August, 2012

Photos courtesy of South Florida Museum. Above story: Snooty; Below: mastodon; smilodon; Epac, Charlie, and Snooty

Southwest Florida

    De Soto National Memorial - Bradenton

     De Soto National Memorial

Hernando De Soto, in May of 1539, landed somewhere on Florida’s Gulf coast south of Tampa Bay. Where Bradenton’s 75th Street West dead ends at the water may not be the precise location, but it’s close enough, and has been designated the national memorial site for this early North American explorer.

After a long arduous voyage, the fresh water at the large mouth of the Manatee River flowing into the Gulf surely presented an alluring setting—as good as any for the sea weary adventurers to drop anchor. Currently, from the end of 75th Street it has even more appeal, and you don’t have to hack through the palmettos or fight off angry natives.

Anyone familiar with feng shui will immediately recognize that this place has good qi. It’s that feeling of positive energy you get when everything seems to fall perfectly into place—it’s that ancient Chinese art of placement and design acknowledging the laws of heaven and earth that improve life. And, as with this memorial site, nature more often executes the sculpting better than any man can devise.

Perhaps De Soto’s greed was so commanding that it overpowered the positive vibes of this venue. He ventured north from the peninsula with his small army that would wander aimlessly for the next four years throughout the southeastern wilderness in the quest for gold.  Ironically, to find a treasure today, you need only stroll from the parking lot and pace around the site to discover it right before your eyes in its full natural wonder.

Immediate attention is centered on the gently contoured, and manicured lawn bordered by sea grapes mixed with flowers, and interspersed with  Gumbo Limbo trees—contorted limbs jutting this way and that, yet in perfect symmetry on their way skyward—all juxtaposed on this tranquil waterfront.   

It’s easy to be lured by the natural ambiance, but there is much to add in the visitor center where you’re presented with a small museum and a well-done twenty-minute film documentary of Hernando De Soto’s deplorable and tragic encroachment of the new world.  He found no gold, nor did he establish new colonies for King Charles V of Spain. He produced only devastation of Indian tribes and his own followers before he was felled by the fever in what is now Arkansas. Given a water burial in the Mississippi River, the remainder of his decimated crew eventually floated the Mississippi to the Gulf and reunited with Spanish colonies in Mexico.

De Soto was hardly a hero in most eyes, but this is a memorial—a reminder that even the infamous are remembered, right or wrong, for their larger-than-life personas that often challenge the uncharted—in this case, misguided zeal—and would point to mistakes from which others would benefit in establishing the new world.

It’s also a cue for everyone to take in a little more history and explore this site which in 1966 was renamed De Soto Point after more than 100 years of being known as Shaw’s Point. From the visitor center you can amble east on the Memorial Trail, partly over a mangrove swamp by means of a boardwalk that also skirts a profuse variety of Florida vegetation.

Before reaching the point overlooking the Manatee River you’ll observe the remains of a tabby house. Tabby was a mixture of burnt oyster shells, sand, and water, formed and dried into blocks much like concrete. William Shaw built the little house in 1843, bringing his family from Virginia and homesteading these 161 acres. However, in 1855 Shaw feared for his family’s safety during a Seminole uprising, loaded the tabby blocks on a barge and moved to Key West. The ruins are the blocks that were too heavy to move.

Farther along, the trail bends southwest along the river’s edge where the 20-foot De Soto Catholic Memorial & Holy Eucharist Monument stands. In 1960 it was done by famed Spanish sculptor, Enrique Perez Comendador, and at one time displayed a statue of Hernando De Soto, but vandalism forced its removal to the South Florida Museum in downtown Bradenton.

Moving ahead and crossing a footbridge, you arrive at the Memorial Cross thrusting 60 feet into the atmosphere. It was placed there in 1995 in memory of the twelve priests who accompanied De Soto’s expedition—only six of whom returned to Spain. The cross is sometimes used in religious ceremonies, but is most recognized as a navigational landmark for boaters.

Perhaps this whole memorial should be a benchmark in the history of our nation’s birth and often agonizing expansion. In season, they perform reenactments of that long ago landing here, making it better understood for those with a bent for the past. But, while this national memorial is meant to demonstrate the reality of early hardships, the natural elements are now displayed with the refinement of civilization, and for the pleasure of all visitors.

De Soto National Memorial is located at 8300  De Soto Memorial Highway in Bradenton.  Open daily from 9 am-5 pm, there is no admission charge. For more information, call 941-792-0458 or go to www.nps.gov/deso.

All photos courtesy of De Soto National Memorial: above story-gumbo limbo tree; photos below: monument; re-enactors; swamp; gumbo limbo tree and pathways; re-enactors

 South Florida Museum - Bradenton
Snooty, age 64, the oldest captive manatee

 South Florida Museum - Bradenton

The exterior of South Florida Museum is classy. The size of the building too, is impressive, taking up a whole block of downtown Bradenton’s waterfront district. Judging from the street, you would expect extraordinary displays assembled amidst the massive interior, and you would not be disappointed.


This is the largest Museum of natural and cultural history on Florida’s Gulf Coast, explaining the region’s evolution from prehistoric to the present—from undisturbed environment to the Industrial Age, highlighting Florida as a part of the world we take for granted.


Stepping from the lobby you’re confronted with an enormous mastodon skeleton, retrieved from north Florida, and the largest remains of the species ever discovered in North America. A few paces more and you’re taken from 12,000 years back to the present, and encircled in the serenity of the current Clyde Butcher black and white photographic exhibition of Florida wilderness.


The exhibits are vast and varied. As well as preserving art, scientific objects, and general curiosities, the Museum encompasses the Bishop Planetarium and the Parker Manatee Aquarium.


The planetarium can be enjoyed on a daily basis by visitors. It is a multi-purpose all-digital dome theater usually featuring a variety of astronomy-related presentations, although over the summer they are showing Hollywood classics from the past. It is also a venue for musical events, lectures, and workshops throughout the year.


The background murals that enhance the life-size nature presentations are beautifully rendered—certainly among the best you’ll ever see. Exhibits stretch time from primitive cultures to enlightened, yet antiquated medical progress of the early 20th century, with collections of medical equipment, and recreated doctors offices and operating rooms.


On the south end of the first level there is a courtyard commemorating Spanish explorer Hernando DeSoto along with a Spanish house and Chapel of that era. Duck your head—they’re built to scale for people who only stood about 5 feet 3 inches in that period.


Eventually everyone wanders into the Parker Manatee Aquarium—a 60,000- gallon pool with its main attraction being a 64-year-old West Indian Manatee named Snooty. He was one of the first born in captivity, and having been brought here at one year of age, he is the oldest of the species known to exist—probably because he has spent his life removed from man-made and natural dangers that regularly bring companions to share his habitat and recuperate.


The Parker Aquarium is one of only three in the state accredited for restoring the health of these escapees of the dinosaur era. Manatees are truly ugly pre-historic creatures that seem to have somehow captured the imagination of the public. Apparently, ill equipped by their primeval intelligence to cope with modern water activity, they’re constantly in the way of powerboat prows and propellers. But, mishaps and ailments at least afford Snooty companionship. The size of the aquarium limits the manatee occupants to three, and although they’re not cute, they are interesting to watch, especially during feeding times when they’re thrown lettuce leaves—a much clearer observation than you will ever get in the wild.


The second level relates more to recent culture rather than ancient Florida history, and includes a Patrons Gallery celebrating the founders and those who have contributed to the museum since the establishment in 1946. Among other expositions is the unusual Visible Storage Gallery. Most museums have off-site storage for various items, but here storage space is uniquely behind glass enclosures, always visible to guests.


There is something for everyone at the South Florida Museum. Collections are exceptionally diverse and even those with the most narrow interests will find something to like—if one of those areas happens to be past paradigms of the silver screen, there are some real treasures to be viewed. Every Friday night through the month of August—with the exception of the 17th—the films will be: Roman Holiday, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore, The Color Purple, and Thelma and Louise.


And, for viewing these collectables, like everything else in this museum that seems scrupulous and rational, the movie price is right at $5 general admission and $3 for members.


South Florida Museum, Bishop Planetarium and the Parker Manatee Aquarium are all housed together at 201 10th Street West in Bradenton. Admission is $15.95-adults, $13.95-seniors 65+; $11.95-children age 4-12; free for those under 5 with a paying adult. Hour: January through April and the month of July open daily. (Mon-Sat from 10 am to 5 pm and Sun from noon-5pm. All other months open 6 days a week: Tue-Sat from 10 am- 5pm and Sun from noon to 5 pm. Call 941-746-4131 or go to www.southfloridamuseum.org.