June 8, 2015

Dunedin, Florida: Historic Coastal Getaway with a Scottish Twist

  • By: Geoff Montes
The 1922 view of gated Edgewater Drive, lined with new palm trees.

Florida’s Gulf Coast might seem like a dubious place to discover Celtic history, but sandwiched between Clearwater and Palm Harbor is a city that boasts a proud Scottish heritage -- and an admirable preservation ethic.

Dunedin is one of the state’s oldest towns, tracing its history to 1852, when Richard L. Garrison recorded the first land deed. Its current moniker was bestowed in 1882 after two Scottish merchants -- J.O. Douglas and James Somerville -- petitioned to name the post office, and then the town itself, after the Gaelic interpretation of their hometown of Edinburgh.

A picturesque view on Honeymoon Island State Park, a short drive from downtown Dunedin.

Capitalizing on its waterfront location, the town built a dock early in its history to accommodate schooners and sloops. Coupled with the area’s agrarian economy -- centered mainly on cotton and citrus -- the port grew to become one of the young state’s chief trading centers. Dunedin was incorporated as a town in 1899 and designated a city a quarter century later.

The buildings that went up in this era include the sizable Art Deco Fenway Hotel, which also sports Spanish Colonial Revival elements. The 1927 property went through a series of occupants before recently falling into disuse, its future becoming the subject of much local debate. Spared a wrecking-ball fate, the property was acquired last year by the Taoist Tai Chi Society, which is in the midst of converting it into its national headquarters.

The former Fenway Hotel is currently being converted into the headquarters for the Taoist Tai Chi Society.

Today the city boasts a charming downtown with local purveyors and a wide array of historical attractions that make it an easy day trip from Tampa Bay or a tranquil vacation spot on its own. Its historic roots, not just the Scottish traces but also its origins as a citrus-growing region and military equipment manufacturing area, can be enjoyed through number of cultural groups and events that take place during the year.

Keeping a cherished tradition alive is the Dunedin Pipe Band, which travels around the world representing the city and competing in grade-school piping competitions. They also perform at the annual Highland Games & Festival -- held every March -- which marks its 50th anniversary next year.

The games provide an opportunity to learn more about Celtic and Scottish culture and feature Highland dancing, traditional music, and Scottish athletic competitions. Another golden anniversary took place last year when Dunedin celebrated 50 years of its Sister City relationship with Stirling, Scotland.

The Dunedin Pipe Band performs at the annual Highland Games.

Inspired by the town’s rich heritage as a citrus-growing area, Dunedin hosts the Orange Festival every July. The popular event includes orange juice tastings, a cook-off, live music, dancing, a silent auction, and the Miss Dunedin Orange Queen pageant. This year’s festival will take place all day on Saturday, July 11.

History buffs can ruminate at the Dunedin Historical Society and Museum, located on the site of the original Orange Belt Railway Station, an integral part of Dunedin’s development that signified an agrarian shift from cotton to citrus growing. Containing an estimated 2,000 artifacts and 2,500 images, the collection includes relics from the 1870s such as clothing and household tools. In addition, the historical society oversees the National Register-listed Andrews Memorial Chapel, an 1888 Victorian Gothic sanctuary that can be rented for weddings and other intimate events.

The 1888 Andrews Memorial Chapel is operated by the Dunedin Historical Society.

One of the state’s oldest sailing clubs -- the Dunedin Boat Club -- is also located in the city and provided the backdrop for an intriguing 2012 conversation between two residents, John Tornga and George Nigro, who hatched a plan to reconnect the city with its World War II history, a source of pride for locals.

Prior to the war, local inventor Donald Roebling's amphibious vehicle -- dubbed the 'Alligator' -- caught the attention of the U.S. Marines, who came to Dunedin and worked with Roebling to refine the design so it could be used during war; the Dunedin factory ultimately produced as many as 200 of the new models.

Tornga and Nigro spent over two years working to identify one such vehicle, ultimately acquiring a model that was in Chicago. The landing vehicle was returned to the city last month and placed at the Veterans of Foreign Wars Post 2550 (360 Douglas Avenue). A ceremony is being planned for Friday, July 3, to commemorate its return.

An aerial view of Caladesi Island State Park, accessible from the mainland via ferry.

For the beach-inclined, there are numerous ways to get a fix of vitamin D. Caladesi Island State Park and Honeymoon Island State Park are a short drive or ferry ride across the bay and provide picturesque landscapes and numerous activities, like camping, fishing, swimming, snorkeling, and sunbathing.

We believe all Americans deserve to see their history in the places that surround us. As a nation, we have work to do to fill in the gaps of our cultural heritage.

Let's Get to Work