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Largo boathouse helps preserve history


Heritage Village is a place where historic structures from around Pinellas County have been moved to be preserved. But today, ground will be broken for new construction there.

The Pinellas County Historical Society, in conjunction with the Clearwater Yacht Club, is breaking ground for a boathouse patterned after Pinellas County boathouses of days gone by.

The project's impetus is a Snipe, a 16-foot wooden sailboat named Honey, that has been donated to Heritage Village.

As a boy, Francis Seavy, who has owned the boat since 1947, honed his sailing skills on Clearwater Bay. Now, at 92, Seavy continues to love the water. "But when he was a young man, he was known as a very good sailor, one of the best respected Snipe sailors in the area,'' recalled his nephew, Gene Fleming of Dunedin.

In the early 1940s, as a savvy sailor in his 20s, Seavy asked family friend Clark Mills to build a boat for him. Already known for his expertise in boat building and design, Clark Mills' name would eventually become synonymous with the Optimist Pram, a small boat originally designed for use by children on Clearwater waterways. By the time Mills died in 2001, more than 200,000 children worldwide had learned the basics of sailing on his design.

However, after Mills agreed to build Seavy a boat and about the same time Seavy had collected juniper wood for the endeavor, World War II began. The two men temporarily left Clearwater.

Mills worked in the Panama Canal Zone Shipyard. Seavy was in the U.S. Army Air Forces, stationed in North Africa.

"While World War II was going on, the juniper dried at the lumber yard,'' said Fleming. "When Clark came back home in 1947, he went ahead and built the boat."

No sooner did he launch the boat than Seavy, who still resides in Clearwater with his wife, Naomi, began winning regattas — first in Clearwater, St. Petersburg and Sarasota, and later at international competitions in far-away places such as Brazil and Cuba. "My uncle sailed that boat all over, for decades,'' said Fleming.

However for the last several years, Honey has been in storage at Seavy's home.

"My uncle and I had been discussing where the boat should be put, and because of the history of the boat, we called Heritage Village,'' Fleming said.

Ellen Babb, the director of Heritage Village, Pinellas County's living history museum, remembers first talking to Fleming about 12 months ago.

"When he called, I had to tell him that although we'd love to have it, we didn't have any place to put it,'' said Babb. "So at the end of the conversation, Gene told me that he'd just have to see about getting Heritage Village a boathouse.''

After the conversation with Babb, Fleming, a former commodore of the Clearwater Yacht Club, decided to speak to fellow members of the club about the dilemma.

"In 2011, the club was involved with celebrating its centennial. I asked everybody if it wouldn't be a good idea to get involved with such a project as raising funds for a boathouse … I pointed out a need to recognize boating in this area,'' he said.

The sailing community rallied, and a joint fundraiser involving the yacht club and the Pinellas County Historical Society was held at the yacht club in November. It brought in more than $20,000 for the project.

The Pinellas County Historical Society continued to take in donations. "And now, we have raised about $30,000,'' said RoseMarie Kafer, the society president.

"I think part of the success has to do with how many people remember and loved Clark Mills, who had quite a personality,'' said Kafer. "When people get together and start remembering that era, they get excited. They really believe the history of boating in this area needs to be preserved.''

Along with the Honey, Heritage Village also will put on permanent display three other boats designed by Mills that were given to Heritage Village by private donors several years ago — a Sun Cat, an Optimist Pram and a Windmill.

The money raised through the Clearwater Yacht Club fundraiser will be used for permitting and materials, Babb said. The structure itself will be built through volunteer work by Ed Hoffman of Ed Hoffman Architects and Ed Proefke of Proefke Construction.

Another legendary boat designer, Charley Morgan of Treasure Island, is pleased to see the project move forward. Also an artist, he donated one of his paintings to the fundraiser.

"There is a need for more documentation of the work people like Clark Mills and Francis Seavy have done when it comes to organized boating and sailing in this area,'' said Morgan, 82. "The disconnect with history has been regrettable, and a project like this will keep (younger generations) interested."

When asked to describe his memories of both Seavy and Mills, Morgan described Seavy as "a very dear old friend and an ace helmsman, the pick of the crop.''

And when it comes to Clark Mills, Morgan remembers relying on him to help with the construction of his well-known Paper Tiger, the first fiberglass yawl that won the Southern Ocean Racing Circuit in 1961 and 1962.

"Clark Mills and his cadre of shipwrights at Clearwater Bay Marine were the builders who completed Paper Tiger for me, and I am still grateful for that,'' he said.

Coincidentally, the boathouse project has evolved at the same time Jim Simons has opened the Florida Gulf Coast Center for Fishing and Interactive Museum next door to Heritage Village at the former site of the Gulf Coast Museum of Art. Simons has described the mission of his new museum as "commemorating the past, present and future of fishing on Florida's gulf coast.''

"I haven't been to the fishing museum yet, but when I heard about it, I thought it was great,'' Fleming said. "The more attention to the history of boating and fishing in the area, the better."

. if you go

Today's groundbreaking ceremony

The groundbreaking for the boathouse at Heritage Village, 11909 125th St., Largo, will take place at 3:30 p.m. today. The boathouse will be located near McKay Creek, behind the Greenwood House. The public is invited to attend.

The structure will feature a 24- by 40-foot display area for the boats, plus a smaller display room to house memorabilia, including trophies and historic documents.

The construction of the boathouse is made possible through a public-private partnership involving Pinellas County government, the Pinellas County Historical Society, the Clearwater Yacht Club, Ed Hoffman Architects and Proefke Construction. Donations are still being accepted. For more information, visit the reception area of Heritage Village or call the Pinellas County Historical Society, (727) 582-2233.

Largo boathouse helps preserve history 04/14/12 [Last modified: Saturday, April 14, 2012 2:46pm]
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