Central West Florida heritage and history begins with the early native Americans who dwelled in the area 12,000 years ago. Most of these ancient tribes disappeared after the arrival of the Spanish in the 1500's.
Florida history is full of articles about Henry Flagler and his extension of the Florida East Coast Railway from St. Augustine all the way down to Key West. Henry Plant is not as well known to Florida history, but he had a similar impact on the development in this other coast of Florida and he is an important part of Central West Florida heritage and history.
Tampa was a small fishing village on the Hillsborough River when Plant's railroad came to town in the 1880's. He built the Tampa Bay Hotel between 1888 and 1891. The hotel was designed to surpass all other grand winter resorts. At a cost of $3 million, the 511-room giant rose to a flamboyant height of five stories, surrounded by ornate Victorian gingerbread and topped by Moorish minarets, domes and cupolas.
During the Spanish American War, the U.S. Army used the facilities as a staging area for the invasion of Cuba. Among the soldiers who stayed there was future American president Teddy Roosevelt and his Rough Riders. Florida history and American history quite often intersect like this.
The Tampa Bay Hotel is now the home of the University of Tampa and the visible centerpiece of Central West Florida heritage .
In addition to Tampa, Central West Florida heritage and history includes the populated areas of St. Petersburg, Clearwater and Sarasota. This region of Florida has 8 counties, ranging from rural Desoto County to Hillsborough and Pinellas Counties. Some of these are the most rural and culturally southern areas remaining in the state.
It is also known as the western part of the I-4 Corridor. Tampa, Orlando and Daytona Beach are all growing toward each other along this corridor. Some day it will probably all resemble one big city just as south Florida does along I-95 from West Palm Beach to south of Miami.
Central West Florida is a very urban region with large populations in Tampa and St. Petersburg. With Busch Gardens in Tampa and with Orlando only an hour or less away, this area is also a rival to Miami and Orlando in the Florida tourism industry. Like Central Florida, the region also has vast agricultural operations. Groves and farms predominate in the eastern part of the region away from the coast.
Central West Florida heritage is culturally diverse. The northern and eastern counties are rural and more southern. Brooksville has a statue of a confederate soldier in front of the City Hall. Cowboys with Stetson hats and hand rolled cigarettes can still be found around town in Arcadia.
Central West Florida heritage in Tampa includes the Cuban cigar industry that flourished here more than 100 years ago. Ybor City, named after Cuban cigar king Vicente Martinez Ybor, is a working neighborhood with fine lodging and restaurants.
The southern part of Central West Florida -Sarasota, Bradenton and Venice - is culturally more like the American midwest than the rest of Florida. Cattle and farm fields sprawl across the landscape.
Before the interstate highways, US-41 fed transplants into west coast Florida from Indiana, Michigan, Wisconsin, Ohio, Illinois and Minnesota. Their New England counterparts took US-1 down the east coast to Palm Beach, Broward and Miami-Dade Counties.
My grandparents retired to Venice in 1962. They drove down from Indiana in their beat up 1953 Chevy BelAir. US-41 was the way they came. I guess my Hoosier grandparents were part of Florida history. I guess we all are because the State has changed so fast and most of us Floridians are from someplace else.
Until recent years, it was rare to hear a New York or Boston brogue in Central West or Southwest Florida. That all changed after the completion of I-75 and I-95. The completion of those major interstate highways made it easier for people up north to escape the snow and drive to either coast.
The New England brogue is now showing up in Central West Florida. The Midwestern twang is also now more common in East Central and Southeast Florida than before the new interstate highways. Florida has always been the melting pot of the United States. That is the Central West Florida heritage as well.
Fishing is a Central West Florida heritage that binds people together from all parts of the world. Each region of Florida has its own best fishing spots, both fresh and salt water. The beach communities west of St. Pete are staging points for a lot of great charter fishing.