Museum rekindles childhood memories of a thriving Sulphur Springs

From left, members of the team creating the Sulphur Springs Museum & Heritage Center are Vivian Gornik, Liz McCoy, Norma Robinson and Dr. Elizabeth Bird. The display boards will hang in the museum, opening Saturday.
From left, members of the team creating the Sulphur Springs Museum & Heritage Center are Vivian Gornik, Liz McCoy, Norma Robinson and Dr. Elizabeth Bird. The display boards will hang in the museum, opening Saturday.
Published Feb. 2, 2017

The rich past of Sulphur Springs will come into focus with the Saturday opening of a new museum, created by volunteers who want others to know of the north Tampa community.

More than six years in the works, the Sulphur Springs History and Heritage Museum will tell the story of this mineral-spring tourist attraction, which dates to the late 1800s and early 1900s. It was known for the Sulphur Springs Hotel and Arcade, the Sulphur Springs Water Tower and a spring flowing to the Hillsborough River that attracted bathers with its cool, clear water.

A map of the area has been created for the grand opening in hopes visitors will use Post-it notes to add their own memories of the area's history. I'll be among those helping pinpoint locations.

My grandfather, E.T. Lake, was a doctor in Sulphur Springs in the 1920s and 1930s. His wife, Estella, was his nurse until her passing in the mid-1930s. My father, Julian Lake, grew up in their Sulphur Springs home, which also served as the medical office. He traveled by street car to Hillsborough High School. It was long before Chamberlain High School.

By the time I was born in 1952, my grandfather had died. But my parents and I visited his second wife — my step-grandmother, who lived in the house. My mother and I traveled from Seminole Heights to the Sulphur Springs A&P, where I loved the smell of coffee beans grinding, swam at Sulphur Springs Pool — the spring is now closed and a pool is there — and wandered the aisles of the "5 and Dime" in the arcade.

I learned when I found my grandmother's obituary about 15 years ago that she had been the founding PTA president at Sulphur Springs Elementary, then and now again a kindergarten through eighth grade school after years as K-5.

A chill went through me. I am the founding president of two local PTAs. I had no idea; PTA and Sulphur Springs must be in my blood, too.

• • •

Sulphur Springs boundaries are Rowlett Park to the east, Florida Avenue to the west, Busch Boulevard to the north, and the Hillsborough River to the south. It was annexed into the city of Tampa in 1953.

It remained a thriving community into the early 1960s with the springs, a theater, a drive-in, shops and a tourist club. In the last few decades, it has transformed into an area known for crime, drugs and homes in disrepair. City officials are trying to change that.

"Sulphur Springs has such a negative image; but we have a great history here," said Norma Robinson, who with her husband, Joseph, have spearheaded an effort to share the history of Sulphur Springs.

"We have 2,000 children here," said Robinson, a retiree from New York. "The young people need to have a sense of community and be proud."

• • •

The new museum is at Mann-Wagnon Park on the Hillsborough River. The location was once a natural history center until it was moved to the Museum of Science & Industry on Fletcher Avenue.

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When Cecile Wagnon donated the land for the center in Sulphur Springs, one requirement is that it remain a passive park or a museum, said Elizabeth Bird, a professor in the University of South Florida Anthropology Department who is involved in the creation of the new museum.

Bird follows others from USF who started working in Sulphur Springs in 2000, in part with graduate students collecting oral histories there.

In the mid-2000s, the city of Tampa began a revitalization program for the area with non-profit partners, the Hillsborough County School district and others seeking to improve the homes and lives of the residents. The Robinsons and others began looking for ways to get involved and launched programs there for children.

They began to research the history and offered speakers to schools. In addition, Phyllis Green, a former Hillsborough Community College naturalist, started nature programs for local children. Around 2010, work started on a museum.

"The community benefits when an institution speaks to the heritage and history that is there," said Liz McCoy, curator of the Ybor City Museum and a Sulphur Springs Museum committee member. "People then say, 'What is the Springs Theater?' when before they might drive by it and not notice it."

Bird said the turning point for creating the museum came about two years ago, in part with a grant through the Smithsonian Institution's Museum on Main Street partnership.

The partnership will bring the Smithsonian Water/Ways exhibit to the museum from Saturday through March 18. It includes about $6,000 for complementary exhibits and activities.

Exhibits in the Sulphur Springs museum were designed with the help of Vivian Gornik, a doctoral student. She relied upon images obtained through the Tampa Bay History Center, USF and the Tampa-Hillsborough Public Library System's Burgert Brothers Collection.

Gornik created the map for the grand opening.

Cases featuring a collection of butterflies from the old natural science museum also will be on display.

"It is not really to show them but to show what was here before," Bird said.

Robinson said the museum receives no city or county funding and will depend on grants, donations and volunteers to keep it running.

Contact Lenora Lake at