The Museum of Winter Haven History
By Donna Kelly
A Q&A with museum curator Bob Gernert about his labor of love—preserving Winter Haven’s past for future generations.
Perched across the street from the east side of Lake Howard, the stately Bob Gernert Jr. Museum of Winter Haven History preserves a growing number of treasures from the city’s vibrant past.
Built in 1923 as the Women’s Civic League building, it later became known as the Woman’s Club when the organization changed its name. The landmark, placed on the U.S. National Register of Historic Places, has served as a meeting space for the organization as well as a venue for special events. The City of Winter Haven purchased the building in 2001, renovated it, and opened the museum in 2006.
According to Bob Gernert, who describes himself as the museum’s volunteer curator, the city refinished the floor, replaced the ceiling, and upgraded the lighting.
“They’ve been wonderful stewards of the building,” says Gernert, who retired as the executive director of the Winter Haven Chamber of Commerce in 2014, a post he’d held for 18 years. “There’s no real cost to the city for the museum to be here except the maintenance of the building.”
Curating the museum is a labor of love for Gernert, the museum’s namesake. He’s been known to resort to manual labor in order to retrieve valuable links to the city’s past. Despite the hundreds of times he’s led visitors through the museum displays, his eyes still twinkle with excitement as he explains how a civil war saddle owned by a union soldier ended up in a Central Florida museum or why a wooden canoe carved by a Seminole Indian landed in the hands of a Winter Haven doctor after a long-ago Citrus Festival, and ultimately made it to the museum.
The museum holds a variety of artifacts, from memorabilia related to the Winter Haven area to photos and films to furniture and clothing to gadgets used in everyday life.
The museum will offer visitors an opportunity to experience “Little Slices of Heaven,” a traveling exhibit described as “The visual road trip down the ‘backbone of Florida’” March 15 through April 27, from 9 a.m. to noon. The exhibit will include memorabilia from roadside attractions on U.S. 27.
During a recent tour through the museum, Gernert fielded a few questions for The 863 Magazine.
The 863: How many volunteers work at the museum?
We have four regular volunteers and several who fill in on occasion. Our new Friends of the Museum group is intended to grow our number of volunteers as well as days of operation.
The 863: Are events still held in the building?
Yes, on a small scale and on a limited basis. There’s not much parking unless they use valet parking. Also, no loud music can be played because the music can break glass in the displays. For more information about booking special events at the museum, contact firstname.lastname@example.org.
The 863: How are the museum’s artifacts and displays acquired?
From people who appreciate history. When I was at the Chamber, they’d just drop boxes off.
(Donations arriving) is pretty regular.
In 1999, a guy suggested I search eBay to find Cypress Gardens memorabilia. I said, “What’s eBay?” (Gernert chuckles.) I did buy some on eBay.”
The showcase from Tony’s Pharmacy, I went down with a crowbar to get it. A guy who went to the grand opening of Circus World donated the Circus World Poster. The first Bankers Cup was given by John May, the first recipient.
The 863: What is the most unusual item in the museum?
The fire alarm box. The fire station was where Popeye’s is now. Police and Fire were on Sixth Street on the first floor of the building. The alarm is called a Gamewell System. It’s rare now, but was used a lot back in the day. This was a gift from Dale Morris. His dad was deputy fire chief.
The 863: What questions are asked most frequently by visitors?
About Lakeland and Winter Haven – did they get their names mixed up in some way in paperwork?
They ask about the Chain of Lakes and how deep they are.
Do you know why the Publix headquarters is in Lakeland? (Yes, he does.)
The 863: This is quite a Cypress Gardens exhibit, including founder Dick Pope’s brocade jacket and southern belle dresses.
We have three display cases of Cypress Gardens memorabilia. Many pieces were purchased off eBay.
The story of the Southern Belle tradition at Cypress Gardens began when the vines died at the entrance to the Gardens. Julie Pope found dresses for the girls to wear and use them to hide the dead vines.
We need to do everything we can to help people remember how important the Pope’s were.
The 863: Why is the museum important to the community?
I don’t think you can fully appreciate the place you live until you know where it’s been.
The hurricanes. The POW camps. Cypress Gardens bringing 45 million people. It’s all going to fade away with time. This museum is a great way to preserve these capsules of time.
I think the museum is a living, breathing thing.
The 863: How do you choose what to include in the museum?
We try to pick a cross-section of residents. They may not have been flashy and not in the newspapers, but they’ve done great things and we like to tell their stories, too.
The 863: In addition to forming the Friends of the Museum, what else does the future hold?
We want to bring in guest speakers.
The kitchen will be made into a display of other restaurants.
I’d like to have a full display of musicians.
The 863: What do you want folks to know about the museum?
Our goal is to have a greater appreciation of Winter Haven History. We want to create an environment where people can learn about our history, and that it’s interesting.
For more info: Museum of Winter Haven History Facebook page.