Filming memories in Seminole Heights

Seminole Heights is the focus of a historical documentary.

By ALEXANDRA ZAYAS, Times Staff Writer
Published September 23, 2007

TAMPA - Long before Cappy's and Starbucks and Interstate 275, cows roamed Seminole Heights. They grazed the Henry and Ola Park until it was time for milking. Then their owners untied them and walked them home.

Before Lowry Park Zoo, schoolchildren toured Boyd's on Nebraska Avenue. It was a service station and a zoo, complete with an alligator, a lion and a chimpanzee, dressed as a gas station attendant.

Girls posed like models in a sunken garden on Central Avenue, and men home from World War II walked their sweethearts around Lake Roberta.

These are the stories buried in the memories of Seminole Heights' oldest residents, their letters, their photos, their treasures. Now, the neighborhood known for its restoration of old bungalows is embarking on a new form of historic preservation:

A documentary.

* * *

Seminole Heights is a large slice of central Tampa that encompasses three neighborhoods south of the Hillsborough River and north of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard: Old, South and Southeast Seminole Heights. Before the interstate sliced through, it was all one neighborhood.

Suzanne Prieur, archaeologist Dr. Steve Gluckman and the rest of the preservation committee in Old Seminole Heights have been digging up neighborhood history for years. They double-click through library archives, host architectural lectures and record oral histories from residents.

But Prieur wanted to compile it all in a big way, and not just for a one-night educational presentation. She recalled a documentary she saw at the Ybor City Museum: "You could smell Old Ybor. You could taste Old Ybor. You could feel Old Ybor," she said.

She imagined something similar for Seminole Heights. But who would make it?

On the other side of the neighborhood, Gene and Krissy Howes were looking to join the community association. Krissy called Prieur to introduce herself and ask how she could help. She mentioned that she and her husband own a film production company, Cigar City Pictures.

Prieur told Krissy about the documentary she wanted to make. Had they seen the Ybor film?

Yeah, Krissy said. Her husband made it.

That was June.

* * *

On Sept. 15, Gene Howes flicked the switch on a 1,000-watt lamp in an immaculate bungalow owned by Eric Krause, one of the documentary's earliest sponsors.

Prieur sat beside the camera clutching a long list of questions. History buff Jim Stansel took his seat under the hot lights.

"Where in Seminole Heights have you lived?" she asked. "Describe the house."

His childhood home sat on Branch Avenue, Stansel said. He unfolded an old newspaper article, dated 1928, and began a story.

Before his family lived there, it was home to a man named Norris McFall, one of Tampa's most notorious gambling czars. One October night, two gunmen approached McFall in his driveway, pumped nine bullets into his gut and fled past the chicken house, into an alley.

As he bled, McFall told police the henchmen delivered this message: "That's what you get for fooling up with Charlie Wall."

Wall, a gambling rival, was never convicted. Stansel believes the Branch Avenue homicide was the Tampa Police Department's very first unsolved murder. The Police Department documents its first as a 1949 cold case, but records from 1928 may not have survived, said spokeswoman Andrea Davis.

When Stansel learned his home's history, he scoured the house looking for hidden gambling money. He always suspected a brick in the chimney that didn't quite match the others. But no luck.

His consolation prize: He found the bullet marks.

* * *

"We're really looking in the nooks and crannies in doing oral history," Prieur said. She's asking all the little questions: What businesses do you remember? What games did you play? What was Florida Avenue like?

"We're just getting little bits and pieces from everybody," Prieur said. "We're really contacting the soul of the neighborhood."

Gene and Krissy Howes spend their days Googling street names, searching for ephemera on eBay and browsing photo collections at the University of South Florida. There is little history compiled about Seminole Heights out there.

"I feel like we're pioneers in telling these stories," Krissy said. "They're so fresh."

The team has liked the project so much, members hope to extend their work to other Tampa neighborhoods. Maybe Sulphur Springs, Tampa Heights, Hyde Park.

With little publicity for the project, Seminole Heights residents have approached the team, asking how to help. Neighbors are opening photo albums, resurrecting their fifth-grade spelling bee trophies.

They're recalling the days when the smell of hot, buttered Cuban bread at the Holsum Bakery on Hillsborough Avenue would line people up for blocks. And when a nickel could buy you a ride down to Ballast Point, in a streetcar that would barrel so fast, you'd have to hang on tight.

In this neighborhood story, every plat map, every letter, every faded recollection will count.

Alexandra Zayas can be reached at azayas@sptimes.com or (813) 226-3354.

In her own words

Here are excerpts from an interview with 80-year-old Barbara Farrar, who has never lived outside of Seminole Heights:

I probably had the most idyllic childhood anybody could have had. It was sort of a Huck Finn existence because the river was the heart of our neighborhood ...

* * *

We would float down the river on hyacinth -- they have these bulbs and they float. We would tie boards on them and float all the way down to the Buffalo Avenue bridge. One of the fathers in the neighborhood was a bridge tender there, and we would beg to take him lunch so we could float down the river. It was fun, and he would bring us home. We were pretty wet by that time ...

* * *

The Gypsies came once a year, and we were probably 10 years old, and where the current bridge goes over the river was just woods. There was no grocery there or nothing, that was just woods. And that's where they camped. They came in these carts, they looked almost like colorful wagons, they were brightly painted and they would form a semi-circle in this wooded area. They built campfires and they cooked, and they danced and they sang. And we had the windows open, you know, and we could hear the music and hear them singing. Many a night during the time they were there, I would fall asleep to the music. It was so beautiful.

FAST FACTS: Do you remember?

If you have Seminole Heights family or business photos, letters or memorabilia, or would like to participate in the documentary, call Suzanne Prieur at 610-5255 or contact Gene Howes through www.cigarcitypictures.com.