Porters pays tribute to its rich history


University of Florida mascots, Albert and Alberta Gator watch the unveiling ceremony of the “The Ballpark” historical marker at Porters Community Center.

ASHLEY CRANE/Special to the Guardian
Published: Wednesday, February 27, 2013 at 2:08 p.m.
Last Modified: Wednesday, February 27, 2013 at 2:08 p.m.

University of Florida mascots Albert and Alberta stood behind the Santa Fe Brass Band and greeted the crowd while performing their typical hijinks. They took band members' hats off and placed them on their own heads as the band continued to play.

Then they took to the crowd, where Albert sat among them with his feet up on the chair in front of him while Alberta, skirt in hand, curtsied to the audience. The band belted out "Blues in the Night" and the celebration was under way.

More than 100 people came out for last Saturday's unveiling of the "The Ballpark" historical marker at the Porters Community Center, located at 512 SW 6th Ave. The event also recognized two local churches that in 1915 participated in an Emancipation Day celebration at the ballpark.

The historical marker recognizes the field as the original ballpark where UF held its first football game against the Gainesville Athletic Association on Oct. 5, 1906. UF won the game 16-6.

Through research, Alfred Awbrey discovered the field's location and its link to UF. Awbrey then worked with Stephanie Seawright and Gigi Simmons of the Porters Community Neighborhood Organization to obtain the Florida historical marker to recognize the site.

"This is an historical occasion," Simmons said, "which highlights the rich background and the culture of the Porter's community."

The Porters ballpark attracted several famous entertainers over its 60-year lifespan, such as "Grand Ole Opry" star Minnie Pearl and western movie star Jack Hoxie.

Awbrey talked about the old ballpark and its eventful history.

Its precise location is difficult to pin down, but he knows the ballpark was bounded by what is today SW 5th Avenue to the north and by today's Depot Avenue to the south. To the east, it was bounded by SW 1st Street and, to the west, by SW 3rd Street.

Historical accounts say the park was created when the Oak Hall baseball team formed in 1883 and decided on the area, which at the time was agricultural land, for a field.

Many teams played at the ballpark over the years, including Gainesville High School, which held its first recorded game there in 1903.

"The baseball park truly brought the community together," Awbrey said.

The East Florida Seminary Cadets played football there from 1902 to 1904. They played against the Florida Agricultural College of Lake City, which became UF, as well as the Florida State College of Tallahassee, which became Florida State University.

Awbrey said that after being defeated once by the Cadets, the Tallahassee college was supposed to return for a rematch. But on the day of the game, they sent a telegram stating that they wouldn't be coming and offered no explanation, Awbrey said.

"So, as you can see, things between Tallahassee and Gainesville have not really changed much in over a hundred years," he said to a chuckling crowd.

UF's football team, which didn't have a name at the time, played at the ballpark from 1906 to 1910 because of the field's eight-foot-tall wooden fence, which allowed the university to charge for admission, Awbrey said. Admission cost 25 cents at the time, and all told, UF made a $5.20 profit from the game.

At the end of the 1910 season, UF purchased the fence surrounding the field and moved it to campus around what is now known as Fleming Field, ending the official use of the ballpark.

After UF bought the fence, the ballpark was divided into individual lots that were offered for sale. The piece that once stood where the community center is currently located was called the Lynch Lot, and over the next 30 years it was used for traveling shows such as circuses and festivals.

Also on Saturday, Alicia Antone, director of the Matheson Museum, and Simmons recognized Friendship Baptist Church and the New Jerusalem Baptist Association for their participation in the 50th anniversary of Emancipation Day, which took place at the ballpark. Each church received plaques embossed with a 1915 Daily Sun article covering the churches' involvement.

"We are grateful to have this opportunity to stand on, what I almost call, holy ground because so many people sweat their own blood to be where we are today," Antone said. "And lest we forget, in April 16, 1853, when the proclamation was signed, let us always remember Emancipation Day and always remember our elders."

The historical marker was unveiled to the brass band playing the GHS fight song. The band then played "Take Me Out to the Ballgame" while the crowd sang along.

Susie M. Demps, whose family has lived in the Porter's community since 1949, remembers traveling shows, such as the Silas Green Show, that once took place in the park. She said she has seen the community go through bad times and sees the historical marker as another improvement to the neighborhood.

"I think the community has grown," she said. "It's a big change in Porters now because it's (become) a quiet area."

Christopher Baldwin is a Gainesville Sun correspondent.

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