Discovering living history

Bradenton Herald — What was Bradenton like in the days of old?

It was a community where everyone knew your name. Where residents were overly hospitable to neighbors and strangers alike. Dirt roads and farms were common sights. So was peeling oranges by hand at the Tropicana plant. Going downtown was a fun adventure. And first Sunday films at the Palace Theater were always free.

Bradenton essentially was heaven on earth back then, according to longtime residents like Ernest “Sandy” Marshall.

“It was a working man’s town and a place to relax and live a normal life,” he said.

His quotes and others are highlighted in a new oral history exhibit at the South Florida Museum complied by Manatee School of the Arts’ Florida history class.

The exhibit, which also features artwork and relics from the past, is on display through June 4.

Students from the class, taught by Steve Marshall, spent several months interviewing residents and gathering information to learn more about the city’s past.

History, they found, comes from more than encyclopedias and old newspaper articles. It is living and breathing among them through the memories of longtime residents.

For the students, finding the residents was like finding pieces to a living jigsaw puzzle.

“I’ve always felt that you can’t understand the present unless you know about the past,” said student Savanna Siewak, 16.

The idea for the project started with Amara Cocilovo, the museum’s public project coordinator. She learned that the History Channel was offering grants for oral history exhibitions. Cocilovo encouraged the museum to apply for the grant with hopes of getting a local school involved. But when it didn’t get the grant, Cocilovo still wanted students to participate.

“My feeling was it’s so important to have them go through this,” she said. “For the students and the community to have a very strong sense of place.”

Also with the downtown redevelopment project slowly taking shape, Cocilovo wanted to draw attention to what old downtown Bradenton was like.

“And what it could be again,” she said.

Marshall, who has taught Florida history for several years, loved the idea of the project because offered a chance for his students to plug into the community.

“Connecting students to the community is very important,” he said. “When we’re studying history we forget the history of ourselves.”

Money and in-kind services for the project was provided through the Kiwanis Club, the Downtown Development Authority and the Manatee County Historical Commission.

An advertisement was placed in the newspaper asking for participants for the project. Calls poured in.

As a native of the area, the teacher walked away learning things he never knew about his city. But what struck him the most was how Bradenton was such a tight-knit community in the past.

His class talked to people like Geraldine Pearson Fulford, born in 1939. Fulford recalled when U.S. Highway 301 wasn’t the busy road it is now. During her younger days, it was just a dirt road. And before DeSoto Square mall was a twinkle in a developer’s eye, the site was home to a chicken farm.

Jeanne Garrison remembered when Manatee Avenue was lined with oysters shells.

“It got a little smelly going to town after the oysters died,” she recalled.

Besides snippets of history, others, like Goodlett “Bo” Watson, gave confessions. Watson, who was a paperboy for the Bradenton Herald during his mischievous years, was behind the mysterious fire incident of July 1947 that occurred near the newspaper and a hotel. No one knew he and a friend lit a firecracker inside of a metal pipe. To his surprise, the incident caused a ruckus, and was written in newspaper the next day.

“The fire department searched all over the hotel for a fire,” Watson said. “It was a mystery to everyone. I never told anyone this story, so this is my confession.”

Students were amazed to learn how different downtown Bradenton was then. The area was filled with shops and social areas, said Lora Parker, a junior. There was even a teen club on the riverfront.

Old town began to change once the one-way streets along Manatee Avenue were established. It made it harder for residents to get to their favorite hot spots. Soon, their hot spots began disappearing, along with the agriculture.

According to Ernest Marshall, development killed downtown.

“Downtown Bradenton is a ghost town compared to what it was in the years gone by,” he said.

One of the students, Eddison Nelson Jr., 19, was especially intrigued to learn about the area’s black history. Shea O’Neil, 16, was “blown away” by segregation here — separate store entrances for blacks and whites, along with separate water fountains. Students said Manatee County School Board member Barbara Harvey told them that segregation made going to downtown Bradenton uncomfortable for blacks. Harvey, who is black, would drive to St. Petersburg to shop instead.

But once segregation ended, an effort was made in the school system to change things.

Black teachers taught at white schools and vice versa, O’Neil said.

With the success of this year’s project, the program will continue at the school. Marshall also wants to create a database and video of students’ interviews for the museum’s Web site in the future so that the local history they find can be preserved forever.

Students said they enjoyed conducting a project of this scale, and that through it, they’ve gained a new-found respect for their community.It is a sentiment expressed by young natives and transplants alike.

“It was really interesting being that I came down to Bradenton and didn’t really know about the area,” 16-year-old Paige Montgomery, originally from New York, said about the project. “It makes it seem more like home.”

published May 17,2009

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