Saturday, December 9, 2017

Riding with Howard Kunik, Part 2

The history tour with City Manager Howard Kunik sometimes felt like a cyclists' version of limbo as I wondered, "How slow can I go?" (The answer is about 3.8 mph without putting a foot down for fear of tipping over.) But everyone arrived safely at each stop on the tour, which was the priority.

Detail from "Our First Firehouse" -- and a  reminder
not to let someone photograph you from below. 
Our tour resumes at Punta Gorda Fire Station #1, where the department's history is on display in a two-paneled mural that stretches across the walls of the bay. "Our First Firehouse" memorializes not only the department's first building but each iteration of firefighting gear and technology, from the rudimentary bucket brigade to the fully-protected covering of modern day firefighters. (The full "outfit"--with air packs--weighs in at 70 pounds.)

My favorite thing about the mural is that it's used as a teaching tool for the 600+ school kids who tour the fire house each year. I love that they've put together a search list of items for kids of all ages to find in the mural, from an axe to two ladybugs to a burnt matchstick to artist Skip Dyrda's signature red strings. I also appreciate the two helmets with identification numbers of firefighters who died on 9/11.

PG resident Charles Philip Bailey, 
a Tuskegee airman
From there we were on to The Blanchard House Museum of African-American History and Culture of Charlotte County. (That's a mouthful! Not surprisingly, the museum is known simply as Blanchard House.) Scot Shively was onsite to tell us about Blanchard House and its history.

Blanchard House was founded in 2004 by Bernice Russell. It's a fitting part of Punta Gorda's history, and not only because four African-American landowners were signatories to our town's certificate of incorporation. The home in which the museum is located was moved to its current location from 1482 feet away to revitalize the street. The cost: $26,000. For the numbers people among us, Shively noted the cost translated into $300/minute or $17.88 per foot.

Blanchard House was named for Joseph Blanchard, an African-American born in 1862 in St. Augustine. Although Florida was a slave state, St. Augustine was part of the Union, so Blanchard was born a free man. His first wife was Caucasian, nothing too unusual in the Spanish town. By the time he came to Punta Gorda to make his living as an oyster fisherman, Blanchard was on wife No. 4, a mail order bride named Minnie.

Each year the Blanchard House mounts an exhibit about African-American history. This year the theme is The Great Migration, and I'm really looking forward to taking it in.

Local author Libby Schaeffer
shared the Ice House's history
The last building on the tour was the Ice House, now known as a great place for darts and burgers. But in the day, 15 tons of ice were made there daily. Before the Ice House, local catch was salted and dried and sent to Cuba. Once the fish could be kept cold, it was marketed to northern destinations as well.

Libby Schaeffer was onsite to share some tidbits from the interview she did with Edna Smith Poppell for her book "The Ladies of Punta Gorda." Poppell is the daughter of Sherrod Smith, known as the "Smiling Iceman." Smith delivered ice to local businesses and residents. But don't envision bags of ice like the ones you pick up at the 7-11. Instead, Smith hauled 50 pound cubes of ice on his back from the Ice House to his truck to their final destination. He earned his nickname from his constantly pleasant demeanor.

Our final stop was the future home of the new mural. As Kelly Gaylord, President of the Historic Mural Society said, "It's not quite the shape of wall we're used to working with." The mural will wrap around the recently widened underpass near the Convention Center. But its not the wrap aspect that's challenging, it's the slant. (You really have to see it to understand the challenge.)

Rendering of marine life mural by Skip Dyrda
When Kelly brought mural artist Skip Dyrda to take a look at the site, he stood for a long time gazing at the 76' long wall. Finally, he said, "I see portholes." And so the mural-to-be will feature portholes through which viewers can see local marine life past and present. It's going to be interesting.

First, however, fundraising has to completed for the $35K project. This will give Dyrda plenty of time to finish "The Ladies Remembered" mural he just started on the Bayside Eye Center building at the corner of Olympia and Tamiami Trail. He will be at work on the mural for the next three months or so. Stop by and say hello!

Thanks to Howard and Kelly for organizing a fun morning learning about the history of Punta Gorda. And, as promised, click here to watch Bruce Tompkins' fabulous video of the tour.

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