A working replica of the open cockpit plane designed by Tony Jannus and built by Benoist Company hangs overhead at the St. Petersburg History Museum.
By WAYNE ANDERSON and CARLA ANDERSON
Sunday, December 20, 2015 at 12:00 am
When we visited the 93-year-old St. Petersburg Museum of History, our tour leader, who had a master’s degree in Florida history, quickly had us sharing his enthusiasm about the quality of the exhibits.
We started at a statue of a newsboy standing outside the museum and holding high the local newspaper. The tradition had been that if there was no sun by the time the paper came out, the paper was free. This policy cost the newspaper company little — the city gets so much sun it is called Sunshine City — but if the tradition had not changed, we would have gotten several free papers during our time there.
Next, our guide took us to a large room with an old-fashioned, open-cockpit plane hanging overhead. The seaplane was designed by Tony Jannus and built by the Benoist Aircraft Co. Our guide stressed that Benoist started the first scheduled aviation company, the St. Petersburg-Tampa Airboat Line, in 1914. What we were seeing was a working replica of the plane that made the first commercial flight — with one passenger as cargo.
On display in a cabinet was a small company flag — now torn and faded — that had been on the first plane. Next to the flag was a picture of it in the space station, brought back by a female astronaut who had arranged to take it. It is impressive to see how much has happened in aviation in less than 100 years.
In the Schrader’s Little Cooperstown exhibit, we learned that Major League Baseball’s spring training began in the St. Petersburg area in 1914 with more than a dozen teams including the Yankees, Phillies and Cardinals. A large room held the world’s largest private collection of autographed baseballs — 4,854 of them. Posters with pictures and stories featured such athletes as Joe DiMaggio, Babe Ruth and Jackie Robinson.
In surrounding smaller rooms were balls signed by the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League, the Negro Leagues, Hall of Famers and a special display of balls signed by famous people such as Arnold Schwarzenegger, Clint Eastwood and Elvis Presley. Small TV screens played background information in each of the sections.
The museum is scheduled for expansion, and one room has been given over to selected items from the history of St Petersburg. There had been no industry in St. Petersburg except tourism, and when the Depression years came, there was little to support the town. The city leaders sold the federal government on the idea of using the area as a military training site because there were so many empty rooms available in hotels.
Thus, the city became a popular area for training during World War II, and many of the veterans, who had found the area pleasant, later moved their retired parents here and often came themselves to visit, making this a major retirement and tourist area.
Another “one-of-a-kind” exhibit was 142 orange crates with colorful labels from various growers. They included pictures of cowboys, American Indians and scantily clad women. These colorful panels were known as Florida’s first traveling billboards, some dating to the 19th century. This kind of advertising peaked between 1920 and 1950.
The most unusual of the many unusual exhibits was an Egyptian mummy that had earlier been part of a weird items display. Three reproductions of the colorful coffins from the tomb of King Tut added a touch of class to the mummy’s dried, darkened body.
St. Petersburg is loaded with a wide variety of attractions, making it an excellent choice for a Florida vacation during wintertime.