Nearly 25 years ago, on July 25, 1984, readers of the St. Petersburg Times received a special treat with their morning paper. Rob Hooker, deputy metropolitan editor at the time, crafted a 79-page insert that traced the history of the Times on the centennial of its inception.
In addition to his background as a journalist, Hooker possessed academic credentials in history, a passion for research and a knack for extracting materials from archives and microfilmed issues of newspapers. Some of the richest material in the 100-year history came from interviews with Times longtimers and descendants of early editors.
As noted by Eugene Patterson, chairman of Times Publishing Co. at the time, Hooker's creative labors on this 1984 insert provided readers with "a professional work of disinterested reporting that may be useful to tomorrow's historians . . . essentially an intimately inward look at an institution whose outward commitments to the world around it can be followed publicly in its pages day by day."
In the years since its release, countless students and researchers of local history have consulted that insert to gain a better understanding of how the newspaper described and reflected the cultural fabric of the area.
A quarter century after embarking on his original quest to chronicle the "failings as well as triumphs" of the Times, Hooker, now deputy managing editor, reprises his role for an ambitious 125th anniversary history in book form. His co-editor is Times senior editor/days Ron Brackett, and current chairman Paul Tash wrote the book's introduction.
The result is 125 Years: Tampa Bay Through the Times, an aesthetically pleasing volume that traces the growth of the Times and the Tampa Bay region through concise, well-crafted narratives by Hooker and a bounty of rich photographic images drawn from repositories throughout the region.
Early chapters paint a picture of the hardscrabble lives of settlers along the remote Pinellas Peninsula, then part of Hillsborough County. In Tash's introduction, he writes that this publication represents "a partial record of the relationship between the newspaper and the town. In their origins, neither one amounted to much."
Before St. Petersburg existed, a small newspaper, the West Hillsborough Times, began a weekly publication schedule in Dunedin. In time, the paper moved to Clear Water Harbor (as Clearwater was then known), and later to the small settlement of St. Petersburg that hugged Tampa Bay at the end of the Orange Belt Railroad.
In each chapter of the book, thoughtfully selected photos follow the brief narrative that introduces the time period. Some of these images and stories will be familiar to those who have read Raymond Arsenault's St. Petersburg and the Florida Dream, 1888-1950 or other earlier histories of the area by John A. Bethell, Karl H. Grismer and Walter P. Fuller.
However, that should not discourage those interested in local history from examining this book, for, unlike many coffee-table histories that maintain a fairly narrow focus on a single municipality, this one paints a broader regional story.
It offers more than a history of St. Petersburg and its longest-running newspaper, crossing beyond 54th Avenue N, examining events north of Ulmerton Road and south of the Sunshine Skyway, and even looking beyond "Peerless Pinellas" to Hillsborough, Pasco and other neighboring areas.
Such a perspective gives readers a sense that those living in this area from the late 1800s forward possessed a larger regional identity, rather than merely subsisting as settlers in remote, sparsely populated areas that had little to do with one another.
Thus, even though much of the logistical planning and preparation for the Cuban campaigns of the Spanish-American War took place in Tampa, these events shaped and transformed life throughout the region, so images of troops at Port Tampa and parades along Franklin Street appear in the same way images of the "Million Dollar" Pier and the Festival of States Parade in downtown St. Petersburg grace later chapters.
Many longtime residents of this area refer to the rivalries between communities. Tampa and St. Petersburg battled over the site of the region's leading airport and fought over the location of the University of South Florida's first campus and where the baseball team would play. Clearwater and St. Petersburg argued over the "proper" location of the county seat after Pinellas separated from Hillsborough in 1912.
Yet, the book clearly shows that while the communities did fight, their fate, their development, their success, their struggles and most importantly their history have remained inexorably intertwined. This message clearly appears in images that not only show notable events along Tampa's Grand Central (now Kennedy Boulevard) and St. Petersburg's Central Avenue, but also in the groves in northern Pinellas, the strawberry fields in Plant City and the mining strips near Brooksville. Regardless of which side of Tampa Bay we call home, we do have a shared legacy.
Those looking for lengthy narratives, historiographical discussions or genealogical information will find little of interest. However, those seeking a visual record of the region's transformation — as reflected in photographs, newspaper front pages and notable quotes from Times articles — will find it. The book draws from traditional sources, such as the St. Petersburg Museum of History, and includes excellent photographs from the amazing collections at the Archives and Library of Heritage Village in Largo. Hooker and Brackett also selected many powerful images from the archives of the Times (including some from the notorious city jail in the 1940s).
Even as the book prepared to go to press, editors inserted color photographs of an event few would have predicted: the championship series of the Tampa Bay Rays.
Like people, newspapers often become reflective as they approach anniversaries. By publishing this commemorative work, the Times proudly reflects on its growth and the incredible transformation of the Tampa Bay area. The editors have also included some of the unattractive moments that usually do not get mentioned during such milestone events.
In an industry of newspaper conglomerates, mergers and papers with corporate headquarters far away from the communities they serve, the St. Petersburg Times remains independent and autonomous as it celebrates its 125th anniversary this summer.
Similarly, the Tampa Bay region possesses a unique and notable history that predates the arrival of air-conditioning, roadside attractions, condominiums and interstate highways. Those who examine 125 Years: Tampa Bay Through the Times will have an opportunity to appreciate how the intersection of the newspaper and community have made this area such a special place.
James Anthony Schnur, a native and lifelong resident of Pinellas County, is special collections librarian at USF St. Petersburg and past president of the Pinellas County Historical Society.