Clewiston Museum Director Wilson lives his real passion

CLEWISTON — For Clewiston Museum Director Butch Wilson, in retrospect the adage “Clothes make the man” rang true after he retired for the first time. On leaving his 32-year career as a computer technician at U.S. Sugar Corp. in 2008, he eased into a much different occupation, connected to the field he actually studied in college — a more comfortable fit.

As Mr. Wilson leaves behind his second career now, after nearly a dozen years as director, he’s grateful to be able to take with him many memories of the fun and blessings he’s experienced while sharing his original passion. His last day on the job is Friday, June 28.

He was able to bring the education that the young Butch Wilson pursued into his work, finally. “I majored in history in college, got a four-year degree in history and theology and never used either … when I retired from U.S. Sugar and I came to work here, I kindled that passion that was always there,” he says.

Lake Okeechobee News/Chris Felker
Butch Wilson stands near one of the exhibits that he helped put together at the Clewiston Museum.

And his deep roots, intertwined with Florida’s and America’s history, endowed him with an immediate comfort level in the job, a certain credibility that accompanies the genuine Southern twang with which he utters every word.

Plus, he’s had the added bonus of being able to bring history to life for the children who will inherit the keys to the future, something he’s very proud to be able to say.

He was born in Panama City in 1951 to a mother from Belle Glade and a father from North Carolina. When Butch was a little boy, “my mother and dad moved to Belle Glade because her roots were here.

“My grandfather had a grocery store in Belle Glade, the Alabama Georgia Store. He started it in the 1930s or ’40s, a wood frame store, and then he built another store, which is the one that my mother and dad came down to run; same store, different building. Then my dad got out of the grocery store business when I was in first grade, and he bought the store when I was in ninth grade.” They ran the grocery for about a decade.

That makes him a true native Floridian. “On my mother’s side, I’m sixth-generation. We go back to the 1830s,” Mr. Wilson explained.

His great-great-grandfather (his mother’s father’s father’s father) fought in the Civil War as a member of the Florida 1st Infantry, the first oufit set up to go to war in this third Confederate state to secede from the Union. “That infantry was assigned to the Tennessee Army, and he fought in many of the major battles, was in the war from 1861 to ’65 and then he returned to Pensacola after the Tennessee Army surrendered at Greensboro, North Carolina, in 1865, and started a family. He had to take an oath of allegiance to the Union.”

His great-grandfather “migrated by wagon with oxen across the Florida peninsula to work for a timber company that was extracting turpentine and made their way to South Florida. So that’s my roots,” he said.

His grandfather, his mother’s father, “was one of the earliest settlers in Moore Haven in 1917. There wasn’t a Glades County then; it was part of DeSoto, and he had to report to Arcadia when he was drafted for World War I.”

That background, he said, has been invaluable. “Having those native roots, it gives me a window from where I can talk very freely to other people who have had similar experiences.”

He says the work has been very rewarding for him although there’s a lot of paperwork, too, that the museum director has to take care of, including daily receipts from admissions, gift shop sales and tours, plus writing grant applications at least twice a year.

The Clewiston Museum is a joint venture of the Chamber of Commerce and U.S. Sugar Corp., operated under a partnership with the Clewiston Chamber of Commerce, although it is an independent entity that owns the building. Chamber employees open and close the building each day and help people with inquiries if he’s not there. And he spends a lot of time “out of the office,” so to speak — actually, carrying some of that office stuff with him to schools and community organizations all around Lake Okeechobee and beyond.

That’s the biggest reward and the most fun he has in his job, he said — taking history to the people, especially the schoolchildren. They started an outreach program, and he has become the main reacher-outer. He gives six different presentations as part of his programs: “Each covers a certain period — prehistoric Florida; the Miami Indians around Lake Okeechobee; the Seminoles and the war in the Glades; the storms of 1926 and ’28; the Florida cow hunters; and the history of the Florida sugar industry.”

This last year, I had an audience of over 6,000 because I cover all of the elementary schools in Glades county, there are two, all of them in Hendry, three in LaBelle and three in Clewiston; two private schools in Palm Beach County; one private school in Okeechobee County, the Christian Academy — they come here once a year and I do field trips or do presentations for them. All the other schools, I give them five to seven presentations. I go to all the schools except for the Okeechobee one.”

He even cleans the bathrooms at the museum and vacuums the carpets when he has time.

But Mr. Wilson’s fondest memory will be of “seeing the sparkle in the kids’ eyes… I bring so many artifacts, genuine artifacts, and I let these kids actually hold these artifacts.

“This would probably be frowned on by museum curators because you’re not supposed to do that, but I’m planting a seed and I’m letting these kids touch history, and it comes alive for them,” he explained.

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