I’m old now, 81 in fact, but that means I can remember Clearwater in all its glory.
My great grandparents, Charles, and Myrtle, were Indiana farmers. Winters were cold and there was not much to do. Crops had been harvested and animals had been butchered. Myrtle’s mason jars were lined up neatly on shelves in the cellar above the root vegetables. They worked a five acre kitchen garden and an orchard just for Myrtle to can vegetables and fruit. She also dried sweetcorn and fruit on the shelf of her wood burning stove.
It was the early 20’s and their three sons were grown so Charles decided to buy a Model T Ford and head south for the winter. He told the boys to do the milking and look after the place and he and Myrtle got ready to go. I remember his tales of the adventure. He said they loaded their tent in the Modal T and food for the trip. He knew the roads would be bad, mostly dirt and mud. No motels or restaurants, just lots of empty country.
They stopped at farms along the way to ask permission to pitch the tent. They were usually welcomed and invited in to supper and breakfast the next morning. Myrtle would help cook sharing the fruits of her labor, that is her jars filled with chicken, beef, vegetables, fruit, jams, and jellies. Back home she cooked for the YMCA. She was famous for her pies, yeast rolls and bread. Well, long story short, they drove all the way to Clearwater making many new friends along the way. Once there it was easy to find an efficiency rental on Fort Harison Avenue and begin having a goodtime.
There was no Clearwater Beach then, it was Mandalay Island. One trip Myrtle brought back sheet music. I remember a few words:
“On the gulf on the bay on the way to Mandalay where the flying fishes play.”
So that is how they became snow birds traveling the same roads and stopping at the same farms. Soon one of their sons, my grandfather, started vacationing with his wife Marie in Clearwater. Then his son, my dad with my mother went every year.
Well, now we get to the good part. In 1954 my dad announced at the dinner table that we were moving permanently to Clearwater after school let out. What a shock! But it was inevitable. My parents battelled every winter over the thermostat. He turned it down and she turned it up. She was always on the sofa under blankets.
If only she had been a good cook like Mrytle she could have stayed warm in the kitchen. She tried to make root beer once of all things and stored the bottles in the basement. We were all in the living room one evening when the caps began to blow one loud pop after another. Not even one bottle survived. She also tried a pressure cooker. It blew up too and we had beans and ham stuck to the ceiling. You don’t want o know about her hot dog stew but at least it stayed in the pot and made it to the table unfortunately. She never made me and my two sisters lunch for school. We walked a mile home in the snow for a bowl of canned soup and a grilled cheese sandwich. None of that mattered though because she was witty and fun. We laughed a lot.
So, we moved to Clearwater and rented a house. Daddy revealed he was going to become a charter boat captain out of Clearwater Marina. That made sense because he was with fish like Midas was with gold.
He did his Coast Guard required time under the owner of the Doolie Brook, passed the test for his license, bought that boat and kept the name.
His first year was 1957 and slip rent at the Clearwater Marina was $15 per month. You could keep all the fish you caught. No limits. I was 15 and weekends I would ride with him to the beach. After a day in the surf and sun I would walk over to the Marina to watch the boats come in. He always caught the most fish and booked the most parties.
1955 Capt. Bob’s Catch
He wouldn’t let me mate for him because I was a girl. I was popular though with some of the boys in school who wanted to be his first mate. He finally hired one of them for the summer but he was a hard taskmaster. His anger knew no limit. I was there the day that mate was filleting kingfish and Daddy’s precious knife slipped out of his hand and went over the side. Daddy took a deep breath and was ready to give him a tongue lashing but stopped midsentence because he had seen the look on his face and dove overboard into all the fish carcasses on the bottom. He soon came up with that knife straight in the air above his head like The Lady of the Lake with the sword Excalibur. Everyone on the dock cheered and applauded.
The party’s never took many fish so on the way home Daddy sold to the all the fish you can eat restaurant at the land end of the causeway. He kept some for dinner and to take to the smoke house on the Courtney Campbell Causeway. We all loved smoked fish Those were great times. We girls hung out at the A&W root beer stand across from the high school and frequented the first pizza restaurant in Clearwater. The drippy candles in the wine bottles were so cool and we copied them at home.
Time passed and after graduating in 1962 from St. Petersburg Jr. College I got married to Jimmy J. and three kids later he decided he wanted to be a charter boat captain. He was dyslectic and he couldn’t retain anything he read but could if it was read to him. Any guess who got that job? Yes me. That book was huge and you had to remember it all to pass the Coast Guard test. Well, he passed and bought a boat. I named it “Lucky Lady” and we rented a slip at the Clearwater Marina, but not for $15 dollars.
I signed on as first mate but not for long. He bought another boat and rented a slip at the Dunedin Marina. He wanted me to get my license and captain it. After all I taught him and he passed. So, I did, pass I mean, but refused to leave the Clearwater Marina and the Lucky Lady. I was the second female captain there and I wanted to stay. Of course, daddy was still there too. I manned the helm and steered by compass. In those days we had a compass, a depth finder, and a ship to shore radio.
Trolling for Kings was my favorite. I would circle them up and keep it tight to stop the other boats from cutting me off and stealing my fish. They finally gave up and left me alone. Back at the dock they laughed and blamed Captain Mary for circling the entire Gulf of Mexico.
One trip home the fog rolled in fast and thick. We couldn’t see a thing and so we set our compass course and hoped for the best. Timewise we should have been at the inlet but couldn’t find or hear the bell buoy. We were still creeping toward land when the depth finder revealed it was getting shallower. I turned to starboard to circle back just in time to miss the Clearwater Pier by inches. Our party of six men thought it was great fun and hooped and hollered as we passed the end of the pier and followed the beach to the bell buoy.
Well, that was the good old days. Now I am just old, I used to laugh with Moher when she tried to change the channel with the phone. I do that now with my lift chair controller. I’m forgetful but not about how wonderful Clearwater was in the good old days. I have a picture of Charles walking downtown past Woolworths in 1950. That’s where I had my first job. I was a cashier and took real money and made change. I also have a 1949 picture of a Courtney Campbell Causeway picnic. The greats were there and my grandma front and center, the great’s to the left. Also one of my grandparents on the beach and Charles in the middle outside their efficiency in 1950 still enjoying being snowbirds, Finally there they all are at Phillippe Park in 1959,
I spent a lot of time in my youth at the Clearwater library. There were books that you could not check out that were all about the early settlers. They lived on the bluff above the bay that was crystal clear from the springs. The women could see the schools of mullet hugging the shore and they would walk down and scoop them up in their aprons. I would have loved to live in those days. I loved it when I lived there. I will love Clearwater forever.
Story written and photos provided by Mary Ann Johnson exclusively for Destination Tampa Bay™. Do you have a historical story about the Destination Tampa Bay™ area? If so, please send us your ideas. Please contact us at [email protected] to learn more.
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