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Panama Canal Museum grows

By JULIANNE WU

© St. Petersburg Times,
published October 28, 2001


SEMINOLE -- Photographs of the old post office and stamps from the Panama Canal Zone line one wall.

In another corner, pictures and maps are strewn about the floor, waiting to go on display boards.

Nearby is a glass-encased American flag -- the last one to fly over the zone, on Dec. 31, 1999 -- and a diorama of the Panama Canal done by Jennifer Gallmeier, a Port Charlotte ninth-grader, as a school project.

"We just moved the museum from an 800-square-foot space upstairs to this suite of rooms, which has 3,200 square feet," said Chuck Hummer, president and a co-founder of the Panama Canal Museum. It is in the Seminole Office Building on the northwest end of the Seminole Mall parking lot. Like Hummer, other volunteers -- called "Zonians" because they either lived or worked in the American-run Panama Canal Zone (1904-1979) -- scurried around last week, preparing for the dedication of the expanded museum at 11 a.m. Friday.

While most museum members also belong to the international Panama Canal Society -- in the same building -- the museum has its own governing board and is tax-exempt. It was founded in 1998 by Joe Wood of Tallahassee, Betty LeDoux, president of the Society and a Clearwater resident, and Hummer of Pinellas Park.

The Society, established in 1932 in St. Petersburg, has had its headquarters in Seminole since April 1991. About half of the 4,000 members live in Florida. Nearly 400 live in Tampa Bay, said Hummer, 64.

"This museum is keeping alive the memories and heritage of those Americans involved in the construction and maintenance of the Panama Canal," said Paul "Buddy" Morgan, of Lutz, who was born and raised in the zone.

The zone is a strip of land across the Isthmus of Panama that was governed by the United States from 1903 to 1979. The Panama Canal, a waterway that connects the Atlantic and Pacific oceans, cuts through the middle of the zone. It was finished in 1914.

Covering 647 square miles, the zone once had a population of 40,000. Of those, about 36,000 were U.S. citizens, both military and civilian.

In 1979, through a treaty signed by President Jimmy Carter, the Republic of Panama assumed territorial jurisdiction over the zone. And on Dec. 31, 1999, the republic assumed control of the operations of the canal and its associated military installations. About 250 Americans remain there today.

Buddy Morgan, 56, said his father, Paul, was an X-ray technician at Gorgas Hospital in the zone from 1939 to 1969, when he retired and moved to St. Petersburg. The younger Morgan, who left the zone after college, became an Army chaplain. He kept the post until his retirement in 1991. After moving to Florida, he went to Florida State University, where he wrote his doctoral thesis on women who lived in the Panama Canal Zone from 1904 to 1945.

Hummer, whose maternal and paternal grandparents and parents all lived and worked in the zone, was also born and raised there.

After graduating from the University of Notre Dame, Hummer returned to the Panama Canal Zone as a chemical engineer in 1960. He worked for the Naval Research Laboratory there until 1979. He then worked for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers in the States until his retirement in 1989.

Eventually, the museum, which also contains several offices and a gift shop, will have a library. And the museum has a five-year goal: to move to downtown St. Petersburg, Hummer said.

-- Information from Times files and World Book Online was used in this report.

Museum dedication

A newly expanded Panama Canal Museum will be dedicated at 11 a.m. Friday in Suite 100, in the Seminole Office Building, on the northwest end of the Seminole Mall parking lot on 113th Street. Members of the Panama Canal Society, the Panama Canal Museum and the public are invited; free admission, but donations accepted. The museum will be open from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. Friday, other days by appointment. (727) 394-9338.

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