A day at the museum: St. Joe’s secrets revealed
“A visit to a museum is a search for beauty, truth, and meaning in our lives. Go to museums as often as you can.” – Maira Kalman
This week I’m taking a break from recipes to share with you about a great place to visit to learn more about Port. St. Joe. There are so many new residents in Gulf County that I want to share a fun way to learn more about our historic old town.
For some people, the word “museum” may be a bit off-putting, conjuring up visions of stuffy spaces and cranky bespectacled staff members following people around and shushing them. Who would want to spend time in a place like that? Not me.
When my sister and I made a spur-of-the-moment visit to The Constitution Convention State Museum in downtown Port St. Joe, we put that assumption to the test. Now, I have driven by that building countless times over the years, but I had only been inside it once, back in elementary school in the late 1970s. That may be true for some of you, too. If you’re not a local, you may not know what to expect in that little museum. The heat of summer makes it the perfect time for an indoor activity with your family, or even on your own, to discover it for yourself.
First, I’ll clear the air for you; there was no one shushing us in the museum. The state parks’ ranger who was there when we went was quiet but friendly, neither pushing her way into our conversation nor following us around as we explored. However, she did answer all the questions that arose as we strolled through the small building, and even looked up information for us regarding houses in the original town of St. Joseph, which as you likely know, was nearly depopulated by a yellow fever epidemic in 1841, and then washed away three years later by storm surge during a hurricane. Most of those who survived the horrible sickness and hurricane left the area in defeat. (My former teacher Herman Jones wrote an article for this paper called “Death’s Angel: The ‘Great Tide’ of 1844” where I learned more about these disasters.)
Inside the cool, quiet museum are displays that tell the story of the town of St. Joseph and, ultimately, of Port St. Joe. There are displays of artifacts that have been recovered from the area that show how folks lived during that era of our history: dishes, pots, tools, clothing, and the like. There are even copies of the newspaper, St. Joseph Times, from 1839, before the town was wiped out. The kids will enjoy seeing the train engine inside, as well as the convention room which has life-sized figures of the important men who attended the convention, which they can make come to life and speak at the press of a button.
The ranger clearly loved the museum and the property that it’s situated on. We asked her whether Hurricane Michael had damaged the museum, the monument, or the trees. She was genuinely sad when she told us that around 200 trees had to be removed from the beautiful park after the storm. That was evidenced by the stumps we saw intermingled with the gorgeous old magnolia trees, sabal palms, and pines. There are many gorgeous remaining trees in the 14-acre park, including oaks that continue to stretch their twisting “arms” out to welcome visitors, trees that looked nearly old enough to have been around when the state’s constitution was drafted here in 1838, the event that the museum and monument exist to commemorate. It is a beautiful outdoor space.
Happily, the marble monument was still standing as it has been since 1922, awaiting more generations of Port St. Joe families and tourists to gather around to read the names engraved there. The names are familiar: Reid, Marvin, and Duval, for example, the names of streets and avenues we’ve walked or driven along numerous times in our lives here.
And so many pictures have been staged in front of the beautiful marble statue; prom photos, engagement photos, vacation photos, class photos and wedding photos. That will continue to be possible, gladly, since it stood as firm as the residents of Gulf County. The monument and the pictures are a part of the history, and the heart, of our beautiful town.
Back in 1923 at the dedication of the monument, the event was called “a glorious day at Port St. Joe” by the St. Joseph Times. A visit to this museum and park may serve as the reminder we all need that Port St. Joe’s people are truly strong, with glorious hearts that are determined to support each other as we continue to rebuild following our own “angel of death,” Hurricane Michael. Only this time, we stayed.
The Constitution Convention Museum State Park, located at 200 Allen Memorial Way, is open 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Thursday through Monday. Note that it closes for an hour at noon for lunch. Entry fee is $2; children under 5 years are admitted free.