PINELLAS PARK — Bill Jackson never dreamed he would found one of the largest and most well-known outdoor specialty shops in the country. In fact, the 98-year-old sporting goods icon started off as a minimalist.
In 1930, the 15-year-old Jackson hitched a ride from his native Atlanta with a couple of buddies and drove cross country to the Grand Canyon.
"They didn't have any equipment," said his son, Darry Jackson, 65. "They just stripped off their shirts down to their jeans and started climbing."
When they got down to the canyon floor and realized how hot it was, they realized that it might have been a good idea to pack water.
"So they looked around and found some old whiskey bottles floating in the river," Darry said. "They cleaned out the algae, filled the bottles with water and climbed back out."
The story still makes the younger Jackson laugh. "You look around our store and see all these high-tech hydration and filtration systems," he said, noting some cost up to $100. "The way people experience the outdoors has changed a lot in the past 80 years."
Jackson celebrated his birthday this past Monday with much fanfare. People from all over Florida came to pay homage to the man who not only introduced thousands to backpacking, camping, fishing and hunting but who also is credited with being one of the pioneers of the state's scuba diving scene.
"He was teaching long before there was such a thing as scuba certification," Darry said. "He was also one of the first in the state to spearfish."
The elder Jackson, the first president of the invitation-only St. Pete Underwater Club, was also honored this week by that group, which is now known as the club for hard-core, blue-water hunters.
But Jackson's wife of 67 years, Harriet, said her husband never intended to open an outdoors shop. In 1946, after serving with distinction in the U.S. Army Air Corps during World War II, Maj. William B. Jackson returned to MacDill Field in Tampa, where he hoped to open a construction business.
"He wanted to get into prefab homes," Harriet recalled. "The outdoor shop was just an accident waiting to happen."
"Mr. J," as he is called by friends and family, had a war buddy who convinced him to ride along to an auction at the Air Force base.
"He bought 500 pounds of laundry detergent and 500 pounds of rat poison," Harriet said. "Because of the war those things were in scarce supply, so he sold all of it pretty quickly, and I guess you could say he had the cat by the tail and couldn't let go."
Jackson returned to MacDill and bought as much army surplus goods he could, everything from military coats and snow skis to tents and backpacks, which proved popular with returning servicemen with a taste for adventure.
In 1949, Jackson bought his first scuba rig, one of the original Aqua-lungs, comprised of a tank, regulator and backpack. In 1952, before formal agencies such as PADI and NAUI started certifying divers, Jackson and his friend, Joe Barker, a former lieutenant with the U.S. Navy's underwater demolition teams, began teaching students at St. Petersburg's "Spa" pool near the approach to The Pier.
Safety was the top priority, because the sport was still in its infancy, and accidents were commonplace. Jackson put his dive students through a regimen that rivaled military training.
In 1953, the St. Pete Underwater Club was founded by Jackson, the president, with Harriet as the secretary/treasurer. Thirteen years later, when the scuba craze took hold in Pinellas County, SPUC held the first St. Pete Open for spearfishermen.
Today, you can see some of the early scuba equipment, as well as other types of "old-school" outdoors gear, hanging from the walls of the Bill Jackson Shop for Adventure in Pinellas Park.
As for Mr. J, he still comes into the store where sons Darry and Doug work and tinkers with the latest gadgets that help make the outdoor experience more enjoyable for this generation.
But you can't help but wonder if this outdoor pioneer longs for a simpler time when a youngster could take off and explore the wilderness armed with nothing more than curiosity and a thirst for adventure.