Located in the heart of historic Pass-A-Grille is the quaint Gulf Beaches Historical Museum. This one of a kind museum has a history as fascinating as the artifacts inside. The Gulf Beaches Historical Museum was once the community church serving the residents of the barrier islands from Pass-A-Grille to Reddington Beach. Through community donations, the land was acquired from the widow of Captain Ranson Miles for $500. Construction of the church was strenuous due to the remote location and lack of paved roads but was finished in 1917 along with a detached cottage for the minister’s quarters. The steeple and bell were later added in 1937. Following World War II, the community purchased army barracks located at the point of Pass-A-Grille for an addition to the enlarging congregation. For 42 years the Gulf Beaches Historical Museum served as the community church until the congregation grew too big and a new church was erected in 1959 on Sixteenth Avenue. The church was bound for the wrecking ball, had an astonishing woman named Joan Haley not intervened.
Joan Haley was a social arbiter and historical preservationist from Nebraska. She was the daughter of a Lutheran minister and spent her earlier years on Lutheran missions overseas. She met her husband at the White House while working for Harris and Ewing News Services. He was chief of the White House Secret Service detail. They later married in Baltimore in 1925. Haley’s passion for American heritage artifacts began in Washington. Her first large project was restoring an 18th century home in Alexandria, Virginia. Her husband died unexpectedly in 1951 and Haley moved to Pass-A-Grille in 1953 to a bayfront home located at 2311 Pass-A-Grille Way. It took multiple armed moving vans to transport Haley’s priceless collection of artifacts.
The community church was abandoned by 1960 and Haley jumped at the first opportunity to buy it. January 12, 1960 was the day she bought the church on Tenth Avenue for $13,850 from the church’s board of trustees. The minister’s cottage was included in the sale. It was not Haley’s intentions to live in the church, but after financial difficulties arose, she had to make a choice between her bayfront home and the historic church. It took eight years to fully restore the church into a beautiful home furnished with her extensive collection of early American antiques. One modification Mrs. Haley added was a kitchen cabinet imported from Virginia that was restored from a slave home in the 18th century. The cabinet is still located in the kitchen of the Gulf Beaches Historical Museum.
Mrs. Haley’s love for architectural preservation saved the oldest church of the Gulf Beaches. The Florida Trust for Historical Preservation honored Mrs. Haley for her “distinguishing services” and she called this her finest hour. Mrs. Haley died December 28, 1989 at the age of 92 and willed her home to Pinellas County with the stipulation that it was to be used as the Gulf Beaches Historical Museum.
The museum opened to the public in 1993. Inside, visitors will find an extensive collection of photos from the 1900's, postcards, Don Cesar artifacts, antique newspaper clippings, original pews from the church, a World War II exhibit (which is in Joan’s bedroom) and much more. A large variety of photos reveals the diverse population of the barrier islands including Marilyn Monroe with Joe DiMaggio walking Reddington Beach shores, to a local barefoot hermit named Silas Dent. It is managed by local volunteers and supported by the non-profit organization “Friends of the Museum” and charitable donations. The museum offers free admission for visitors but humbly accepts donations used for ongoing preservation projects.