A group of local residents display a sign that would designate the "Palm Harbor Historic District" in 1994.

The traditional gemstone to commemorate a 40th anniversary or birthday is the vibrant red ruby, which represents devotion and passion. In January of 1983, 40 years ago this month, a small group of devoted and passionate Palm Harbor residents who wanted to preserve the history of this area succeeded in officially incorporating the Palm Harbor Historical Society, which operates the museum.  

“2023 is an exciting year for the Palm Harbor Historical Society,” said the Rev. Bob Fortner, current president of the organization. “Even as we celebrate the past forty years, we look toward the future to do everything in our power to ensure the Palm Harbor History Museum will continue to be a valuable asset for our community for generations to come.”

MMATM makes a change

In 2023, the museum’s Meet Me at the Museum programs have become Palm Harbor Museum Presents and will be offered at 6:30 p.m. on the first Wednesday of each month in the Community Room at the Palm Harbor Library, 2330 Nebraska Ave. Admission is free and all are welcome. Please register at Eventbrite, but walk-ins are also welcome. The programs will last, on average with questions and answers, approximately one hour to 90 minutes, with time afterward for meeting the presenter and book signings when applicable. 

The museum has been presenting MMATM in the museum and simultaneously on Zoom as hybrid programs, but as audiences have increased, the move to the library will allow organizers to reach out to the larger community. Each Palm Harbor Museum Presents program will be recorded and uploaded to the museum’s Zoom portal as well as to YouTube. 

“The programs will resume in March and will continue to provide entertaining and educational presentations along with museum updates, with the added benefit of the spacious and well-equipped community room at the Palm Harbor Library,” Fortner said. “Our thanks go out to Gene Coppola and the library staff. We are excited about this new collaborative arrangement.”

The museum’s annual membership meeting is at the library at 6:30 p.m. on Feb. 1. It is open to the community. There will be opportunities to not only learn about the museum’s past and present but also to help envision its future.

“Remember, in order to preserve the past and protect the future, those who care must be present,” Fortner said.

Museum’s early days

The following description of the PHHS’s beginning was compiled by a museum volunteer from various historical documents and photos. 

On Jan. 22, 1983, a gathering took place in a store at the newly-opened Fountains Shopping Center on U.S. Highway 19, just south of Alderman Road. A few old-timers assembled at Cobb's Collectors Emporium, an antiques store started by Jane Cobb Shelnutt. Two days later, the state officially accepted the paperwork creating the Palm Harbor Historical Society.

A corner of Shelnutt's store became a place where pioneers and long-time residents gathered, shared stories, planned reunions, and collected artifacts. By the late 1980s, the society's small-but-growing collection moved to space provided by the Florida Bank of Commerce at 1026 Florida Ave., a well-known address in the heart of historic Old Palm Harbor.

The bank occupied a building originally built in the 1890s that had served as Adair's Grocery from the late 1930s until 1980. The bank offered the historical society a place to store and show items from the collection, even partnering with the society for the first-ever Pioneer Days gathering in June 1989. Horseshoes and a watermelon-eating contest were among the events.

The historical society had to find a new home in May 1991 as the bank's services expanded. Unable to secure a location to replace their home of four years, historical society board members placed some of the smaller artifacts in their homes, with larger items locked away in a facility closed to the public.

The Palm Harbor Historical Society's fate seemed uncertain 30 years ago, but members continued to work on important initiatives even as the collections sat in storage. Led by Winona Jones, the organization worked with businesses and leaders in Palm Harbor in a quest to create the first “historic district” designation for an unincorporated community in Pinellas County.

Their efforts occurred at a time when many historic landmarks had disappeared from the landscape and only a few acres of citrus trees remained in the area.  As new businesses continued to appear on formerly undeveloped land along U.S. 19, and architects began to design Palm Harbor University High School, society members focused on restoration projects and the creation of the historic district.

Their persistence paid off. In August 1994, county commissioners approved the Palm Harbor Historic District designation. The historical society gained tax-exempt status in January 1995, allowing the organization to engage in more extensive fundraising. That same month, the society received a 1962 fire truck from the Palm Harbor Special Fire Control District that became a popular sight at local parades and community events.

A major fundraising drive began in May 1995, during the Palm Harbor Days annual event. As Charley Jones, Wallace Sutton and Eddie Vought played country tunes as a band known as the Palm Harbor Pioneers, the organization tried to find a home for its archives and collections, still in storage for nearly five years.

Plans for the expansion of Belcher Road created a new opportunity for the Palm Harbor Historical Society to show and preserve its treasures. Next month, we learn how the Hartley House at Belcher and Curlew roads became the historical society's home.

Share your stories

If you have Palm Harbor memories to share, let us know! Visit the museum for more information or to join. Active membership entitles you to free museum admission, quarterly e-newsletters, programs and events. 

Visiting the museum

The Palm Harbor Museum is open for self-guided tours from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. on Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays. Children are welcome. Admission is free but donations are gratefully accepted. Masks are encouraged inside the buildings and hand sanitizer is available. Call 727-724-3054 for more information.

The Palm Harbor Historical Museum is a 501(c)(3) non-profit organization dedicated to the preservation, interpretation, and presentation of the rich historical heritage of the Palm Harbor Area including Crystal Beach, Curlew, East Lake, Ozona and Wall Springs. The Museum is located at 2043 Curlew Road (at Belcher Road). Visit the museum website at www.palmharbormuseum.com or email at palmharbormuseum@outlook.com.