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Extolling one man's passion for his collection of historical Florida maps

Tom Touchton began growing younger before my eyes.

Don't get me wrong. At 74, he looks 54. But as he graced me with a personal tour of the "Charting the Land Of Flowers" exhibit at the Tampa Bay History Center, he seemingly reversed the aging process. Energy glazed each word he used to describe the wondrous historic maps that make up the exhibit.

Clearly, maps serve as his personal fountain of youth. Many of the maps, some of which date to the late 1400s, come from Touchton's personal collection. For more than 30 years, he has collected maps that not only reflect the routes taken by sailors and the intricate curves of Florida's coastline, but the artistry that the maps' makers infused into their work.

"The exhibit is made up of 150 items and if you spent one minute with each item, it would take 2 1/2 hours to go through the exhibit," Touchton said.

You know he has spent more than a minute with each item. Touchton can detail stories behind the maps. He shares that Columbus died never knowing he discovered a "new world." He mistakenly believed he had simply found a shorter route to Asia.

He will show you the first map to bear the name Florida (it actually says "Florda" without the I), and the first map to bear the name Tampa. He can tell you that Spain traded Florida to Britain as part of the Treaty of 1763 after the French and Indian War and how Spain got it back after the American Revolution.

And as you follow along, listening to every word, you notice how each subsequent map better captures Florida's unique shape and status as a peninsula. Without aid of magnificent men in flying machines, these cartographers eventually produced remarkably accurate maps as early as the 18th century.

Touchton beams a little brighter when he points to Bernard Romans' book behind a glass case. The book, used by sailors during the 18th century, contains the first map printed in America to show the name "Tampa Bay." He snared the artifact at an auction in New York, but he doesn't boast about what he spent, he just takes pleasure in having it and being able to show it to others.

As he continues the tour, others in the center recognized the privilege I was enjoying and asked their own questions. I couldn't hoard his expertise.

• • •

It's this sharing that fuels his youthful exuberance. I'm convinced if Touchton possessed every archival map of Florida but had no one to show them to, he would be miserable. He has turned map collecting into a lifelong hobby so his contagious enthusiasm can spread to anyone who appreciates history.

Touchton currently serves as a member of the history center's board of trustees, but he's really the patriarch — his desire to share the maps with others spurred his vision for the center and his drive spurred the fundraising that made the center a reality.

And to think it started innocently enough when Touchton took his wife to London to celebrate an "important birthday" in 1982 — he uses "important" because the gentleman doesn't want to reveal his wife's age.

They visited a small antique fair and Touchton stumbled upon a man selling maps. "Who buys maps?" he thought.

He gets a little emotional retelling the story, understanding how such a simple moment profoundly affected his life. As he paused, I could only admire his passion, which has turned into a such marvelous gift to the community.

That's all I'm saying.

Extolling one man's passion for his collection of historical Florida maps 11/06/13 [Last modified: Wednesday, November 6, 2013 3:56pm]
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