Florida 500-year birthday history, celebration events: Florida celebrates with 'Viva Florida 500'

ST. AUGUSTINE, Fla. -- Florida this week is reaching a massive milestone: its 500th anniversary.

Historians say on or around April 2, 1513, Juan Ponce de León became the first recorded European to land in the United States.

It is believed that at noon that day, Ponce de León's navigators logged their position near Florida's shores.

The explorer named the land La Florida. According to the Florida Department of State, the name reflected the lush plant life and Eastertime Spanish Feast of Flowers.

To highlight 500 years, events across the state will celebrate culture and history this year, thousands under the state's Viva Florida initiative.

St. Augustine is the oldest continuously occupied European settlement in what became the United States.  The city is filled with tourists for celebrations and the anniversary.

Dianne Jacoby is a history enthusiast, having written books about the history of St. Augustine and performed for visitors in period attire.  

Head to toe, she is dressed in an ornate and elaborate attire.  

"It was sort of rigid and stayed, but that's the sort of woman I'm trying to reflect today," she said, gesturing to the boning in her bodice.

Jacoby made the outfit herself. 

"Right now I'm dressed in the time period of our founder, Pedro Menendez de Aviles, so it would be 1565," she said.

Jacoby had no patter to work from to make her dress, she used paintings and old documents.  

"There are inventories of what came over on ships that will tell you how people dressed and what they wore, what their accessories were," she said.

Jacoby left West Palm Beach for St. Augustine twenty years ago, following her heart for history.  

"How exciting is that, to be a part of it on the 500th anniversary," Jacoby said.

Not far away, Gary Kennedy is carving and building a ship.  

"I like working with wood, at the end of hte day you can step back and see what you've created," he said.

He is building a 16th Century ship, the kind people would have used to travel from Spain to explore the "New World."

"It would have taken between ten and thirty guys over three years to build a ship, and they would have used and they would have used over six acres of trees," he said.

Even with the help of power tools, he works with tools of the time.  

"If I was to build this old-school, next year I would still be on the keel," he explained.

His ship will be seaworthy, but it will never touch the ocean.  Kennedy is building her to welcome passengers on a journey through history on land.  

"History is important, it tells you who you are as a people, who you are as a nation, who you are as a person," Kennedy said.

The adventure Ponce de Leon took in discovering Florida is something Kennedy frequently considers.

"It gives me a definite appreciation for their skills and abilities, to sail across the oceans in something this size.  I wouldn't have done it," he laughed.

Kennedy started to work on the ship two months ago, but says it will take another 7 years to complete.  

Rarely viewed artifacts will be displayed, tours of historic buildings will be offered and commemorative events are scheduled.

Learn more about the history of Florida and events happening across the state by visiting www.VivaFlorida.org .

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