Long before Gasparilla became the beer-soaked, bead-snatching free-for-all we know today, a little girl sat alone on a granite curb to watch. "Now don't you move," her father would tell her each year in the 1940s. Then John Gasthoff, the parade's chief float designer, would leave to launch his elaborately festooned creations. It fell to him to start the engines and, inevitably, one would sputter and stall. His daughter, Fredericka, or Freddy as they called her, would typically wear a short-sleeved dress with ruffled, matching underpants. Her brown hair would be braided and looped up into bows. Little Freddy wasn't allowed to board the floats. They were cars with elaborate frames made of chicken wire covered with papier-mache and tissue paper. Her father made them in his factory, at 316 Rome Ave. He employed more than 30 people, mostly women, who worked on machines making costumes and pastel flowers. Sometimes, she went to the factory with him. "Don't talk to them too long," he would tell her. They had work to do. Their hands sped across boards, gluing paper flower petals.
At her South Tampa home recently, Fredericka Gasthoff closed her eyes and conjured up aromas of the flour-based commercial paste. "Earthy," the 75-year-old said.
In those days, attendance was sparse, she said, and it was easy to find a spot to watch. As Tampa grew, she would pack a picnic lunch and head to the event with her own two children. They would scurry to grab coins stamped with pirate emblems and shells discarded from guns.
Today's party version draws crowds from Hillsborough's suburbs and around the globe. It's a long way from the early family-friendly days, but she still loves it to the core.
This year, she said, she may watch from a neighboring Bayshore Boulevard house.
"It's good for the city," she said. "It's always been fun."
The Gasthoff family's Gasparilla traditions run deep. Gasthoff's grandfather, Jack, was known as the first official Gasparilla artist for his drawing of a pirate clenching his teeth on a knife. The Gasparilla parade was only about a decade old in 1915 when he sketched the image. It's on invitations to coronation balls and a pennant, part of the annual Gasparilla exhibit now at Henry B. Plant Museum through Feb. 19.
Jack also worked with John building some of the parade's first krewe floats in an old streetcar barn.
Fredericka remembers some of those early floats.
A ship front crashing into waves. White cherry blossom clouds carrying young women promoting Maas Brothers. A jailhouse float with a cannon on front and a turret in the back, and a cop hauling parade watchers on board.
While they worked on the creations, Gasthoff would climb stairs to the factory loft where costumes were stored to play dressup, accenting her look with paper flowers in every shade of pastel.
From downstairs, she could hear the machines whirl and the steady tap of the women's hands.
Her father shipped products to decorate floats and for fairs and festivals all over the world, including Mardi Gras. He would drive floats to St. Petersburg or Miami for parades, hoping no rain would ruin the paper creations.
During World War II, the festivities ground to a stop and they churned out American flags instead. When plastic became available, Gasthoff's father made the first vinyl pompoms, she said, from the fringe that hung at the bottom of floats.
It seems the creative talent runs in the genes.
Gasthoff earned a fine arts degree from New York's Pratt Institute of Art. These days she spends her time teaching others to paint, or working on her own projects, such as the painting of Jose Gaspar that she's finishing for a local customer.
She and her daughter, Whitney Webster, the last of the family line, still decorate for the season.
A 6-foot pirate flag hangs outside and each year, they remake the wreath on their door, adding things they find.
Beads. Medallions. Masks. A little Jose Gasparilla ship.
"Thank God for glue guns," Gasthoff said. "It's on the verge of falling off the door."
Elisabeth Parker can be reached at [email protected] or (813) 226-3431.