Ticket to Ride

By Randy Noles
All aboard! The sleek and streamlined Orange Blossom Special was among the now-iconic passenger trains that sped snowbirds to the Sunshine State in grand style. Postcard Courtesy of Peter Hansen

Come along and ride this train,
Come along and ride this train,
Cross the mountains, prairies, reservations,
Rivers, levees, plains.
Come along and ride this train.
— Johnny Cash

Johnny Cash was renowned for his train songs. In “Come Along and Ride this Train,” he rhapsodized about seeing the country via rail, which is how most long-distance travelers saw it in the 19th century.

But if the Man in Black had been thinking of Florida, he might have substituted “swampland, sandbars, cypress hammocks” for “rivers, levees, plains.” Railroads, after all, transformed Florida from an inhospitable and sparsely populated frontier outpost into a magnet for tourists and settlers.

The promise of Florida as a carefree subtropical paradise where fortunes could be amassed overnight proved hollow to many. Others — particularly railroad titans Henry M. Flagler (1830-1913) and Henry B. Plant (1819-1899) — expanded their already formidable fortunes.

Winter Park resident Peter Hansen traces the colorful history of passenger service to the Sunshine State in an hour-long documentary he scripted called Selling Sunshine: The Florida Trains.

The filmproduced by Kalmbach Publishing, owner of Trains magazine — will debut on Friday, October 13, at Mead Botanical Garden, which served as a backdrop for several interviews. Free tickets are available for the 6:30 p.m. showing through the film’s Facebook page.

After locals get a sneak peak, Selling Sunshine will air on WJCT-TV in Jacksonville, the city’s PBS affiliate. Expect it to roll out in most other markets later this fall or early next winter.

Peter Hansen and his wife, Bonnie, who was a production assistant on Selling Sunshine, live in a meticulously restored Mediterranean-style charmer tucked in an enclave of mostly older homes off a busy stretch of Fairbanks Avenue, near Lake Killarney.

As lecturers and consultants, Peter and Bonnie Hansen could live anywhere they wished. They chose Winter Park, where their historic home boasts a beautiful backyard floral garden. Photo by Rafael Tongol

He’s the editor of Railroad History, a handsome scholarly journal, and a consultant to museums with railroad-related exhibitions. She’s an avid horticulturalist and fashion historian who has consulted with major motion pictures about period clothing.

The Hansens met while attending Eastern University in Philadelphia — his degree is in history, hers is in Spanish. Figuring that their professions allowed them to live anywhere, they moved to Winter Park from Sacramento last year.

In Sacramento, Peter Hansen directed an expansion of the California State Railroad Museum, while Bonnie Hansen coordinated restoration of the once-neglected grounds of the circa-1870s Governor’s Mansion.

“We fell in love with Winter Park,” says Bonnie Hansen, 56, who is sharing her passion for lush landscapes as a volunteer at Mead Botanical Garden. “It’s walkable, has a real downtown and great cultural amenities, especially for a city its size.”

Selling Sunshine is hosted by actor Michael Gross — you’ll remember him as Steven Keaton on the 1980s NBC sitcom Family Ties —who ambles amiably through modern and historic settings while describing the ways in which railroads turned the nation’s isolated southernmost frontier into an accessible vacation playground.

It’ll look like narrator Michael Gross was strolling along Park Avenue and through Mead Botanical Garden when Selling Sunshine was filmed. So, why didn’t he stop by the office and say hello? Actually, the star of the classic TV sitcom Family Ties was in front of a green screen for his segments, which also showcase Flagler College in St. Augustine, the Henry B. Plant Museum in Tampa and the Prime F. Osborn III Convention Center in Jacksonville. However, several live interviews were taped at the garden, where the hour-long documentary will premier on October 13 before airing nationwide on PBS.

“Modern Florida is unimaginable without the railroads,” says Peter Hansen, 60, who also writes and lectures about the social importance of transportation systems. “There wasn’t a reason for anyone to come here. It wasn’t on its way to anywhere. The railroads changed all that.”

Selling Sunshine begins with vintage newsreel footage of an early 20th-century New York snowstorm. That chilling visual certainly illustrates why Florida was such an enticing destination during the winter months.

Getting there, however, was the challenge — until a pair of self-made tycoons decided to conquer this vast untamed expanse using steam and steel.

Flagler’s Florida East Coast Railway, as its name indicates, concentrated primarily on the state’s east coast, laying track between Jacksonville and Miami and building magnificent resort hotels — such as The Breakers in Palm Beach — to which wealthy Northerners fled when the mercury dropped back home.

The Plant Line (later the Atlantic Coast Line), which had its hub in Sanford, did the same throughout the central part of the state and along the west coast. In fact, Winter Park’s Seminole Hotel — which burned to the ground in 1902 — was developed by Plant.

Atlantic Coast Line advertisements from the early 20th century enticed Northeasterners with images of well-heeled passengers and tropical vistas.

Plant’s most enduring brick-and-mortar legacy is the former Tampa Bay Hotel, a Moorish revival masterpiece that now anchors the campus of the University of Tampa and houses the Henry B. Plant Museum.

By 1930, Florida boasted 6,000 miles of track. While there were many railroads, eventually the Atlantic Coast Line, the Florida East Coast Railway and the Seaboard Air Line became the state’s big three. Now-iconic trains such as the Florida Special and the Orange Blossom Special earned places in railroading lore.

In addition to exploring the contributions of Flagler and Plant, Selling Sunshine reviews advances in railroad technology, among them the advent of diesel streamliners such as the Orange Blossom Special. The film also rather wistfully recalls the luxury of traveling in Pullman cars, with their posh appointments and lavish service.

Selling Sunshine, much like the trains it highlights, barrels along at a lively clip, with more than 20 interviews and a trove of archival photographs and footage.

The genial Gross taped his engaging narration in front of a green screen at a Colorado studio. That’s how he appears to pop up in an array of picturesque locations, including Mead Botanical Garden and Central Park in downtown Winter Park.

Also used as settings for Gross’ segments are Flagler College in St. Augustine — the centerpiece of which was once Flagler’s Ponce de Leon Hotel — as well as the Henry B. Plant Museum and the Prime F. Osborn III Convention Center in Jacksonville.

The convention center is apt since it incorporates what had been Jacksonville’s Union Station, built in 1919. The complex was, for a time, the largest railroad station in the South, handling as many as 142 trains and 20,000 passengers a day in the 1920s.

By then, train travel to Florida had become democratized. No longer a haven only for the wealthy, the state was attracting hordes of middle-class tourists. The ensuing land boom soon fizzled — but even a disastrous economic downturn didn’t tarnish Florida’s sheen for very long.

Selling Sunshine isn’t focused entirely on railroading’s glory days, however. Also analyzed is the industry’s precipitous decline, its complicity with Jim Crow laws, its ongoing battles with unions and regulators, and its near-collapse in the late 1960s. Passenger service was salvaged when the federal government formed Amtrak in 1971.

Selling Sunshine: The Florida Trains is the second film that Trains magazine has produced with Colorado-based Richard W. Luckin and Luckin Productions. You can get free tickets to the world premiere at Mead Botanical Garden by visiting the film’s Facebook page. Just type the film’s title in your Facebook search bar. If you miss the event, watch for Selling Sunshine on PBS, or purchase a copy of the DVD for $29.99 from kalmbachhobbystore.com.

The film offers a hopeful glimpse of the future with a nod to commuter-rail services such as SunRail, which links Orlando and Deland, and Tri-Rail, which links Miami and Palm Beach.

Several locals have notched screen time in Selling Sunshine. Among them is Paul Butler, who taught mineral science at Imperial College and the University of Oxford before retiring to Winter Park in 2009.

Butler, in a segment entitled “Jurassic Florida,” talks about the effort required to get to the state — and to traverse its length — prior to the railroads. Intrepid visitors from the Northeast sailed to Jacksonville and boarded sternwheelers, which for weeks trudged south along the St. Johns River.

“Florida was a very wild place,” says Butler, who notes that passengers often passed the time by randomly shooting wildlife. “They’d shoot anything that moved. It was a slaughter of the innocents, as they say.”

Butler, who recently wrote a book about Theodore Luqueer Mead, the namesake of Mead Botanical Garden, later discusses the state’s nascent citrus industry, and the importance of trains in getting the fruit to far-flung markets before it spoiled.

Also featured in Selling Sunshine are interviews with academicians, curators and railroad historians. You’ll get a chuckle from the anecdotes of former “hostesses,” who enlivened the Florida Special with onboard fashion shows staged to promote Miami’s department stores.

The glamour and romance of railroad travel — which Selling Sunshine so effectively celebrates — may never return. But Hansen believes the future of railroading is bright. Flying, he notes, is more hassle-filled than ever. And roads are choked by the sheer volume of vehicles.

That’s why commuter trains and interstate trains connecting major cities will become increasingly important, Hansen says. “There are almost 500 communities in this country with no other form of public transportation,” he adds. “So railroads still matter.”

From the Editor: Viewers of Selling Sunshine will briefly see me in the film, discussing the classic train song “Orange Blossom Special.” Host Michael Gross picks up the story, telling an anecdote about the song’s author, an ill-fated fiddler named Ervin T. Rouse. I was asked to appear in the film because I have the dubious distinction of being an expert on this song, and on the competing claims of its authorship. I told the twisted tale in a book, Fiddler’s Curse: The Untold Story of Ervin T. Rouse, Chubby Wise, Johnny Cash and the Orange Blossom Special (Centerstream Publishing, 2007). Below is a review of the book that ran in the South Florida Sun Sentinel. — Randy Noles


South Florida Sun Sentinel

Fiddler’s Curse, Randy Noles’ fine update of his earlier book, is popular history at its best.

Extensively researched, wonderfully written, it’s a rollicking romp of a story that even comes complete with its own soundtrack, the classic bluegrass tune “Orange Blossom Special,” and two larger-than-life central characters whose hell-raising ways open a window onto the little-known story of South Florida’s important role in the history of country and bluegrass music.

Ervin T. Rouse, a rural North Carolina-born child prodigy on the fiddle, performed on vaudeville stages in the 1920s as far away as Boston and New York City when he was only 8. Despite his extraordinary talent and his reputation as the writer of “Orange Blossom Special,” Rouse never rose very far above his roots as a busker, playing for tips, often on street corners or in Miami beer joints.

Robert “Chubby” Wise was born in 1915 in St. Augustine. Given up by his parents as an infant, Wise was shunted around between family friends and relatives in north central Florida and Miami. He taught himself the fiddle in his teens and went on to become one of the best-known fiddlers in country music history. He traveled the globe with popular bands fronted by the likes of Bill Monroe and Hank Snow, often introduced as the writer of “Orange Blossom Special.”

Fiddler’s Curse is the story of these two men and the legendary song that unites them. Written in the late 1930s, “Orange Blossom Special” became a staple of both the country and bluegrass music songbooks and has been recorded by an amazingly wide array of artists, including Johnny Cash, the Charlie Daniels Band and Alison Krauss.

Noles quotes Charlie Daniels as saying the song is “as much a part of Americana as anything Aaron Copeland ever wrote.”

At the heart of Noles’ story is the question that has plagued musicians and fans for decades: Who actually wrote “Orange Blossom Special?” Both Rouse and Wise had their stories highlighting their own role in its authorship. But, of the two fiddlers, Wise had the bigger career, so his story got more widely told.

Noles does a great job of switching back and forth between tracks to tell the intertwined stories of Rouse and Wise, as he sorts through the various tales, trying to resolve the question.

Ultimately, like most good country songs, the ballad of Rouse and Wise is tinged with real sadness; it’s called Fiddler’s Curse, after all. The book was originally published in 2002 as Orange Blossom Boys, but so much new material surfaced after that book came out that Noles decided to take another crack at the story. We’re lucky he did.

Fiddler’s Curse: The Untold Story of Ervin T. Rouse, Chubby Wise, Johnny Cash and the Orange Blossom Special (Centerstream Publishing, 2007) is available through Amazon and other online booksellers as well as bookstores or here.

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