SULPHUR SPRINGS — Privately, officials of the planned Sulphur Springs History and Heritage Museum half joke that maybe the museum is a bad idea.
Maybe, they say, the cool stuff about Sulphur Springs is best kept secret from outsiders.
But pride in their neighborhood of winding streets framed by oak canopies, bordered by a river where residents commune with manatees and otters, wins out.
"What people don't realize is that it's a neighborly place, where people know each other and talk to each other," said Norma Robinson, the museum's vice president. "People who live here love it, and they take a lot of pride in it."
Earlier this week, volunteers helped clear the land in Mann-Wagnon Memorial Park, where the Sulphur Springs History and Heritage Museum will open in the coming months. They've been collecting artifacts and oral histories for years.
There are mastodon bones and stone arrowheads. There are newspaper stories about disabled people who came to bathe in the mineral waters of the springs and were suddenly able to walk.
There are recordings of people who remember Spring Hill, an autonomous African-American town that is now part of Sulphur Springs. There are those who remember when legendary author Jack Kerouac lived in a house that still stands on the river.
There are photographs of Nebraska Avenue in 1923, bustling with businesses, Model T's and tourists. Back then, Sulphur Springs was more well-known than Tampa.
"Tampa was known for one thing, and that was tobacco," Robinson said. "Sulphur Springs was the resort area. It was considered the Coney Island of Florida."
At the springs themselves in those days, there was a 40-foot water slide and a gator farm, Robinson said. The building on Nebraska Avenue that later became the Sulphur Springs Arcade shopping area was a luxury hotel. The Sulphur Springs Tourist Club, now called the Harbor Club, offered dining and entertainment. But it also housed several small shops, and some residents say it could be considered the country's first shopping mall.
Sulphur Springs was a separate city back then. Eventually workers extended Tampa's trolley system to Sulphur Springs. Seminole Heights sprang up sometime later, along the trolley line.
Many of the museum's artifacts come from a collection owned by Linda Hope, who runs the Penny Saver newspaper.
Hope has never lived in Sulphur Springs but has always felt an affinity for the neighborhood.
"We lived in Seminole Heights, and as a kid I remember coming to Sulphur Springs to shop or have lunch or get my brother a haircut," she said, recalling the neighborhood in the late 1950s. "It was just the place to go. That's where everything was."
The springs became polluted, ending the tourism era in the neighborhood before World War II. In the 1970s, zoning changes brought duplexes and transient residents. Sulphur Springs Arcade, once a beautiful landmark, was razed to create a dog track parking lot.
Local history buffs incorporated the museum several years ago. But it was a "traveling museum," Robinson said. Officials would bring artifacts and memorabilia to community meetings and tell people about Sulphur Springs' history.
Earlier this year, the city decided to donate Mann-Wagnon Memorial Park and the cluster of buildings that were once home to the county parks department offices to three neighborhood cultural groups, including the museum.
The museum is part of what some residents see as a quiet resurgence of Sulphur Springs. New businesses have sprung up along Nebraska Avenue. A community group has secured grants to fill parks with public art. The Springs Theater is once again hosting concerts, and the Florida Orchestra performs regularly at River Tower Park.
It's an exciting time, Robinson said. "Of course we want things to keep getting better.
"But we don't want people who don't know Sulphur Springs coming in an trying to turn it into their own idea of what a neighborhood should be."
Marty Clear can be reached at [email protected]