PALM HARBOR — For more than five years, dozens of customers would visit the Crossroads Farmers Market held every Sunday at the North Pinellas Historical Museum, buying local honey, fresh produce or handmade jewelry. Some would combine the visit with a trip inside the museum, checking out the displays depicting pioneer life in Ozona, Crystal Beach, East Lake and Palm Harbor.
In the end, the success of the farmers market was also its downfall.
For the past year, Pinellas County, the owner of the property, has been fielding complaints from the museum's neighbors concerning damage to their yards, loud music and litter left behind by farmer's market customers.
On April 1, David DelMonte of Pinellas County's real estate division wrote a letter to the Palm Harbor Historical Society, the nonprofit group that runs the museum, stating that although a once-a-month special event would be allowed, the weekly market was "… excessive commercial activity at a site located in a residential area."
Historical Society board members decided to end the market entirely, believing a monthly market wasn't viable because produce vendors need a weekly arrangement, said Sallie Parks, immediate past president of the group and a former county commissioner.
Parks said she thinks the county commissioners "were somewhat heavy-handed.''
Without the market's income, the museum is in a fragile financial position, she said. Although the Historical Society also generates funds from membership fees, an annual tea and other special events, the group depended on the income from the market to help with monthly museum operating costs estimated at about $2,000, she said.
The museum is in a house built around 1915 by Judge Thomas William Hartley, a citrus grove owner who also was a justice of the peace. Hartley ran a fruit-packing house and a ladder factory on the property, shipping fruit up North and ladders to grove owners across Florida.
Most neighbors who complained to the county did not want to comment for this story, but Frank Polaski, who lives down a private road next to the museum and is one of Hartley's grandsons, said, "I didn't have any personal trouble, but I know for example, one home had a mailbox knocked over. I'm sympathetic to that,'' Polaski said.
"But I also have served on the board of directors for the Historical Society," he added, "and I know the problems they have raising money, so I'm very concerned for the museum, too.''
Pinellas County purchased the Hartley property for $140,000 in 1996 as part of the right of way for the Belcher Road extension. The house did not need to be demolished for the extension, so county commissioners agreed to let the Palm Harbor Historical Society lease the property for $1 a year as long as the group agreed to maintain it.
Museum displays include memorabilia from Sutherland College, which opened in Palm Harbor in 1902, but later moved to Lakeland and was renamed Florida Southern; vintage agricultural tools, citrus ladders and packing sacks; a model train paying homage to the Orange Blossom Railroad; and a Victorian doll house equipped with electricity.
"Probably my favorite part of the museum is the Crystal Beach area,'' said Parks. "Visitors are able to learn about an orphanage that was located there, at Faith Mission, starting in the 1930s. Few people know about that anymore.''
On April 18, Parks, along with Kim Pulli, the president of the Historical Society, sent county commissioners a letter requesting a meeting to discuss financial support.
The letter states, "The market was our opportunity to serve the community, provide extra income to the Society (and therefore the Museum) and introduce many residents and visitors to the museum … It has become burdensome to financially support the aging facility.''
The Palm Harbor Historical Society is not the only local group that operates an aging building owned by taxpayers, said DelMonte. "It can get difficult for the groups,'' he said.
In Palm Harbor, the other public buildings include the White Chapel, operated by the Old Palm Harbor Main Street Association, and the Centre, formerly known as the Senior Center, operated by Palm Harbor Parks and Recreation.
Piper Castillo can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 445-4163. To write a letter to the editor, visit tampabay.com/letters.