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PALM HARBOR HISTORICAL SOCIETY TOUR OF HOMES // Settlers' stories

A hardy breed settled this community before U.S. 19 and before air conditioning. Through a tour of their homes and buildings next weekend, the Palm Harbor Historical Society is making sure the settlers' stories are told.

"We just don't want all of this to disappear, and it is so rapidly being lost," said Winona Jones, president of the historical society.

From 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. Saturday, the society is sponsoring a tour of 14 historical buildings near downtown. The tour is a fund-raiser for the society, which wants to add vintage streetlights and walkways to Florida Avenue.

Cost of the tour is $5 for adults and $2 for children up to age 12. Babies are free. Tickets can be purchased in advance at The Bank (No. 15 on the tour) and Watermark Galleries (No. 1), or at Watermark the day of the event.

The tour will be followed Saturday evening by the downtown merchants' second annual illuminated holiday walk from 6 to 9. Also that night, the Presbyterian Church of Palm Harbor will re-enact biblical scenes related to Christ's birth. The church is at 2021 Nebraska Ave.

Here are some highlights from the tour, based on the research and recollections of local historians, who note that some of the dates are their best guesses.

1. WATERMARK GALLERIES, 1090 Michigan Ave.: This building isn't historic but is the tour's starting point. Enjoy refreshments and pick up a tour map.

2. BAMBOO GARDENS, 1200 Virginia Ave.: Owners Jerry and Mary Ann Smith still use most of the rusty farm equipment stored inside an aging barn, and a swing beckons in their oak-shaded back yard on Bee Branch Creek.

The site has been a nursery since 1923, and it supplied early Palm Harbor with most of its palm trees and shrubs. The Smiths grow and sell bamboo.

For the tour, Mrs. Smith hopes to fire up some old grove heaters known as "salamanders." She remembers when nursery workers would light 30 to 40 of them on a frosty night. "You'd look out," she said, "and it was like a giant birthday cake."

3. ERICSON HOUSE, 551 Omaha St.: The front of this handsome gray and white house was built about the turn of the century, and the rest was brought down from Suwannee County on the backs of mules, according to Daisy Riviere, whose parents, Fred and Annie Ericson, bought it in 1919.

Fred Ericson built an aquarium, where the family raised goldfish and tadpoles. "My job was to see that those tadpoles got out of there before they jumped in the living room," recalled Mrs. Riviere.

4. ULMER HOUSE, 807 Omaha St.: "This is what I call the romantic house," said Rheba Sutton of the historical society. The house is named for her parents, Emma and William Ulmer. William was a brother of Marion Ulmer, for whom Ulmerton Road is named.

Emma, it seems, had a tragic first marriage. She was married only six months when, in about 1912, her husband, a railroad man, caught his leg between two cars, contracted gangrene and died.

Emma then visited relatives in Crystal Beach, who sent William Ulmer in a horse and buggy to meet her at the station. "And when she got off at the train _ he was a bachelor _ he knew immediately he wanted to marry her," Mrs. Sutton said. "She really struck him."

Mrs. Sutton rents out her mother's home and uses it for historical society meetings.

5. WALTERS HOUSE, 1106 Michigan Ave.: J. R. Ingram, an affluent citrus grove owner, built this house in 1921. All was well until the day Ingram went to see one of his groves near Lake St. George. Two sheriff's deputies were struggling with an alligator, and one of the deputies fired his gun.

"He shot the alligator, and when he did," Mrs. Sutton said, "the bullet ricocheted off the thick hide of the alligator and hit Mr. Ingram and killed him immediately."

After the funeral, Mrs. Ingram sold the house to Vida and James Walters, who had seven children. The family was known for steaming milk in a wash pot for oyster stew and holding fish fries at their garage.

6. FIRST METHODIST CHURCH, 12th Street and Georgia: The congregation now meets in a new church, but this little white sanctuary remains a cornerstone of the community. The building, dedicated in 1924, was erected using bricks from Florida Southern College after the college and the San Marino Hotel burned in 1921.

"It was built by the people all over the town," Mrs. Sutton said. "If they didn't have anything to do, they cleaned the brick."

Last year, Mrs. Sutton paid to restore the old church in memory of her mother, who supervised the children's Sunday school for 55 years.

The sanctuary invites reflection. Light shining through handmade stained glass windows casts a warm glow over a gleaming pine floor. A rope hangs from a bell that used to herald all the town's important events.

The church's pews have long since been discarded, but folding chairs are brought in for special occasions such as weddings and funerals.

7. A. B. COLEMAN MANSION, Pennsylvania Avenue and Omaha Street: This was the home of one of the Coleman brothers, who came from Toronto in 1920 with the intent of developing Sutherland, as Palm Harbor then was called, into a thriving residential community.

The Colemans added sidewalks and streetlights, dredged the harbor, and planned a yacht club and schools. But the Depression broke their resolve, and A. B. Coleman returned to Canada, although his brother J. H. stayed, according to the historical society.

The "mansion" is an imposing three-story home with columns that is Palm Harbor's own white house on Pennsylvania Avenue. The house was vacant for several years after A. B. left, then was the vibrant home of Otto and Johnnie Ulmer and their four children.

The house was converted into apartments, but current owners Bill and Mary Thomas are restoring the home to its original stately appearance.

8. DURRANCE BUILDING, 1219 Florida Ave.: Built about the turn of the century, this building now is home to Palm Latitudes, a gallery and gift shop.

Named for the Rev. Durrance and his wife, the building once housed the town post office, and it has been apartments and offices.

According to a history prepared by Daisy Riviere, "It wasn't unusual to see Rev. Durrance asleep in a cot under a mulberry tree in the front. He would move the cot if the sun got in his face. This tree still stands today."

9. PALM HARBOR HARDWARE, 1201 Florida Ave.: Charlie Van Valkenburg still runs the business begun by his grandfather about 1923. It started as an automobile repair garage, evolved into a machine shop, then became the hardware store.

Charlie's grandfather, Charles A. Van Valkenburg, was a master tool and die maker who kept the town's grove equipment in working order. "He could make any kind of part you needed," said Winona Jones, the historical society president. "I don't care what it was. You'd go see Mr. Van and he could fix it for you."

The hardware store hangs on today because if Wal-Mart stocks an item, he won't, Van Valkenburg said.

10. VAN VALKENBURG HOUSE, 1202 Nebraska Ave.: Charles A. Van Valkenburg built this house in the late 1930s, and he and his wife, Dula, lived there the rest of their lives, according to their grandson.

Today, the house is occupied by Treasure Cay, which sells artistic rubber stamps.

11. MASONIC & EASTERN STAR HALL, 1123 Florida Ave.: J. C. Craver, one of the community's most widely known pioneers, built this as a general store in the late 1800s, according to Austin McGreal, secretary of the Masonic lodge that meets there.

Craver was a Mason in Tarpon Springs, and a group of them formed the Sutherland Lodge in 1909, McGreal said. Some of the early Masons were among the county's best-known names, such as Belcher.

Today, Sutherland Masonic Lodge No. 174 has 110 members, and its sister organization, the Eastern Star, has about 100 members.

12. HILL BUILDING, 1101 Omaha Circle: The town's second-oldest building, this was built in 1896 by Redden B. Hill, a "dealer in general merchandise," said his great-granddaughter, Trudy Noxtine.

His wares ranged from onions and peas to soap and lumber, according to receipts from 1906. R. B. Hill left town after Florida Southern College burned, and left the store to his nephew, Mortimer Hill.

Through the years the building has housed a number of businesses. The Pinellas County Historical Commission declared the building a historical monument in 1974. It has housed Brown's Country Collectibles for the past five years.

13. DOUD BUILDING, 1126 Florida Ave.: Built about 1923 by Emer Doud, this once was the town post office, which apparently changed its address often.

This is one of two buildings in town built from bricks from Florida Southern College, according to the historical society. The other is First Methodist Church (No.

6 on the tour).

Iris and Ivy, a florist and Victorian gift boutique, has operated in the building for 11 years.

14. PALM HARBOR BARBERSHOP, 1122 Florida Ave.: Emer Doud also built this building, in about 1929, according to the historical society. Doud was a barber who once ranked an entry in Ripley's Believe It or Not for "longest hair road," Mrs. Sutton said.

"He would just dump out hair from the end of his day on his road," she said. "Instead of a wood or rock road, he had a hair road."

Kathy and Lou Lanni have owned the barbershop since 1992.

15. FLORIDA BANK OF COMMERCE, 1026 Florida Ave.: Thought to be the town's oldest building, this landmark two-story structure was built about 1890 by Palm Harbor's first developers.

The west side of the building was built first, which explains why the two westernmost windows on the second floor are lower than the rest. This, too, once was a site of the town post office and a restaurant. From 1937 to 1980, the Adair family ran a grocery store downstairs and lived upstairs.

In 1984 the Florida Bank of Commerce bought and restored the building, adding touches such as a teller booth from the early 1900s and a tin ceiling salvaged from a Lakeland warehouse built in 1820.

The Bank maintains an old-time feel, offering customers free coffee and popcorn.

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