- January 13, 2016
EAST COUNTY — Wearing a black top hat and an oversized, matching suit jacket, fourth-grader Kiera Powers looked at her friends and laughed.
"Who am I?" Powers asked. "Who do I look like?"
The East County resident, who attends Wakeland Elementary School, rummaged through a trunk of 1800s-era clothing to learn a little more about Erasmus Rye and the family that pioneered living on Rye Road centuries ago. Indeed, she was dressed like Rye.
On Jan. 9, Powers and her friends visited the grand opening of the Rye Preserve's new New Center, which is run by the Manatee County Parks and Natural Resources Department.
The Nature Center, located off Rye Road, features eight interactive exhibits that highlight Florida's wildlife and history. They include the bat and scrub jay booths, and the Rye family history exhibit.
"I never knew the town of Rye was as important to Manatee County as it is," said Vanessa Baugh, the Manatee County Commission chairwoman.
In the late 1800s, the Rye family moved to what is today East County. They created a community and still have descendants, such as Charles Miller, who live in the area today.
Miller, a Sarasota resident and fifth-generation Rye family member, attended the grand opening and enjoyed learning more about his extended family's history.
"My great-grandpa married Erasmus Rye's granddaughter," Miller said. "When I was little, we came out here to camp. This was our playground and we did a lot of fishing out here, too. I have a lot of good memories on Rye Road."
Charlie Hunsicker, the department director for Parks and Natural Resources, said a new addition to the Rye Preserve property, the 900-square-foot Nature Center, is designed for all ages, with an emphasis on school-aged children.
Whether attendees want to sit inside the nest of a scrub jay, the unofficial state bird which has lived in Florida for millions of years, or look through a lens to see an unpolluted view of the night sky, the attraction aims to give students a better appreciation and understanding of nature.
"The premise is that few, if any, places describe the scrubby, upland areas in southwest Florida," Hunsicker said. "Florida isn't just beaches. It's important for the community to see all aspects of Florida's environment, from coastal to inland."
Melissa Nell, the programming, volunteer and education division manager for Parks and Natural Resources, hopes teachers countywide will utilize the space for field trips.
Although the county doesn't have the means to provide a staff member or volunteer on site five days a week, classes can tour the space by appointment.
"If teachers tell us they're working on a certain topic, like bats or even something we don't have here, I'll do my best to find props and creative ways to teach that lesson," Nell said. "We have a cart that wheels out, and teachers can show their students in a hands-on way what they're learning about."
Nell requests a month's notice for class tours of the Nature Center, which is free to visit.
A two-year project, the county's department struggled to fund the project, which transformed an old portable classroom into a piece of history.
The project received funding from the county's General Fund and a Phosphate Severance Fund from the state, along with various in-kind donations and volunteer hours.
Hunsicker estimated volunteers donated $17,376.50 worth of time to the project.
"We hope this building can really grow with the community," Nell said. "We plan to add to and change the exhibits over time, so people won't always be seeing the same thing when they come here. We just want to share a piece of Florida history."