Category Archives: Florida’s Gulf Coast

A Weekend Getaway at Weeki Wachee

I hadn’t been to Weeki Wachee since I was a child, or so I thought, but nothing looked familiar and I think I might be remembering Silver Springs instead. Located on the corner of US 19 and SR 52, we headed north, over the Sunshine Skyway Bridge

Sunshine Skyway Bridge

I booked a room for two nights at the Spring Hill Marriott. Or so I thought. Turns out I booked a hotel room in Tampa, NOT Spring Hill…the name of the hotel was “Spring Hill Suites at Marriott”. We were about 45-60 minutes away. The hotel service was excellent, the room modern and comfortable, and it was a non-refundable deal, so we decided to stay.

Well, wouldn’t you know it? I should have. Our weekend getaway to Weeki Wachee coincided with a major bike rally. For some reason, bikers decided that the land of mermaids was the place to display their colors and tattoos. I was extremely uncomfortable having to walk through a crowd of at least 1,000 bikers to get to the entrance. I found out later that the rally was for a police officer dying of a tumor. Police! Dressed up like thugs! Later, inside the park, they held a raffle. For guns. In a kids’ park. It just seemed bizarre to me.

The park’s entrance fees were reasonable, I thought: $13 for adults, $5 for kids. We headed right, toward the swimming area, which turned out to be very nice, with picnic areas, a white sand beach, two large water slides, and lots of room for swimming and tubing down the inlets.

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The spring is shallow, the water a constant 74 degrees. There are several concession stands, a shop that offers swimsuits, sunscreen, etc., restrooms and volleyball courts. There is also a fenced off pool for toddlers.

We explored the other side of the park after that. The Wilderness River Cruise does not last 25 minutes as advertised. It’s more like ten minutes. We did not find King Neptune’s daughter, Princess Wonderous, or her home.

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The space is shared by canoes and kayaks, so it was crowded during our visit. Any wildlife had long been scared off, save for the fish.

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The Underwater Theater show was cute. We watched the “Fish Tails” program.

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“The Little Mermaid” show is offered twice a day, as well. The young people who perform are very talented.

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This young woman dove 117 feet down to the source of the spring, against currents strong enough to push her face mask off, holding her breath for over 2 ½ minutes.

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We also saw mermaid try-outs and according to the two middle-aged women who sat beside us, there are mermaid camps for girls of all ages. They were participating in one.

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Water ballet used to be popular back in the 1940s, when Weeki Wachee was first developed. Back then, the women would line up in bathing suits beside the highway, waving in the cars that passed. Even if the audience only had one person in it, they performed.

The grounds are well manicured and peacocks and pea hens roam freely.

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We skipped the Wildlife show. We were at the wrong end of the park and missed it, but did enjoy the short Tranquility Trail.

The park is an excellent choice for families, particularly those with young children, and most definitely for families with little girls who dream of a life “under the sea”. We thought the value was excellent. For around $50, a family of four can spend the entire day swimming and tubing in the spring (a triple tube is $15, less for singles and doubles) and ride the wilderness cruise and/or catch a free underwater or wildlife show when they need to escape the sun.

Dakin Dairy Farm-Wholesome Food and Fun

Dakin Dairy Farm, Wholesome Food and Fun in a Rural Setting

Established in 1973, Dakin Dairy Farm is located on Betts Road, off SR 70, east of Bradenton, Florida. No true seeker of Finding Florida would overlook the state’s rural areas and since there are only 150 dairies still in operation in the state of Florida, this producer of superior dairy products should be high on the list of “must-see’s”.

The family-operated dairy embraces old-fashioned values coupled with today’s technology and modern farming practices. Some milk is bottled on site, some is sent for processing in Miami.

Dakin DairyDakin Dairy Farm is a “sustainable farm” and composts its own fields. Mixing the grasses (harvested twice daily), homegrown hay and fresh grains creates a diet rich in beta-carotene, Vitamin D & E. The cows are closely monitored by a qualified nutritionist, for optimum health for the cow and more nutritious milk for the consumer. The CLAs (conjugated linoleic acids) are natural cancer inhibitors and improve healthy milk-fats. The proof is in the taste, deemed sweeter and high above that of competitors, large or small. An added benefit is a creamier texture.Dakin Dairy Farm/Organic Approach

The Dakin family takes an organic approach to dairy farming, allowing the cows to come in for milking as they choose. The philosophy is that when cows are allowed to set the pace according to their instincts, stress is reduced and milk production increases.

 

 

The on-site farm market carries a full line of milk products, honey from local bees, homemade ice cream, and small gifts. Milk choices range from whole, 2%, 1%, fat-free, and chocolate milk. Cream, heavy or half & half, is also available, as is eggnog and orange juice. All products are 100% all natural, with no artificial ingredients.

Milk can be purchased at the Dakin Dairy Farm itself or statewide at Whole Foods stores, as well as local Sweetbay grocery stores. Additionally, over 150 local restaurants and farm stores offer Dakin Dairy Farm products, as well.

Milk products are not all that Dakin Dairy Farm sells, though! Compost (15 yards or more) is also available for purchase, as are bull calves (heifer calves are not for sale).

Educational and hands-on “Agri-Tours” and school field trips are available October through April. Visitors can see the process of milk production from cow to bottle, take an informative hayride (or the cow train!) through the ranch, and bottle-feed a calf. Autumn brings additional treats of corn and hay mazes, and, for those interested, fossil digs. Birthday parties are a popular choice. Don’t miss out on one of their picnics for a true Myakka City experience, where you can order up anything from boiled peanuts to pulled pork sandwiches to S’Mores over a campfire.

For those seeking a rural Florida experience, Dakin Dairy Farm in Myakka City is a good place to start. Y’all come visit, they’ll make you welcome.

Additional photos may be seen at Julie North Photography (permission granted), whose daughter has become so accustomed to the taste of Dakin milk that she thought a competitor’s had gone bad!

 

 

 

 

 

 

Gulf of Mexico Wildlife

Wildlife in and Around the Gulf of Mexico

Sometimes, wildlife in and around the Gulf of Mexico visits you when you least expect it. Not all the dangers are in the Gulf waters, though. Alligators in mating season tend to roam, oftentimes ending up in a backyard swimming pool or taking a siesta under the family sedan.

Alligator mating season 2

Snakes are about. A friend was sleeping in his bed, felt something cold on his leg and found a black snake curled up next to him. Bears are a problem  from time to time, as well. One family’s car was torn apart when a black bear from the Ocala National Park entered it, probably searching for food, and became entrapped when the door closed behind it.

Sometimes it is man himself who harms the environment, as in the case of Beggar, the bottlenose dolphin who used to reside in this part of the Gulf of Mexico. Also known as “Mooch”, Beggar hung out in the Intracoastal, near the Albee Point Bridge and was popular with boaters who delighted in feeding him.

Beggar was a poster dolphin for man’s encroachment on animal habitat. Most dolphin cruise over large areas of the Gulf of Mexico, but Beggar hung out in the Intracoastal and became used to begging.

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Feeding dolphin is against the law, but few boaters can resist that cute face and friendly attitude (of course, Beggar probably felt no affection. He was just hoping for a handout) and unless the Marine Patrol was out and about, Beggar got fed everything from bait fish to Dorito corn chips. Drunk people would try to pour beer down his throat and worst of all, those who find themselves with no food or drink will sometimes throw a non-food item…a piece of plastic, perhaps, or a pop-top…and Beggar, who knew no better, consumed it all.

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When people buy a boa constrictor or a monitor lizard and release them into the wild, it upsets Florida’s fragile ecosystem. When they swim with the dolphins and smear their human germs on them, it harms wildlife. They toss marshmallows to alligators and then wonder why the alligator ate their dog.

Fortunately, not all encounters with Florida wildlife are so intimidating. I was awakened the other morning by a ruckus at my window. It sounded like a cat climbing the screen, probably chasing a lizard, I thought, and rolled over to go back to sleep. The scratching on the screen continued.

I got out of bed, raised the shade and came face to face with a great horned owl! It was a baby, still full of downy gray feathers, and was as surprised to see me as was to see him. I grabbed my digital camera, but it turned its head each time until I stopped and we just stared at each other. I tried one more time…

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…and succeeded. My visiting owl finally had enough and flew away.

 

 

 

Whether in or out of the Gulf of Mexico, Florida’s wildlife never ceases to amaze.

 

 

Snook Haven, a Retreat to “Old Florida”

Snook Haven: Retreat to an Earlier Era in Venice, Florida

Snook Haven is accessed from the intersection at Old Venice Avenue and River Road in Venice, Florida (exit 191 off Interstate 75). A sign at the entrance of a dirt road points the way in. The drive takes you deep into the jungle that leads to the banks of the Myakka River, just upstream from the Gulf of Mexico, and the small clearing known as Snook Haven.

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History still rests here, despite the modernization of running water and electricity and yes, even an unpaved parking lot. First used by indigenous Native Americans, it became an excellent smuggling site and hideaway for rumrunners in the 1920s and 30s and a perfect watering hole for the locals who knew how to keep their mouths shut.

As prohibition waned, other interest moved in on Snook Haven. A New England businessman was the first to develop the area, building a house by the river for himself, and several cabins for his fishing pals. He also generously kept the place supplied with willing young ladies whose job it was to keep the guests happy. Today, the property is not nearly as nefarious and is under the ownership of Sarasota County. The on-site restaurant is still rustic and serves up local cuisine and the cabins house the boat rental and other businesses, none of them selling moonshine or favors of a different sort.

The site caught the eye of Hollywood scouts as the perfect location for jungle wilderness movies, such as “Prestige” in1931, a movie about, of all things, the French Foreign Legion. One of the Tarzan movies was filmed in the area around Snook Haven, as well as the 1947 “Revenge of the Killer Turtles”, and, of course, as with an artistic endeavor, many of the movies did not reach such heights of glory.

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I must admit that I’ve never encountered a killer turtle on any of my canoe trips up and down the Myakka. Most of them seem pretty laid back.

 

Swamp Walk #5

 

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I do keep a close eye on the alligators, though, and keep a respectful distance.

 

 

Alligator hunting season started a few weeks ago and it opened with a bang when two Venice fishermen caught a 12 ½ foot alligator in the Myakka not far from the Snook Haven landing (photo courtesy of wwsbtv).

It took an hour to overpower the massive alligator and the men feared the giant gator would sink their 14 foot fishing boat. In true “Old Florida” style, once the taxidermist is done, the men plan to donate it to the Snook Haven Restaurant, which seems fitting.

It hasn’t arrived yet, but the new managers of the restaurant are displaying other impressive examples of local habitat. If you’re lucky enough to go today, you’ll enjoy live country music entertainment from 11 AM until mid to late afternoon.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Red Mangroves Abound on Island Nature Trails

Red Mangroves Protect Island Shoreline Nature Trails

We spent the next morning exploring the red mangroves that grow in abundance along Palm Island nature trails. Red mangroves grow closer to the coast and black mangroves grow in the swamp. They produce no flowers and propagate by dropping pods that are already formed as small trees.

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The root system of the red mangrove is interesting. The stalks you see hanging overhead are actually roots that grow downward toward the ground, where they create safe haven and rich ecosystem for fish and other wildlife.

Exploring the Red Mangroves in the Palm Island Nature Trails

Our walk was relaxing and I could feel the tension slipping away. Like the seedpod that drops off the red mangroves, floating lazily down the waterways that flow through the island and re-rooting itself elsewhere, I mentally re-planted myself and my future, changed, but deep down, still the same.

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After an early morning walk on the beach and amongst the red mangroves, we came back to the condo and my husband made breakfast. I took a shower and did my best to tame my unruly hair, which, after days of flying in the breeze on the beach and various nature trails, looked like Medusa’s nest of snakes. I did a small load of laundry and read a magazine on the balcony. I took a nap. I did a bit of packing and stripped the sheets off the bed, gathered wet towels, and left them in a heap on the floor as agreed upon.

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We left at 4 pm and drove onto the ferry. The dock master thanked us for bringing Baby Blue, our T-Bird, onto his ferryboat. He said it made his and the captain’s day. My car makes people smile. I like that.

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As we left the dock and moved into the intracoastal waterway, I took one last look at the barrier islands where the red mangroves make their home.

 

 

 

 

Palm Island, Placida, Florida

Palm Island, Placida, Florida Vacation Paradise

Palm Island lodging is not only limited to the Palm Island Resort. There is a range of rentals among the private residences on the south end of the island.

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The beach is surprisingly empty, but Palm Island is semi-private. During our walk, I was reminded of my childhood summers at the beach, when the world seemed less populated. We found shark’s teeth and fiddler crabs that scurry in and out of holes in the sand, panicking at the sound of your approach. The sandpipers skitter away, as well, and you feel your presence interrupt their world.

Traffic is mostly golf carts, since there’s nowhere to drive. People who live on Palm Island year round need cars to commute, but the farthest you can drive on the island is from the ferry dock straight to your home or to the Palm Island Resort parking lot, 3 miles due north.

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A Palm Island Home

Palm Island Beach Time

Friends arrived and we sat on the Palm Island beach together, four aging baby boomers in their beach chairs, and talked of the things we usually talk of: their dogs, our kids, houses and property values, the war, the economy, the way sweeping statements on the internet aren’t always based on hard facts, whether buying a sports car means you’re having a midlife crisis or just making the kids jealous, and other deep topics.

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Later, we drove to the Palm Island Resort parking lot and they took us on the courtesy golf cart the rest of the way to the general store, since no cars are allowed beyond that point. Non-resort visitors are welcome, but the pool and tennis courts are off limits. The men bought their beer and I found a hat that matches Baby Blue, the T-Bird that we travel to Florida destinations in, so I bought it, too.

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(No, we didn’t leave it on the beach)

 

 

 

After our friends left on the last ferry out of Palm Island at 11 PM, we fell asleep to the sound of surf outside our open windows, rolling rhythmically onto the sand, then pulling away, gently rocking us into the land of dreams of a little Palm Island hideaway of our own.

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Palm Island Resort, an All-Inclusive Getaway

Palm Island Resort, an All-Inclusive Getaway With Something for Everyone

Palm Island Resort is a unique getaway destination located off Florida’s southwest coast between Fort Myers and Sarasota. It is accessible by boat or ferry. The Palm Island Resort is on the north end of the island. Private homes, many available for seasonal rental, are on the south.

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Supplies must be carried in, so plan carefully, since the ferry ride is not cheap, even though the island is only100 yards across the Intracoastal Waterway that divides the island from the coast of Placida.

We’ve stayed at the Palm Island Resort twice and thoroughly enjoyed the experience both times. For those seeking privacy, I recommend Palm Island Resort Village 1, Unit #18. It is a duplex “cottage” on the edge of the property, offering three bedrooms, two baths, full kitchen and laundry directly on the beach. Bayside homesites are available, as well. Of course, as families with children return to the school year and legislators in Florida consider the value of standardized testing vacationing couples may prefer less spacious digs, so one and two bedroom units are available, as well.

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Unlike the beach at Dog Island, in addition to two miles of pristine white sand beach, the Palm Island Resort offers several swimming pools, eleven tennis courts, and a fitness center. Deep sea fishing packages can be arranged for you on island. Several nearby golf courses are available to those so inclined, and for those interested in eco-tourism, there are miles of nature walks.

Palm Island Resort Amenities

Palm Island Resort offers numerous amenities, from a small shop for souvenirs and sundries, to rentals for everything from golf carts to snorkeling gear. You can eat the food you bring in, or the resort offers two restaurants that feature island drinks and a menu that is heavily slanted to seafood (one off island, the other is located on the resort grounds) as well as a coffee café as dining options.

For those interested in destination weddings, family reunions, corporate retreats or small business conferences, the Palm Island Resort clubhouse can accommodate up to 120 guests, but larger events (up to 450 people) can be held in a tented facility. Planning, decorating, and catering is seen to by an attentive staff attuned to attention to the smallest detail.

Expect an unhurried pace, plenty of entertainment, and, yes, even a little family harmony as the kids clamor, “Please, Mom and Dad, take us to Palm Island Resort!”.

Nick and Matt at Palm Island

Or Not.

Nick at Palm Island #1

There’s no doubt…the Palm Island Resort means great fun!

 

Confederate History of The Gamble Plantation Historic State Park

Confederate History of The Gamble Plantation Historic State Park: Blockade Runners and an Escaping Secretary of State

Confederate history buffs will find a story of interest at the Gamble Mansion, but at the time of the Civil War, it was kept from public knowledge.

The owners played a pivotal role in the Civil War Confederate history of the Gamble Plantation Historic State Park. By 1865, the Gamble mansion was owned by Civil War blockade runner Archibald McNeil, who helped to keep the commerce shipping lines open during The War of Northern Aggression. Judah Philip Benjamin, secretary of state for the Confederacy and advisor to Confederate President Jefferson Davis, asked for McNeil’s help after Confederate surrender. Benjamin, a prominent New Orleans plantation owner of Jewish decent, was on the run. A $40,000 bounty was on his head for allegedly arranging Lincoln’s assassination.

Helped by Confederate supporters as he moved around in disguise, Benjamin evaded capture, crossing the Suwanee River and eventually arriving at the Gamble Mansion. McNeil secreted him away on a boat bound for Bimini, slipping down the Manatee River, past watchful eyes along the blockade. After a trip through the Caribbean, Judah Philip Benjamin eventually arrived in London and became a well-respected barrister there.

The Homes at The Gamble Plantation Historic State Park

There are two homes on the property, the 1844 mansion itself and nearby, the Patten House. The Patten home was built fifty-one years later, when the new owner thought the mansion too far gone to disrepair for his family to live in. The Gamble Mansion, dilapidated and useless, became a storage facility for fertilizer, aka manure. The United Daughters of the Confederacy rescued it in the early 1900s, brought it back to its former glory. Today it is owned by the state.

Gamble Mansion #1For those interested in exploring more about Confederate history of The Gamble Plantation Historic State Park, visit the mansion and the grounds  in Ellenton, Florida on the Manatee River. It is a short drive from nearby Sarasota and Bradenton to the south and Tampa and St. Petersburg to the north.

The grounds are open year round, from 8 AM to sunset. The mansion is open for tours Thursday through Monday, from 9 AM to noon and 12:45 to 5 PM. The Patten House is only open a few times a year, so it’s best to call the state park first at (941) 723-4536.

The Gamble Plantation Historic State Park

The Gamble Plantation Historic State Park: Plantation Operations

The Gamble Plantation Historic State Park in Ellenton, Florida, preserves a bit of antebellum history and offers up clues that reveal the challenges of homesteading and the politics of the day.

The Gamble Plantation operated because of slave labor, over 160 human beings at its height of operations. The Little Manatee River that runs through the property provided necessary water, diverted to the sugar cane fields through a series of canals built by the slaves. The canals provided easy boat transportation to and from the Manatee River and helped with flood control, as well. One of the original canals can still be seen along the edge of the property that remains.

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A cistern, seen on the right side of the home in this picture, collected rainwater from the roof for the home’s residents.  Unfortunately, the cistern also attracted mosquito larvae. To combat this problem, Major Gamble kept minnows in the cistern, to eat the eggs, an early form of purification. In addition to sugar, vegetables were raised and cattle were kept.

The plantation (citrus, olives, and grapes were also grown) only operated for twelve years. A crash in sugar prices led to its demise. Major Robert Gamble fell deeper in debt and was eventually forced to sell his property and slaves in 1856.

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Destroyed by Union soldiers in 1864, the remains of a sugar mill are all that remain of the cane operation.

The cane reeds were fed between the sugar cane rollers, and juice was collected in large catch pans. Pure cane  juice is still sold at roadside stands in the Everglades.

The history involving The Gamble Plantation Historic State Park Gamble Mansion in 1865 will be discussed in the next post. Owner Archibald McNeil’s assistance in helping Confederate Secretary of State Judah Philip Benjamin escape prosecution after the Civil War was England’s gain.

 

The Gamble Mansion

The Gamble Mansion’s Thick Walls Protected Against Seminole Attack

The Gamble Mansion is South Florida’s only remaining antebellum mansion. Located in Gamble Plantation Historic State Park in Ellenton, it belongs now to the Florida State Park system after being rescued from decay and neglect by the United Daughters of the Confederacy. But in pre-Civil War days, it was home base for a thriving sugar plantation. The park itself is now known as the Judah P. Benjamin Confederate Memorial.

Shortly after the Second Seminole War ended in Loxahatchee, Civil War Major Robert Gamble staked out his homestead and began to build a home. The mansion was built in two stages. The rear of the house was built first, as protection against Seminole attacks as they fought extradition in a clash of cultures. The US government’s intention to resettle the Native Americans on reservations out west did not sit well with the Seminoles. They used guerrilla warfare to resist, hiding in swamps they knew well and mounting surprise attacks. While many were captured and relocated, quite a few Seminoles avoided capture and maintained their independence. Their descendants are scattered about the state.

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The architectural style called Doric Revivalist Vernacular graced the front of the house. The Greek Revival pillars make it seem larger than it actually is. The original plantation grew to encompass 3,500 acres in its prime; today 16 acres remain.

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The Gamble mansion is built of red brick and tabby, a crushed shell, sand, water, and lime mix. The insulating two-foot thick walls and wide verandas provided much needed relief from the summer heat, as did the numerous Live Oaks found on the property. The home was large for a bachelor: ten rooms in all in the two-story mansion. The building is split into two sections, front and back, with the traditional dog-trot air space between buildings.

Comfort has hard to find, but the homesteader did his best.

The mattresses on the beds were stuffed with Spanish moss, so named, it is told, because it resembled the early explorers’ beards. Taken from the Live Oaks on the property, the bugs that inhabit Spanish moss, called “chiggers”, also made it into the beds, giving birth to the saying, “Sleep tight, don’t let the bed bugs bite”. The mattresses were secured by ropes, which could be tightened by a key. There is an extra blanket on the roller in case the air turned chilly.

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An early American flag

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Civil War era kitchen at the Gamble Mansion:

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In my next post, we’ll look at the role the plantation played during and after the Confederacy and its impact on operations in and around the Gamble Mansion.