Historian Sean Adams grew up far from the sandy soils of the Sunshine State, like many others who have built their careers at the University of Florida. Still, he’s found himself leading the charge to preserve the state’s colorful past.
While on a family outing to Fort Necessity National Battlefield in Pennsylvania, a six-year-old Adams held a musket in his hands for the first time. The young Adams marveled at the thought of such a momentous battle in American history taking place just a short drive from his hometown.
Flash forward, and decades later, Adams is still on a mission to bridge the past and present — now he’s just a bit more focused on a quest to help others capture that same feeling of wonder he discovered as a boy.
As the Hyatt and Cici Brown Professor of History, Adams spearheads the Inquire Capitalism initiative to promote scholarship in the history of capitalism — an often overlooked realm, according to Adams. While his expertise lies in 19th-century U.S. history and industrialization, lately Adams’ interests have taken a more altruistic turn.
“I’m at the stage in my career now where I just want to help people build connections to history,” he said. “And after living and working in Florida all these years, I’ve seen how that doesn’t often happen here.”
Many people move to Florida to forget their past, Adams notes. But he’s concerned that the state’s business histories, and the larger story of the communities around them, will be lost if they are not captured. He wants Floridians to build personal connections to their history and see themselves as active participants in it. “Florida’s history is newer and quirkier,” Adams said. “I think you just have to embrace it.”
Gainesville, the site of the university’s main campus, is a transitory place where people come and go quickly once degrees are earned. Adams said this can make it challenging to maintain a sense of history and community. To address this issue, Adams and his team of Inquire Capitalism interns are on a mission to raise awareness about the importance of preserving Florida’s business history.
They’re doing so from an unlikely (yet, entirely appropriate) locale: the site of a former popular fondue restaurant called the Melting Pot. A restoration project in 2017 brought the historic building back to life in the form of the Matheson Library and Archives, the headquarters of extensive local historical records. As the team pores over archival materials, a remnant of the building’s entrepreneurial spirit looms over their heads in the form of a giant stained-glass panel of wine and cheese.
The term “business history” may conjure ideas of billionaires and corporations, but Adams and his team reconstruct a history of local, small businesses. They’re cataloging the places where people eat, socialize, shop, plan funerals, and pick up their prescriptions.
“A sense of belonging gives people hope,” said Paula De La Cruz-Fernandez, coordinator of the Inquire Capitalism program. “Business history is your history — it’s about the everyday people working to build a community and culture.”
Using city directories, postcards, and ledgers, the team is slowly filling in the town’s history gaps with comprehensive, layered snapshots spanning each decade. Next, they plan to scour local newspapers and conduct oral histories to connect interesting stories to each space. And with their ultimate goal of creating an open-access, interactive digital exhibit, they’re ensuring this history remains accessible and engaging for generations to come.
As Adams’ undergraduate interns have identified their own personal interests, they’ve begun to pursue individual projects that investigate corners of Gainesville’s business history. “The real magic happens when a student can make a local connection,” Adams said. “You can see their eyes light up.”
Third-year history major Catherine Hill is delving into Gainesville’s storied automobile dealer district. The internship has solidified her interest in material culture, she said, as she pieces together the past by investigating artifacts.
Third-generation Gator Jordan Dickens chose to explore the history of Gainesville’s “sin” district, the strip of businesses just north of UF’s campus known as Midtown. Dickens’ curiosity stems from a connection to family history — his parents frequented former social landmarks such as the Purple Porpoise, giving meaningful context to his research. “It’s interesting to see how communities actually develop around these locations,” he said.
Patrick Grey, a 2023 Beinecke Scholar, examines Gainesville’s multiple black business districts, which have shifted over time as the city’s geography changed. Throughout much of Gainesville’s business history, segregation remained a harsh reality. “Black businesses aren’t given enough attention, so I’m excited to shed some light there,” he said.
Adams encourages everyone to take a closer look at the stories behind the places they encounter every day. Just as you use genealogy tools to discover family roots, you can connect over a shared place with neighbors past and present by discovering more about your town’s background.
“There’s a story behind everything, even if it’s faded into the past,” he said.
Explore Gainesville’s business history here.