This fall, at the Gulfport History Museum, history is coming to life. It began when Julie Pitzer of Longwood, Florida walked into the museum with a cardboard box and a question.
Pitzer, who has spent several years tracing her family’s genealogy, had an old family photograph of a dozen or so men and boys in front of what appeared to be an old commercial fishing shack. She was hoping to identify the location. But as she opened the box and began laying out dozens of portraits, candids, letters and other family keepsakes, Gulfport Historical Society staff and volunteers realized that this unassuming box was actually a treasure chest of local history.
As Gulfport genealogies go, Julie’s is impressive. She can trace her ancestry back on her mother Nancy Massingill’s side to William L. Nash, who came from Georgia to what is now Pinellas around 1870 with his wife, Christian McCrae Nash and their nine children. Three more Nashes would be born here in Florida – the youngest of whom was Angus Lawrence “Laus” Nash. The Nashes would become one of founding families of the peninsula.
Even as a child, Juile sensed there was something Old Florida about her family.
“I grew up with an old kind of food, an old kind of cooking, lots of outdoorsy stuff.” She grins. “My peers were not eating alligator or mullet.”
Her great-great grandfather Angus, who passed away in 1957, would live to see his pioneer settlement become the town of Gulfport, the wild days of Prohibition, and the emergence of modern Florida in the years after World War II. He was very much a part of this history: family legends tell of a still – hidden in the mangroves – and stories of running liquor from the Bahamas. Angus even made the headlines in 1932 for taking Babe Ruth on a very successful alligator hunt along Bear Creek. A picture snapped on the scene shows Laus and the Bambino shaking hands over a nine-foot saurian stretched across the bumper of their car.
Just another day in the life, really – Laus was rumored to have killed over 2,000 gators in his career.
Angus’s daughter, Georgena Nash Fillman, born in 1905, left a very different record of her time in Gulfport: a leatherbound diary given to her husband, Aaron Fillman, filled with notes and impressions of life in the Depression and World War II-era Florida.
Gently turning its pages, Julie reminisces: “Here’s where she talks about Fillman – that’s what she called him – going to bring her wood for a fire. Here’s when they got their icebox. Here’s where she went to visit her son, Jack, in New York.”
The diary places all these life events against a historical background of widespread underemployment and national pastimes such as going to the movies. It is all the more poignant for the entries made at and after Georgena’s death in 1971 by her daughter Betty, who hoped her own daughter would have a record of the mother whom Betty had loved so much.
When the conversation turns to Betty – Betty Jean Fillman Massingill, born in 1927 – Julie’s voice deepens with emotion.
“She didn’t finish the ninth grade,” says Julie, remembering her grandmother, “but she was the most well-read person I know. She wrote all the time. She died in 1992, right around her birthday. Her nickname was Sapphire – after her birthstone.”
The cardboard box has many extraordinary examples of Betty’s life and work, including a notebook of poems.
“What will they say about me,” reads the first entry, “Those whom I hold so dear? / What will they best remember / When I’m no longer here?”
Julie picks up a picture of Betty holding a mullet by the tail. Betty and Georgena were both descendants (through Georgena’s mother, Lorena) of the Leonardis (sometimes spelled Leonardy), a Minorcan family that immigrated to Pinellas in 1868. Julie still remembers the Spanish influence in Betty’s cooking: bean soups, fromajardis (a kind of cheese biscuit), chicken and rice. And mullet.
“Minorcans would drop everything they were doing to go and catch a mullet run,” Juile explains. It was a legacy of hard times in the Minorcan colony at New Smyrna, when mullet was one of the few plentiful food sources, turned into a tradition. “Usually she would fry it,” says Julie. “And eat the gizzards, too.”
This extraordinary collection of photographs and other records is now being scanned and added to GHS’s growing digital archives.
“Julie’s wealth of knowledge is incredible,” Operations Manager Mel Zodda said. The stories and memories that Julie brings, along with her family photographs, can help to fill important gaps in the GHS’s archive. “We do not currently possess such a detailed and informative pictorial lineage of the Nashes.” Scanned items will become a part of the Gulfport History Museum’s permanent collection, and Zodda hopes that other Gulfportians and Gulfport descendants will come forward with details of their own family stories that can shed even more light on Gulfport’s history.