At the Sulphur Springs River Tower Festival, Tampa felt like Toronto

The warmly-dressed guitarists and bassist from 'Have Gun Will Travel' playing onstage at River Tower Concert in evening.
Seminole Heights’ seal, which depicts a two-headed alligator

Take a look at this scene from an outdoor concert that took place Saturday night, and note what the musicians from the alt-folk-roots-rock band Have Gun Will Travel are wearing. From left to right, one guitarist is wearing a leather jacket and hoodie, the other guitarist is wearing a jean jacket, and the bassist is wearing a flannel shirt (a.k.a. “Kenora Dinner Jacket”).

The temperature was about 10° C, which is 50° in Herr Doktor von Fahrenheit’s old-timey system for measuring phlogiston in the atmos-sphere. By Tampa standards, this is downright frigid. By Canadian standards, it’s would be light jacket weather, except for the fact that “It’s a wet cold!”. The humidity for which Florida is known, combined with that evening’s breeze, made it feel considerably chillier, even for me.

Here’s another photo of the concert from farther back.

'Have Gun Will Travel' playing onstage at River Tower Concert in evening.

What also added to the “Toronto in the fall” feeling included:

  • Everyone in the audience bundled up in different ways: winter coats, flannel, blankets, and those baja hoodie things that people used to call “drug rugs”,
  • a conversation with Chris, a local who’d just come from a hockey game and who was still wearing his hockey jersey and describing Tampa Bay Lightning’s loss to the Winnipeg Jets, and
  • the park’s complete lack of palm trees or other sub-tropical flora. If I didn’t know any better, I’d swear I was at Sandbanks Provincial Park in Ontario, and nowhere near Florida.

The event was a concert for the Sulphur Springs River Tower Festival, whose goal was to raise funds to help restore this structure:

Sulphur Springs River Tower rising over the trees at night.

It’s the Sulphur Springs Water Tower, located in Sulphur Springs, a historic district of Tampa that’s just north of my neighborhood, Seminole Heights.

Here’s a drone’s-eye view of the tower:

Back in the 1920s, Sulphur Springs was seven miles north of what was considered to the city of Tampa, and it was an amusement park. People traveled there by trolley to enjoy the spring and pool, do some canoeing on the Hillsborough River, and see the alligator farm “with thousands of live alligators on display.” It was the subject of many a postcard:

The tower was built in 1927 to supply water pressure to the nearby Sulphur Springs Hotel and Apartments (pictured below)…

…as well as Florida’s first shopping mall, Mave’s Arcade:

In 1933, a break in the Hillsborough River dam caused a flood that destroyed the arcade. The park later became home to the Tower Drive-In Theater from 1952 to 1985, when the city condemned the site. Abandoned, the tower fell into disrepair and became a graffiti target. The city purchased the tower in 2005, installed lights to illuminate the tower, and since then have done nothing.

Sulphur Springs Tower is a Tampa icon and landmark. I navigate by it whenever I drive down I-275 or bike around the neighborhood. You might think it’s an imitation of San Francisco’s Coit Tower, but it predates Coit, which was in 1933, a good six years and one stock market crash later. It’s been 30 years since the Tower’s been given any love, and it’s long overdue for some.

Here are some news items about the tower and the festival:

My thanks to Tom Leber for the tickets! I’d also be happy to throw a couple of bucks towards restoring the tower.


Soul Food Sunday at Ella’s Americana Folk Art Cafe

Seminole Heights’ seal, which depicts a two-headed alligator

Ella’s Americana Folk Art Cafe is the sort of place you’d expect to find in Austin, but is actually in Seminole Heights, Tampa.

The “Folk Art” part of the name is no misnomer; the place is covered in all sorts of funky creations, such as this lil’ fella…

…this bigger fella…

…this Ed “Big Daddy” Roth-inspired piece…

…this other little fella…

…and no place like Ella’s would be complete without a shrine to The King, the biggest fella of them all:

Here’s the inscription over the entryway to the kitchen:

And here’s a zoomed-out view:

The Lady Friend and I went to Ella’s on Sunday, which is “Soul Food Sunday” there (check out the Sunday menu). We arrived around 1 p.m., and the place was still pretty full. Luckily for us, there were still some seats available at the bar, which gave us a good view of the kitchen as well as the scene below:

The staff at Ella’s are a friendly bunch. They’ve all got that universal North American hipster-ish look; if it weren’t for their accents, which ranged from a slight southern twang to the full on “y’all drawl”, they could easily be mistaken for the denizens of Accordion City’s Parkdale neighbourhood. The guy behind the bar suggested that we start with Bloody Ellas, which is my preferred brunch drink:

It’s a Bloody Mary with an Ella’s twist: they rim the glass with a barbecue spice rub, and it’s garnished with an olive, pickle and hunk of perfectly cooked and tender beef rib. I’m going to have to start making Caesars this way.

The Lady Friend decided to go for pulled pork and collard greens. As for me, I went for some special southern treats:

…chicken and waffles. Real down-home southern fried chicken (two drumsticks and a breast), served with a belgian waffle, a devilled egg and maple bourbon gravy on the side. To complement it, some fried green tomatoes:

(I might get excommunicated from the Smart Ass Fitness mailing list for this…)

I will be atoning for these sins at the pool and the gym all week, but these are rarities for me, and sometimes you just have to indulge.

A kind gentleman saw the Lady Friend getting pictures of me and my food and offered to snap a shot of the both of us:

In addition to being a great place to get some delicious American homestyle food, Ella’s is also known for being a great music venue. It’s co-owned by Melissa Deming and Ernie Locke, who’s a local musician, formerly with a band called Nervous Turkey. There’s a stage in the corner of the restaurant, where live bands play several evenings a week. I’ll have to come back here for one of those nights.

If you’re ever in Tampa, find a way to Ella’s!