Some unfortunate people suffer from the misconception that Florida history is boring.
Other uninformed people don’t think that Florida has much significant history at all.
None of these people has ever attended a Brevard Theatrical Ensemble presentation of “Mosquitos, Alligators, and Determination,” now in its all-new seventh edition. If they had, they would know that Florida history is exciting, entertaining, diverse, and important.
“Lady” Gail Ryan, who earned her honorific title from the Dade County Commission for work on Miami Renaissance Fairs, is founder and director of the Brevard Theatrical Ensemble. Under Ryan’s enthusiastic and creative leadership, the group has been performing for more than twenty five years.
The original production of “Mosquitos, Alligators, and Determination” focused on Florida’s pioneer “Cracker” culture. Ryan admits that prior to doing research to create that presentation, she was sometimes embarrassed to admit that she was a “Cracker” herself. She came to understand that the term identifies an intrepid group of people who overcame many obstacles to settle the untamed, wild Florida.
“I’m very proud I’m a Floridian now,” Ryan says. “I was a pioneer in a sense. I wasn’t here in the 1800s, but I was born in 1929.”
Ryan has more energy and drive than many people half her age. Rather than stage the same version of “Mosquitos, Alligators, and Determination” every year, she completely changes the stories presented, offering a new set of vignettes from Florida history in each production.
Past productions have featured depictions of well-known figures from Florida’s past such as Ponce de León, Henry Flagler, Harriett Beecher Stowe, Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings, and Zora Neale Hurston. Much less well-known “everyday people” who have had a significant impact on our history have also been recognized.
“You can’t have a civilization or a state without the average man,” Ryan says. “This time we tell stories more about the average people than anyone else.”
The seventh edition of “Mosquitos, Alligators, and Determination” features tales from throughout Florida, from the Panhandle to Key West and many points in between.
The new program opens with the “discovery” of Florida in 1513. The “Key West Wreckers,” who made fortunes salvaging shipwrecks are discussed. The story of the lost city of St. Joseph, known as “the wickedest city in America” is presented. The legend of Jacob Summerlin, “King of the Crackers” is explained, as are the challenges faced by pioneer teachers in the state.
Also explored in the latest version of “Mosquitos, Alligators and Determination” is the 1888 Yellow Fever outbreak in Jacksonville, which significantly reduced the population of the city.
An unexpected hurricane devastated Okeechobee in 1928. Many people sought refuge from flooding after their homes were washed away. Those who climbed trees to escape the water encountered thousands of snakes that were doing the same.
Magazine editor Edward W. Bok created a garden and bird sanctuary with a carillon bell tower in the 1920s. Bok Tower Gardens became one of Florida’s most popular tourist destinations long before Disney arrived.
During World War II, Nazi submarines patrolled Florida’s coastline. Florida residents had direct encounters with German soldiers.
These and other stories are presented in the latest version of “Mosquitos, Alligators, and Determination,” along with Florida songs.
“Lady” Gail Ryan and her troupe of performers understand that learning about Florida history can promote a sense of community for both longtime residents and newcomers to the state.
“I want people to know that even though they might be from someplace else, it makes no difference. They’re now Floridian and we want them to be dedicated to Florida,” Ryan says.
If you know someone who thinks that Florida history is boring or insignificant, bring them to a performance of “Mosquitos, Alligators, and Determination.” They will be entertained and enlightened.
“Mosquitos, Alligators and Determination” will be presented at the Library of Florida History, 435 Brevard Avenue, Cocoa, Friday, August 15 at 7:30 pm, Saturday, August 16, at 2:30 pm, and Sunday, August 17, at 2:30 pm. Admission is $15, and reservations are available at www.myfloridahistory.org. Reservations are strongly suggested, as these performances are “sold out” every year.
Dr. Ben Brotemarkle is executive director of the Florida Historical Society and host of the radio program “Florida Frontiers,” broadcast locally on 90.7 WMFE Thursday evenings at 6:30 and Sunday afternoons at 4:00, and on 89.5 WFIT Sunday mornings at 7:00. The show can be heard online at myfloridahistory.org.