Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Before Surfboards & Bikinis

Disappointed by the locked doors on Monday, Tuesday afternoon was set aside for the small but surprisingly good New Smyrna Beach Historical Museum. The museum is located in the historic district, on Sams Avenue, just off Canal, the main street. The top photograph on the right is a look at the corner of Canal and Sams Avenue at some time in the 1930s. The museum is a hundred feet off the right edge of the photo. The store on the corner is now a restaurant called Jason’s Corner Restaurant and where I had lunch before going to the museum. The best thing about Jason’s? The outside table on Canal Street. The club sandwich was nothing more than an ordinary halved ham & swiss on rye with a tiny bag of potato chips and a Beverly Hills price tag. I asked the waitress about the photo on the menu (same photo on the right) and she said, “I think it’s old.”

The Historical Museum building (second on the right) dates from 1872, was the first public school in New Smyrna Beach and cost $42 to build. The outside appearance is deceptive. Nothing from the exterior gives any clue to the richness of the collection inside. Yes, it is small but not one foot of its space is wasted. For any visitor patient enough to look closely at the exhibits, the result is an excellent overview of the city’s history, its founding and its early years. The volunteers on duty are very knowledgeable and eager to answer questions.

In April of last year I wrote a few lines about the history of New Smyrna Beach and it’s too bad I didn’t know then what I learned today. Some of those earlier remarks could use a dash of correction fluid. To my own loss it wasn’t until recently that I learned about the city’s historical museum.

During the eighteenth century years of empire building, Spain and Britain agreed to exchange parts of their New World holdings, and in 1763 Cuba went to Spain while Britain got Florida. Dr Andrew Turnbull, a Scottish doctor and at one time British Consul to the city of Smyrna, Greece (now Izmir, Turkey) knew that the British crown sought to plant colonies in the newly acquired Florida territory and so developed a plan to take European settlers to the area. Planning, negotiation, and gathering enough capital took time, but by 1763 he had received for his project a 60,000 acre land grant on the east coast of Florida, had procured eight ships, 1,400 indentured servant-colonists and the minimum stocks needed to seed a colony in Florida.

It was a plan grander by far than any previous British attempts and everyone involved had high hopes. The settlers were contracted to labor until the colony became profitable, at which point they would be given land in Florida. They came mostly from the Mediterranean island of Minorca, but also from Italy, Greece, Spain and Corsica. The colony was established and named Smyrnéa after the home of Turnbull’s wife and site of his former consulship, Smyrna, Greece. It was to be an agricultural colony, the main crop being indigo (photo at the right). This became a profitable export, with two or three harvestings a year. Unfortunately for the settlers and for Dr Turnbull, an artificial form of blue dye was on the horizon. But the beginning was profitable and the colonists were optimistic.

In time drought and disease began to badly tax the settlement and discontent became commonplace among the increasingly hungry people. Dr Turnbull and his investors were primarily businessmen and the loses began to weigh heavily. The colonists felt used and tied to an indenture that promised no end. By 1777 the Smyrnéa colony had reached an end. The American Revolution combined with drought years, disease and discontent finally brought the venture to its knees.

For the next 100 years the area was controlled for the most part by native Indians. In 1887 the town of New Smyrna was incorporated. The population was 150.

Most visitors to the city these days are here for the beach, the fishing and the scenic beauty of those beaches. I have a friend coming to visit soon from Japan. One of the must-see places during that time will be the New Smyrna Beach Historical Museum.

120 Sams Avenue, New Smyrna Beach • Tuesday-Saturday 10:00-4:00 p.m.


  1. How can someone not be fascinated by history?--by the true pioneers who battled mosquitoes and storms and axes dulled by carving out the wilderness? These folks (even the indentured ones) seeking a new start, a better life, cried and felt pain and no doubt loved fiercely. All those things unchanged by history.

  2. I have owned property in New Smyrna Beach for over 25 years and only through this post did I learn of the history. Thank you for the most interesting story of the history of the town. It makes one look at it in a very different light. Of course, the history is of Smyrna. Wonder how long it took for the island of New Smyrna Beach to develop. Another visit to historical places might uncover that information.

  3. Re: a couple of days ago:
    So Talese writes in an ascot. Does he also wear jodhpurs?
    With all the snow outside, a windowless bunker sounds inviting...


About Me

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Oak Hill, Florida, United States
A longtime expat relearning the footwork of life in America