I reserved January for my county, Pinellas, to do things close to home because school started again. Time is limited. Energy is usually in short supply. For January’s #Take12Trips one tank road trip, I decided to see three things – Church by the Sea, Heritage Village, and The Florida Botanical Gardens.
Church by the Sea
A church? Yes, a church. This isn’t some kind of religious thing, though. Churches can be, and often are, beautiful, elegant, imposing. And funny. Yes, you see that right. The Church by the Sea, thanks to its architectural details, looks like a chicken from every side. It has earned a place on several websites as a “must see attraction” because of this unique feature.
The Church by the Sea, however, finds its roots in the middle of the 20th century and it’s foundation, construction, and community inclusion in a faith and ethic endemic to Florida settlers. Members of the community, from 10 different denominations, built the church over the course of several years. Reverend Ralph, the first preacher, poured the concrete floors and installed footers himself. Locals donated their services, such as the architect, and labor and materials from local businesses. The fishermen the church served built the walls, their anchors and chains used to strengthen those walls. “Wire Sunday” in 1945 brought donations of electric wiring from the homes in the area. In 1947, the Spanish-style tower with windows – what is now the prominent “chicken” feature of the church – was built and a 25′ mast with a beacon placed on top. At the time, it was the tallest structure in what was known then as Mitchell Beach, now Madeira Beach.
The fishermen grew to know it as a landmark and the byword for those at sea was “look to the word of God to find your way home.” When the fishermen were at sea, the light stayed on until all had returned. Such was the closeness of the community. Nights when the beacon stayed on, everyone knew someone had not come in from the water yet, and they prayed for the safe return of the boat and all men.
The mast and beacon have been replaced by a lighted cross. The community is more snowbirds and families than fishermen. But the Church by the Sea remains a beacon for the community and a landmark for tourists. Even if they only come initially to see the church’s resemblance to a chicken. Eventually many come back to experience the sanctuary of faith built by the unity of community.
Spread across 21 acres of natural pine and saw palmetto, Heritage Village features 33 historic attractions, including some of Pinellas County’s oldest and most historic homes. The landscape mimics the natural setting where many of these historic buildings were first built. Many of these buildings were donated to the county and moved to Heritage Village to preserve the area’s living history. Every building in Heritage Village has been carefully restored to exhibit polished wood floors and the traditional clapboard walls, rooms displayed with historic furniture as they might have appeared 100 years ago.
The oldest building at Heritage Village is the McMullen-Coachman Log Cabin, circa 1852. This is also the oldest existing structure in Pinellas County. Heritage Village also features demonstration sheds where volunteers show, during special events, how things were done, such as the boiling shed, the smokehouse, and sugar cane mill. The Moore House shows what a typical orange grove house looked like, complete with kitchen garden, outhouse, water tower, and windmill. The H.C. Smith Store showcases a typical general store with service garage and barbershop. The store, though closed today for a meeting, has shelves of wares typical for the time, bags of supplies such as sugar, and an old cash register. A church, bandstand, train depot, and two schools finish the village feel.
Heritage Village’s Visitor Center houses a number of small collections donated to the Pinellas County Historical Society. The adjacent gift shop lives in a typical beach cottage from the 1930s. Rubberized walkways lead around the village though they are rather uneven. Most of the buildings are open to the public though two are only open during guided tours.
The Florida Botanical Gardens
The Florida Botanical Gardens ranks very high as one of my favorite places in Pinellas County. Located adjacent to Heritage Village (you can walk from one to the other), the Botanical Gardens encompass 92 acres. It’s 2.5 miles of pathways wind through 18 different gardens that span formal settings, tropical landscapes, and native habitats. Since my first time visiting in 2009, the Gardens have changed a lot. Not really changed – more like grown. The Cactus & Succulent Garden, just a “coming soon” sign years ago, now grows over 50 varieties in the ground and in pots. The Vinery also didn’t exist back then, and though still growing, will be a fantastic section when it’s mature.
January can be a good month for blooms, though not as good as March or April. (Note to self: come back in those months.) This winter, however, has been the coldest in 10 years with a couple of below freezing nights week before last. A lot of plants froze and dried up, especially in The Vinery and Tropical Fruit Garden.
The Botanical Gardens are split into East and West Gardens. The agriculture extension building sits in the West Gardens while the East Gardens holds the formal Wedding Garden, lush Tropical Walk, and a walkway to Heritage Village. Adirondack chairs line McKay Creek at peaceful locations for visitors to take waterside rest breaks. Memorial benches sprinkle the rest of the grounds, providing places for people to enjoy the plants and scenery, rest, or immerse themselves in nature for a bit.