Loot and lore: Croce's treasure chest

Posted: May 08, 2011

ST. AUGUSTINE, Fla. - Pat Croce's biggest success may have been taking the last-place Philadelphia 76ers to the NBA finals as the team's president, but his real passion is pirates.

His lifelong fascination with buccaneers has come full circle with the opening of his new Pirate and Treasure Museum here. Showcasing more than 800 pirate-related artifacts that Croce has collected over the years, the new facility fulfills his long-held ambition.

"I wanted to expose this [pirate lore] to kids, and there isn't a better place than in St. Augustine," Croce says.

The oldest city in the United States has many attractions and is a major destination for families. After Spain settled here in 1565, pirates sacked the city twice - Sir Francis Drake in 1586 and Robert Searles (also known as John Davis) in 1668 - so the museum site is particularly apropos.

"When we were restoring this building for the museum, we found artifacts buried in the ground below," Croce says. Some of these items, perhaps from the time of the pirate sackings, are on view.

He won't say exactly how much the museum cost - "it's a lot" - but a single exhibit, Thomas Tew's 17th-century treasure chest, is insured for $1 million.

The only surviving authentic chest in the world, it has intricate carvings, an elaborate hidden lock mechanism, and weighs 150 pounds empty.

There are several other extremely rare items on view, including a Jolly Roger flag - one of only two that still exist. "And the other one isn't as big," Croce says.

The 56-year-old entrepreneur opened his pirate museum in Key West in 2005, but he decided to move it here after five years, when it failed to draw the audience he sought. "They just want to party in Key West," he explains.

With the move, Croce added two major sections. One displays treasures recovered from sunken ships, lent to the museum by the state of Florida. The other features pirates as depicted in Hollywood movies, complete with some very recognizable props from the films.

Also new to this museum, which is about 25 percent larger than the original, are several dioramas, a gun deck, and more interactive elements. Children especially like the cannon that erupts with a floor-rattling boom when "fired."

To further grab kids' attention, Croce devised Discovery Tours, a sort of scavenger hunt with buttons placed here and there that open drawers telling more about pirates. Pirate muskets and flintlock pistols - including one they can "fire" - capture their imagination, as do the realistic dioramas, spyglasses, and other pirate implements on display.

Croce's knowledge of pirate history is as impressive as his enthusiasm for the subject.

He points to a rarity, the original 1701 proclamation about the hanging of Captain Kidd.

"You know, they say 200,000 people came to see Kidd hanged, and actually they hanged him twice, Croce says. "The rope broke the first time, so they strung him up again."

In another rare proclamation on exhibit, dating to 1696, the King of England offers 500 pounds of silver for the capture of pirate Henry Every - "a very large sum at that time," Croce says. Nobody got the reward; Every got away with his treasure and was never seen again.

Croce says his love affair with pirates started in his boyhood, when he saw the 1935 movie Captain Blood with Errol Flynn and Olivia de Havilland. He's been collecting pirate memorabilia ever since, mostly at auctions and from private collectors.

He even has four pirate tattoos: a skull and crossbones on his hand, a pirate ship on his forearm, a pirate parrot on his shoulder, and a laughing skull, complete with eye patch and earring, on a tooth.

His new museum is divided into nine sections, starting with a re-created cobblestone street in the one-time pirate haven of Port Royal, Jamaica.

St. Augustine's pirates are seen in the Rogues Tavern, where eight interactive touchscreens tell pirate stories.

In the Captain's Cabin, one wall is covered with the rare skull-and-crossbones Jolly Roger flag. On the Main Deck, visitors can sign on as a crew member and learn the tricks of the trade - knot tying, steering the ship, keeping time, and ringing the ship's bell.

The Main Deck leads to the Gun Deck, where guests can "fire" a real cannon by touching an electronic "fuse" with an electronic "match."

From there, visitors enter Below Deck, a darkened room created by Disney Imagineers, which tells how the pirate Blackbeard met his end, with appropriate sound effects. Execution Deck displays the world's oldest Wanted poster and the disembodied head of Blackbeard telling stories of piracy and of his demise.

Shipwreck Island, a new section, is where Croce exhibits the treasures on loan from the state. There are gold and silver doubloons, jewelry, bar shot (ammunition used for destroying masts or rigging) and grenades brought up from the sunken Spanish galleon Atocha. One display allows guests to lift a real gold ingot to feel its weight.

Lastly, visitors enter Hollywood Pirates, a room with exhibits and memorabilia from some of the best-known pirate films. Among them: Captain Jack Sparrow's sword from Pirates of the Caribbean, Captain Hook's hook from Peter Pan, and Errol Flynn's jacket from Captain Blood. Also displayed is a rare first edition of Robert Louis Stevenson's adventure novel Treasure Island, in which he created the famous "X marks the spot" phrase for hidden treasure.

Croce's pirate mania is infectious, and he enjoys roping in visitors. He bounds along the museum's walkways, pointing out items such as a rare book and a coral-encrusted boarding ax.

"Look at this ship's bell - it dates to 1750!" he says. "This pewter tankard - we found it right under where you're standing!"

Croce isn't around the museum very often, traveling from his home in Villanova to St. Augustine perhaps once a month. He is a man with many interests - an entrepreneur, motivational speaker, sports commentator, fitness enthusiast, and author. He has written several books and has a new one, about the pirate Blackbeard, coming out May 24.

Now he can add this new museum to his accomplishments, but his real achievement may be how he turned a personal passion into something the entire family can enjoy.


Pirate Booty in St. Augustine

Pirate & Treasure Museum

12 S. Castillo Drive

St. Augustine

It stands across the street from the city's famous Spanish fortress, the Castillo de San Marcos.

Hours: 9 a.m.-8 p.m. daily. Closed Christmas Day.

Admission: Adults $11.99; ages 5-16, $6.99; under 5 free.

Phone: 1-877-467-5863

Web: www.thepiratemuseum.com

Other things to do

Here's a partial list of

St. Augustine attractions. Most have admission charges.

Zip line: Brand new is Crocodile Crossing, a zip line that swishes over alligators and crocodiles at the St. Augustine Alligator Farm & Zoological Park. Riders zip between more than 50 platforms over the seven-acre course.

Information: 904-824-3337; www.alligatorfarm.us.

Mighty fortress: The massive 17th-century Castillo de San Marcos is

St. Augustine's grandest structure. A National Monument, it has walls 25 feet high and 14 feet thick. Cannon firings are conducted several times daily on weekends.

Information: 904-829-6506, www.nps.gov/casa/index.htm

Fountain of Youth: Spanish Adm. Pedro Menendez landed here in 1565 to found the city of St. Augustine. Supposedly, anyone who drinks from the fountain here gains eternal youth, but don't count on it. Today, this is a 21-acre archaeological park with a planetarium and Indian burial grounds. On the waterfront, a "conquistador" fires a replica cannon several times daily.

Information: 1-800-356-8222 www.fountainofyouthflorida.com

Marineland: The original marine theme park has a new name, Marineland Dolphin Adventure. Guests can interact with the graceful marine creatures. Information: 1-877-425-6504, www.marineland.net

Special rides: Sightseeing trams with on-off privileges run every 15 minutes. 1-800-226-6545.

El Conquistador offers a thrill ride on a high-speed boat on local waters.

904-738-4695, www.elconspeedboat.com

Country Carriages offers horse-drawn carriage rides in town and horseback rides on the beach. 904-826-1982, www.countrycarriages.net

Spanish Quarter: A number of restored historic buildings on St. George Street are open to visitors. 904-825-6830, www.historicstaugustine.com

Lightner Museum: Henry Flagler's former 300-room Alcazar Hotel is a museum with an eclectic collection of items from America's Gilded Age. 904-824-2874, www.lightnermuseum.org

Flagler College: Former Ponce de Leon Hotel, built by Henry Flagler, with striking architecture, is now a college. Tours of this National Historical Landmark daily.

904-819-6400, www.flagler.edu.

Potter's Wax Museum: The country's first wax museum features likenesses of celebrities, historical figures, kings, presidents, composers, authors, and other personalities. 1-800-584-4781, www.potterswax.com.

Ripley's Believe It or Not! Museum: This is the original Ripley's, founded more than 50 years ago. More than 800 exhibits of oddities and curiosities on three floors. 904-824-1606, http://staugustine.ripleys.com

San Sebastian Winery: This large winery produces 11 wines from Florida grapes. Tastings and tours. 1-888-352-9463, www.sansebastianwinery.com.

World Golf Village: Home of the World Golf Hall of Fame. Also has the largest 3-D IMAX theater in the Southeast, two championship golf courses, and a resort. 1-800-948-4653, www.worldgolfvillage.com.

"Oldest" stuff: In keeping with its status as the oldest city in the United States, there are several "old" attractions, including the Oldest House, Oldest Wooden Schoolhouse, Oldest Store Museum, and Old Jail.

More information

St. Augustine, Ponte Vedra and the Beaches Visitors and Convention Bureau 1-800-653-2489

www.floridashistoriccoast.com

- Jay Clarke

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