Keeping Florida's heritage alive

At Zephyrhills High, presenters come to show displays and tell stories about the state's history.

Published March 21, 2007

ZEPHYRHILLS - In his last year in office, Gov. Jeb Bush declared March as Florida Heritage Month.

Turns out that two teachers from Zephyrhills High School had already beat him to the punch.

History teacher Jean McNary and art teacher Deborah Gillars started the annual Florida Heritage Day celebration six years ago as a way to educate students about a subject that is often overlooked in high school curriculums.

"It's required for fourth-graders," said McNary. "But how many of them forget that by the time they get to high school. And how many of them move here after fourth grade?"

Each year since McNary and Gillars have given students a glimpse of what Florida once was and is by bringing in a variety of presenters including Robert Butler, one of the famed Florida Highwaymen artists who painted for students that first year, and Seminole historian Mable Sims.

Sims, who knows how to weave a good story using the threads of her family's customs and history with some sage advice, was happy to put in her second appearance at Zephyrhills High on Friday.

"I do this all the time, teaching children how to appreciate the past," she said, adding that her treks have taken her to schools and universities throughout the area. "How can you accept the present and plan for the future if you don't know the past? You have to have some direction."

For Sims, direction begins with her ancestors, including her grandfather, a quiet medicine man who conjured potions out of gathered herbs, and her great-grandmother Sally, who taught her how to salt mullet, shell peas, weave pine needle baskets and memorize the alphabet by telling a story using each letter.

Her ancestors were thrifty people. "They threw nothing away," she told students gathered in a music room. "Some of the buttons they cut off pants, dresses, shirts would stay with me. Why?"

Like the stories she now shares, it was destiny, she said. "You might not believe me, but each and every one of you have a special quest. Something you were meant to do."

Sims was joined this year by four other presenters: wildlife artist Stephen Koury; Civil War re-enactor Ross Lamoreaux; Cracker tenor musician Ben Denhart and Second Seminole War re-enactor Jerry Morris.

"It was great," said freshman Antonio Rosado, who sat in on Koury's presentation three times. "He has a good gift, it was like 'wow.' "

That's the kind of thing Gellars and McNary love to hear.

It's important to engage students in Florida history and all it has to offer, said McNary, who went as far as to invite Gov. Charlie Christ to this year's event. "Florida has always been vital in history. It's just always been overlooked," she said. "This is their (students) history, and we want to give them that. We want to give them a feeling for Florida because so many kids are from somewhere else.

"We're losing Florida fast. All you have to do is look at Wesley Chapel to see that," she said. "We have to preserve our past for the future."

Fast Facts:

Did you know?

- The Civil War almost began in Florida.

- The Second Seminole War was the most significant Indian war, lasting seven years and costing $30-million to $40-million.

- The first capital of Florida, Santa Elena, was in what is now South Carolina from 1566 to 1586.

- The first governor of Florida was Andrew Jackson.

- There once was a place called the Custard Apple Forest, just south of Lake Okeechobee, that was so dense you couldn't see the sun. It was bulldozed over for sugar cane farms.

- Mosquitoes were once so thick in Florida that they could smother animals.

For more history and tidbits check out a book called, It Happened in Florida by E. Lynne Wright and A Land Remembered, by Patrick Smith.