Charting Tampa Bay's History

TAMPA -

It's been two decades in the making. The payoff comes this weekend when the Tampa Bay History Center opens its doors to the public. The center reflects the story of Floridians over the past 12,000. So taking 20 years to build it is miniscule by comparison.

Tommy Touchton, a businessman, became became the center's volunteer president in December 1988. His true passion is historical maps. Yet, that wasn't the first artifact he recalls acquiring.

'I remember a father calling me one Saturday morning saying his son maybe 8 or 9 year old son had found a cannonball over in a ditch in East Tampa and it was maybe the first artifact given to the Tampa Bay History Center,' Touchton said.

That cannonball made it into a display and is now part of a collection with close to 30,000 artifacts. Hence the need for the new, 60,000 square foot building.

One of the center's missions is to bring to life stories that have been overlooked in the history books. Rodney Kite-Powel is the Saunders Foundation Curator of History at the center. He guides us into the first floor entrance to point out a map of Florida's earliest inhabitants.

'Our history goes back a very long time particularly with Florida,' Kite-Powell said. 'People think it's a young state we want to change that perception.'

Seminole Indian cultural artifacts, the fa ade of an Ybor City cigar store and two theaters are part of the first floor experience. Multi-media displays are sprinkled throughout.

The center's food concessions come directly from the Columbia Restaurant. The lobby caf features a replica of the bar, original chairs from the 103 year old restaurant and offers menu items such as Spanish bean soup, Cuban sandwiches and the 1905 salad.

After a respite at the caf - it's worth a climb to the second floor where you are greeted by an interactive map. You can sit in a real saddle to experience a 'virtual' cattle drive and use a magnet doodle to create your own cattle brand.

And in a room tucked behind the interactive map is the center's true treasure real maps some as old as 1513. Touchton, who charted the course for the center, donated his collection of close to 3,000 historic maps to the center.

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