Located on Tampa’s beautiful downtown Riverwalk, The Tampa History Center provides a fascinating look into the history of both the city of Tampa and of Florida itself.
With exhibits that begin with the lives of Florida’s first inhabitants, the Tocobaga and Timucua Indians, to Florida’s discovery by the conquistadors to the more modern days of the Cigar, Citrus, and Tourist industries, visitors are taken on a journey of struggle, determination, and resiliency.
The journey starts with “The Winds of Change,” a film that takes us back hundreds of years to the clash between Florida’s first inhabitants and the conquistadors. A clash that would be the first of many and a new way of life for Florida’s native people as the conquistadors would not be the last people they would battle for Florida lands.
The 1770s is when Florida Indians collectively became known as Seminole, a name meaning “wild people” or “runaway.” In the Story Theater, you will see Coacoochee’s Story, a dramatic production about a young Seminole Chief that led his people into battle against the United States Army in 1830’s Florida.
On the other side of the first-floor gallery, we jump ahead from the Seminole wars about 50 years to the introduction of a new Florida Industry, the cigar. This exhibit was by far one of my favorites and is near and dear to my heart as it brought me back to the stories of my grandmother and my family’s immigrant roots.
It was 1885 when a group of cigar manufacturers led by Vincent Martinez – Ybor founded Ybor City, a community within Tampa city limits. The Cigar factories of Ybor City attracted immigrant workers with origins from Cuba, Spain, Italy, Sicily, and Germany that formed a workforce that at its peak would produce over half a billion cigars a year and Tampa would soon become known as Cigar City, The Cigar Capital of the World.
The Florida Pioneers is represented on the third-floor gallery with “Cracker Cowboy.” A short film that allows us to saddle up for a Florida cattle drive. A walk through a pioneer cabin gives visitors a glimpse of what Florida home life was like in those Pioneer days.
As we moved about on the third floor, we found a unique set-up, a theater inside a shipping container. From inside this container, we watched a film and learned how shipping containers and freight gets moved in and out of the port of Tampa.
Also on the third floor is an interesting display of Florida’s Citrus Industry history and its impact on the economy. As Citrus Groves are sold to make room for housing and subdivisions, citrus is quickly becoming an industry in danger of disappearing from Florida altogether.
I would not be surprised if the fourth-floor gallery would be named the favorite of kids young and old alike. It is here that you will find “Treasure Seekers” stories of Conquistadors, pirates, and Shipwrecks.
There have been many Spanish Galleons discovered in the oceans off the coast of Florida, and it is no secret that most Floridan’s enjoy a good pirate story. In fact, Floridan’s even celebrate pirates; we name sports teams after them and even put on parades in their honor.
In the Treasure Seekers Gallery, visitors can help a couple of pirates navigate the waters in “The Pirates Fate Theater,” map the stars, learn navigation, and dive to the ocean searching for lost fortunes.
In addition to the permanent galleries, there are changing exhibits. On exhibit now through January 16, 2022, is Tusks to Tails: A Fossil History of Florida. Life in Florida stretches back millions of years. How do we know? In a word, fossils.
The challenge for me on our visit to the Tampa History Center was getting through the galleries without rushing. Why is this, you ask? Well, it was because of the delicious smell of the food cooking at the Columbia Cafe’ located within the building. The smell had my mouth-watering, and I couldn’t wait to sit down for lunch. You may have heard of the famous Columbia Restaurant located in Ybor City, a restaurant founded in 1905 and frequented by local cigar workers. The Columbia Cafe’ creates the charm and flavor found at the original Columbia Restaurant in Ybor City and offers a sampling of the Spanish- and Cuban-inspired dishes that made the 109-year-old restaurant famous.
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