The sage of St. Augustine

Historian Michael Gannon holds a copy of the first published history of St. Augustine and Florida, printed in Madrid, Spain in 1723, alongside his most recent work, The History of Florida, at home in Gainesville.

Erica Brough
Published: Tuesday, April 1, 2014 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Sunday, March 30, 2014 at 1:54 p.m.

Michael Gannon, distinguished service professor emeritus of history at the University of Florida, figures his personal history has been entwined with that of the city of St. Augustine for half a century.

So as a member of the board of directors of UF Historic St. Augustine (UFHSA), the 87-year-old Gannon is passionate about preserving the city’s historic colonial buildings and telling the real stories behind them.

Truth has sometimes been lacking in the spiel offered to tourists who for generations have made their way to the Ancient City.

“The falsehoods brought disrepute to the city for trading in fiction, rather than fact,” Gannon says. He has spent much of his life setting the record straight.

Gannon has written or edited a number of books on St. Augustine, but he hasn’t lost his excitement about the city’s place in the history of colonial America.

It was, he says, the first such colony in the whole of North America from the Mexican border to and through Canada. St. Augustine was the place where Europe planted itself on the American continent for the first, continuous time.

“This is where you find the first city government, city plan, first courts of law, first schools, first library and the first church and Indian mission,” he explains.

For religious reasons, St. Augustine is important because it is where the first parish in North America was established north of Mexico in 1565. The Spanish Franciscan missions that followed were headquartered in St. Augustine and expanded up the coast and westward as far as Tallahassee.

“By 1655, you had 26,000 Christian Indians living around those missions, learning to read, write, farm and more,” says Gannon.

“Those missionaries spent the noon and evening of their lives living among the Indians, in one of the most unselfish acts of the whole colonial period.”

Gannon likes to say that by the time English settlers founded a colony at Jamestown, Virginia, “St. Augustine was already up for urban renewal.”

Early efforts at historic preservation never amounted to much, he reports. Then in 1959, Florida Governor Le Roy Collins created the St. Augustine Restoration Commission, which became the Historic St. Augustine Preservation Board. Gannon was a board member for 17 years.

“Except for funds to reconstruct one building, we never saw a nickel of state money,” he says. Most of what the board did was historical and archeological research into the buildings that were under state control.

“We did what we could with no money,” says Gannon.

Historians and archeologists with the University of Florida already had a 40-year relationship with St. Augustine when a new approach was suggested.

In 2007, Dr. William Proctor, president of Flagler College and a representative in the state Legislature, proposed that St. Augustine should take a look at what was done in Pensacola. The city made an arrangement with the Legislature to obtain state funds that would be funneled through the University of West Florida to the preservation program in Pensacola. This mating of a city with the preservation board using state monies would prove to be very successful.

Proctor arranged for a representative of the Pensacola program to talk with a select group from the University of Florida in St. Augustine. Kathleen Deagan and Gannon were among the UF contingent.

“It was a daring concept, but President Machen said he loved the idea,”Gannon says.

Roy Hunt, retired from UF’s law faculty and an ardent preservationist, prepared legislation that was passed by the state Legislature, and in 2010, the first $400,000 in funding was authorized.

The 38 properties in St. Augustine would be treated exactly as those on the UF campus, and would receive recurring funding year after year. There are also 23 parcels or lots in the colonial district that are under UF control, plus nine other buildings that the university leases from the St. Augustine Historical Society.

Gannon says he regards UFHSA as “a fascinating experience.” He says he stops short of calling the collaboration “an experiment” because although it is a rare arrangement, it has proven its workability and value.

Despite some early doubters, “when things began to get fixed and brightened up, everybody began to say this was a great idea after all,” he says.

The second year’s allocation of state funds was $1 million, the third year, $1.4 million. This doesn’t come out of the university budget, Gannon emphasizes, but is funded by a separate legislative action.

Gannon says his contribution to the story of St. Augustine revolves around the first Thanksgiving, held on the grounds of the Mission Nombre de Dios in 1565, not in Plymouth, Massachusetts in 1620.

When Spanish admiral and explorer Pedro Menendez de Aviles landed with 800 settlers somewhere in the vicinity of the mission grounds on September 8, 1565, a mass was held to give thanks for their safe arrival. Of 19 ships that started the voyage, only five made it to Florida.

The mass was followed by a communal meal, where the admiral and his men dined with the Indians. The meal came from ship’s stores.

“We think it was a stew made of salt pork and garbanzo beans flavored with garlic, along with bread and red wine. We have to wonder how that sat on the Indians’ tummies,” Gannon says. He wrote about the historic meal in his 1965 book “The Cross in the Sand.”

After his revisionist history of Thanksgiving was circulated by the Associated Press, “it was three days and three nights of phone calls. What an ordeal,” he says.

“I remember one call from a hard rock station DJ in Ventura, California. He asked for the professor who said there was a Thanksgiving in St. Augustine before there was one in Plymouth, Massachusetts.

“I got on the phone and was told, ‘Stand by, professor baby, I’m going to slip you in between Twisted Sister and the Boomtown Rats.’

“I was big in Ventura that day, but I’m sure my name was Mudd in New England,” he says with a chuckle.

The professor and author admits to being a romantic who often imagines the past as he wanders down St. George Street or Avenida Menendez. If a settler from the second Spanish period (1783 to 1821) came back to the colonial quarter, he says, they would recognize the low-lying, two-story buildings and, of course, the nearby castillo. St. George Street, restored and reconstructed, now looks like a charming colonial village.

Gannon was born in Fort Sill, Oklahoma, not St. Augustine. He came to the city with his widowed mother and two brothers and went to high school there. During high school, he worked as a bellhop in the old Alhambra Hotel across King Street from the far fancier Ponce de Leon Hotel.

In the years building up to America’s entrance into the second world war, the Alhambra, with its bar and casino, drew plenty of soldiers who were training at Camp Blanding and sailors from Jacksonville.

“Just ask me how to break up a fight between two drunken sailors,” Gannon says as an aside.

The hotel burned to the ground in 1954, but his high school job there has inspired him to begin work on a book on life in St. Augustine during World War II.

His life’s work seems inseparable from the history of the city he loves. It has certainly earned him numerous honors and awards.

Gannon was named a knight commander of the Order of Isabel the Catholic in 1990 by King Juan Carlos of Spain. In 2007 he was awarded the highest decoration of the City of St. Augustine, the Order of La Florida. In 2011 he received a lifetime literary achievement award from the Florida Humanities Council.

“I’ve been involved in St. Augustine for half a century, as a member of just about every committee over there,” he says. “All the friends I’ve made and projects I’ve participated in have made me a St. Augustiner even though I am an outsider. That is a great honor.”

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