Part Four: Philip, Philips & Phillips of Florida
In Search of Dr. Philip Phillips Satsuma Grove
A central Florida citrus mogul and philanthropist, Dr. Philip Phillips of Orlando, it is reported, came to Florida twice, arriving the first time in 1894. This man’s bio also tells us: “Philip Phillips was born January 27, 1874, in Memphis, Tennessee. Little is known about his early years other than he attended Columbia University where he was awarded a medical degree.”
Little is known is an understatement, for much of what is thought to be known about Orlando’s mysterious Dr. Phillips is unverifiable. He was 63 at the time of the 1940 Orlando census, for example, in which Philip Phillips states he completed only the first year of high school. His wife Della said she had completed two years. Their son Howard said he had completed four years of college. So, did Dr. Philip Phillips of Orlando really graduate from Columbia University?
Much of the mystery surrounding young Dr. Philip Phillips can be attributed to the man himself. His 1921 passport application included a statement from Dr. Phillips himself, stating he had been a citizen of Florida since before 1906. He could not however locate records prior to that date. The passport office then had requested that Phillips give the “name of persons in Baltimore who knew the place and date of his birth.” No response to that request has been located.
Dr. Phillips also stated in his passport application that his father, Herman Phillips, was deceased (in 1921), and that his father had been born in France.
Dr. Philip Phillips consistently gave his birthplace as Memphis, Tennessee, and was also consistent in stating his birth date as January 27, 1874. Of 26 Phillips families listed in the 1874 Memphis Directory, only one, a dry goods merchant, was Herman Phillips. Could this be the Herman Phillips? I have serious doubts!
Living heirs of Herman Phillips of 1897 Memphis, Tennessee were his four daughters, each listed as also residing with their father in 1880. Dr. Philip Phillips was, according to the birthdate he consistently gave, would have been six in that 1880 census. No such 6 year old Philip Phillips can be found with Herman, or anywhere in Memphis for that matter! No 26 year old Tennessee native named Philip Philips has not been located in any 1900 census as yet either. So where was Philip Phillips in 1880 and 1900?
Over the summer of 1910, Walter, youngest son of Dr. Philip and Della Phillips, was visiting his grandparents at Forest, Mississippi the day census takers arrived at their home. Walter Phillips was listed as the Florida born “grandson” of Benjamin & Anne Wolf. Of particular interest however is the birthplace given for Walter’s father. The in-laws stated that Walter’s father had been born in France. Were the in-laws of Dr. Philip Phillips mistaken?
The phrase “little is known” caught my eye. How could such a prominent Floridian have such a mysterious background? That was why I went in search of answers, challenging myself to fill in the missing 19th century history of central Florida’s Dr. Phillips, a man who by the age of 27, was referring to himself as Dr. Phillips.
As mentioned in Part 1 of this 4 Part Blog series, I discovered he had married January 20, 1901 at Forest, Mississippi. The wedding, so it seems, was a coming out party, for that very same year, Dr. P. Phillips ran a newspaper ad giving his Forest, Mississippi address. The Ocala Banner also told of Dr. Phillips, of Forest, Mississippi, in 1901, selling Hereford cattle at Valdosta, Georgia. Yet another 1903 Ocala article reported that Dr. Phillips would soon be arriving there, for he was driving his herd of Herefords to Florida from northwestern Texas.
The whereabouts of Dr. Philip Phillips prior to 1901 remains uncertain.
The Satsuma Grove, or A Satsuma Grove:
It has been said that Dr. Phillips first came to Florida in 1894, but departed the State after losing his Satsuma Grove in the freeze of 1895.
Florida’s Great Freeze of 1895 killed much of the citrus crop. Two back to back freezes, the first in late December 1894, followed in early February 1895 with a second, killed many of the trees as well as that season’s crop. Growers throughout central Florida lost nearly everything they owned. Many fled the State, leaving unpaid property taxes. The dreadful tragedy also led to the loss of much of the region’s 19th century history.
Satsuma, Florida on St. Johns River. Florida Memory Project
Palatka and its surroundings had a thriving citrus industry in the 1880s. As settlers arrived, new towns began to sprout up. Satsuma, Florida was described in 1885 as being located 15 miles from Palatka, on the bank of St. Johns River, an eight hour trip by steamboat from Jacksonville.
Satsuma was founded in 1882 by “Messrs. Whitney, Bently, & Hodges.” Judson W. Whitney was one of the towns’ residents as well, and the town’s postmaster in 1884 was H. B. Philips. (Postal Archives spell the Postmaster’s name as ‘Philips’.)
Could H. B. Philips be one and the same as the Herman Phillips of Memphis, father of Dr. Phillips of Orlando? That answer would be a resounding NO!
U. S. Postal Archives, Satsuma, Florida Post Office
Henry Bethune Philips (correctly spelled using only one L) was a Florida native. He was the son of Georgia natives Andrew J. & Penelope (Blake) Philips. This family lineage traces to Colonial Virginia and then Georgia. Dr. Philips of Sanford (Part Two of this 4 Part blog) was Henry’s brother.
Attorney Judson Whitney, one of the founders of Satsuma, had also been a neighbor of H. B. Philips of 1880 Jacksonville, the city most associated with this Philips family.
Satsuma however is not merely a place. It’s also a fruit. The Satsuma Mandarin, says the University of Florida, was named for a former province of Japan, and it is believed to have been introduced into the United States by George R. Hall around 1876. He is believed to have been first to plant the Satsuma trees in Florida.
At the time of the 1895 freeze, there were also Satsuma citrus trees in Louisiana.
By 1902, around the time Dr. Phillips of Orlando was driving his herd of Herefords from Texas, Palatka News was running ads about parcels being auctioned at Satsuma for unpaid taxes. Henry B. Philips had moved back to Jacksonville by then, while his brother, Dr. Philips of Sanford, had given up his practice of medicine so as to open a drugstore, at Sanford, Florida.
Also at that time, Dr. Philip of Orange County’s Ghost Town Philipsburg had already died, at his home in Catskill, New York, in 1887 (Part 3 of this 4 Part Blog).
The freeze of 1895 resulted in tens of thousands of acres of abandoned groves, land that could be had dirt cheap. A mysterious young man, possibly from Tennessee, discovered that fact after arriving in 1903 Florida with 200 Herefords. By 1921, Dr. P. Phillips of Orlando had amassed eight very large central Florida groves.
1921 Groves of Dr. P. Phillips of Orlando
There’s a lot of satisfaction in digging up a long-lost history of a central Florida pioneer, and I almost always find the individual I’m searching for. But the mystery of Dr. Phillips may remain a mystery unless another researcher accepts the challenge to unlock secrets of central Florida’s past, and reveal the true identity of a young 19th century adventurer by the name of Dr. Philip Phillips of Orlando.
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