Norman Riggins was born in New Providence, Tennessee in 1858 to Mann Patterson Riggins and Frances Riggins. After moving around Tennessee and Kentucky for several years, the Riggins family settled in Dexter, Missouri (about 170 miles south of St. Louis) where Mann Riggins opened a dry goods store. Although, the younger Riggins had, as he put it, “three terms of college,” he joined his father in the family business, “Riggins and Son, Dry Goods.”
Business must have been pretty good because Norman decided to take a month off from the store in early 1882 to explore some heretofore to him unknown part of the country. We know this because Riggins left a detailed handwritten account of his trip, which is now part of the Riggins Family Papers. The narrative, entitled “My First Trip to Florida” is undated, but obviously written some years after the event. It is, nevertheless, a wonderful and colorful account of Riggins trip through a nearly virgin land at a time when Winnebagos and fast food restaurants were yet to be a plague upon the landscape.
Riggins began his narrative with an explanation of why he was going and why he decided on Florida. He said “On the afternoon of February 1, 1882 I left Dexter, Missouri for the practically unknown land of Florida just because I had a month to roam over some part of these United States and Florida was least known of any other section----being in the deep Southland and therefore a little mysterious.” It appears the modern day equivalent choosing a vacation destination by placing a map in front of you, closing your eyes, and pointing to a spot on the map.
The young (24 at the time) and intrepid traveler boarded a train bound for St. Louis, “a good starting point,” he observed. From there, he took a train to Mobile, Alabama where he expected to board a boat bound for Tampa. Here Riggins confronted the reality that so many travelers before and since have faced. Trains, boats and stages were not always reliable or on time. In this case he discovered that the boat he had planned to take had not run the Tampa trip for more than two years. It was not to be his last disappointment in travel or accommodations. He was forced to make alternate plans and boarded a train in Mobile bound for Jacksonville by way of Montgomery for, as he proclaimed, “I was determined to go to Florida.”
And go to Florida he did. Along the way he encountered slow boats, bumpy roads, vest pocket trains, and an assortment of local characters who both impressed and amazed him. He stopped in Orlando, observing that “there was no excitement in Orlando after their tourist [Riggins] left; Tampa, which he described as having streets ‘paved with white sand six inches deep;” and Bartow, county seat of Polk County, ,where he discussed with the locals, “orange groves, the growing of cassava…the growing of sweet potatoes, the staff of life in Polk County.”
Riggins returned home to Dexter exactly a month after he left, stepping off the train “into a storm of rain, snow, and sleet---a typical March morning that invited me to forget about orange blossoms and soft breezes.” He did not forget, however. As he put it, “I wore my tongue to a frazzle answering questions about that evergreen land of Florida…where hot days were cooled and cold days were warmed by the winds from the Gulf of Mexico and the Atlantic Ocean.”
Riggins’ tongue wagging was persistent and apparently persuasive because by 1884, two years after his excellent adventure, Norman, his wife Sally, their infant daughter Pattie, his parents and his aunt and uncle, Calvin and Margaret Waggoner moved to the newly settled community of Lakeland in August 1884. There the three men built a dry goods store on the corner of what is now Main and Tennessee and opened for business as Riggins and Waggoner. Each family also built a home along Tennessee Avenue not far from the store. Norman Riggins did move back to Missouri in 1887, but returned to Lakeland for good upon his father’s death in 1895 and became one of the fledgling community’s leading citizens. And it all started with a random trip to see an unexplored [to Riggins] part of the country.