The Matheson History Museum’s newest exhibit, “Gators & Beyond: A Sports History of Alachua County,” showcases more than 100 years of sports in the area.
Before the Florida Gators became a big deal in this town, Gainesville had a minor-league baseball team called the G-Men that won four Florida State League titles between 1937 and 1949. The team played its home games at old Harris Field in northeast Gainesville, drawing almost 3,000 fans to some of its games.
“They were very popular at the time,” said Kaitlyn Hof-Mahoney, Curator of Collections for the Matheson History Museum. “This was before TV and before the university got very big.”
The G-Men, who disbanded after the 1958 season, are brought back to life in the museum’s newest exhibit titled “Gators & Beyond: A Sports History of Alachua County.”
The exhibit examines the area’s lesser-known sports history, ranging from the East Florida Seminary (pre-cursor to UF) to the heralded athletic programs at now-defunct Lincoln High School in Gainesville and A.L. Mebane High School in Alachua.
On Thursday night at 6, the Matheson Museum, 513 E. University Ave., hosts an opening reception for the exhibit. The honored guest will be Barbara Anderson who, along with her late husband, established the Rick and Barbara Anderson Fellowship that funded the exhibit.
“We want to recognize her contribution,” Hof-Mahoney said. “Without her, this exhibit never would’ve happened.”
Barbara Anderson will discuss her late husband’s lifelong passion for local sports. Other speakers will include former Lincoln High and Buchholz High football coach Jesse Heard, former A.L. Mebane and Santa Fe College athlete Charles Moore, local sports scholar Alfred Awbrey and Michael Gengler, author of “We Can Do It: A Community Takes On the Challenge of School Desegregation.” The public is invited and refreshments will be served.
“There are so many stories that you can tell about local history through the lens of sports,” Hof-Mahoney said. “Most people think only about the Gators when they think about Gainesville and Alachua County sports, but there’s much more to it.”
Long before UF was established in 1905 under the Buckman Act, the East Florida Seminary began in Ocala in 1853. Following the Civil War, the institution of higher education reopened in Gainesville in 1866. The Matheson exhibit includes photographs of the school’s 1902 football team and 1903 women’s basketball team.
The University of Florida is far from overlooked in the exhibit. One display traces the history of Albert the Alligator and how the mascot has evolved over the past century. There’s also mention of how the Gators’ football uniforms have gone from seemingly primitive to high-tech.
One display is dedicated to cheerleading and includes a photograph of Eunice Nixon Campbell, who became UF’s first female cheerleader in 1937. Although UF was considered an all-male school at that time, women were allowed to enroll in programs at UF that were not offered at the Florida State College for Women in Tallahassee (now FSU). Nixon was a pharmacy major.
Nixon’s son, Arthur Campbell, donated his mother’s cheerleading uniform to the exhibit and is scheduled to speak about his mother at the opening reception.
Meanwhile, Lincoln High School began its sports program in 1923. The all-black school was known for its successful Fighting Terriers athletic teams until it was closed in 1970 because of desegregation. The same was true for Alachua’s A.L. Mebane High School, formerly known as the Alachua County Training School.
The two all-black schools had a fierce sports rivalry that is addressed in the exhibit, which includes items donated by both schools’ alumni associations.
“The yearbooks in our collection were also a great resource,” Hof-Mahoney said.
The exhibit also showcases the Gainesville Eagles, an all-black, semi-pro baseball team that played during the 1960s and ’70s against other African-American teams throughout Florida and southern Georgia. In one corner is an Eagles jersey donated by former first baseman and Gainesville resident Herman Williams.
The Anderson family, which made the “Gators & Beyond: A Sports History of Alachua County” possible with a generous gift, has been a longtime supporter of the arts and science.
The late Richard J. Anderson, former Chief Financial Officer for the city of Atlanta, and his wife met at UF and moved to Atlanta in 1969, where they spent the first 38 years of their 43-year marriage. They returned to Rick’s hometown of Gainesville in 2005.
Growing up in Gainesville, Rick was active in youth baseball and football and had a radio program on WGGG in 1956 and ’57. He earned the Eagle Scout rank in 1960 and graduated from Gainesville High in 1963. Although a graduate of Georgia State, Anderson was a big Gator sports fan, attending his first football game before he was a year old. One of his first jobs was selling corsages at UF football games.
Anderson was an avid collector of college sports memorabilia as well as vintage postcards of Atlanta and Gainesville, and Breweriana. He died from complications of ALS in 2012. Today his widow, Barbara, carries on his legacy of supporting the arts and sciences in Gainesville.
In addition to Hof-Mahoney, the “Gators & Beyond” exhibit included extensive research by Alfred Awbrey and former Matheson Museum board member John Galm, who donated his G-Men memorabilia to the museum.
Hof-Mahoney, who has a graduate degree in Museum Studies from UF, became the Matheson’s first Curator of Collections earlier this year. Her masters thesis involved an inventory of the Matheson History Museum’s permanent collection.
“The collections are the core of the museum, and no one knows the collection better than Kaitlyn,” said Peggy Macdonald, the museum’s executive director. “She pulls things out that nobody knew existed.”
Hof-Mahoney refers to the collection as “Alachua County’s Attic.” She’s started a Curator’s Corner at the museum for objects from the collection that don’t fit into larger exhibits.
The current Curator’s Corner features items from Novorossiysk, Russia, a Sister City of Gainesville situated on the Black Sea. The display case near the museum’s entrance includes dinnerware, nesting dolls, a key to the city and a button that shows an alligator and polar bear shaking hands. The items were presented to Gainesville officials who visited the Russian city more than two decades ago.
“Gators & Beyond: A Sports History of Alachua County” continues through Feb. 16, 2019.
The Matheson History Museum is open Thursday through Saturday from 11 a.m.-4 p.m. Admission is free.
— Noel Leroux