House in 1824. While Jackson would lose to Adams in that election, he would crush the incumbent in a rematch in 1828. VISIT FLORIDA includes the Plaza Ferdinand VII in Pensacola, where Jackson was sworn in as governor in 1821, in the Presidential Trail.

Jackson was not the only future president who led military forces in Florida. VISIT FLORIDA is encouraging the Republicans convening in Tampa to head over to the Henry Plant Museum at the University of Tampa. Back in 1898, as America prepared to invade Cuba in the Spanish-American War, Teddy Roosevelt and his Rough Riders stayed there when it was the Tampa Bay Hotel. {pullquote}

While Jackson may have been the president with the most links to Florida, other commanders in chief also had connections to the Sunshine State. In 1933, Joseph P. Kennedy would purchase beachfront property in Palm Beach — and his second son, John F. Kennedy, the nation’s 35th president, would return to the family home there to relax and hold important meetings. JFK was in Palm Beach when he mulled over whom to name to his Cabinet and one of his closest allies in the Senate was Florida's own George Smathers.

Off Palm Beach is Peanut Island. VISIT FLORIDA includes it as part of the Presidential Trail because a nuclear bunker was constructed on it. During the Cuban Missile Crisis, the Peanut Island bunker was where Kennedy would have evacuated in the event of a nuclear strike. Recently declassified, the bunker is now open to the public.

There are two stops on the Presidential Trail associated with Warren G. Harding. While he did not approve of his daughter’s marriage to Ohio businessman Amos Kling, Harding let his son-in-law vacation in his winter home in Daytona Beach. Kling built the house in 1907 and the Hardings would leave Ohio to vacation there in the winters as Harding rose the political ladder until he was elected president in 1920. The old Kling home is now the Cellar, a restaurant in Daytona Beach.

Also included on the Presidential Trail are the winter homes of Thomas Edison and Henry Ford in Fort Myers. Harding visited both locations as did his Secretary of Commerce Herbert Hoover. Hoover, who would go on to be president after winning the 1928 presidential election, would also come to the Sunshine State in his more than three decades post-presidency when he would pursue his passion for fishing.

Hoover was not the only president who enjoyed fishing in Florida. Despite his feuds with Claude Pepper, Harry Truman loved heading to Florida, setting up the “Little White House” in Key West. VISIT FLORIDA includes the site as part of the Presidential Trail. Truman would spend half a year during his two terms in office at Key West, heading down to Florida during the late fall and late winter. Truman would keep returning to Key West during his years after the presidency.

Farther out in the Gulf is Fort Jefferson on Dry Tortugas. VISIT FLORIDA listed Fort Jefferson as part of the Presidential Trail since Dr. Samuel Mudd was imprisoned there. Mudd attended John Wilkes Booth who broke his leg after shooting Abraham Lincoln in Ford’s Theater in 1865 — which led to the doctor being convicted. Andrew Johnson, who became president after Lincoln’s death, pardoned Mudd in 1869 during the dying days of his term since the doctor had helped a yellow fever outbreak at Fort Jefferson.

Other sites included on the Presidential Trail are the Hall of Presidents at Walt Disney World and the Presidents Hall of Fame in Clermont.

But there are other presidents who left their imprint on the Sunshine State even if there are little traces of them today.

Zachary Taylor would prove one of the more successful American commanders in the Second Seminole War, serving in Florida in the late 1830s. A grateful Florida would back Taylor in 1848 when he ran for the White House as a Whig, making him the first presidential candidate to carry the state. James Garfield, then an up-and-coming congressman in uniform, was penciled in to command Union forces in Florida in the Civil War before he was ordered elsewhere. President Richard Nixon would buy a home in Key Biscayne from Smathers in 1969 which became the Florida White House. Not too far from the home of his close friend, Florida banker Bebe Rebozo, Nixon would visit the Florida White House more than 50 times during his presidency.

Other presidents would head to Florida to vacation. Ulysses S. Grant would vacation in Florida, traveling on riverboats after his years in office. Trying to cope with Bright’s disease, Chester A. Arthur escaped the White House and headed to Florida in 1883, only to worsen his condition, which would lead to his death in 1886. Both Theodore Roosevelt and William Howard Taft would vacation in White Springs in the northern part of the state. Before he contracted polio in 1921, Franklin Delano Roosevelt would sail off the Atlantic coast, keeping a boat docked in Jacksonville. FDR would also barely escape an assassination attempt in Miami in February 1933, less than a month before he took the oath of office.

Presidents also had familial connections to Florida. Jeb Bush, son of one president and brother of another, served two terms as governor of the Sunshine State. Hugh Rodham, Bill Clinton’s brother-in-law, ran against U.S. Sen. Connie Mack in 1994 and was utterly routed at the polls. Banker Rutherford Platt Hayes, son of Rutherford B. Hayes, lived in both Umatilla and Clearwater and was active with Republicans across Florida.

This story was republished with permission of the Sunshine State News.

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