Wednesday, May 17, 2006


Pirate museum in Key West a treasure trove of artifacts


Sun Sentinel
By Jessica Gresko
May 15 2006

KEY WEST · Pat Croce's passion for pirates is written all over him, and now it is on display in Key West, too.

The former president of the Philadelphia 76ers basketball team has a Jolly Roger tattooed on his left hand and a ship on his left forearm. A parrot tattoo sits on his shoulder, and he even wears a silver hoop earring. It's when he pulls back the corner of his mouth, however, revealing a molar cap etched with a skull and crossbones, that it's clear this is no ordinary obsession.

For the past 16 years, Croce, 51, has also been collecting pirate artifacts, indulging a childhood fascination with the swashbucklers and amassing a treasure trove of objects: the journal from Capt. Kidd's last voyage; one of only two known authentic Jolly Roger flags; and a treasure chest once owned by Capt. Thomas Tew, said to be the only one directly traceable to a pirate.

For years, he hid the loot in his home. Last year, however, Croce began sharing the booty with the public, opening a $10 million museum called Pirate Soul in downtown Key West. In February, Croce opened a pirate-themed restaurant called Pat Croce's Rum Barrel next to the museum.

The two ventures are only some of the latest for Croce, a physical therapist who made his fortune with a string of sports medicine clinics. Once employed by the 76ers as a conditioning coach, he eventually became the franchise's president and saw it climb from last place to first in the NBA's Eastern Conference, reaching the finals in 2001. Since leaving the team, Croce has been a martial arts commentator for the Summer Olympic games, hosted a TV show and become a motivational speaker and author.

Croce says a pirate spirit has infused all of his undertakings.

"It's that bold and adventurous nature, where they just go for their goal, throw caution to the wind, set their sail and go. I love that. I love that whole philosophy," he said recently while in Key West, where he has a home.

Croce's daughter, Kelly Croce Sorg, lives on the island and is the museum's CEO. It made sense to open the museum in Key West, which was built on the spoils of shipwrecks and where buccaneer street performers roam the streets, Sorg said.

At the museum, visitors start their tour in a re-created marketplace of Port Royal, Jamaica, peering in the windows of the gun shop, the mapmaker's, the bookmaker's and the physician's office to see artifacts. In the next room, a tavern, guests can sit down amid centuries-old wine bottles and a plate recovered from the pirate Blackbeard's sunken ship and browse an interactive book of pirate biographies on touch-screens.

Then it is on to the deck of a pirate ship, where sound effects and video bring a ship takeover to life. Near the end of the tour, visitors encounter a talking animatronic head of the pirate Blackbeard and can step into small, dark rooms simulating a ship's hold and listen as pirates give chase.

"It's kind of like something you'd see at Disney World," said Bert Knisely, a Thomasville, Ga., resident who visited the museum recently on his honeymoon.

Theatrics aside, the real gems of the collection are the approximately 500 artifacts on display -- pieces of eight, maps, navigation instruments, cannon balls, weapons and even a rare pirate wanted poster. Most of the objects are Croce's, but there are also pieces on loan from the North Carolina Maritime Museum and the Delaware Art Museum.

Trevor Huggins, 18, who toured the museum while visiting from Augusta, Ga., said he was surprised at the number and quality of the artifacts as well as what he learned about daily life on a pirate ship.

"I learned how brutal it actually was," Huggins said. "I didn't realize that at first."

Posted signs also tell visitors that walking the plank is likely a bit of fiction. Pirates usually just pushed any scurvy fellows overboard or used them for target practice. The difference between a privateer and buccaneer is explained: Privateers were authorized to plunder by the government. Visitors even learn about two lady pirates Anne Bonny and Mary Read.

Croce says he is not done adding to the collection, and his daughter said he is not done tinkering with the museum, either.

"His title is Captain," Sorg said. "He's the captain of the ship. If he says, `We're going north,' we're going north, and we're just along for the ride."



What: Pirate Soul museum

Where: 524 Front St., Key West

When: Open daily 9 a.m. to 7 p.m.

How much: Adults $13.95; ages 3-10, $7.95

More information: or 305-292-1113


amazing museum. thank you for highlighting it. it is a gem in key west.
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