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Chiefland historian publishes book on Cedar Key lighthouse

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Forms publishing company

By Mark Scohier

Toni Collins isn’t shy about her beliefs, especially when it comes to history.

“I’ve always been distressed that our young people are not learning about the history of this county,” she said Friday from the living room of her Chiefland home.

Collins, who used to work for the county, was largely responsible for organizing the county’s historical archives and started the county’s historical board.

A few years ago, after locals recognized her passion for the subject, she was asked to come speak to students in Cedar Key. But she did more than speak. She showed up in character, donning a wig and a period dress as a woman known as Elizabeth Highsmith.

“As I’m spinning this story, I’m watching these children’s faces, and they are hanging on every word. And these are teenagers!” she said.

Collins said the teacher, recognizing the storyteller’s impact, asked her to come back again. Word spread about her flare for the dramatic, and it wasn’t long before her repertoire included three other historical characters, including Catharine Hobday, an assistant light keeper at Cedar Keys Light Station.

Hobday, who was appointed to the lighthouse in 1872 just before her 76th birthday, is just one of the historical figures Collins highlights in her new book, “Cedar Keys Light Station.”

“This is my first book,” Collins said. “It will not be the last.” She said she chose the topic “because there’s so much erroneous information about it.” And because, being open only twice a year, the lighthouse is surrounded by mystery. It’s also in need of repairs, which, because of state and federal cutbacks, will need to be funded by “the rest of us.”

Collins, who holds a degree in journalism from Northwestern University, said she has been collecting information about the lighthouse for the past decade, though she admits she didn’t get serious about its production until about a year ago.

The book, also filled with historic photos, maps and illustrations, chronicles the discovery of Sea Horse Key, the construction of the lighthouse and the lives of its keepers. The book, with cover art by Cedar Key artist Bill Roberts, also details the Cedar Key’s role during the Civil War and the Reconstruction Era, the eventual abandonment of the lighthouse in the 1900s and the history of the cemetery on Sea Horse Key. 

“The majority of the records came from the national archives. I spent a lot of time in there,” Collins said. Some of the records, remnants of a fire during the 1890s, were brought out to her wrapped in paper. She said she had to wear gloves and turn the pages with a spatula.

Other records she found online. For example, she said she found quality information going through the “Official Records of the War of the Compendium,” which includes reports from both the Union and Confederate armies.

“I would sit for hours and read through them and make notes about what pertained to our area.”

Collins, despite having a journalism degree from one of the top schools in the nation, attributes her researching abilities to working as a legal assistant, another degree she picked up later on.

“Really, it was in the legal field that I discovered how much I enjoyed research,” she said. “Give me a little piece of a puzzle, and I’m off and running.” 

It was about March of last year when Collins said she was off and running. She said she told everybody, “I’m gonna’ disappear.” There were days when she didn’t talk to people, and she’d stay up until 2 a.m. writing.

“I set a deadline for Aug. 1.” And she met it.

When she got ready to publish, she said she sent out five requests for bids. Two were eliminated, she said, because one printed in China, and the other printed in Canada.

“This was going to be U.S.A.,” she said.

Still, the others were expensive, wanting too big a percentage of the profits. So, as is the American way, she decided to do it herself and formed, with the help of her husband, Jim, the Suwannee River Publishing Co.

“I’m the president,” she said smiling. “Jim is the secretary.”

Collins said she found a company in Ohio to do the printing and help put the book together. “It just all fell together.”

Collins said her plans for the future include a book about Atsena Otie and a historical novel set in Levy County.

“Cedar Keys Light Station” will be available for purchase in hardback on Oct. 1 for $20. For information about how to purchase the book, visit www.suwanneeriverpublishing.com, or give Toni Collins a call at 352-490-5636.