Catherine Martinez: Glades museum tells tales of Old Florida

Interested in learning more about the early Native Americans from a site excavated by the Smithsonian? How about the no-name storm of 1928 when more than 2,000 people died in an hour Or a detailed diorama of Belle Glade in the early 1920s?  The Lawrence Will Museum,  just reopened this May in Belle Glade, should help satisfy your curiosity.

The museum was founded with donations from Belle Glade residents for the 1976 Bicentennial. It was installed in a room added onto the Belle Glade library on South Main Street and closed briefly in 2013 when the library moved to a new location. After a little remodeling, the museum moved into the entire city-owned building.

The museum is run by the Museum of the Glades, originally the Glades Historical Society, headed by Steve Weeks, local businessman, and former mayor and county commissioner.

Lawrence Will, the museum’s namesake, came to Belle Glade as a young man and survived the 1928 hurricane. He wrote extensively about local history, including Swamp to Sugar Bowl, Pioneer Days in Belle Glade, 1928 Okeechobee Hurricane, and A Cracker History of Okeechobee and passed in 1977, shortly after the museum opened.

The museum was curated by Joseph Orsenigo until his death in 2009. His 94-year-old widow
volunteers to help at the remodeled museum. Linda Geary, current curator, recently graduated with a master’s degree in Museum Studies.  She said, “As a fifth-generation Florida resident, I am excited about Florida history.”

She grew up in Stuart, only a few miles away, but she said its history is very different. The coastal cities’ early history focuses on boating and the Flagler railroad, but Belle Glade history is more about Lake Okeechobee, steamships on the Kissimmee River and draining the Everglades to turn it into farmland.

“The museum has a large collection of historic photographs that I am cataloguing and digitizing,” Geary said.

She hopes they soon will be available to historians in a searchable database.

She plans to start more education outreach in schools when school reopens in the fall. The museum has already partnered with the fourth graders at Glades Academy to write a children’s book about the history of the Glades, using artwork and writing from the students plus historic photographs of early Belle Glade.

Geary envisions similar projects with other schools on the west side of county., and hopes to give tours to interested school groups. She would also like to invite older residents to come in for “Pioneer Memories” so they can share their experiences with the younger generation.

The museum doesn’t a telephone, but it’s located at 530 S. Main St., Belle Glade, 33430, and is open to the public Wednesday to Saturday 10 a.m. to 4 p.m.  For anyone interested in visiting, you can  get more information by emailing me at [email protected] Admission is free.

Catherine Shore Martinez is a National Board Certified teacher at Pahokee Middle Senior High School in Palm Beach County. Column courtesy of Context Florida.

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