For some people, the word “museum” may be a bit off-putting, conjuring up visions of stuffy spaces and cranky bespectacled staff members following people around and shushing them. Who would want to spend time in a place like that? Not I. Recently, my sister and I made a spur-of-the-moment visit to The Constitution Convention State Museum in Port St. Joe, and put it to the test.
Now, I have driven by that building countless times, but I had only been inside it once in elementary school in the late 1970s, and that may be true for some of you, too. I did not remember much about that visit, to be honest.
First, I’ll clear the air for you; there was no one shushing us in the museum. The state park ranger there is Joanna Lindsey, and she was quiet but friendly, neither pushing her way into our conversation nor following us around as we explored. However, she did answer all the questions that arose as we strolled through the small building, and even looked up information for us regarding houses in the original town of St. Joseph, which as you likely know, was nearly depopulated by a yellow fever epidemic in 1841.
To add insult to injury, it was washed away three years later by storm surge during a hurricane. The few people who survived the horrible sickness and hurricane left the area in defeat.
(Look up my former teacher Herman Jones’ article for this paper called “Death’s Angel: The ‘Great Tide’ of 1844” for more on these disasters.)
Inside the cool, quiet museum are displays that tell that story of the town of St. Joseph and, ultimately, of Port St. Joe. There are displays of artifacts that have been recovered from the area that show how folks lived during that era of our history: dishes, pots, tools, clothing, and the like. There are even copies of the newspaper, St. Joseph Times, from 1839, before the town was wiped out.
The kids will enjoy seeing the train engine inside, as well as the convention room which has life-sized figures of the important men who attended the convention, which they can make come to life and speak at the press of a button.
Ranger Lindsey clearly loved the museum and the property that it’s situated on. We asked her whether Hurricane Michael had damaged the museum, the monument, or the trees. She was genuinely sad when she told us that around 200 trees had to be removed from the beautiful park after the storm. That was evidenced by the stumps we saw among the gorgeous old magnolia trees, sabal palms, and pines. There are many gorgeous remaining trees in the 14-acre park, including oaks that continue to stretch their twisting “arms” out to welcome visitors, trees that looked nearly old enough to have been around when the state’s constitution was drafted here in 1838, the event that the museum and monument exist to commemorate. It is a beautiful outdoor space.
We were relieved as we walked outside to see that the marble monument was still standing as it has been since 1922, awaiting more generations of Port St. Joe families and tourists to gather around to read the names engraved there. The names are familiar: Reid, Marvin, and Duval, for example, the names of streets and avenues we’ve walked or driven along numerous times in our lives here.
And so many pictures have been staged in front of the beautiful marble statue; prom photos, engagement photos, vacation photos, class photos. People have even held weddings there. That will continue to be possible, happily. The monument, and the pictures, are a part of the history, and the heart, of our beautiful town.
In 1923 at the dedication of the monument, the event was called “a glorious day at Port St. Joe” by the St. Joseph Times. A visit to this museum and park may serve as the reminder we all need that Port St. Joe’s people are truly strong, with glorious hearts that are determined to support each other as we rebuild following our own “angel of death,” Hurricane Michael. Only this time, we survived.
The Constitution Convention Museum State Park is located at 200 Allen Memorial Way. It is open 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Thursday through Monday. Note that it closes for an hour at noon for lunch. Entry fee is $2.
Stephanie Hill-Frazier (Mama Steph) writes a weekly food column for The Star.