ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. — “Can you hold on?” Ken Breslauer asked during a call to set up a time to view his 12,000-item collection of vintage Florida souvenirs. “I’m at the demolition of the Garden Cafeteria.”
At its highpoint in the mid-1900s, the tropical-themed cafeteria served thousands of people a day, many of them tourists from the North. A good five minutes later, Breslauer was back on the phone.
“I just talked one of the workers into giving me a piece of the building. The inside was covered with murals painted by WPA [Works Progress Administration] workers,” he said.
Later, at his home near downtown St. Pete, Breslauer, 55, pointed out the palm frond-adorned 40-pound catch and led a tour of his more typical items — Florida souvenirs dating from 1930 to 1970. On shelves and in wooden cabinets holding multiple shallow drawers, he stores ephemera including ashtrays, cocktail napkins, and jewelry boxes bearing the logos of roadside attractions, some now vanished, such as Cypress Gardens, and others, like Weeki Wachee Springs, reincarnated as state parks.
Meanwhile, about 150 miles north in Micanopy, a historic town near Gainesville, Larry Roberts of Roberts Antiques maintains his own trove of Sunshine State artifacts, their dates starting from the late 1800s and including glassware, pillow shams, and china embossed with likenesses of grand hotels.
While several history and regional museums across Florida have some tourism memorabilia on display, Breslauer, a private collector, and Roberts, an antiques dealer, are considered the state’s specialists in the field. On Feb. 24, they will be among the two dozen exhibitors at the Floridiana Festival and Highwaymen Artist Show in St. Pete, an annual event that Breslauer started under a different name in 1992 and later handed over to another collector. Both men will be selling vintage items, though Breslauer’s offerings are “duplicates,” not his primary stash. Roberts also will have signed copies of his photograph-rich book “Florida’s Golden Age of Souvenirs: 1890-1930” (University of Florida Press, $39.95). Breslauer is revising his sold-out book “Roadside Paradise: The Golden Age of Florida Tourist Attractions 1929-1971” for publication later this year.
The book’s cutoff of 1971 isn’t arbitrary. Disney World opened that year, effectively taking tourism’s focus from natural to artificial sights. Breslauer, who grew up in Delray Beach and works as media director at Sebring International Raceway, said he celebrates pre-Disney souvenirs because “they take me back to my childhood, to all the little roadside places we would visit.”
Breslauer has loaned his cache to museums for special exhibits and occasionally shares it with interested individuals by appointment. On this visit, he first opened two drawers covered with items from Weeki Wachee, the Gulf Coast attraction famous for its “live mermaids.” (The underwater shows continue at the state park.) Mementos, ranging in value from about $5 to $500, include a plastic television with photos the viewer clicks to see, a Super-8 film, and the 45-rpm record “At Weeki Wachee: Sung by Marlin and the Mermaids.”
“Weeki Wachee has a huge cult following,” he said. “It’s one of the top older tourist spots still in existence.”
The drawer devoted to now-defunct Cypress Gardens, famous for its roving Southern belles and water ski shows, includes pens, paperweights, and even a necktie.
“I don’t know if it’s true, but Cypress Gardens was said to be the largest retailer of film in the 1950s,” he said.
Breslauer calls Silver Springs, near Ocala and also now a state park, the longest-running “true Florida tourist attraction” and the first to push merchandising, which means he has a bounty of booty from the place that still features glass-bottom boat rides through the clear springs.
The owners’ answer to segregation, he noted, was Paradise Park, a nearby separate but similar attraction for black tourists that operated until the 1960s.
“Florida was one of the most segregated states,” Breslauer said. “The attractions wanted everyone’s money but didn’t want to turn off whites. The place that was really horrible, looking back, was Old Lewis Plantation.”
The sign he owns from that attraction in Brooksville, which smiled on slavery and racial stereotyping, is his most valuable item, worth about $1,500 because black Americana is in such high demand.
Up the road in Micanopy, an antiquing destination, Roberts, 66, amasses both mid-century pieces and older keepsakes in his unassuming shop.
“The stuff from the turn of the century is much finer,” he said. “It was for very wealthy people, the only ones who could afford to travel. They bought china plates and silver spoons. Then, after World War II, when more cars were mass-produced and the average traveler could afford to come down, the souvenirs got cheaper.”
Like Breslauer, much of Roberts’s interest in Florida memorabilia came from growing up in the state, where he would hunt for fossils and explore the waterways from his native Gainesville.
For years, Roberts traveled to Northern flea markets and antiques shows and could always count on finding Florida treasures at the Brimfield Antique and Collectibles Show in Massachusetts. But since his book was published, in 2001, the dealers have come to him.
“I used to go three times a year. The really good Florida pieces come from the East Coast, and most of those tourists were from New England. The Midwesterners went to the Gulf Coast.”
In Roberts’s shop, thought to be the largest specializing in Florida fare, cases are organized by theme. One is dedicated to all things flamingo, ceramic cups, plates and birds, many from the mid-1900s.
“They’ve stayed really, really popular,” he said.
Before the pink-hued waders came to symbolize Florida, alligators were king. His congregation includes an alligator hide 1880 desk set ($250), an 1890 gator-shaped ivory corkscrew ($350), and several turn-of-the-century gator-head canes ($250 to $300).
“The biggest thing is carved alligator teeth,” Roberts said. “Most of those were done in Jacksonville. They go for $300 to $700 and they always sell right away.”
Roberts displays rows of intricately painted, early-1900s plates, many picturing tropical scenes, towns, and long-gone resorts. The china was made first in Germany and later in Japan and England. Along another wall, he’s cataloged boxes of vintage postcards by town and attraction, many hand-colored.
As much as Roberts enjoys sharing his knowledge of Florida’s tourism history, his real passion is promoting its natural resources, he said.
“I wind up telling people where to go and look at birds and paddle more than I do where to find antiques.”