BROOKSVILLE — Sitting at her office desk, Virginia Bensen examined a nearly forgotten relic: a photo album containing snapshots taken during the 1980 Brooksville Founders Week parade and celebration.
The faces of legendary local coach Tom Varn, former Mayor Bill Hutto and former state Rep. Chuck Smith — all well-known figures in the community at the time — are the reason she wants to preserve the images and make them accessible to everyone.
That's the purpose of the Brooksville Hernando Web Museum — brooksvillehernando webmuseum.com — a virtual collection of historic photos, stories and videos that Bensen hopes will attract participation from local residents.
Since launching the website in August, Bensen, 65, has added more than three dozen photos of early Brooksville street scenes — many of which date back to horse-and-buggy days — that depict a bygone era, when thoroughfares like Main Street were bustling and people frequented the likes of Bacon's Drug Store, Murphy's Drug Store and the Tamiami Cafe.
Bensen thinks there's a treasure trove tucked away in attics, old scrapbooks and photo albums that she's eager to uncover and share on her website.
An avid history buff who hails from Winchester, Va., Bensen holds a master's degree in the subject from American Public University. She helped to create a digital archive of narratives from diaries kept by family members of Civil War soldiers, and participated in a number of other scholarly projects.
A little over a year ago, Bensen and her husband, Tom, moved from southwest Florida to Brooksville, where she quickly became enamored of the city and its roots.
But while working as a volunteer curator for the May-Stringer Heritage Museum, she began to notice that many residents tend to be detached from Brooksville's history.
"I found that many of them don't think about it that much," she said. "People in any city are proud of their heritage. You can go to the museums, but unless you know what you're looking for, you're probably only going to get a small glimpse of it."
So creating an interactive virtual museum, she felt, was probably the best way to present historic materials that don't duplicate what already are available through other public sources, such as the Heritage Museum and the Brooksville Historical Train Depot.
"I think we may have a vast wealth of materials out there just waiting to be shared with others," she said. "Right now, it's an untapped resource that will be a huge asset to the community when it's available."
She is particularly interested in finding material that dates from the end of World War II to the mid 1980s, an era that saw a lot of change in Brooksville's downtown but, for some reason, remains largely unexplored by local historians.
For example, the 1980 Founders Week photo collection Bensen recently acquired was found in a storage room inside Brooksville City Hall. But she admits she is having trouble identifying some of the people pictured in the album.
"That's why I want to get others involved," she said. "I don't want to be the lone wolf in this project. It would nice to have additional input."
Bensen intends to set up an area on the website that will let people take part in discussion forums about Brooksville's history and where gathered material can be evaluated before it is presented in an archived format.
"I envision the site as an evolving process that will continue to grow over the years," she said.
"Through their participation on the website, people will actually have a say in what goes into it."
Logan Neill can be reached at [email protected] or (352) 848-1435.