TAMPA — The patch is faded, its edges slightly frayed. Light green letters against a dark olive backdrop spell out the words: Sheriff Hillsborough County Florida.
It was one of dozens given out to deputies serving in the Hillsborough County Sheriff's Office in the 1940s. But today, it's an artifact.
"The man who gave me this said, 'Kid, don't get rid of this, it's the only one there is,' " Sheriff David Gee said. "He knew I wouldn't. This is too cool."
Gee, a self-proclaimed history buff, added it to his collection.
For years, Gee had been the trusted recipient of Sheriff's Office artifacts — badges, patches, uniforms, equipment and old records books. He kept them tucked away in closets and boxes at his home and in his office.
On Thursday morning, Gee joined members of his staff, a University of South Florida professor and retired detective in unveiling the first of several exhibits that will soon make up the Hillsborough County Sheriff's Office Museum.
The effort to assemble such a museum, chronicling the 160-year history of the office, has been ongoing since 2011. Officials anticipate having a fully operational museum in a casita near the Ybor City Sheriff's Annex by the end of 2013.
"We've been great custodians of the law," said Maj. Clyde Eisenberg, who led the project. "But not of our own history."
In an effort to change that, Eisenberg said, the department will continue to collect artifacts from families and retired officers, old newspaper clippings and the county's archives.
Working with the University of South Florida's history department, the Sheriff's Office also will record oral histories from deputies who served in the department from the 1940s onward.
"There sure have been a lot of changes over the years," recalled Gary Turner, 75, who left the department as a detective in 1994 after 35 years of service. He donated his uniform, flashlight and badge to the exhibit.
When Turner started at the department, he enlisted in a deputy force of about 40 or so.
Today, that same force is made up of about 1,500 officers.
"If we don't keep track of our history, we'll loose it," Eisenberg said. "We were one of the first agencies in the state to enlist African-American deputies in the 1950s, and among the first to bring women on board in the 1970s."
The displays, which feature a 120-year-old badge, photographs and documents, were assembled by volunteers with help from USF students and faculty.
The project has been funded by donations and, officials hope, can be kept afloat in the future by sales of T-shirts and other memorabilia.
With this unveiling, the Sheriff's Office joins the ranks of the Tampa Police Department and Tampa Fire Rescue, which already have department museums.