Longboat Key Historical Society gives new life to the past
The organization’s new location at Longboat Key’s Town Center will serve as a museum showcasing archives, artifacts and historical objects.
| 8:00 a.m. May 3, 2023
Michael Drake’s dream of finding a permanent home for the Longboat Key Historical Society’s collection of artifacts has finally come true. The organization has moved and is planning to be open to the public in Town Center on Bay Isles Drive by summer.
“The Historical Society’s been packed up in boxes for the better part of 10 years,” says Drake, the society’s president. Historical documents, photographs, books and other memorabilia have been collected and preserved for 37 years by the Historical Society, which was founded by Ralph and Claire Hunter, the founders and original owners of the Longboat Observer.
Sometime around 2017, after the Longboat Key Center for the Arts in Longbeach Village was sold to local developer Jim Clabaugh, Drake wondered what would become of the last two historic Whitney Beach cottages on the 2.3-acre site. Built in the late 1930s, the two cottages were among the original structures of the Whitney Beach Resort. Clabaugh offered to donate the cottages to the Historical Society. “And lo and behold, the town carved out a niche for us with a rent of $10 a year,” Drake says.
To raise much-needed funds, the Historical Society sold the larger of the two cottages to restaurateur Ed Chiles. The smaller of the two, formerly the linens cottage of the former resort, was moved to its new home at Town Center in 2017 and nestled into a lush oak hammock. “The neat thing is that it fits in so well it looks like it’s been there forever,” Drake says.
It cost about $30,000 to move the buildings and begin the renovation process. Drake says the money came from the organization’s coffers — mainly from the proceeds of the cottage sold to Chiles. From hurricane-proofing to electrical upgrades to disability compliance, the building needed plenty of repairs.
In its early days, the collection had been displayed in the Historical Society’s office at Whitney Beach Plaza. As the rent increased and the organization’s bank account decreased, the materials were moved to a climate-controlled storage unit. As finances continued to diminish, private homes became the new storage facilities.
Pamela Coleman, former president of the Historical Society, had stored many of the archives in her home. Drake had also kept part of the collection, as did a few board members. In the past few months, Drake has been opening boxes and rediscovering a past that had been sealed up for years. Besides books, photos and newspaper articles, he’s made some interesting finds — a mounted eastern diamondback rattlesnake skin, trophies from the days of the volunteer fire department and a portrait of Longboat Key’s first police chief are just some of what visitors will see. At one time the Historical Society had a huge boat anchor, which Drake hopes he can acquire again.
“I’ve received numerous calls from people who want to donate items but so far have held off. I have names and numbers of people to call back,” he says.
Before he died, Ralph Hunter gave the Longboat Key Historical Society the rights to his book, “From Calusas to Condominiums: A Pictorial History of Longboat Key,” written in 2002. The organization can now print and sell the book in perpetuity.
How far back does the Historical Society’s collection go? Drake says he’s still researching that, explaining that the society had commissioned a historian, Mickey Harding, to put together a historical diary of Longboat Key. Drake says she researched the area as far back as 500 BC.
“My goal is to basically take the records back to when there were three different Indian tribes that inhabited Longboat Key and then work toward the present.” He says the new space will be a “walk-through” where guests can view the entire history of the key.
Moving ahead, Drake hopes to bring back the annual fish fry fundraiser that dates back to the ’50s and used to be run by the Longboat Key volunteer fire department. He also hopes to build up his corps of volunteers and build a board of directors. “We’ve been privileged to have dedicated volunteers for the past 37 years,” he says.
All of this takes money, and Drake has mounted a fundraising campaign to finance this major project. He is also keeping a running list of potential volunteers. Those interested in giving their time, should contact the Historical Society.
As of press time, the organization expects to be open by May 15.