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Museum a treasure-trove of sheriff's history

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Published:   |   Updated: March 18, 2013 at 04:57 PM
BRANDON -

The history of the Hillsborough County Sheriff's Office was scattered everywhere.

Antiquated crime-fighting equipment, such as the first cumbersome computers used in squad cars, was nearly forgotten in the corners of dusty storage rooms.

Photographs of decades-old crime scenes were stuffed in boxes, piled atop jail logs where names were typed on pages now yellow and frayed with age.

And deputies' badges, some dating back to the late 1800s, had been in the personal collection of Sheriff David Gee.

"I just had a lot of this stuff in a desk drawer," Gee said. "But everybody needs to see it. I'm glad that other people will have the chance now."

On Thursday, the sheriff's office unveiled the first steps in taking its immense assortment of artifacts and organizing them into museum exhibits documenting the agency's 160-year history.

The badges from Gee's collection, along with old uniforms, equipment and other items, are now on display at the sheriff's office training center, 1409 Falkenburg Road, Brandon.

In a year, the sheriff's office wants to convert a building it owns in Ybor City into a public museum, said Maj. Clyde Eisenberg. The items in the glass cases at the training center will be transferred to the museum, he said.

"The sheriff's office has been a great custodian of lawbreakers, but not a great custodian of our own history," Eisenberg said.

The project began a year ago, when Gee, Eisenberg and Maj. Alan Hill — all history buffs — started talking about bringing more of their agency's history into the public's view.

"The sheriff had several badges," Eisenberg said. "People mailed us stuff. Retired deputies and their families gave us items. We found some for sale on eBay."

Some artifacts were stored in buildings all over the county, Eisenberg said, and some documents — such as old newspaper clippings, letters written by former sheriffs and crime files — were almost thrown away.

After thousands of pieces had been gathered, Eisenberg called the University of South Florida's history department asking if anyone there would help sort through and catalog the items.

Phil Levy, an associate professor of history, jumped at the chance. He said sifting through the artifacts was "a golden opportunity" to document how the agency has grown and to see how Hillsborough County has changed over 16 decades.

Donations, and a state grant secured by USF, paid for the first exhibit.

"There are photographs that are just outstanding," Levy said. "There are street corners that we're familiar with now, but back then, they looked like they were in the Ocala National Forest."

Levy said his main challenge was to take the massive number of items and organize them into a narrative timeline.

The story starts with a sheriff's badge from 1890, crafted from the template of a pure silver coin. The small, simple star was a gift to Gee; it's one of his favorites.

"Some guy just gave that to me," Gee said. "He told me, 'Kid, hold on to this. There's not many like that.' "

The display also featured several uniform patches and a photograph of the 20 deputies — the sheriff's office now numbers about 1,500 sworn deputies — who patrolled the county in 1950.

On a table was a lie detector machine and a metal walkie-talkie as big as a brick. Nearby was a computer installed in patrol cars that deputies used in the early 1980's to communicate with dispatchers. It looked like a typewriter with a tiny television screen attached.

Many more items are still in storage at the training center, stacked in boxes from floor to ceiling. Among them are investigative files documenting moonshine runners from the turn of the century and gangsters from the 1940s.

Hill said sifting through so much history, and pausing every now and then to marvel at the past, makes it easy to lose track of time. "You'll find yourself at 9 o'clock at night here in this backroom of our loading dock," he said, "just looking at stuff."


rreyes@tampatrib.com (813) 259-7920

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