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Historic Gainesville Incorporated

A History of Gainesville, Florida

The following text was adapted from _Historic Gainesville, A Tour Guide to the Past_, Ben Pickard, ed., Historic Gainesville, Inc., Gainesville, FL, 1991, 48 pp. Copyright by Historic Gainesville, Inc.

Once a Timucuan Indian village, the land upon which Gainesville is situated became part of a Spanish land grant given to Don Fernando de la Maza Arredondo, a Spanish merchant, in December, 1817.

In 1824, after Florida was annexed to the United States, Alachua County was created with Newnansville near present-day Alachua as the county seat. The population expanded with an influx of planters and farmers as Florida achieved statehood in 1845. When the proposed Florida Railroad linking Fernandina and Cedar Key bypassed Newnansville, Alachua County residents voted to create a new town on the railroad line and make it the county seat. Gainesville, named in honor of Seminole Indian War General Edmund P. Gaines, was founded on September 6, 1853.

The following month Major James B. Bailey, a cotton plantation owner and former County Treasurer, sold over sixty acres of his land to be used for this new city. His own house, begun in 1848 and completed in 1854 by slave labor, was built of lumber cut from Bailey's land and dressed in a sawmill on Hogtown Creek. As the oldest remaining house in Gainesville, this frame vernacular residence reflects the characteristics typical of mid-nineteenth century plantation buildings. Restored in the early 1980's, it is now a rest home for the elderly.

The original city plat followed a traditional gridiron design; placed in dry and high land, the city covered approximately eight blocks surrounding a courthouse square. The first courthouse, a two-story wooden structure, and the first school were built in 1856, and the first passenger train arrived on April 21, 1859. By 1860 the town's population had reached 269 and the downtown included a general store and three hotels.

The civil War slowed this development as the town became the site of a Confederate storehouse. Two encounters with Federal troops occurred here: the first, a skirmish on February 15, 1864, and the second, a battle on August 17, 1864. At this battle near the square, Captain Jonathan J. Dickinson and the Second Florida Cavalry routed the Union forces. Nearly all the attackers were either killed or captured. Many townspeople viewed the fighting from the windows of the Beville house near downtown.

After the war, education thrived as Gainesville Academy, the town's first school, combined with Ocala's East Florida Seminary in 1866. The first black school, the Union Academy, opened its doors in 1867. On April 14, 1869, Gainesville was incorporated, making that date its official birthday.

During the reconstruction period Colonel Henry F. Dutton, a Union veteran, made Gainesville one of the largest cotton shipping stations in the state and also established a successful bank. By 1882 the city's population reached nearly 2000 and Dutton had fourteen cotton gins in operation. Two other railways serviced Gainesville in the 1880's and citrus and vegetable farming became staples for the local economy. By the 1890's phosphate and lumbering assumed greater significance for the economy when the record-setting freezes of that decade destroyed the citrus industry in northern Florida.

A series of fires in 1884 burned many of the wooden buildings around the square. In 1885 a magnificent new red brick courthouse replaced the old wooden one and large, comfortable residences for the local merchants and professionals were built around the downtown area. Public improvements followed: gas became available in 1887, a public water system in 1891, telephones and electricity arrived in the late 1890;s and a sewer system was established in 1907. by 1913 the downtown streets of the city were bricked over. Original Gainesville expanded to include newer subdivisions, and it became the fourth largest city in Florida in the early 1900's with a population of nearly 4000.

The Northeast especially became an elite residential neighborhood. From 1909 to 1950 four University of Florida presidents had homes here, making the Northeast a center for social and intellectual life in the town. In 1910 William Reuben Thomas moved into Gainesville's most elaborate private residence, the "Sunkist Villa", situated near Sweetwater Branch. The surrounding areas continued to develop in the 1920's with the building of the Thomas Hotel and the establishment of the Highlands and Duck Pond area. The city's growth was not confined to the white community alone. Freedmen settled primarily in the western half of the Brush Addition to Gainesville (the Pleasant Street area) and in the Olivia A. Porter's subdivision in the southwest. Many of these early settlers came from South Carolina and were skilled tradesmen, preachers, and teachers. The neighborhoods they inhabited still remain important historic and architectural resources. The concentration of folk housing there represents a uniquely preserved example of the social, economic, and cultural traditions of Gainesville's black community.

The city's growth and prosperity continued in 1906 when the University of Florida began operations on land west of the city. By 1920 the city's population soared to over 10,000. The university's emergence as an important economic factor in the community helped the city to survive the collapse of the local cotton and phosphate industries during World War I. Throughout the 1920's and 1930'a new neighborhoods like College Park, Hibiscus Park, and Golf View developed around the University and drew the city westward. Following World War II the University greatly expanded, as population growth continued in the northwest and southwest areas, away from downtown. Trees and landscaped medians were sacrificed for traffic lanes, while large homes near downtown like the Colclough and Baird mansions were destroyed and supplanted by law offices, banks, and parking lots. The beautiful of Courthouse was razed in 1960 to make way for the present building and a decade later the original library and city hall also suffered the same fate.

Though much was lost, green spaces, large rights of way, planted medians and fine Victorian and Colonial Revival mansions remained. By the early 1970's newer residents responded to the charms of the older residential areas and fought to preserve these neighborhoods. Their efforts succeeded in creating an historic district around the downtown center and spurred the city's willingness to sponsor and financially support significant restoration projects like the Thomas Center (former Thomas Hotel), the Hippodrome (former post office), and the Seagle Building. Thus Gainesville's rich history and cultural past will remain for future generations to enjoy.