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Victorian Tampa: A Pocket History.
by Maureen Patrick, M.A., Director, Historic Guides
Few can boast keeping better company than Maureen Patrick. After all, who else regularly hangs out with 13 former mayors, the namesake of Ybor City and even a reputed Cuban pirate?
Sean Lengell, The Tampa Tribune
What was Tampa like in the Victorian Age? It was not the orderly world of ‘Upstairs, Downstairs.’ This Florida frontier community, incorporated in 1849, retained much of its rough-and-rowdy pioneer ambiance until well into the Jazz Age. Tampa was a favorite stopping-off place for pirates, flim-flam artists, cult fanatics, perpetual tourists, get-rich-quick schemers, and downright villains. It was also the target of periodic Indian attacks, violent hurricanes, and epidemics of yellow fever.
Victorian Tampa was clearly not a place for the weak or the weak-willed. That the City grew and prospered in the decades between 1880 and 1920 was something of a miracle and owed a lot to the success of its neighboring community Ybor City, the town that cigars built. Thousands of immigrant workers from Spain, Italy, Cuba, Germany, Russia and Rumania flocked to the burgeoning tobacco industry, bringing a diverse legacy of labor strife, organized crime, cultural sophistication, and economic well-being to Ybor City and adjacent Tampa. The result? The two communities became one: the “Cigar City.”
Maureen Patrick as Margaret L. Plant, wife of railroad tycoon Henry B. Plant
To tell the stories of Tampa’s checkered past, I founded Historic Guides, a heritage tourism service. As a native Tampan (and second generation Florida ‘cracker’), I knew many of these stories by heart. As a cultural historian, I knew these stories needed to be placed in the context of nineteenth century American life to be truly understood. As an actor (with over 17 years as a cast member at Walt Disney World and Epcot Center), I knew that history is most entertaining and memorable when it comes from the mouths of people who “lived” it. Years of historical research have gone into preparing the materials from which Historic Guides’ interpreters learn their parts. The costuming for these actor/historians is detailed and accurate (down to steel-boned corsets for women and buttoned boots with spats for men), and their knowledge of Tampa’s past is encyclopedic. From them, you will learn about:
· Frederic Weightnovel, a gaslight-era huckster who claimed to have escaped a Tsarist gulag by walking across the Siberian wastes, and who founded a lucrative Free Love movement in Tampa before being run out of town on a rail;
· Emelia (Mrs. Chester) Chapin, the New York socialite who created Bayshore Boulevard in the 1890s, making sure, of course, that the scenic roadway included a private streetcar and a rail spur to her mansion’s front door;
· Henry B. Plant, the self-made transportation magnate who brought the railroad – and civilization – to Tampa in 1885 and who, in 1891, opened the Moorish Revival luxury resort called the Tampa Bay Hotel;
· Butterfly McQueen, “Prissy” of the film Gone With the Wind, a Tampa native who, despite her decades of celebrity, died in poverty;
· Isidore Kaunitz, Abe Maas, Louis Schein, Samuel Simovitz, Max Argintar, Soloman Schwartz, Offin Falk – the “Princes of Seventh Avenue”: Jewish immigrants who arrived in Tampa with few or no resources but who, through incredible skill and grit, became giants of the merchant community;
· D.P. Davis, who risked financial ruin to create Davis Island from the bottom sand of Tampa Bay, crafting a tropical resort development for wealthy 1920s Tampans whose elegant homes are monuments to the Florida Boom;
· Stepin Fetchit, a native Tampan and the first black Hollywood star, who shined shoes in Ybor City as a child and entertained customers with his song and dance numbers;
· Charlie Wall, the first of the “bolita lords,” who ran a thriving numbers racket out of a café in Ybor City, and who survived numerous assassination attempts before finally being murdered in his bed;
· The Florida Brewing Co. in Ybor City, Florida’s first brewery, whose Gothic remains are rumored to be haunted by the ghost of a jilted Cuban maiden;
· The Cherokee Club, a Gay Nineties “gentlemen’s club” where well-heeled guests (including Teddy Roosevelt, Warren Harding, and Grover Cleveland) enjoyed drinking, gambling, and – purportedly – female companionship;
· Santo Trafficante, the original “Teflon Don,” who directed the Southeastern Mafia from the bar of the Columbia Restaurant in Ybor City;
· José Marti, the Cuban patriot and martyr who made Tampa his base of operations for the long war of Cuban independence;
And so much more!
Tampa’s history is simply too rich, too bizarre, too impressive, and (often) too ludicrous to be told by boring lecturers or dry guidebooks. Don’t just read about it – live it! through the person of one of Tampa’s early residents. Your guide may be Annie Marron, an immigrant maid at the Tampa Bay Hotel, whose humor and charm netted her the Hotel’s assistant architect for a husband. Or it may be mustachioed “T.R.” – Teddy Roosevelt -- restless with energy to depart for that “bully” martial adventure in Cuba.
Whomever your guide, your tour will be unforgettable, as is the city’s history. When you’re in Tampa, give yourself the perfect present of the past, from Historic Guides.
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