Bradenton historian's new book brings history to life

cnudi@bradenton.comMay 6, 2013 

BRADENTON -- When Cathy Slusser was in middle school, she visited a graveyard on St. Simons Island, Ga., and then and there became passionate about history.

Prior to the vacation, a teacher unhappy with young Slusser's choice of reading material -- trashy romance novels -- gave her a book by Eugenia Price.

The historical novel in the famed St. Simon Island trilogy, where Price spent years researching historical documents and interviewing longtime residents about life on the Georgia barrier island in the 1800s, sparked Slusser's interest in history.

Her parents, wanting to foster her new appreciation of the past, took the family to St. Simons Island.

"We went to the graveyard and I saw the names of the people in the story," she said. "It was then that I decided I was going to be a historian."

Slusser earned a bachelor's degree in history from Furman University in Greenville, S.C., and a master's degree at the University of South Florida.

Today, after working 29 years for Manatee County Clerk of Court R.B. "Chips" Shore, she recently was promoted to director of the Historical Resources Department.

"I remember when she walked in the door," Shore said of Slusser's hiring.

"I was impressed and wasn't going to let her walk out."

Shore had a position open in the department that would

eventually become historical resources, but knew a job would open soon at the Manatee Village Historical Park.

So he put her in the records department four months before making her supervisor at the village.

"I can't say enough good things about her," Shore said.

Slusser now reports directly to the clerk in the main change from the promotion from deputy director to director.

Over the years, management of three other museums -- the Agricultural Museum, Palmetto Historical Park and the Florida Maritime Museum at Cortez -- were added to Manatee Village Historical Park and the Historical Records Library.

"The department got so big and doing so well that I needed to have Cathy report directly to me," Shore said,

Two highlights of Slusser's career include establishing the History Fair program and shepherding the Historical Preservation ordinance.

Local middle school and high school students have participated in the History Fair for 20 years.

"I learned about the National History Fair project when I was at USF," Slusser said, "and got it started after I started working for the clerk."

The Historical Preservation ordinance, recently reviewed by the Manatee County attorney, will go for approval before the county planning commission and Manatee County Commission soon, she said.

"This will allow us to become a certified local government and it will be easier to apply for matching grants," Slusser said.

Slusser, who lives on Terra Ceia Island north of Palmetto with her husband, Glen, said the history of a community is important to residents.

"Studies have shown that understanding the history of where you live makes one more respectful of their community," she said. "It decreases vandalism andgraffiti."

That is why she involved young people with the History Fair.

Slusser said before the trip to St. Simons Island, as a young girl she thought history was boring. Her visit taught her history could be exciting if told the proper way. That's why she considers herself a storyteller as much as a historian.

"I think the way to teach people about the past is through stories of the people who came before us," Slusser said.

This philosophy and inspiration of Price fueled her dream through the story of one of Manatee County's first settlers, and later resulted in Slusser's own first historical novel.

The novel, "From a Heavenly Land: Eliza's Story," is about the daughter of Joseph and Julia Atzeroth, who were the first Terra Ceia settlers in 1843.

"Eliza had a life that was like a soap opera," Slusser said.

"She lived through the Indian Wars, the Civil War, she was married to a gentleman who treated her badly, divorced him, which was unusual in those times, had two children, who died young, homesteaded land, which also was unusual for a woman in the 1800s, then married WilliamFogarty, one of the founders of Fogartyville."

Slusser found all her information in official records and documents.

"These were mostly dates and events," she said. "I then made suppositions of what I think happened and why she would make the choices she did."

A few letters gave her a sense of Eliza's feelings, and Slusser also relied on her knowledge of what life was like for a women of the mid-1800s.

Slusser, a second-generation Floridian, wants people to know the early pioneers as real people through her book.

"We might glorify people of history," she said, "but they had the same fears, joys, and trials we have today."

“From a Heavenly Land: Eliza’s Story” by Cathy Slusser can be purchased at Manatee County Agricultural Museum in Palmetto, Manatee Village Historical Park in Bradenton and The Citrus Place on Terra Ceia.

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