The history of non-native settlement in Florida is as colorful as its landscape. Other than the already centuries old Spanish domains in the north and the panhandle, south of St. Augustine Florida in the early 19th century was a land of bayous, forests, gators and mosquitoes. Fortunately that’s still the charm of Florida, places where it’s either for real or has been recreated by experts.
Pinellas County – Saint Petersburg/Clearwater region – currently preserves 25 structures, commercial and residential, built from the mid-19th century through the 1930s, at the 21-acre Heritage Village. Each were moved, some by barge, from all parts of the Pinellas Peninsula and set amidst an extensive palm and palmetto grove before undergoing historic restoration. The well-signed village invites visitors to stroll among a century of changing lifestyles and an expanding economy from pre Civil War homesteads to America’s vacation land cottages.
Many of the historic buildings are open to wander, imagine life before airconditioning and some have docents, all eager to answer questions. There are frequent demonstrations of everyday life, check the web site for the schedule. Attractive displays at the eco-friendly designed Visitors Center’s museum reflect the popular culture and economy of the period represented by the village.
The superbly restored and maintained structures tell such stories of early Floridians as mid-19th century log cabin homesteaders clearing land and fishing the waters for an existence in the bayous, the changing cottage styles of affluent northern snowbirds flocking to pristine bays and beaches along the Gulf Coast to tenacious small shop keepers that bet on the success of Pinellas County.
I highlight eight Historic Village structures that follow the region’s history.
McMullen-Coachman Log Cabin (1852)
Home of James and Elizabeth McMullen on Alligator Creek in what is now Clearwater. The McMullens became prosperous ranchers and farmers eventually branching out into sugar, cotton and citrus. Along with his brothers, James became an early and successful local land developer by the 1870s.
Boyer Cottage (1878)
Originally built on Spring Bayou (future Tarpon Springs), the Boyer Cottage (1878) was the tiny, 196 square foot, first home of fisherman Joshua and Mary Boyer. The Boyers prospered along with the financial success of Tarpon Springs branching out into numerous local businesses. By the later 1880s they had relocated to a gander home.
The Williams Park Bandstand (1894)
The Williams Park Bandstand (1894) was dedicated to John and Sarah Williams in St. Petersburg’s City Park – later renamed Williams Park. The original bandstand was replaced several decades ago but this 1981 Heritage Village reconstruction still honors John and Sarah. They were early homesteaders who prospered in agriculture and business as Pinellas County developed in the latter 19th century. In the 1890s they spearheaded the association that developed City Park by donating a substantial portion of their 1875 homestead.
The Plant-Sumner Home (1896)
The Plant-Sumner Home (1896) is a fine example of middle class vacation cottages being built in the 1890s by land developers for affluent vacationers along the Gulf Coast. Note luxuries such as the Edison phonograph and fashionable Transfer Ware on the dining table.
Safety Harbor Church (1905)
Safety Harbor Church (1905) was built by its Methodist congregation in 1905. The church served several congregations before being moved to the Village. The simplicity of its wooden construction, like early seaside cottages, belies the reality it survived two hurricanes. Safety Harbor Church sill includes the original 1905 pulpit and alter rail.
The House of Seven Gables (1907)
The House of Seven Gables (1907) is an Edwardian mansion that sat on a high bluff with an impressive view of Clearwater Bay. The waterfront mansion morphed into a Vicarage, a guesthouse and then back to a private residence before being donated to the Historic Village. Its transport by barge in 1976 was a local event.
H.C. Smith Groceries (1915)
H.C. Smith Groceries (1915) was originally in what is now downtown Saint Petersburg on 4th Street. With a gas station, mechanics shop, the post office and a barbershop, meats, dry goods, clothing and hardware it was the classic general store. It prospered under four different owners and names as the city grew. The post-war boom of mid-1950s department stores and shopping centers replaced the general store, but it lives on in Heritage Village selling coke and the chance to wile away a lazy Florida afternoon playing checkers – with Coke bottle caps.
The Turner House (1915)
The Turner House (1915) Geraldine Turner’s generous bequest to the Village included her family’s classic 1915 seaside Craftsman bungalow complete with vintage Fiesta Ware, early American art pottery and original Craftsman furniture. Relocated to the Historic Village a couple years ago the house is still undergoing restoration, but the museum quality furnishings are on display in the Ralph Reed Gallery located in the Visitors Center.
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