Roper Park

UF had its beginnings there, while under another name

People gather around to peer at the just-unveiled state historic marker commemorating James H. Roper at Roper Park at NE 2nd Street and 4th Avenue.

Photos by LEE FERINDEN/Special to The Sun
Published: Thursday, January 1, 2004 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Wednesday, December 31, 2003 at 10:53 p.m.
The unassuming little park at NE 2nd Street and 4th Avenue doesn't look much different than other urban parks that dot the city map.
Sidewalks crisscross it. Mature oak and palm trees provide shade for the children's playground equipment, and there's some nice old-fashioned street lamps to light the way at night.
But its history is monumental. In fact, it has everything to do with the fact the University of Florida is celebrating its 150th year in Gainesville this year.
In 1851, the Florida Legislature passed a bill to establish two tax-supported state schools - one in east Florida, the other in west Florida, divided by the Suwannee River - and the sites would be determined by which two counties offered the most in land and other resources.
A year later, in 1852, East Florida Seminary was founded as a fee-based school in Ocala but, short of funds, the school asked for state support. That support was granted in 1853, and land, buildings and cash were turned over to the state.
Enter James H. Roper to the Gainesville scene. After he earned his degree from Trinity College (now Duke University) in North Carolina, the 21-year-old Roper moved to Gainesville in 1856 in an effort to improve his health.
He was troubled by "consumption," which is now called tuberculosis, or TB.
He built the first school building in town on the southwest corner of the intersection of W. University Avenue and 2nd Street.
The following year, he established Gainesville Academy on the site of present-day Epworth Hall and the First United Methodist Church at 419 NE 1st St.
This was the only school in the county that operated during the Civil War. The East Florida Seminary in Ocala closed when the war began, and Roper - a member of the state Senate in 1865-66 and the Board of Education - engineered its relocation to Gainesville by donating his school's building and site in 1866.
Roper Park, also known as Old City Park, is the original site of the parade grounds and barracks for the East Florida Seminary, a forerunner to UF. The university was located in Gainesville in 1905 in part due to the presence of the seminary.
Roper was president of the seminary for the first two years, and remained on the Board of Education through 1883. After his resignation as president, Roper pursued his interests in rental property, orange groves and his livery stable, among other activities.
He was well respected in town, and served as a Gainesville city councilman in 1876. He died at age 48 in his hometown of Mount Gilead, N.C., where he had moved a year earlier.
The barracks for the East Florida Seminary were built on this site in 1886, directly east of the academic hall. The two-story frame building had a double veranda along the south side, and a two-story porch surrounded an open courtyard in its center.
The 197x900-foot building occupied the north half of the block. Out-of-town students lived in 45 12x14-foot rooms that contained two iron beds with moss mattresses and feather pillows, a study table, a washstand and a stove. Male teachers occupied 14 rooms.
The kitchen, bathrooms and infirmary were located in separate buildings north of the barracks, and the two-story dining hall was located on the east side of the lower floor.
Parade grounds where male students were required to do daily military drills occupied the south half of the block. The Friday dress parade was attended by many of the locals, particularly the young women in town.
When Gainesville was awarded the University of Florida, a torchlight parade wound its way through the streets and around the drill field.
The city of Gainesville paid the state $10,000 for the block in 1906. In 1907, Mayor William R. Thomas bought the barracks for $1,000, which he added on to White House Hotel, then located at 408 NE 1st St.
Sun staff writer Marina Blomberg contributed to this report.

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