Why do they call it that? Weedon Island Preserve is Tampa Bay's ancient island, site of Weeden Island Culture

5:19 AM, Apr 26, 2012   |    comments
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This week, we celebrated Earth Day. And one of the best places to get in touch with our planet is Weedon Island Preserve in St. Petersburg.

On top of a ton of wildlife, there are connections on the island to some of the first people to ever call Tampa Bay home.

Why do they call it Weedon Island Preserve?

As wedding gifts go, this sure beats a blender.

When Blanche Henderson married Dr. Leslie Weedon, her dad gave them this island to say congrats!

Even back then, just after the Civil War, folks had started digging up strange stuff here. Old stuff.

"We had families that would come out and bring their picnics and actually just do their own excavations. That was very typical," said archaeologist Phyllis Kolianos.

Kolianos is one of the folks at the really impressive visitor center on the island, which sits in Tampa Bay near the St. Petersburg end of the Gandy Bridge.

In the 1920's, a developer bought Dr. Weedon's island. The new guy's grand goal was to build a tropical town here.

"He changed the name of Papys Bayou to Riviera Bay; it was gonna be the 'Florida Riviera of the South,'" Kolianos said.

The archaeology was going to be a main attraction. Hey look! Ancient stuff, right here in your backyard! The developer was trying to walk a fine line between preserving history and paving over it.

So he brought in one of the world's best finders of old, buried things -- Jesse Walker Fewkes from the Smithsonian Institution.

"They did almost two and a half years of exploration here. They found some of the most extraordinary pottery that had ever been found in the southeastern United States," Kolianos said.

Fewkes found amazing objects -- the first of their kind. Replicas and some originals are on display at the visitor center. They show incredible skill and detail, with tiny dimples creating amazing patterns and containers shaped like majestic birds.

It turns out, this style of pottery was used by a whole culture that stretched across the southeastern U.S.

Fewkes wrote about the best samples, found here, and named the style now known around the country as the "Weeden Island Culture."

Wait, Weeden -- Weedon? What?

"He wrote it up with the spelling of W-e-e-d-e-n, different from Dr. Weedon's spelling, which was W-e-e-d-o-n. And it stuck. The newspapers were also spelling it like that, so I can understand an honest error in that respect," Kolianos said.

Despite the perhaps thousand-year-old discoveries, development pressed ahead. The island saw some odd additions.

An airport was built on the island. So were a pair of dance clubs that served as speakeasies during Prohibition, when alcohol could only be served illegally. A movie studio even set up shop on the island, cranking out three B-grade flicks.

But all the building stopped.

It wasn't some wondrous desire to preserve history or nature that halted everything -- it was no more money. The Florida Land Boom collapsed, the Great Depression was here. So, gradually, wilderness reclaimed Weedon Island.

In 1974, the state put up the money to buy this special place, with some of Tampa Bay's oldest links to our past, and create what's now Weedon Island Preserve.

Why do they call it that? Now you know.

The cultural and natural history center on the island has a lot for kids to do. They put on programs geared toward adults, too.

Check out their event schedule at the Weedon Island Preserve website.

We feature new "Why do they call it that?" stories each Wednesday on 10 News at 5 a.m. and 5 p.m.

Check out previous editions of the Emmy-nominated series at our "Why do they call it that?" website: wtsp.com/callitthat.

Grayson Kamm, 10 News

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