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Cedar Key State Museum: a mini-vacation right in your back yard

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By Ada Lang

Tucked away off Hodges Avenue is arguably the ugliest circa 1960’s building on the island. But don’t let that put you off.  Inside and around the property are a variety of things to do and see that will make you forget the bad architecture.

The state museum building houses Indian artifacts, dioramas of scenes around Cedar Key, a variety of impressive collections and historical information about the area.  It also has a great little gift shop where you can buy cool t-shirts, posters and a wide variety of books on the area, including Florida flora and fauna.

After you tour the main building, a short walk across the brick path leads you to the St. Clair Whitman house. It is a barn-red cedar-shake house with a long gable roof that runs the length of the building, a wide front porch with a shed porch and gable over the front steps.

Once inside, you realize that the house is much larger than it seems from the outside. Two ells (wings) off the back ends of the house practically double the size of the main house and give it a U-shape.

The home was built in 1880 by Henry Hale and overlooked Goose Cove, where the Whitman Point condominiums now sit. Whitman bought it in the early 1920’s and lived there until his death in 1959, at age 91. It was slated for demolition in 1991, offered for free by the family and was moved to the museum site in three parts that year, restored in 2002 and opened to the public. 

The house still has most of the original features including windows, beautiful wood floors and trim - and, no bathroom.  Luckily for the visitors, it now has air conditioning to keep the humidity at bay.  

Of course, when it was built, Whitman and his family had to rely on breezes to cool the house and windows were placed on two to three sides of every room to capture the prevailing winds but the windows also made it light-filled and feel larger than it is.

Upon entering the front door, there is a bedroom on the right (with the Whitman’s iron bed) and parlor on the left. Straight ahead you pass under an arched opening into the dining room and into the kitchen beyond.

The attached kitchen looks much like it did when the house was built. A beautiful enamel gas stove with a raised oven dates from the 1920’s and there is a large sink with drain boards on each end and a table in the middle that belonged to Whitman. 

Going back to the parlor, you pass through a pocket door into the jewel of the house - the room that houses St. Clair Whitman’s shell collection. In the other ell, off the “shell room”, is a large room that may have been another bedroom but is currently used as a conference area and storage.

There is an informational brochure about his life and the home itself in the foyer.  According to the brochure:

St. Clair Whitman was born in the town of the same name, in Missouri, in 1868. He and his brother and parents lived in Iowa until their mother died in 1880. Their father left his older son in Iowa and took St. Clair to Florida, where they eventually arrived in Cedar Key.

He helped create a fiber mill by designing much of the machinery and worked at the Standard Manufacturing Company, which processed fiber and brushes. However, his true calling was collecting shells and other regional items and his careful cataloguing gained him a feature story in  a 1955 National Geographic Magazine  issue about his home museum. 

On the grounds of the museum, there is an old fishing boat, a giant salt kettle from the Civil War, a couple of cannons and a few other local items of interest, such as an old fire fighting rig and the old chassis of some mysterious type of cart. 

There is also a nature trail that goes down to the water. It has a couple of benches to enjoy the view but it is also a great place to launch a kayak or take your dog for a swim.

So, next time it is raining and the kids are driving you crazy or you have out of town guests, take them to the State Museum. You get a lot of entertainment for a $2 entry fee (although they do accept additional donations) and that’s the cheapest “stay-cation” you will ever take.