New Port Richey museum revamp brings it closer to the community’s true history

Curator Brian Schmit plans a new look and new take on history displayed at the West Pasco Historical Society Rao Musunuru, MD, Museum and Library.
Published August 8
Updated August 13

NEW PORT RICHEY — Curator Brian Schmit is like a kid as he talks about changes coming to the West Pasco Historical Society Rao Musunuru, MD, Museum and Library.

“It’s going to be completely different than you see now,” said Schmit. He and a cadre of volunteers are about to start rearranging the relics.

Among them: Native American artifacts dating back thousands of years; tools from the Fivay sawmill in Hudson; and furniture from the Hacienda, a 1920s boutique hotel that abuts Sims Park and is under renovation. Portraits of local founders, including one of U.S. Sen. Samuel Pasco. He never lived here, Schmit said, but supported the effort to split Hernando into two counties in exchange for one being named after him.

"So I guess you could say they kind of bribed him," Schmit said.

There’s also a menagerie of miscellaneous mementos — swords from the Spanish American War, rows of antique bottles and a mold for a giant alligator head thought to be used in a roadside side show.

It looks more like an antique shop than a museum, Schmit said, adding, “we have things from New York, Ohio, South America that don't have a connection here.”

Fueled by $40,000 in Pasco County grants and private donations, Schmit is reorganizing to better tell the history of west Pasco inside the confines of the old Seven Springs school house. The white clapboard building, itself a historical treasure, was donated to the Historical Society in 1981 and moved from its original location on Little Road to Sims Park.

“The artifacts will tell a story of who we are,” said Schmit, a former history teacher and author. “I think I’m well positioned to do that.”

Since moving to Florida 20 years ago from Minnesota, he established a familial feel. A tour of the Hacienda hooked him, especially after hearing stories of the 1920s era, when silent film star Thomas Meighan and investors from Great Neck, NY, planned to transform New Port Richey into the “Hollywood of the East.”

“I figured if half of what I heard was true, it was pretty amazing,” Schmit said.

He did some digging and wrote a book called Glory Days that included a lot of historical facts but also dispelled some less-true stories.

"I think it’s the best and most accurate book written about West Pasco,” said Jeff Miller, founder and administrator of the website Fivay.org, an online history of Pasco County. Miller, a former math teacher also is a board member and librarian at the Historical Society.

While there's been embellishment, there is a kernel of truth to some of those tales, Schmit said.

For instance, Meighan's famous co-star, Gloria Swanson, was part of an group of actors that invested in the area. But she never owned a home on the Pithlaschascotee River, even though a sign on a city parking lot says that she did. Charlie Chaplin’s attorney visited, but there’s no evidence that the movie star ever made it here. Same goes for Joseph Kennedy and Al Capone.

On the other hand, Johnny and June Carter Cash did spend time fishing in the Port Richey area. Famed golfer Gene Sarazen invented the golf wedge here in 1931. Comedian Ed Wynn spent time visiting with city founder George Sims. Former astronaut James B. Irwin, who walked on the moon, also lived here for a time.

Schmit spent time at the Historical Society, poring through newspaper archives, books and photographs. He interviewed long-time residents and descendants of local notables and founders, including Frank Starkey, Dewey Mitchell, Chuck Grey, Steve Luikart and the late Frances and Walter Mallett.

“I was fortunate that I got to talk to some people just prior to their passing away. We need their stories,” Schmit said. “I cross-referenced all that with other information I found in books and websites. I did a painstaking job in making sure that we were accurate. I think it’s a good factual representation for the city.”

The museum will follow the same truth-telling, flowing through rooms featuring artifacts of Native Americans, the Elfers' orange grove, the fishing and lumber industries of Fivay and Hudson, the Port Richey stilt houses and New Port Richey's glamorous and not-so glamorous evolution.

"I think it will make it easier to appreciate the history from prehistoric times to the present," said Bob Langford, president of the Historical Society. "You are actually walking the timeline of our history."

The museum will remain open throughout the reorganization, Schmit said, but there are plans for a special "opening" in January with some recent acquisitions.

Gene Sarazen's daughter donated her father's golfing knickers and an accompanying portrait. In July, Schmit traveled to the Florida State Bureau of Archaeological Research in Tallahassee to acquire 25 prehistoric artifacts dating back 10,000 years that were discovered by Hudson resident Herb Elliott. The artifacts will be on loan in the Native American display opening at the end of August.

“We have to tell the story of them," Schmit said. "If I put them out there, it just looks like a bunch of rocks. But if you are able to tell the story, that just a few miles away these people were living with these objects 10,000 years ago. If you get people to think about that, then it becomes a learning experience."

Contact Michele Miller at mmiller@tampabay.com or (727) 869-6251. Follow @MicheleMiller52.

Note: Brian Schmit is seeking donations of items pertaining to the history of west Pasco County for the museum. For information, call (727) 847-0680.

The West Pasco Historical Society Rao Musunuru, MD, Museum and Library is at 6431 Circle Blvd., New Port Richey. Hours are 1 to 4 p.m. Thursday-Sunday. Special times can be arranged for schools and other groups. Call (727) 847-0680 or email, westpascohistoricalsociety@gmail.com.

West Pasco Historical Society Upcoming Events

  • • Bob Langford, president of the West Pasco Historical Society and Friends of the Hacienda will speak on the history and progress of the Hacienda at 1 p.m. Aug. 10.

  • • 9/11 Memorial, 7 p.m. Sept. 11. Speaker is Anne Koster, who was on the 81st floor in the North Tower of the World Trade Center.

  • • Yolanda Mercado, president of the Gulf Coast chapter of American Gold Star Mothers will speak at 1 p.m. Sept. 14.

https://www.tampabay.com/pasco/things-to-do-in-pasco-and-hernando-counties-starting-aug-9-20190805/

https://www.tampabay.com/pasco/pasco-county-news-briefs-for-aug-9-20190804/

https://www.tampabay.com/pasco/things-to-do-in-pasco-and-hernando-counties-starting-aug-9-20190805/

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