Roadside Archaeology

Adventures in Roadside Archaeology - Old FL Route 23 / 50

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About 6 months back, my son and I went ‘splorin near the Green Swamp tract of the Withlacoochee State Forest, hoping to find some large "Welcome to Sumter County" markers erected in the early 1900’s, marking the Sumter County FL line. These markers were rumored to be located in the middle of the swamp / forest, on what was once the main road into Hernando County.

During one of my trips down the Internet rabbit hole, I found a 1923 article covering a new 12 mile road being completed in Hernando County. It was given the designation of State Road 23. This road connected Pasco County in the south, and Sumter County to the north. It was gone from maps by the 1940’s. The road was renumbered and realigned to the present day FL50.

In June of last year, we got to a dead end road and the remnants of a long abandoned bridge. We felt we were on the right track, but bugs, temps in the 90’s, a dense forest and church clothes held us at bay.

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So today we returned - ready, willing and able. We hoofed it over the remnants of that old wood bridge that hadn’t seen traffic in 75 years. We slugged thru the woods, crossed a barbed wire fence, and there they were maybe 100 yards ahead! Two 8 foot tall concrete markers with the words “Sumter County”...just past the remnants of an even larger bridge, in too bad of shape to try to cross. (We "zoomed in" on our iPhones to capture the markers.)

We tried to access the area from the Sumter County side, but that road was gated and “No Trespassing” signs posted all over. Shortly after our arrival, a local drove down to see what we were up to. Next up - an O.K. from the property owner next to see ‘em close up!
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Adventures in Roadside Archaeology - The Mar-Va Theater in 1985

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Back in 1985 I was 22 years old and worked for a record company, racking records, cassettes and 8-tracks in chain stores like K-Mart, Roses and Nichols. Once a week, my route took me to the Eastern Shore of MD where I overnighted in a cheap old mid-century motel in Salisbury MD.

I usually filled the night with a trip to the local movie theater. One night I checked the phone book and found the Mar-Va Theater in Pocomoke City MD a short drive south. Located a few blocks off US 13, I had no idea of the surprise I was in for.

I got there early before the first (and only) screening at 7pm, so I checked out the building next door. A candy shop? I went in, and ordered a Cherry Coke. Not out of a can, the guy behind the counter grabbed an empty cup, went over to the fountain GAVE IT A FEW SQUIRTS OF CHERRY SYRUP, and filled the cup with Coke! Just like, well...in the old movies I was such a fan of. But there was more.

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The Mar-Va Theater was the genuine article. I paid my $2 to the elderly lady at the ticket booth and went inside.

Growing up in the land of multi-plex theaters, the Mar-Va was a single screen WITH A BALCONY! The place was a time warp. The Mar-Va left me speechless at every turn - leather seats, porcelain and enamel tiling in the bathroom, art deco touches were everywhere. The popcorn machine advertised a price of 15 cents a bag, and the candy in the machine was 10 cents. 1955 prices in 1985.

I went to the ticket booth and asked to meet the owner. The kindly old lady introduced herself - 80 year old Hattie Clarke. She then introduced me to her husband, 81 year old Dawson Clarke. Mr. Clarke was not only the projectionist, he was the theater owner and the Mayor of the town!

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Mr. Clarke explained he used to be the pianist when they used to show silent movies there. He then took me behind the screen to show me the piano he played back in the day for the films. He had played it so much, the white keys were worn to the wood underneath.

I attended the Mar-Va weekly for the next several months and was it an education! I got a detailed demonstration of the projectors - huge things that had to weigh a ton - that had no light bulbs. Two carbon rods were burning inside, and when the screen got dimmed, he cranked a handle to bring them closer together.

He showed me the padlocked, long-closed separate entry doors, bathrooms, candy and popcorn machines, and seats (the now closed balcony) used during segregation.

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He told me all about the Mar-Va, built in 1926 and still 100% original when I discovered it in 1985. Still displaying it's art deco touches, the huge curtain still rolled back when the cartoon (yes, a cartoon!) started before each picture. It had 60 years of wear, but that just made the place even better.

That was 34 years ago and I haven't been back. I read that the Mar-Va fell into disrepair after Mr. Clarke's passing. This story does have a happy ending though - I understand a group of dedicated volunteers have saved the old gal. I can only hope some of the interior touches are still there from 1926...along with a big photo of Mr. Clarke in the lobby.

MORE PHOTOS OF THE MAR-VA THEATER FROM 1985

More photos of Old Fort Dodge

Old Fort Dodge Indian Princess
We have just added several newly found photos and the original newspaper captions from the Tampa Bay Times.

If you have a photo, newspaper clipping or memory of this lost Florida roadside attraction, please contact me.

You can read more on my quest to discover Old Fort Dodge in the blog entries below. You can read newspaper articles here.

Old Fort Dodge - Case Closed.

I finally made it up to Weeki Wachee North, the 55-plus retirement community along US Highway 19, the location of the lost Florida roadside attraction Old Fort Dodge.

After I read that the retirement park was a family owned business, I was hoping that perhaps the owners had some old photos from the time they transformed the classic piece of Florida roadside to the mobile home park it is today.

Like just about everything else with my Old Fort Dodge quest, I was a day late and a dollar short. It seems the park was sold a few years ago to a corporation.

So my journey to find Old Fort Dodge draws to a close. I can't complain - it was a lot of fun. I now know more that I ever thought I would about Old Fort Dodge. I hope you do too.

Has Anyone Seen These Gals?

Fort Dodge Cuties

These local beauties appeared in several Fort Dodge promotional articles.

This photograph is from 1962, which would put these ladies in the neighborhood of 70 years old. If you know who these gals are, please get in touch.

Fort Dodge Florida

Wow! A very special thank you to Colleen, who steered me in the direction of some incredible photographs, the most detailed reference of what Old Fort Dodge looked like thus far! You can CLICK HERE or check out the PICS link at the top of the page.

Fort Dodge employees

Fort Dodge in detail

The article below provides us with the best description of Fort Dodge yet.

from VARIETY -

FT. DODGE - FLA.’S NEWEST TOURIST LURE
Do-It-Yourself Project Lets Visitor Mine Nuggets at Sutter’s Mill, Picnic, Etc. All for $1.65
by Odie Anderson

Brooksville Fla., May 18

A new Fort Dodge, authentically barricaded behind a solid wall of halved pine and cypress, is rising in Sandland and an impatient public is already trekking down Front Street.

This newest Florida tourist attraction, strategically located six miles north of ABC - Paramount’s Weeki Wachee Springs - home of live mermaids - and a few miles south of the Norris Co. Homosassa Springs on US 19, is the rapidly developing brainchild of Paul Bolstein and family. Significantly, it is a mere one-hour run from St. Petersburg and Tampa.

The do-it-yourself project, with its one-mile highway stretch, was started three years ago by the Bolsteins - wife, two daughters and one son. And this particular bit of west is being won by traditional sweat, guts and imagination.

New Yorker Bolstein, past owner of some 10 weekly newspapers, served a stint as operator of a riding school in St. Pete. This, coupled with a bit of ranching in Texas, prompted the present venture.

The family affair is striving for authenticity. Considerable research has gone into establishing a historically accurate old west and education of small fry is high on the agenda. Emerging is a cowtown where a visiting family can find amusement for an entire day.

CAN CAN DANCERS, TOO

A preliminary opening found ready spectators for the Long Branch Saloon - stocked with well-stacked can can dancers - the Globe Press, Dodge House, a land office and general merchandise store.

But the most popular magnet is Sutter’s Mill, with its mountain stream tumbling down some 300 feet into a small pond. Brook is also salted with genuine gold and silver nuggets and semi-precious stones. When panned by visitors, valuables are redeemed at the assayer’s office. Pans are provided and lucky prospectors have gleaned as much as $68 for a single gold nugget. Management purchases back the poke to re-seed Florida’s only gold and silver mine.

Phosphorus painting highlight the history of the day of the Pony Express and it’s brief history in the cavernous Mystery Mountain. Black light plays on colorful scenes of the early west as spectators wind through a darkened area of manmade peaks. A taped recording narrates the saga of the sagebrush

Starring as marshal of the historical replica is Johnny Dodge, film and TV character, who, with his trusty deputies, daily - and inevitably - subdues the forces of frontier crime in well done gunfights.

Christine, the oldest Bolstein daughter, portrays an Indian princess. fitting well into the scene, while a Seminole family village adds color to the compound. Weathered wagon wheels, hitching posts and bovine skulls are used to resurrect picturesque days of the pioneer.

A full-time artist is retained at Fort Dodge, responsible for the art work of the complex as well as roadside signs, more of which are needed to adequately air the attraction.

LEASED SEVERAL CONCESSIONS

The family has leased a number of concessions - the press, the steam engine, which shrilly conveys passengers around the 37 acre area, a stagecoach which catapults from the Wells Fargo office, the barbecued popcorn stand and others.

Foreseeing the venture as more than a mere tourist attraction, the Bolsteins are planning a miniature western golf course, archery and shooting galleries and possibly square dancing to the music of The Thunderbirds, a “Grand Ole Opry” group.

Plans have been laid for an adjacent Mexican village, which will require a tour through customs to an adobe studded compound and following an exchange of American money for South of the Border coin.

Also plotted is an arena type area for presentation of theater-in-the-roux for the straw hat circuit and/or possibly bullfights or native talent.

Envisioned is a constantly changing line up of entertainment, well spiced with book learning’ and catering to repeat family trade. Hopefully, Ford Dodge will soon be granted a charter designating it an incorporated town complete with US Post Office and with personnel of the establishment supplying the required population.

Meanwhile, adults are paying a reasonable $1.65 entry fee, children under 12 traipse through the massive gate with its yet-to-be completed block house without charge. Picnic ares are provided in well shaded areas.

Bolstein has clung doggedly to his controlling interest - resisting capitalistic offers which foresee for Fort Dodge a goldmine similar to that of Six-Gun Territory, some 50 miles northwest in the heart of Florida’s horse racing country. This compound, too, has an ABC-Par neighbor, the Silver Springs spread.

Pay dirt is a mere trickle at Fort Dodge to date. However, the compound which was only a sign by the side of the highway for many months is beginning to make noises indicating that its owner has struck it rich. Proper pushing can put it on the map.

Fort Dodge Grand Opening - April 15, 1965

From the April 15, 1965 St. Petersburg Times -

WEEKI WACHEE - Fort Dodge, a few and different Florida adventure, swings open it’s stockage gate to the public at 9am today.

Located north of here in US 19, the attraction is owned and operated by the Paul Bolstein family of St. Petersburg.

Visitors can pan for gold in a cool mountain stream, ride a pony through Mystery Mountain, or watch a daring band of raiders bite the dust - all in one afternoon.

Bostein said, “There’s picnic grounds here and lots of room to roam around.”

Old Fort Dodge - LOCATED!

In my quest for the location of the 60’s era theme park FORT DODGE, I headed to the land office for Hernando County Florida. There I located deeds to property purchased by the Bolstein Family that was once old Fort Dodge.

I also located a bill for electrical work to wire the theme park from an electrical company (now out of business) in St. Pete.

Paul Bolstein and his wife purchased roughly 30 acres on US 19 approximately 8 miles north of Weeki Wachee. I was worried that would put the park on the ground of the current Winding Waters / Weeki Wachee High School.

I found documents and plats that indicated the Bolstein Family purchased three lots in an area known as HI-WAY FARMS, FIRST ADDITION. The dimension of each lot was indicated on the plat. I added up the total number of feet from the reference road (Atlanta Avenue), and determined the conversion to mileage. The portion of old Fort Dodge that fronted US 19 was between .87 and .99 miles north of Atlanta Avenue.

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I left the land office, jumped in my car and headed to US 19. I hit the GPS at Atlanta Avenue. As I drove by Winding Waters Middle and Weeki Wachee High, the GPS began to climb - .25 miles - .50 miles - .87 miles….I cleared the school!
But - right next door sat Weeki Wachee North, a 55+ manufactured home community….exactly .87 to .99 miles north of Atlanta Avenue, where property records indicated was once the home of old Fort Dodge.

So, as far as my hopes of locating remnants of Fort Dodge appear to be dashed, but my hunt for information and memorabilia on this lost piece of Florida roadside continues.

I’ll keep you posted.

Adventures in Roadside Archaeology - Old Fort Dodge

DODGE POSTCARD
Being the roadside archaeologist that I am, I recently found something just a few miles up the road from me that really piqued my interest.

It seems that just over half a century ago, an entrepreneur named Paul Bolstein opened FORT DODGE - a wild west town off US 19 just north of Weeki Wachee Springs. Problem is, it was only in operation for a couple years until the opening of Interstate 75 took all his customers away.

I can find little information on this roadside tourist stop. I did manage to track down one of Mr. Bolstein’s daughters - Paul passed a few years ago, and one of his daughters that did have a lot do to with Fort Dodge passed last year. A day late and a dollar short.

From the information I’ve been able to find, Fort Dodge is either 4, 5, 6 or 8 miles north of Weeki Wachee Springs. My quest now is to find the exact location of this slice of lost Florida Roadside and see if any remnants remain. Until then, here’s an old 8mm film of Fort Dodge in it’s glory days.

If you have any information on Fort Dodge, I’d love to hear about it.