Southeast Florida's Treasure Coast is named for the treasures spilled from shipwrecks that occurred here from the 1600s through the 1800s. But that nickname might also apply to numerous treasures still found here.
The Maritime & Classic Boat Museum, overlooking the mile-wide Indian River in the seacoast town of Jensen Beach, is a treasure itself, paying homage to this area's great nautical tradition.
This is not your usual museum. No one can trace exactly when it started, or how. There are no "records." There's only one paid employee. And admission is free.
This museum came about because of – and is maintained and staffed by – a devoted group of local residents and a 10-person board of trustees who love the lore (and the lure) of the sea, and the precious old boats and artifacts that symbolize it.
"We started out 20 years ago, when a bunch of boat-lovers displayed a few old boats in the Jensen Beach Mall," board member Dennis Ladd said. "We later bought a property in Stuart. Then, a few years ago, Jensen Beach offered this site in Riverside Park and we've been here ever since.'
The museum is filled with classic boats and outboard motors, nautical equipment from the past 200 years, magnificent model craft including tugboats, schooners, pirate ships and aircraft carriers, and a library – with every book donated by the community.
"Many of our items have how-we-got-it stories," Ladd said. "Surviving spouses often donate equipment or artifacts. One guy sailed around the world to Russia by sextant, and wanted us to have the sextant."
The museum has an exceptional collection of artifacts donated by the Whiticar Boat Works, a local company that's been building and customizing boats for nearly a century.
Among those artifacts, once owned by founder Curt Whiticar, are tools from the era when great boats were built by hand – a brace and bit from 1875, a plane from 1910, a claw hammer from 1890, Heinisch shears from 1890 and a 1916 Stanley jointer plane.
Whiticar was also a wonderful painter, and the museum features some of his works of masted sailing boats.
"And we've also received artifacts from Shirley Evinrude, great-granddaughter of Ole Evinrude, inventor of the outboard motor and founder of the company that still bears his name," Ladd said.
A walk through the Maritime & Classic Boat Museum is journey back to a simpler time.
Here, you'll come across the "Pollywog," an Evinrude craft built in 1983 using blueprints from 1913, with a "knucklebuster" motor – so-called because you needed to spin it around with your hands to get it started.
Here, you'll see a sleek Chris Craft made of mahogany, built in 1936 for Roland C. Bull and called Bull's Ship.
You'll see a canoe with a steering mechanism – think about that for a minute – used for fly fishing. You'll see a "Dodge Water Car," made in 1929 by the brothers who started the car company; the craft was found many years later in a debris-filled field. There's a 1955 14-foot Chris Craft called "The Zephyr," a "kit boat" you had to assemble yourself. And you'll do a double-take at the "Vintage Rose," a 1934 Chris Craft with not one cockpit, but three.
The collection of scale models here is amazing. Each piece took hundreds – sometimes thousands – of hours of work.
There's a model of a 110-foot tugboat called Brooklyn, originally built in 1910, and one of the USS Constitution (Old Ironsides), built in 1797. See also the Baltimore Clipper, an old slave-trade ship, and – in stark contrast – the USS Enterprise, the world's first nuclear-powered aircraft carrier.
There's a model of a Chinese junk. A shrimp boat. And a legendary New York City fire boat that helped fight the fires of 9/11. There's even a model of a ship used in the cleanup of the Gulf oil spill – with working electronic equipment.
One-of-a-kind items include the hand-crafted fishing poles once owned by Ralph Evinrude, son of Ole, and his wife, the noted actress Frances Langford, who lived here in Jensen Beach.
There's a working radar "sweep" that allows you to see other boats in the area, a compass-like instrument called a pelorus, star-locating equipment for navigation, a depth-finder and a spyglass from a U.S. Navy Officer of the Deck.
"Basically," Ladd said, "pretty much everything that has led up to the invention of the GPS."
The museum has plans for a $12 million permanent facility just north of its present site, a state-of-the-art operation that will also serve as a community education center focusing on the ocean and the Indian River just outside the door. The economy notwithstanding, Ladd and the other trustees aren't giving up until the museum "on the hill" is a reality.
"We've all put in too much work to stop now," he said.
In the meantime, anyone who's ever fantasized about sea-spray in the face and salt air in the senses will experience the next best thing at the Maritime & Classic Boat Museum.
This story was first published by VISITFLORIDA.com.