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PALMETTO: Keeping the legacy alive

Published on: September 13, 2018

Manatee Historical Resources Department plans for future


Chief Historian Cathy Slusser with the Manatee County Clerk of Court Historical Resources Department stands in front of archived court and county records at the Manatee County Historical Records Library in the old Carnegie Library in downtown Bradenton. Slusser will be retiring as director of the department in 2020, with Phaedra Carter taking over.

The government office tasked with preserving Manatee County’s historical past was preparing for the future with a recent promotion.

The Bunker Hill School, a one-room schoolhouse built in 1908 to serve the community of Bunker Hill, east of Parrish, is one of the restored historical buildings at the Manatee Village Historical Park, 1404 Manatee Ave. E., in Bradenton.

Angelina “Angel” Colonneso, the Manatee County Clerk of the Circuit Court and Comptroller, whose office oversees the Historical Resources Department, recently promoted Phaedra Carter to manager of historical resources.

Carter’s appointment was to make sure the change in department leadership would be easy when the director of the department, Chief Historian Cathy Slusser, retires in February 2020.

“One of the internal initiatives that I feel very strongly about is succession planning and the continuity of operations in order to have a smooth transition among our executive team,” Colonneso was quoted as saying in the press release announcing the promotion.

“Institutional knowledge is vital to sustaining our outstanding service to the community,” the quotation continued. “We have many talented people working in our organization, and we want to ensure that we pass on their wisdom to the next generation of leaders.”

Carter has worked in the clerk’s office since 2005, first for two and one-half years in the child support office before moving to the Historical Resources Department in 2008.

Her first position after switching departments was at the Manatee Village Historical Park, 1404 Manatee Ave. E., in Bradenton, answering phones, taking notes for the Manatee County Historical Commission and organizing events and weddings.

 “I went to school for museum studies,” Carter said, “so this job was perfect.”

She attended Eckerd College to study history and museum management and studied under Marshall Rousseau, who at the time was executive director of the Dali Museum in St. Petersburg.

Carter was promoted to education and volunteer coordinator at the park after a short while and took over managing the school programs.

In spring 2011, she became the supervisor of the historical village and continues in that position during the transition as she trains with Slusser.

 “I’ll still manage the Manatee Village Historical Park with the Historical Commission’s oversight of programs and village operations,” Carter said, “but in the new position I meet monthly with Cathy to learn how the department is run.”

Phaedra Carter, who has been supervisor of the Manatee Village Historical Park in Bradenton since 2011, stands behind the counter in the 1903 K.W. “King” Wiggins General Store, one of the first brick structures built in Manatee. The Wiggins General Store is one of the first historical buildings visitors check out at the historical park. Carter was recently promoted manager of historical resources for the Manatee County Clerk of Court Historical Resources Department.

She said Slusser has developed a very intense training program, and at each meeting they cover a specific issue.

“She (Slusser) has come up with a great training program,” Carter said. “Every month we work on a different aspect of the job, and she gives me projects to complete, such as understanding applications for the National Registry.

“And Cathy has me sit in on meetings (such as with government agencies) and learn the process so when she leaves I will be able to handle them by myself.”

Slusser said working with Carter has been a pleasure.

 “I have been with the department for many years and have a lot of information in my head,” Slusser said. “I’ve been trying to transfer all the information to her.

“Next year we will gradually transfer more management responsibility to Phaedra,” Slusser said.

And Carter said her training has been very informative for her.

“We discuss what can happen in the future,” she said, “and I’m becoming more familiar with state and national agencies and their resources.”

Carter said she also was learning how the other site supervisors work with their oversight committees.

The Historical Resources Department operates two historical villages, Manatee Village Historical Park and Palmetto Historical Park; two museums, the Manatee County Agricultural Museum in Palmetto and Florida Maritime Museum at Cortez; and historical archives at the Manatee County Historical Library in Bradenton and the Carnegie Library in Palmetto.

Each of the villages and museums has a supervisor and operates in partnership with appointed commissions, local government entities, and sometimes with “friends” organizations.

Slusser said Carter has been doing great in her training.

“I believe she’s going to be a better director of historical resources than me,” she said.

Slusser said the appointment of Carter was a good choice for several reasons.

“First and most important, Phaedra is an excellent manager,” she said of Carter. “She knows how to work with people and bring out the best in them.

“Second, she knows how to balance the nonprofit and government aspects of the job.” 

As the supervisor of the Manatee Village Historical Park, Slusser said Carter already has the experience of working with the historical commission and managing the village and also working with government agencies to achieve the goals of the Historical Resources Department.

“And third, Phaedra’s deep roots in Manatee County are important,” she said. “Phaedra lived most of her life here and understands what the community expects from the department.

“She knows the history of the community because she has lived it,” Slusser said.

Carter was born in Manatee County and grew up in Bradenton Beach on Anna Maria Island.

Her father and mother, Richard and Gale Carter, moved to Florida in 1970.

The interior of the Bunker Hill School was restored when it was moved to the Manatee Village Historical Park in 1989. The school served the Bunker Hill area, east of Parrish, from 1908 until it closed in 1929 and was moved to the Benjamin David Gullett farm and used as a house for 60 years.

Both her parents were active in the community, with her father, an attorney, running for circuit judge and her mother serving on the Bradenton Beach City Council in the 1980s.

Gale Carter also ran for state senator for the area.

“It was a pain as a teenager, but fascinating,” said Carter on growing up in a community activist family. “I thought it was completely normal planning to run for public office in your living room.”

But she thought she was really lucky growing up on the island.

“We had the run of the island,” Carter said. “We knew what our boundaries were, but our parents always knew where you were.”

Carter attended Anna Maria Elementary School, Sugg Middle School, and graduated from Bayshore High School.

She moved to Atlanta in 1993 to live with her sister, but moved back to Manatee County in 2000.

“I wanted to live in a big city,” Carter said.

She has two children, Anna Rehorn,19, and Laim Rehorn, 18.

Before getting her job with the Manatee County clerk’s office, Carter worked 15 years for Publix supermarket.

“That served me well for my position (at the historical village),” she said. “Publix teaches you a lot about customer service.”

Although she was raised in Manatee County, Carter said she did not know about all the historical sites of the area.

“Even though I always loved history, like many who grew up in Manatee County, I didn’t know Manatee Village Historical Park was even here,” she said.

 “Those who live here sometimes don’t take the time to be tourists in our own town,” Carter said. “We’re all busy with our families, working and running errands.

“We don’t have the luxury of being a tourist.”

But Carter said those who do visit the historical parks and museums gain a different perspective on their hometown.

“It provides a solid connection to your community,” she said. “You learn what people went through to create the community.

“People think nothing happened in Florida before Walt Disney, but there was a lot happening here before then,” Carter said. “It took a lot of grit and hard work settling in the swamp and wilderness.”

She said Palmetto was a good example of where the community came together to preserve their heritage.

“The Palmetto community really values their history,” Carter said.

Like much of Manatee County, early Palmetto residents were tied to agriculture and genealogy.

“The reason history was so important in Manatee County is because farmers had to know what historically has been done and was successful,” Carter said. “The agricultural museum and historical park all came about from the community wanting to preserve their heritage as growth and development was happening.

“And they have their historical committee to thank,” she said.

Expanding historical resources, such as creating another site, would be really difficult at this point because of limited monetary resources, Carter said.

“We want to share what we learn about the community through the resources we have,” she said. “And Cathy and I are trying to raise our standards of how we do that to a national level.”

Carter said the historical resources department would accomplish the establishment of higher standards with the most important resource they have, the department staff and volunteers.

“We’ve grown the department to meet those standards with people who have the knowledge that can get the job done,” she said.

And just as Carter has been picked to lead the department into the future, Slusser also is planning for her retirement in 2020.

“Basically I’m going to travel with my husband Glen, who has been retired for three years,” Slusser said. “We’re planning a nine-month trip across the country to hit all of the lower 48 states.

“Our plans are to go to every national park and some national monuments,” she said. “And because Glen likes motorcycles we will hit some motorcycle museums.

“And we’ll try to hit a lot of historical sites.”