Saturday, August 29, 2015
The History-Keepers of Fort Meade
It is not unusual to encounter a dedicated group of people, committed to preserving the history of an area. However, it is more likely that group would be dedicated as a county's historical society, rather than that of a city. During my trip to trace my roots here in Fort Meade, Florida, however, I've had the fortune to meet some of the people who have made it possible for this small city to capture its own history in a local museum setting.
While "city" is Fort Meade's official designation, the place in which my maternal grandmother grew up now has a population of under six thousand people. Still, its historic district is composed of 151 buildings which have qualified as historic landmarks, according to the Polk County Historical Society—of which Fort Meade is its oldest city. According to one count, Fort Meade has over three hundred homes on the National Register of Historic Places.
Founded in 1849, this central Florida locale was the place where my great grandfather chose to establish his dental practice—and where, back in 1912, he served as the city's mayor. Now that I've had the opportunity to visit this place for myself, it was a treat to stop by and walk down these very same sidewalks, myself.
Just after my husband and I flew to Florida, my cousin mentioned that Fort Meade has a city museum we might want to visit. I hadn't even thought to look for this resource, and was glad to take up her suggestion to stop by. Being a small, volunteer-run organization, the city's historical society is only able to keep the museum open for a limited number of hours during the week. The morning we were driving through town thankfully happened to fall on one of those days.
We ended up having a delightful visit with the volunteers and board members present that day at the museum. They were only too glad to help direct our attention to historical artifacts of specific interest to me in my quest to trace my family history. We gleaned stories from the volunteers about life in the city back in the early 1900s—an old mining town whose long-abandoned phosphate pits have become the "lakes" alongside the state highway.
During our visit, we also learned the history of the 1880s-era building that houses the museum. Now located near the railroad tracks and the city's old depot, the two story building once had served as the city's first indoor schoolhouse. Later, it became a boarding house.
Moved to its present location in 1989, it wasn't until 2000, after extensive refurbishing, that the building was opened to the public as the Fort Meade Museum. A handcrafted gazebo, serving as a stage for open-air entertainment, and a refurbished set of cars from the phosphate train, reconverted to meeting rooms, round out the museum's community-oriented properties. Already outgrowing its spacious layout in that two story building, the museum could use even more space, and some board members have dreams to expand to include a library and archives.
There is something so helpful about learning more about the context in which our ancestors lived. I'm still trying to piece together the story of why my great-grandparents Rupert Charles and Sarah Broyles McClellan chose to leave the old McClellan family property up in the northern part of the state to relocate to Fort Meade. Whether I ever discover the story behind that move, it is easy to see the McClellans' lovely home—now one of those historic landmark properties in Fort Meade—and the small-town ambience made the move a good choice for my great-grandparents and their family.
Photographs courtesy of Chris Stevens.