Jessie Branch’s ‘City Beautiful’

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In 1662, Michael Wigglesworth, a minister and poet, described Florida as “a waste and howling wilderness where none inhabited but hellish fiends and brutish men.”

In 1821, Virginia Congressman John Randolph exclaimed: “Florida, sir, is not worth buying. It is a land of swamps, of quagmires, of frogs and alligators and mosquitoes! A man, sir, would not immigrate into Florida — no, not from Hell itself.”

However, between 1877 and 1894, Florida became much more modern and comfortable. The railroad, hotels, resorts, and more came south — making Florida a destination, a place to relax and play with a promise of youth, refreshment, and unceasing recreation.

This radical transformation of Florida within two decades is a historical narrative puzzle that we can piece together utilizing various resources from our Brechner Research Library. One treasure trove of information is a transcription of the journal of Mrs. Jessie Johnson Branch.

Mrs. Jessie Johnson Branch
Downtown Orlando as Jessie would have known it at the turn of the 20th century. The Branches’ bookstore was located in this area.

Jessie Branch had never kept a diary before but thought she might record her family’s “courageous” journey to Orlando. In her entry of October 28, 1903, she wrote: “After more than a year of consulting brochures that extolled the health climate and beauties of Florida, we pulled up roots, sold our home and business in Parker, South Dakota, where we have lived since 1881 …”

Described as being diminutive in form, having a natural dignity, and always wearing a high-boned net collar, her brief writings provide incredible insight into Orlando at the turn of the 20th century. Jessie writes of the circus’ visit to town, of the rare use of a thousand-dollar bill at a soda fountain, of knowing somebody who sank with the Titanic, of her astonishment that in 1915 dresses were now being hemmed a scandalous two inches above the ankle, of World War I, and more.

Jessie was pleased that Orlando had electric lights, and she was surprised by the climate of Florida during the winter months. “I cannot but marvel at the town’s fragrant air; blooming oleanders, cape jessamine, honeysuckle, more sweet smelling vines and blossoms than I ever though it possible to grow this time of year. It could be June.”

But the words for which she is best known are those she entered in the city’s 1908 slogan competition to improve upon 1886’s “The Phenomenal City.” A number of names were submitted, such as “the Queen City,” “the Magic City,” “the Picturesque City,” and “the Health City.” But Jessie won the prize with her title: “the City Beautiful.” The new name sparked a wave of interest in beautification that soon made the city an even more fitting setting for its name.

Mr. and Mrs. William Branch were claimed to be among Orlando’s most beloved citizens. Their bookstore was located at 14 S. Orange Avenue, later at 20 E. Pine, and Jessie often shared colorful stories about downtown life.

In June of 1904, Jessie recorded hearing a crashing “boom boom boom” coming down Orange Avenue. The racket, she reported, was the “cannon like exhaust of a horseless carriage” traveling at an “outrageous speed of fifteen miles an hour right down our main street.”

“What a noisy monstrosity,” Jessie said to her husband, William. “Would you ever want one?”

“Never, no man in his right mind would,” he answered.

Jessie lived until 1951, but her journal ended in July 1923 with the sudden and devastating death of her son Payson.

Though downtown Orlando continues to change, almost daily, it is still Jessie’s City Beautiful.

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