Chasing Shadows: The work of the historical society

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When you think about the Apalachicola Area Historical Society, do you think “Oh yeah, they run the Raney House Museum?”

I was asked this question and decided it was time to talk to the community about the historical society.

In January we began the third year of our monthly Spring Speaker series, which runs from January to May. We had well-known Panhandle historian Dale Cox in January, and in February, local historian James Hargrove, who told us the whole crazy story of William Augustus Bowles. In March, the society, in partnership with the Carrabelle History Museum, hosted a lecture on Historic Florida Maps from the Cognetta Family Trust Collection.

Last month, we hosted Margo Stringfield from the University of West Florida talking about historic cemetery preservation. For May, Kevin Bair will talk about the great Frederic Tudor, of Boston, who brought to Apalachicola the natural ice that John Gorrie used to cool his patients and inspired famed doctor’s creation of manmade “air-conditioning.” We’ve posted a Bair’s piece on the “natural ice” industry is posted on our webpage aahs.wildapricot.org/ under Resources, or access it directly at https://tinyurl.com/89xvtx72.

Saturday, May 1 was the Spring Ghost Walk, and following that, a new event “If This House Could Talk” debuted beginning Sunday, May 2. This imaginative two-week event showcases storyboards, in front of 32 homes or businesses, that give historical or curious facts about their homes. Maps of the locations will be available. Pam Richardson, vice-president-elect of the society, is rolling out this event, and while it won’t replace the Trinity Church Tour of Homes, which unfortunately is not being held this year, it will be a fun, and likely annual, event.

June is when the AAHS holds its annual meeting. Members and those interested in what we do are welcome to come. Hopefully, we will be able to gather more safely by then.

In September 2019, the annual Heritage Dinner was held, with close to 100 people attending a sit-down feast in the Holy Family Senior Center, where they heard from Prof. Jack Davis from the University of Florida. His book “The Gulf: The Making of an American sea” won the Pulitzer Prize in History in 2018. The event was a huge success, as it has always been, and thanks to mostly volunteer chefs, all proceeds went to AAHS. The event was not held in 2020 but plans for Sept. 18, 2021 are in the works., when the theme will celebrate the 200th anniversary of Florida becoming a territory. Anyone interested in helping with this event should contact the AAHS at 653-1700 or write us at aahs.raney@gmail.com.

Coming on the heels of the dinner is the Fall Ghost Walk, which this year will be on October 30. We held this event in 2020, and as some of you may recall it was Halloween night with a full moon. This event is always popular, and close to 300 people were guided through the Chestnut Street Cemetery to hear the tales of departed Apalachicola residents. This event was supported by a large crew of volunteers including actors portraying characters, and guides and other staff making the whole thing move smoothly. Anyone interested in helping should be in touch.

Our Holiday Cheer event likely will be back in December, when many take advantage of purchasing wreaths, kissing balls, and other floral arrangements made by the AAHS “elves” from locally collected greens. We thank Random Catch on Water Street for facilitating sale of wreaths the 2020 holiday season.

Events are not all the AAHS does. The society manages the Chestnut Street cemetery, a truly precious historical resource, under an agreement with the city. An active Cemetery Committee, led by our historian Mark Curenton, worked to arrange last year for extensive work to renovate the perimeter fence. Work on the fence posts in underway, gravestones are being cleaned, and trees have been planted, but much remains to be done. Monuments with hurricane damage have been documented, and grant funds are being sought to pay qualified restoration specialists.

In 2016, an extensive Historic Preservation Plan was undertaken by Jim Miller, who produced a 400-page page report, the first 16 of which are available on the AAHS website. Anyone wishing to make a donation to support this cemetery work, one of the major efforts of the society.

John Solomon, director of the Tourist Development Council and a member of the Cemetery Committee, would like us to make available guides for paid cemetery tours each week. This project is still in the planning stages. There is also a self-guiding brochure funded by Visit Florida, available at locations around town and in a box at the cemetery entrance.

Fires at both the courthouse, in 1874, and on the riverfront at the turn of the last century, destroyed much documentation, but Curenton, and Richardson are available to help research people and places in our long history. Judy Allen, a newly appointed adjunct historian, will soon join this crew. Heritage tourism is growing in prominence in this town which dates back to well before its incorporation in 1831.

Apalachicola Times editor David Adlerstein, a member of the society’s board member, has encouraged local historians to submit articles to the Times’s “Chasing Shadows” series. This wonderfully informative series offers fascinating glimpses into our unique history. We thank the new ownership of the paper for supporting this series. Links to these articles can be found on the society’s webpage apalachicolahistoricalsociety.org, or our Facebook page at Apalachicola Area Historical Society.

The April edition of the new newsletter, which started in January, will be coming to email boxes very soon.

Back to the Raney House Museum, the overall care and maintenance of a large three-story home built in the 1830s is a daunting task. The house has been owned by the city since the 1970s, and over time, grant funds have been secured for needed maintenance. This almost happened in 2020, but funds for work on the exterior from the state’s Division of Historical Resources disappeared when the governor line-item vetoed those grants. More recently, we sought funds through a one-time National Park Service Hurricane Michael grant program, but because the house did not sustain damage from the hurricane, we were unsuccessful in receiving these monies. We again plan to apply for state funds on the next funding cycle. Most-needed repairs include window glazing and stabilization; column restoration; work on the underpinnings of the dining room floor and a new paint job.

In the meantime, the interior of the Raney House Museum is expanding its décor and presentations. Notably, an 1840s “Square Grand Piano” was donated by Tallahassee resident Bill Gladwin and is now in the front parlor. Gladwin also donated a lovely Empire bureau. New portraits and maps have been installed, and a daguerreotype of John Jenkins, a prominent steamboat captain of the 1830s, was purchased for display in the house. An antique oriental rug now graces the parlor floor.

A flat screen TV has been purchased for the front hall, which will allow visitors unable to climb the steep stairs to get a tour of the second floor. Coming soon, there will be displays of vintage children’s clothing alongside the child-size furniture made by one of the Marshall brothers, known for housebuilding in Apalachicola. Martha Helen, the doll who rests on the bedstead, has been joined by her sister, Grace, just this week.

The bottom line is, if you haven’t been to the Raney House Museum lately, find the time to visit. The hours are 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday, and a docent is available to take you around the house and tell you about the Raney family and the broader history of the town. The tours are by donation only, with the society board weighing the need for a standard fee as has been instituted at the state-owned Orman House.

Coming in 2021, we hope will be the opening of an additional exhibit space in the Carriage House building next to the Raney. The board has approved the use of this building for the installation of archaeological treasures excavated by Lou Hill and his friends along the Apalachicola riverfront. COVID restrictions have slowed down the process of installing this new exhibit, but we look forward to this new “museum” under our umbrella.

People interested in becoming members of the AAHS can join as members or donors online, or send checks to P. O. Box 75, Apalachicola, FL 32329. Annual individual membership is $15, and family memberships $25, covering June to June renewal. Other sustaining and corporate memberships are also available. We very much need a volunteer to help with bolstering our membership and corporate sponsorship efforts. If you have computer skills, fundraising know-how, or just time to get involved, please be in touch.

Thank you for supporting your local Historical Society to “Preserve Out Past” as our coffee mugs say. Purchases of mugs and “Apalachicola Before 1861” by Harry P. Owens, which was published in cooperation with the AAHS, provide needed funds for our ongoing preservation efforts.

Caty Greene, president of the Apalachicola Area Historical Society, can be reached at catygreene32320@gmail.com

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