Gasparilla Island Maritime Museum
a hard story to capture...
Boca Grande, FL
February 3, 2019
Key West, FL
I don’t remember being overwhelmed by a potential story. Some are obvious and come naturally, others are surprises which take some work to remember the details and organize them in a way to make sense to someone other than myself. But I’ve never been intimidated by the thought that I couldn’t capture an obvious story.
First, you must appreciate the setting, Boca Grande, Florida. Genteel is the word suggested by a Canadian couple anchored next to me. Zoning codes seem to have prevented a race to be the biggest mansion, but as a couple that I met at the coffee shop described it, the billionaires are starting to push out the millionaires.
Everything is immaculate. Lawn and garden contractors must make a fortune, though they probably aren’t local boys trying to make some spending money as I did after I figured out that my paper route wasn’t going to make me rich. Driveway pavers are outlined by bigger pavers with little regard to the stone cutters who must accommodate the swirling designs. Golf carts have their own lanes and designated parking spaces, probably because there’s not enough room for all the Jaguars, BMWs and poor folk Volvos. 20-30ish year olds are welcome if they bring the grandchildren.
OK, enough. You’ve got the picture. I will give credit where it’s due. It is the most fit senior population I’ve seen. The golf course and tennis courts are busy and there are numerous walkers, joggers and bike riders, some going straighter than others.
In the mist of this perfection I came across a piece of the island’s past.
Overgrown mangrove partly concealing a lopsided house probably from the 50s with a semi organized yard filled with used furniture, rusted bicycles, old cars that may or may not run, numerous boat frames and machinery that had seen better days.
I was thinking junk yard watch dog when I came to an ‘OPENN’ sign painted on an old boat transom with Gasparilla Island Maritime Museum etched into two sea planks above it. A little further was “WHidden’s Marina. Cold Beer, Soda, Ice, Gas, Live Bait, Boat Ramp, Boat Ways, Dockage, Tackle. Since 1925.” A more modern “Seriously We’re OPEN” was propped next to it.
That still didn’t explain the barnyard with two pot belly pigs, goats, ducks, bunnies and a fat cat that refused to move from the walkway. Or the beautiful plants for sale in a well-tended nursery with a hippy feel suggested by a homemade sign “Everyone Love Everyone”. This place has something for everybody as well as an identity problem.
The newsletter I found inside describes the museum as a lot of museum in a small space. That is an understatement. In three small rooms there is not a wall, shelf, counter, crook or cranny without something crammed on, in or hanging from it. Most of it is maritime, along with some local historical artifacts. The most valuable is surely a pair of beautiful 1920’s fighting fish chairs made of Honduras mahogany. The sign says that Hemingway and Zane Gray fought fish from them.
What captivated me was the personal nature of the museum, centered around the life and times of Captain Sam Whidden who built the building housing the museum and current marina in 1926. There are pictures of him in a stiff uniform, having lied about his age to serve in the trenches of the Great War. There's s picture of him and his wife Leslie on board a boat, him the rough and tumble local boy and her looking saucy enough to be a New York flapper. What a couple they must have been.
His workroom was the smallest of the rooms, over flowing with old style bits and braces, rusting tools, acetylene bottles, vices, nut and bolt bins and some things I could only guess as to their purpose. He packed fish in ice for shipping in the main room of the museum. He used bolts to build the marina because he didn’t trust nails. He seemed to be a jack of all trades, serving as a Captain for the rich who even then visited the island as easily as running a pool hall in the off season.
After Leslie died in 1937, Sam raised their two young daughters, Isabelle and Barbara. They were the ones who established the museum in 2001, starting by getting Whidden’s Marina placed on the National Register of Historic Places on what would have Sam’s 100th birthday.
I’ve been in a lot of small local museums, most recently a neat and tidy one spread over two houses in Cedar Key, Florida. They mostly house local artifacts, whether rusted horse drawn plows or anchors that survived the ships they served. The best focus on strong, often colorful, local characters. People who may or may not have been mayor or rich but recognized by all as the strength of the community.
This is what makes the Gasparilla Island Maritime Museum special. Sam Whidden and his daughters were recognized leaders of the Boca Grande community for nearly a century. His blood sweat and tears in both good times and bad are on full display. When Isabelle passed away in June 2018, the local paper lamented that “a tangible feeling of loss hung as heavy over this little island as the June humidity.” Isabella “didn’t just live on the island, and she wasn’t just raised on the island. She truly was the island.”
A third generation has kept the marina going with well known tarpon fishing tournaments. Whidden’s is still the place where those in the know run when word leaks out that the shrimp boat is docking – one of the few places left where you can still buy shrimp right off the boat. And it’s still a hangout for the few long time locals left.
There’s been some renovations and the property is probably protected from the zoning czars by the historical designation, non-profit status and the museum’s listing on the National Register. But reading between the lines of the undated newsletter, it seems the museum may be living on borrowed time, the same as the marina which hasn’t, and maybe doesn’t want to keep up with the times. There’s an air of resignation that this way of life has run out of time on today’s Boca Grande.
I finally understood. That’s what made this story so hard to capture.