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Ball rolling on museum for balladeer

(ran SS edition of Metro & State)

"Wherever I wander in summer or winter, the ocean is calling me back to Florida sand, sand, sand."

The late Will McLean, the father of Florida folk music, sang those words in his song Florida Sand. McLean roamed Florida for most of his life, camping and living in a succession of borrowed, ramshackle houses. He studied the state's history, flora and fauna, and he got to know its people.

Though homeless, he was rich in friends. One of them was Barbara Sheen Todd, now the chairwoman of the Pinellas County Commission. She met McLean when she was a 17-year-old freshman at Florida State, and he nurtured her folk singing and guitar playing.

Now, she is returning the favor by helping create a museum at Heritage Village devoted to McLean's music, stories and poetry, projected for completion in summer 2004.

The Cracker-style house will be a place where the generations of folk musicians McLean inspired will share their love of Florida, its history and natural wonders. Music will be the emphasis, but the hope is that all the arts will flower there together.

"I really believe in this so much," she said. "It's one of the things I really want to see put in place for the people of Pinellas."

Margaret Longhill, the president of the Will McLean Foundation, said the museum will be an invaluable research center.

"The center has been the dream of many people for a long time," she said. "This will be a marvelous unifying force for Florida acoustic musicians."

Longhill said St. Petersburg College will offer credit and noncredit classes in Florida vocal and instrumental music.

Jan Luth, the director of Heritage Village, sees the museum as a springboard to explore the full range of traditional Florida folk culture.

"It will house collections owned by the Will McLean Foundation," she said. "There will be interactive exhibits, listening stations or laboratories and spaces for classes or workshops."

Luth said the museum will be a beautiful fit at Heritage Village, site of the annual Pinellas Folk Festival.

"This is very exciting," she said. "It's a wonderful dimension to add out here to the village."

Todd said the idea for locating the museum at Heritage Village came from Assistant County Administrator Jake Stowers, a key supporter. Todd said the county commissioners are committed to the project.

The funding will come from county capital funds initially, she said. The county will seek grants from state capital funds and private foundations.

Rudy Garcia, the division engineer for the county's Public Works engineering department, said the projected building budget is $600,000.

That figure could change depending on the final design chosen. Garcia said Stowers and Liz Warren, the director of county parks, helped with the scope of work given to the architects competing for the project.

"What we're looking at is getting an old Cracker-style house with modern climate control," he said. That will likely mean a two-story house of about 4,000 square feet with a tin roof, wood siding inside and out, sash windows and a wide porch suitable for a concert stage.

Garcia said the county will pick an architect to design the building in the next month or so. The architect should be hired and working on the project by June or July. Another year will be needed to allow time for feedback, to finalize plans and pursue grant money. Then construction should start in summer 2003 and be completed by summer 2004.

The building will be located in the northeast corner of the village, near a water tower, on the edge of an open field.

Todd said it will be a living museum of Florida folk music and musicians. "Part of what we've been trying to do is to make sure old Florida doesn't die. We want to remind people of what the real Florida has been _ not the commercial Florida," she said.

McLean's success may be measured in the legacy of his love for Florida.

Todd once got a television producer so interested in McLean's work that he wanted to do a series based on it. Todd said McLean accused the producer of trying to steal his music, and the deal was off.

When she saw McLean in a hospital a few weeks before his death from cancer in 1990, she asked him why he always avoided doing anything that might have helped him earn a better living.

"He gave me this real bashful look," she said.

Then he said, "I've never told you this, but I took a vow of poverty. I promised God that if he would keep the beautiful words and music coming into my head, that I would take a vow of poverty and I would never use those works to make a lot of money _ just enough to support my basic needs."

"Now you tell me," Todd replied.