Gulf Beaches Historical Museum boasts 2,500 photos, scrapbooks and artifacts spanning nearly a century of local history.
Photo by THOMAS MICHALSKI
Longtime volunteer Sally Yoder came to the barrier islands in 1946 and credits volunteerism for the success of the Gulf Beaches Historical Museum.
Photo courtesy of GULF BEACHES HISTORICAL MUSEUM
This undated photo shows the museum building at 115 10th Ave. as a church.
ST. PETE BEACH – A few hundred years ago the land that would become a bustling recreational region was teaming with tropical vegetation, natural spring water wells and wild animals.
So remote were the barrier islands that pirates would drop anchor to trade with Indians and fill the cargo holds of their ships with fresh water, fish, deer and wild hog meat.
Legend has it that the meat was cooked over open fires on iron grates. Thus, Pass-a-Grille got its name.
“Our beach communities all have interesting histories,” said Sally Yoder.
She is the spark that fired up interest in the early 1990s to create the Gulf Beaches Historical Museum at 115 10th Ave., which will be celebrating its 20th anniversary during the month of March.
Housed in a building that was the first church on the barrier islands, the museum boasts a collection of early artifacts that weave an interesting tale about the area’s beginnings.
Yoder, who refuses to disclose her title but rather credits the museum’s success to its 40-odd volunteers, came here with her parents from Johnstown, Pa., in 1946. After a long career as a journalist, contractor and businesswoman here and in southern California, she returned to St. Pete Beach in the early 1990s.
“The church was built with blocks made from beach sand, seashells, salt water and a powdered red dye,” Yoder said.
Early in the last century church services were held at the Lizotte, Holloway, Buckeye and other local hotels. In 1913 the building was constructed as the Union Church of Pass-a-Grille. In 1941 it was rechristened the Pass-a-Grille Community Church.
It underwent many changes over the years. A steeple was added in 1937. In 1946 an old Army barracks was moved from the southern point of Pass-a-Grille for use as Sunday school classrooms.
By the 1950s, church leaders sought to construct a new building. That was finally accomplished in 1959 when the congregation moved to its current location on 16th Avenue.
“The old church was purchased by Joan Haley who lived in it until her death in 1989,” Yoder said. “She willed the building to Pinellas County with the stipulation that it be used as a museum.”
It was just around that time when Yoder returned to her roots after living in California for two decades. Due to her business savvy, community leaders approached her about spearheading the museum project.
“The credit for the museum’s success must go to the volunteers who spend countless hours maintaining the building and its contents,” Yoder said.
There are more than 2,500 old photos and artifacts that range from display cases to an early boat motor. The museum’s 150 scrapbooks trace the area’s history through newspaper articles and other paper memorabilia.
“Heritage Village in Largo oversees the heavy work, but our volunteers support the museum with fundraisers, dues and donations,” Yoder said.
She has seen the barrier islands develop from a sandy, sparsely populated area to a vacation Mecca. People from all over the world stay at modern hotels, including St. Pete Beach’s crown jewel, the Don CeSar.
Opened in 1928 after a bumpy start because builder Thomas Rowe ran out of construction funds, “The Don,” as it is known, offered rooms for $2.50, with high-end suites going for $24.
The hotel was saved from bankruptcy when the New York Yankees made it its headquarters. During World War II, it was a military hospital where battle-traumatized Army Air Corps pilots recuperated.
The government abandoned the hotel in 1969. It fell to disrepair, but was reincarnated in 1973 after a multimillion dollar makeover. The $24-a-night suites now cost $1,500. The giant pink building is designated an official U.S. landmark.
“I have seen many changes on the barrier islands over the years,” Yoder said.
The most disturbing was construction of the many “fingers” or man-made islands built for residential construction. Some even altered the saltwater flow. That became a danger to marine and wildlife.
“Many of the older buildings still exist,” Yoder said. “The barrier islands, despite the growth, are really a group of small towns that welcome visitors at all times of the year.”
Several events to celebrate the museum’s 20th anniversary are planned. Among them are the Island Festival on March 2 and a banquet on March 18.
The museum is open October through May, 10 a.m. to 4 p.m., Thursday through Saturday; and Sundays, 1 to 4 p.m.
Hours differ slightly between June and September.
Gulf Beaches Historical Museum is at 115 10th Ave., Pass-a-Grille, St. Pete Beach. Admission is free.