ELLENTON -- Like falling down a rabbit hole into an 1850s house where the residents have just slipped out of the room.
That’s the experience visitors should have at the Gamble mansion, an Ellenton icon built between 1844 and 1850 that is unique in southwest Florida, said Piper Ferriter, a Florida Parks Service collections manager.
Visitors should feel like the residents of the house have just rustled out of the parlor in their hoop skirts, leaving an open book on a chair, or maybe a sheet of music on the massive 1857 Vose and Sons piano, and will return momentarily.
To that end, the Florida Parks Service, with the financial support of the Gamble Plantation Preservation Alliance, has launched a one-year program to redecorate and refurnish each of the 10 rooms in the Greek Revival vernacular mansion.
What those rooms contain is just as interesting as the distinctive white pillars of the two-story mansion, the centerpiece of Gamble Plantation at 3708 Patten Ave.
“The plan is to make the home the glue that holds all the stories around it together,” said Ferriter.
The first two rooms of the mansion to get freshened up will be the parlor and the dining room.
Furnishings that are inappropriate to the period from 1844 to 1865, or have become shabby, are being replaced.
Last week, the first of the replacement furnishings from the state collection were brought to the mansion, including a gentleman’s parlor chair -- you can tell it was made for a man because it has arms.
Women’s chairs from that era didn’t have arms because they would not accommodate a hoop skirt.
The parlor also has freshly installed foot stools and two side chairs, plus specially made scarlet-colored window treatments.
Giving the parlor continuity is a portrait of John Gratton Gamble, the father of Maj. Robert Gamble, after whom the plantation is named.
The next room over is the dining room, where all the chairs around the table match, and have fresh upholstery. There are also new window treatments in the dining room.
And there is something rare in the cabinet: a piece of 1830s green china made in England that had been owned by Major Gamble.
Anything owned by Gamble, who lived from 1811 to 1906, is rare. After he left the Ellenton area and moved to Tallahassee, most of his belongings were lost in a fire.
Travis Triplett of Tampa has been assisting with the project as a volunteer, heading up the effort to install new window treatments. Triplett also found a piece of green china in a Gettysburg, Pa.-area antiques shop that matches the piece owned by Gamble.
Maj. Gamble, whose portrait looks down from a wall in the dining room, would approve of what’s being done to his old house.
As does park manager Kevin Kiser.
“It encourages people to come back and gives them something new to look at,” Kiser said.
Gamble Plantation is not only the story of Robert Gamble, but is also the story of Manatee County and its residents, Ferriter said.
“Everyone should feel they have ownership of the house,” she said.
Tara resident June Hartlieb, who has served the Gamble Plantation Preservation Alliance for more than two decades, says the project is a “dream come true,” and an effort to build foot traffic at the park.
Gamble Plantation was among 53 low-traffic state parks considered for shuttering this year because of state budget problems.
Eventually, state officials agreed that it would not be a good idea to close state parks.
“Foot traffic is the key,” Hartlieb said of the strategy to ensure Gamble Plantation continues to remain open.
Everyone likes a good story, and the Gamble Plantation is full of them, Ferriter said.
“It’s very important that we remember, treasure and respect our history,” Ferriter said. Free tours of the mansion will be conducted during a Christmas open house from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Sunday. Dec. 11
For more information about Gamble Plantation Historic State Park, call 941-723-4536
James A. Jones Jr., East Manatee editor, can be contacted at 941-745-7021.