Blueprint to Tampa's past
A treasure trove found in an Ozona barn tells the first tale of an emerging city. Included is a street plan for Tampa dated 1847.
By NICOLE HUTCHESON
Published May 14, 2007
OZONA - A month after Bill and Peggy Mullen moved into their new home in Ozona, they received a visit from the previous owner.
Sandy Walker said she had some things she and her husband, Roy, found the day they moved into the house years earlier.
The Mullens were expecting some vintage photographs or maybe a few memoirs at best.
What they got were dozens upon dozens of letters, pictures and official documents from the city of Tampa, some dating to the 1840s.
Included was a map titled "Plan of the Village of Tampa." The fragile sketch on parchment shows 12 streets, including what would become modern-day Ashley and Franklin streets. The markings are the beginnings of what would one day blossom into the city of Tampa.
Bay area historians are calling it among the biggest local finds ever.
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On April 1, 1972, Roy and Sandy Walker moved into a bungalow on Pennsylvania Avenue in Ozona. It had a barn in the back. Inside they found nine rocking chairs and a cannonball bed.
They also found a big wooden box.
After a day of cleaning, Roy discovered the large box in the recesses of the barn. Sandy Walker, now 69, recalls her husband racing into the kitchen and plunking the box on the table. It was filled with stacks of tattered old papers, pictures and small items wrapped in tobacco leaves.
Walker pulled a letter from the stacks. It was dated April 1, 1872.
"The hairs on my arms stood up, " she said.
From the artifacts, Walker learned that the owner of the house was somehow related to a man named Henry Proseus, who had been the city treasurer of Tampa in the 1860s.
There were receipts to city workers for odd jobs all stuffed in a Tiffany blue box with the words City Tresuary on front. Aside from the misspelling, especially peculiar was a payment to the police marshal for cleaning the city streets.
The newlyweds spent the first night in their new home getting to know strangers.
After Roy Walker died in the late 1990s, Sandy decided to trade in the old memories for a fresh start. She sold the house to an investor, put the old papers in a plastic container the old box had started to disintegrate in the 1980s and moved to a retirement community.
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Bill Mullen had been coming to Florida since he was 5 years old. But for all the sunshine and beaches, the Florida bug never bit the New Englander.
That was until the fall of 2005 when he and wife, Peggy, were visiting friends in the bucolic pocket of Ozona, in northern Pinellas County.
The canopy of oak trees and Old Florida charm grabbed the couple's heart.
"I really fell in love, " Mullen said of the coastal community. He and Peggy closed on a small bungalow on Pennsylvania Avenue months later.
When the Mullens moved in, they tended the garden and paved the driveway. Fixed the porch and spruced up the inside of the house.
In Ozona, news of new transplants travels fast. And once you're an Ozonian, you're always an Ozonian.
So it was no wonder that Sandy Walker, all the way over in Clearwater, got wind that the new owners of her house were setting things right. Walker had to meet them. So she called and asked if she could come by. She brought the plastic bin.
It was a few days before Christmas when Walker visited the home she had shared with Roy.
"I felt so comfortable with them, " Walker said of the visit with Bill and Peggy Mullen. "Like they would take care of anything."
"I have a gift for you, " she told them.
She went to the car and tugged the large plastic bin into the house. She laid out the old map and letters with care.
Peggy Mullen had been collecting turn-of-the-century antiques for years, and Bill Mullen was well-versed in American history from the Revolutionary War to the Civil War. It was a find right up their alley.
"You should be the keeper of these things, " Walker told the couple. "They belong to the house."
By late winter the couple knew they had to find a place for the documents before they left the area for spring. They got in touch with the Tampa History Center.
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Rodney Kite-Powell gets calls to his Tampa office from people who claim they have found the Declaration of Independence.
So when the call came about the "important documents" in Ozona, he only hoped the papers would be interesting enough to keep him occupied long enough to avoid evening rush hour traffic on I-275.
Once there, he spent hours poring over the documents.
"I was amazed, seeing things that I had only heard about, " said Kite-Powell, who has worked at the center for 12 years. "Having them presented right in front of me was spectacular, amazing, it was just really kind of one of those moments in a professional life that is a great moment."
The map is about 20 inches wide and long. The paper is browning and tattered on the ends almost like an animal skin. The tobacco leaves the map was found in have kept it in remarkable condition, Kite-Powell said.
About 30 large squares are drawn on the paper, with numbered, blocked-off sections in each large square. Look closely and there are names written in each sectioned block.
It is in these names that historians are connecting the dots on the social picture of the city during that period.
Of course there are the prominent names such as Theodore Lesley, who was elected mayor in 1869, and James McKay, who started the cattle trade between Florida and Cuba.
But there are well-known African-American family names listed as well, including Peter Bryant, who historians say came to the area before the Civil War as a freedman and bought a chunk of land in the heart of downtown.
"To see African-Americans owned land and companies during that time is significant in how we look at what's possible today, " Kite-Powell said.
Another intriguing aspect of the map is simply the date: 1847.
It was in 1824 that the U.S. government established Fort Brooke, a military encampment that allowed the government to keep an eye on homesteaders and Seminoles. The fort stood where the Tampa Convention Center is now located.
Through the 1850s, the area flourished as more homesteaders sought out a temperate climate. And in 1855 the village of Tampa became a city.
When the Civil War ended in 1865, Tampa was forced to revamp laws according to the Reconstruction legislation. But local elected officials opted to abolish the city's charter rather than abide by the new rules. The city would not be rechartered again until 1887.
The map of 1853, which is on display at the history center, was thought to be the oldest map of Tampa. But the recent find of the 1847 map tells another story.
It speaks to the state coming into its own: The Second Seminole war ended in 1842 and Florida became a state in 1845. Two years later the map was drawn.
The history center plans to have the map restored and ultimately put it on public display. The hope is that the map gives people a deeper understanding of Florida's history.
"People think of Florida in general as being new - Florida starts with Disney and Tampa started somewhere along Dale Mabry, " Kite-Powell said.
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The story of how the map got to Ozona is sketchy at best.
After researching and interviewing some family members mentioned in the letters, it is speculated that Henry Proseus served as city treasurer between 1866 and 1869. When the city opted to abolish its charter, Proseus lost his job and packed up his office belongings, including the map.
His wife Julia's niece, Ebie, often stayed with the couple. After their deaths, she took some of their belongings, including her Uncle Henry's papers. In her older years she would go to live with her blind sister, Ira, in Ozona on Pennsylvania Avenue.
William Wood, 82, Ira's grandson, lived with the women in Ozona through high school.
"I knew all that stuff was up there, but I didn't know what it was, " said Wood, who practiced law in Tampa for several years. "They were just considered family things, like your sofa or something - just auntie's papers."
Another man's treasure, so to speak.
Nicole Hutcheson can be reached at (727) 445-4162 or firstname.lastname@example.org.