Looking for Aunt Bea and Opie

Don't you hate it when some high-fallutin' city slicker from New York or somewhere says some stupid shit like, "I love small towns like St. Petersburg"?

St. Petersburg is not a small town!

Lenoir City, Tenn., is a small town. Pottsville, Pa., is a small town. Sloatsburg, N.Y., and Burk Burnett, Texas, and Berryville, Va., are small towns.

Tampa, not being a small town, has a number of suburbs around it, but places like Mango and Thonotosassa don't really qualify as small towns. They're bedroom communities.

Now Plant City, that's a small town, one of the coolest in the state. It has a historic downtown district that feels Old South, with neatly manicured lawns and churches — lots of churches with bells that ring out regularly. Downtown has a main drag with little shops and restaurants and not a Target in sight. A big sign saying "Historic Site" points right at an old music store. "Is this the historic site?" asks the out-of-towner. An old-timer relaxing in a straight-back chair replies, "That's me, I'm hysterical." After a good guffaw, he points over his shoulder, "Nah, it's down that way. The old high school."

Built in 1914 and nicely refurbished, the original Plant City High serves as a community center now. It houses a pioneer museum where you can look at old school books and Coke machines that charged a dime and all sorts of stuff. The neatest part of the center, though, is downstairs in the Quintilla Geer Bruton archive center.

Now some folks might find this place boring. But anyone with an interest in history could get lost in these few rooms for hours. The archive's main emphasis is genealogy, most comprehensively of the southeastern states. The place is quieter than a public library. You can comb the shelves and find stuff like the minutes recorded at the United Daughters of the Confederacy's 1931 convention. You can look at a picture of Miss Jane Freehane's kindergarten class of 1924, where the girls wore frilly dresses and the boys sported top hats and tails. You can thumb through Vol. 1 of The Rise and Fall of the Confederate Government, by Jefferson Davis himself, and read some truly amazing horse shit that tries to legitimize slavery. You can thumb through land deeds and legal transactions and pick up first-hand knowledge that's simply not available in a textbook.

Plant City has quite a lot of plants, strawberry plants in particular, but that's not where it got its name. The town is named after railroad magnate Henry B. Plant. Way before that, the Seminole tribe called it Hichipucksassa. Betcha didn't know that.

Planet City's located about 20 miles east of Tampa. Take I-4 exits 19, 21 or 22. www.plantcity.org.