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She keeps the keys to history

A 77-year-old Pinellas native is a walking encyclopedia of county lore; she hopes the tiny museum where she volunteers will keep those stories alive.

Published January 2, 2006

[Times photo: Scott Keeler]
Winona Jones, 77, shown at the North Pinellas Historical Museum, has volunteered there for seven years. She also recently published a book on the history of Palm Harbor, where she makes her home.

Winona Jones could barely see her hand in front of her face as she crept deep into groves of Valencias that winter night.

But the snap of an icy leaf told the young woman all she needed to know about what awaited her in the darkness.

The beginning of the end.

"We lost it and we never replanted," the 77-year-old says, tears in her eyes as she recalls the 10 groves of oranges she and her husband, Charley, lost in the freeze of 1957. It was a punishing night that changed the landscape and the lives of so many orange growers in central Florida, including Jones and dozens of others in Pinellas County.

But remnants of the time when much of Pinellas smelled of orange blossoms live on in a drafty turn-of-the-last-century house at the corner of Curlew and Belcher roads. And Jones is making sure people don't forget.

Once owned by Judge Thomas William Hartley, the house was donated seven years ago by the county to the Palm Harbor Historical Society to be used as a museum. It is now operated as the North Pinellas Historical Museum.

Rooms where the Hartleys lived are filled with artifacts, clippings and old pictures, including a room entirely devoted to the citrus industry that dominated Pinellas County through the 1960s from Largo north.

"This is the life we lived back then," said Jones, a society member who has volunteered at the museum for seven years.

With each turn of a corner in the museum, another artifact or photograph shows how people lived, worked and played.

On top of a glass case sits a stereoptican, what some consider an early predecessor to the television. The projector-like toy is designed to allow people to view cards with little pictures. If done quickly enough, the pictures look like a movie, Jones explains.

Above the glass case are several large framed sketchings and photographs.

"People can't believe we had buildings and land like this in Palm Harbor," Jones says, pointing to photographs of Sutherland College, a mammoth hard pine building that sat at what is now Omaha Circle before burning down in the 1920s.

"It was everything to them, it was a church, a social center and" - she pauses - "the only place young ladies could get an education."

Most agree you would be hard pressed to find anyone who knows more about North Pinellas than Jones, a native who still calls Palm Harbor home.

"She's a walking encyclopedia," said former County Commissioner Sallie Parks.

For as long as Jones can remember, she has understood the importance of history.

As a child, she often heard stories about her ancestors from her father. She recalls telling everyone at a family gathering during her childhood that her grandmother was half Iroquois Indian. The remark drew a grimace from her aunt.

"It's history," said Jones, with a shrug. "Good, bad or indifferent."

But always important.

A bad fall this year left Jones with an achy knee and the habit of forgetting names, which irritates her. Around the same time, her husband, Charley, 81, underwent heart surgery. The experiences have made Jones want to spend more time close to her husband. But duties at the museum call.

"Who else is going to do it?" she asked.

Like Jones, the museum has had its share of ups and downs in the past year.

A book published by Jones on the history of Palm Harbor created a nice buzz. But construction on Curlew Road caused visitation to drop as well as donations. And there is always the need for more help.

Among the museum's goals are bringing on an assistant director whom Jones could pour her knowledge into and eventually let take over. The museum also wants to establish a foundation that would make corporate giving easier. It will cost about $15,000 to get the foundation up and running, Jones said.

"It's typical of everything that every charity goes through," said Doris Mann, the historical society's treasurer. "You can't get people involved, you can't get them interested. Everyone is so busy with their own lives. It's hard to get people to do the work we need done."

Somehow, the idea that leading tours of a house is work seems like an insult to the images of sun-scorched farmers and citrus growers staring from photographs on walls throughout the museum.

"People back then didn't have electricity, they raised their own vegetables and they had to bring every drop of water they used from a well," Jones said.

"But in some ways I think they were happier."

--Nicole Johnson can be reached at 727 445-4162 or

[Last modified January 2, 2006, 02:30:25]

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