UF students earn higher historic status for Florida state park
GAINESVILLE, Fla. — Thanks to its connection to a famous Confederate secretary of state — and a lot of work by University of Florida historic preservation students — the Gamble Plantation State Historic Park in Ellenton has been elevated to a higher historic status.
Two groups of historic preservation students at the College of Design, Construction and Planning helped take the state park, which was already listed on the National Register of Historic Places as “locally significant,” to the next level: a listing at the state level of significance.
For two semesters, graduate students researched primary source documents to support the site for the elevated status and then write the nomination proposal. Three students opted to complete the nomination during a third semester.
Rachel Thibeault, co-primary writer of the nomination, said that the news came as a relief and as a sense of accomplishment.
“It’s pretty amazing to be able to work on something like a nomination while you’re still a graduate student,” Thibeault said. “It goes way beyond something to put on your résumé.”
Barbara E. Mattick, who heads the National Register Programs for the State of Florida, said that additional information about the site’s history as a Confederate memorial was significant enough to warrant the submission of an entirely new nomination.
At the end of the Civil War, Confederate Secretary of State Judah P. Benjamin – fearing arrest by the U.S. Army, treason charges and the possibility of death – escaped to England by traveling in disguise under a false name. Historical documents further prove that Benjamin sought shelter for roughly two weeks at the Gamble Plantation, the only surviving plantation house in South Florida.
Jim Flook, co-primary writer of the nomination, consulted wartime documents to prove Benjamin’s stop at the site.
“Working on a nomination is one avenue of sharing history,” Flook said. “It’s the ability to take a research project and put it out in front of other people so it can be seen and used.”
Janet Matthews, scholar in residence at the college, has a long history of working with the site as a former Florida state historic preservation officer and former associate director, cultural resources and keeper, National Register of Historic Places with the National Park Service.
The two courses, which took place over spring and fall 2010, included goals to “work with a complicated site and to understand the hard work of documentation and formal writing, which has implication for interpretation to the public,” Matthews said, adding that she “valued the benefits to students of experiencing the tough slog through precision writing in consultation with the state.” The students themselves opted to finalize and submit an official nomination and not simply conduct a class exercise. The park’s elevated status redefined the protected boundaries at the site and broadened its historic documentation.
“This adds to the official record the stunning fact of a courageous, undercover escape that happened in a place we can visit today,” Matthews said.
The nomination was formally reviewed by the Florida National Register Review Board on March 23 in Tallahassee prior to submission to the National Park Service in Washington, D.C., and was officially listed Sept. 23.