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Acknowledging the Roots of our ‘Known’ Florida

Often dismissed, ignored, or – at best – mined and scrubbed clean for its more “entertaining” anecdotes and feats, the pursuit and understanding of our shared history is something worthy of highest esteem. The lives and troubles of those who came before us, while seemingly so different from our own modern lives, are not so far removed as many would think. While this pursuit and understanding is always important, it may be argued that it can be counted doubly so along the Gulf Coast, especially in the area of Pensacola, Florida.

With over 40% of the world’s population living within seventy miles of a coastline, and Pensacola having its historic origins as far back as 1559, it is not surprising to find this coastal area teeming with stories, artifacts, and lessons from bygone days. Understanding this long, complex story is often difficult, but it is always encouraging to find a rare, historical resource as “dedicated to collecting… and sharing the history of Northwest Florida,” as the University of West Florida Historic Trust, located on the second floor of the Voices of Pensacola Building, 117 East Government Street.

Consisting of thirty properties spread across Pensacola’s National Historic District, the UWF Historic Trust offers many research and teaching tools available to the public. The Hilton-Green Research Center, for example, is home to an “extensive collection of archival materials,” ranging from local and southeastern maps from the 16th century to documentation of the community segregation struggles of the 1960s. The Trust also oversees the T. T. Wentworth Jr. Florida Museum, Old Christ Church, the Museum of Industry, the Julee Cottage, and the LaValle, Lear-Rocheblave, Dorr, and Barkley historic houses.

The center is also home to a collection of over “50,000+ photographs dating from the mid-1800s to the present.” It is within this impressive collection of historic photographs that the work of prominent Pensacolaian, Rox Cowley stands out. The photographs found in his collection span from 1910 through 1950, and give a much more pedestrian look at the Pensacola of the day – including candid shots “most professionals did not include in their photos.”

Cowley – who moved to the area from Denver in 1917 – was a Kodak representative and amateur photographer with a great passion for the creation and collection of photographic work. As he began to establish himself in the Pensacola area, starting two businesses – Rox Stationary and Rox Photo Service – he would often work with local clients who would bring film in for development, never to return. “Never one for throwing things away,” Cowley would add these negatives and stills to his growing collection and, in doing so, add a ‘realism’ unusual in a time when most photographs were staged, ‘professional’ affairs.

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In addition to these ‘unwanted’ shots, Rox also managed to incorporate much of his own photography in the collection, especially those detailing his love of the ocean and the lifestyle of boating common to the Gulf Coast. Along with a lifetime on the water, and acting as commodore of the Pensacola Yacht Club between 1943 and 1946, Cowley made the nautical element of Pensacola the forefront of many of his photographs, with many of his shots of area forts proving invaluable in the later restoration efforts of Gulf Islands National Seashore. According to late Pensacola History Museum curator, Norman Simon, Cowley “was an avid photographer of ships, yachts, and boats.” This passion can be seen in the nearly 500 photographs of his collection also detailing naval aviation – including many shots of weather balloons, blimps, observation towers, and other subjects connected to the industry.

Consisting of over 2,000 negatives and nearly 8,000 prints, Cowley’s collection is an invaluable resource in understanding – or, at least – acknowledging the roots of our ‘known’ Florida. Rox Cowley’s photographs show us places we do not recognize, though we may travel them daily; show faces in black and white that feel like some created fiction, but the expressions are familiar – in mirrors, or passing on the street. It is through collections such as these, and entities like the UWF Historic Trust, that connect later generations to our history, and allow the past to be something we can all share.

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