Academic journal article Southern Cultures

The Faux History of the Villages, Florida

Academic journal article Southern Cultures

The Faux History of the Villages, Florida

Article excerpt

The Villages, a planned retirement community, lies about an hour's drive northwest of Orlando in the lake-studded landscape of central Florida. Imagine one of its community members--a Villager--enjoying a stroll on a warm day in Lake Sumter Landing, one of three distinct downtowns that cater to approximately 90,000 residents. This average Villager--at least fifty-five years old, not from Florida, relatively affluent, white, and likely female--stops for an ice cream cone at the Haagen Dazs store just off the central square. A historical plaque, common on most of The Villages' storefronts, states that Oscar's Bait & Tackle once occupied the building. The Villager learns from the plaque's author, the Lake Sumter Landing Historical Preservation League, that Oscar Feliu purchased the "small warehouse building on the waterfront" in 1906 and ran a "successful fishing equipment and bait shop for the many sportsmen who came to Lake Sumter to enjoy the outstanding fishing available in the area." There's more to the story next door. The old telegraph office, now a radio station, displays what appears to be an early-twentieth-century photograph of townsfolk--well-dressed men, women, and children--gathered outside Oscar's to glimpse record-setting fish caught in the lake.

Talk about a fish tale. Villagers rarely spend time on the square when there's no live music or sidewalk market in the evening. More commonly, they can be found on one of about forty golf courses or numerous pickleball courts. And Villagers don't often stroll on warm days. Instead, they tend to whip around the square at Lake Sumter Landing in an embellished golf cart. Still, where the scenario requires the most imagination is at the historical plaque. Contrary to its text, there was never a bait and tackle shop at that location. There was never an Oscar Feliu or a warehouse. The Haagen Dazs building doesn't even date back to the twentieth century. As for the lake where Oscar's shoppers supposedly fished, it was manmade in the 1990s. The radio station was never a telegraph office, and the photograph hanging on its exterior was not taken here. In part, this is because the role of the non-existent Lake Sumter Landing Historical Preservation League is that of a set decorator rather than an archivist.

The Villages was born out of Florida's population boom following World War II and catered to coming-of-old-age Americans. Having created and promoted its own historical fiction that wiped the past away, it now exists in stark contrast to other southern cities like Charleston and New Orleans, which were revived and remarketed--not created from scratch--by historical preservation projects in the late twentieth century. But The Villages' faux history does draw from the South's actual past, as well as real and imagined histories of the Northeast and Midwest. And that fanciful new past, displayed on plaques in Lake Sumter Landing and two other downtowns, Spanish Springs and Brownwood, provides key insights into the role that history plays in retirement migration.

Today, historians concede the impossibility--and perhaps the undesirability-- of recovering events as they really happened. The claim for historical objectivity by Leopold von Ranke (1795-1886), a founder of Western historiography, has given way to the postmodernist position of Hayden White (1928-) that the historian as a writer chooses a literary narrative or employs past events. For some, the line between fact and fiction, once easily navigated, is now hopelessly blurred. Yet one understands, almost instinctively, that there is a difference between historical markers placed and vetted by the Division of Historical Resources of the Florida Department of State and the historical plaques erected in The Villages by Forrec Ltd., a Toronto-based firm that designs "entertainment and leisure environments worldwide." The first markers seek to preserve structures and sites associated with significant moments in Florida's history and culture, while the second markers make up trivial events to associate with contemporary Floridian structures and sites. …

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