LARGO — When Jim Schnur, a past president of the Pinellas County Historical Society, presents a program today at Heritage Village on the early days of Pinellas County, he'll likely bring up a story about a farmer and his mules.
The story goes that in the summer of 1911, residents of the Pinellas peninsula, then officially the western portion of Hillsborough County, had just begun using a new bridge over Long Bayou, near Bay Pines.
The bridge, the main connector between St. Petersburg and what is now Largo and Seminole, was constructed under the supervision of the Hillsborough County Board of Commissioners.
As the farmer led his team of mules across the mostly wooden structure, the bridge collapsed.
"Residents of the area had already been frustrated with indifference from the government on the other side of Tampa Bay,'' said Schnur, who is the special collections librarian for USF St. Petersburg's Nelson Poynter Memorial Library. "The shoddy construction of the bridge was just enough to get residents to turn out at the polls in November of that year, voting to secede from Hillsborough.''
Two months later, on Jan. 1, 1912, with about 20,000 residents scattered among fishing villages near the coastline and farming communities inland, Pinellas County officially was established.
To mark the county's centennial, the Pinellas County Historical Society is presenting a series of lectures, Pinellas By the Decades. One Sunday each month, through July of next year, the community is invited to drop by the Pinellas Room at Heritage Village for a history lesson.
Today, as he presents "1912-1921: Independence, New Challenges, and New Opportunities," Schnur said he plans to begin the discussion "on a high note of how the residents attained independence.''
"And then we'll walk through the challenges caused by the independence, looking at the first major hurricane at that time they had to handle, the area during World War I and two major fires that occurred — one in the courthouse, as well as a terrible fire at Sutherland College (which moved to Lakeland and became Florida Southern College in the early 1920s),'' he said.
Schnur stresses that the series looks at all parts of the county.
"When we share history, it is important to cross municipal lines, and there are 24 different municipalities in the county," he said. "My hope is by understanding the back yards, then people will begin to think more regionally. That's really the correct way to view Pinellas County — regionally.''
The Historical Society also has tapped the expertise of Gary Mormino, co-director of the Florida Studies program at the University of South Florida and author of Land of Sunshine, State of Dreams: A Social History of Modern Florida.
Mormino, who is helping Schnur coordinate the program, believes those who have not looked at the area's history before will be surprised to learn about the county's roots in the agriculture industry.
"When people think of Pinellas now, they think of how it is the most urbanized county in the state," Mormino said, "but at one time, it was the center for the citrus industry. Is there even one working citrus grove left in Pinellas County? I get mixed answers when I ask that question.''
Mormino said programs like Pinellas By the Decades help encourage Floridians to "feel that they have more of an investment in the state.''
"If we educate citizens about history, we will make them care not only about the state's past, but it also encourages them to think of both the future and their individual role in the state,'' he said.
Mormino also points out there's another perk to attending the program.
"Another benefit is Jim Schnur," he said. "He might be the most passionate Pinellas resident that cares about the history of Pinellas and the future of the county that there is.''
Piper Castillo can be reached at (727) 445-4163 or firstname.lastname@example.org.