Highlands park to host speakers despite funding cut

SEBRING — At Highlands Hammock State Park, the Legislature’s zeroing out of the Florida Humanities Council’s appropriation for its popular speakers series hasn’t deterred staff from planning at least one program for the upcoming winter season.

Lake Okeechobee News/Chris Felker
David Schmidt, curator of the Florida CCC Museum at Highlands Hammock State Park, gives a talk at the park in March. In the audience was a Civilian Conservation Corps veteran from Florida, Norman Welch, who was 15 in 1939 when he joined the CCC.

Carla Kappmeyer-Sherwin, the Florida State Parks’ on-site park services specialist, expressed disappointment, though, when the cut was first announced in June.

“As Highlands Hammock State Park received grant funding from the Florida Humanities Council for our ‘Florida Series Four’ programs for three consecutive seasons, we were quite surprised to learn that state funding was completely eliminated from the FHC budget.”

The series was made possible through annual FHC grants of $5,000 to the Friends of Highlands Hammock State Park, the park’s nonprofit Citizen Support Organization, which has been a member of the FHC since 2013.

“And this partnership has been an invaluable resource in sponsoring guest speakers for the park’s Civilian Conservation Corps Festival as well as the ‘Florida Series Four’ lectures. I truly believe that the Florida Humanities Council connects people to our state’s history, culture and the environment in ways that ignite curiosity and strengthen connections within communities,” said Ms. Kappmeyer-Sherwin.

That sentiment was echoed by David Schmidt, who is curator of the State of Florida’s Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) Museum, one of Highlands Hammock’s prized historic buildings. The entire park is on the National Register of Historic Places. Mr. Schmidt is one member of the FHC’s Speakers Bureau and has given presentations at various venues throughout the state, as well as frequently in the park.

“That state funding is what they (the humanities council) used to earmark for their speakers series programs. It’s a grant program, and there were somewhere around thirtyish agencies and organizations,” he said. They include libraries, historical societies and the like.

He said the most interesting venue where he’s spoken is the Florida Keys History & Discovery Center in Islamorada. “They have a really incredible building that they’ve put up. It’s on the campus of the Islander resort down there. It’s a bit of a history museum of the Keys, and of course there’s a lot on the Great Hurricane of 1935, and (aquarium) tanks with some Keys marine stuff in it and everything. There was a huge crowd there, too, over 300 people,” Mr. Schmidt added.

In his talks, he concentrates on specific topics in Florida history, and his area of expertise, of course, has to do with the first state park facilities built in the state — Highlands Hammock has the oldest — and how they came to be during Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal that rescued America from the Great Depression. He is a recognized Roosevelt scholar and talks about how his creation of the Civilian Conservation Corps helped establish parks across the country, sometimes in partnership with the Works Progress Administration.

Mr. Schmidt said he has spoken with officials at the FHC and that the latest word is “that they’re going to try to redirect some funding from other sources, because this is a very popular program, and offer the program maybe at a more limited availability. We, all the speakers, have agreed to take less money on our speakers’ fees.”

He said although it won’t affect the CCC museum or park operations, the legislature’s decision still was very shortsighted, and that he believes the FHC will be able to work something out. “It wasn’t a huge amount of money, so that was sort of ridiculous about it, but hopefully they’ll be able to come up with some other, because they get federal money, too,” he said.

“It will impact the programs we offer at the park in the winter, but we’ll at least be able to do one program,” Mr. Schmidt said. “Whether we do any more, we’ll just have to wait and see. Time will tell.”

Ranger Kappmeyer-Sherwin said they are very grateful to have received the FHC money because it helped bring many people to Highlands Hammock who might not otherwise have visited, and she is still hopeful for the program’s future.

“FHC programs engage audiences in understanding and experiencing Florida and its heritage, so they aspire to preserve Florida’s cultural and natural resources. We are deeply appreciative of the Heartland residents, seasonal residents, park visitors and campers who attended the programs over the last three years, and we would like to extend a heartfelt thank you to the 1,275 individuals who attended them. It is our hope that full funding will be reinstated for the 2020-2021 fiscal year.”

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