In a nation whose attention span is limited to 140 characters and a new celebrity is invented on YouTube every second, opportunities to celebrate five centuries of history are rare.
But this week, Florida celebrates 500 years since Spanish explorer Juan Ponce de Leon arrived in St. Augustine while searching — as legend has it — for the Fountain of Youth. On April 2, 1513, Ponce de Leon became the first European to discover the land where Native Americans had already lived for centuries. He called this land La Florida.
People outside of Florida know our state as the land of hanging chads, early-bird buffets, Mickey Mouse, Hogwarts and Shamu. But there’s a lot they don’t know.
Every school child in America learns that the Pilgrims celebrated the nation’s first Thanksgiving meal at Plymouth Rock. Yet more than 50 years before that, in 1565, Spanish settlers shared a harvest meal with Native Americans in Florida. Pocahontas was immortalized in a Disney film, but more than 40 years before she saved John Smith, Pedro Menendez de Aviles — the first Governor of Florida — negotiated a truce with the Calusa tribe by marrying the king’s sister.
Texas is known as the land of the cowboys, but Florida was the first place in the New World to have horses and cows, and the cowboys that came with them. Brought over by explorers and settlers from the Old World, we now know these animals as the original Cracker Horse and Cracker Cattle breeds.
Florida put the first man on the moon. Every manned American space flight launched from our the coast, first from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station and, since 1968, from the John F. Kennedy Space Center. The more than 150 launches have put Americans in space, in orbit, at the International Space Station and on the moon.
Our sunny weather, beaches, theme parks and expansive state and national parks make us a vacation spot for snowbirds, spring breakers, ecotourists and Orlando-bound families. We are equal parts five-seashells-for-a-dollar, airboat tours of the Everglades, mouse ears emblazoned with your name and butterbeer.
Now, 500 years after Ponce de Leon set foot in the New World, we are the international destination of choice. As the gateway to Latin America, and within reach of the Panama Canal, Florida continues to welcome foreign cultures and foreign goods. Our 18 international airports and 15 deepwater ports bring in more than $71 billion in goods and ship out $66 billion of American-made products every year.
More than 2 million small businesses call Florida home. We also have 16 Fortune 500 companies whose combined revenues are more than $200 billion. Our state is diverse — culturally, linguistically and economically. We have more to offer than just a place to visit or retire. Our plentiful land and limitless horizons continue to draw people from around the country and around the world.
Five hundred years of chasing — and finding — dreams has defined Florida. Today, it is still the place for young and old to pursue their own, personal fountain of youth.
Adam H. Putnam, Florida commissioner of agriculture, Tallahassee