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Recalling Pinellas

Developer Walter Fuller wore many hats, colorfully

As a St. Petersburg Times reporter from 1948 to 1965, Jerry Blizin covered some of Pinellas County's biggest stories and most colorful personalities.

In BEI days (Before Electronic Interference from things like television and the Internet), several insomniac news junkies used to gather in the St. Petersburg Times newsroom after midnight to scan the clattering wire service machines and inhale the smoke from executive editor Tom Harris' cigar.

After the paper "went to bed," they would troop over to the only all-night restaurant in town, accompanied by the night police reporter — me. Harris would devour a steak, and I would eat most of his french fries.

The group often included syndicated cartoonist Wally Bishop, William A.F. "Bill'' Stephenson, the Pinellas County Democratic chairman, and Walter P. Fuller, a man who personally embodied the history of St. Petersburg — a developer who lost as many fortunes as he made; an author, editor, historian, raconteur, politician and wit. One of his great lines was "the first bootlegger I ever met was me." And it was true.

To me, Fuller looked and sounded like a Gator version of Will Rogers. Tall and thin, he dressed casually, had no airs about him and delivered bon mots in a dry, laconic way. He knew where every political body in Florida was buried.

Born in Bradenton in 1894, he moved to St. Petersburg in 1907. Fuller developed the area known as the Jungle on the city's western edge, fronting Boca Ciega Bay. In 1925, he built the Jungle Country Club Hotel (now Admiral Farragut Academy) and its adjoining golf course and air strip (Piper-Fuller Airport). Earlier, he extended a streetcar line from downtown St. Petersburg to the Jungle and paved 16 miles of city streets using his own money. He built another hotel, the Sunset, at Park Street and Central Avenue, as well as 1,400 homes.

During Fuller's career he owned 3,200 acres in St. Petersburg and 2,500 more in mid Pinellas, according to a 2007 Times story by Lorrie Lykins. But Fuller had other skills that he applied in sour economic times — he was a reporter (1918-19) and city editor (1943-44) at the Times, editor of a Bradenton weekly, two-term member of the Florida Legislature and one-term clerk of the state House of Representatives. He also spent eight years as a Democratic state committeeman.

One of Fuller's more exciting realty ventures was Jungle Prado (which local usage mangled into Jungle Prada). Fuller didn't drink but opened a fancy nightclub in Jungle Prado called the Gangplank. But before he did, he accidentally became a bootlegger.

One day in 1923 a mysterious fellow showed up, offering to sell him a boatload of palm trees for his real estate developments. He admitted that the boat also held 100 cases of illegal liquor that he had to get rid of quickly. Prohibition was then the law of the land.

Fuller bought the boatload. He locked the liquor away in a vacant house and forgot about it until a friend came over and asked for a drink. Thereafter, Fuller moved his liquor from one house to another by wheelbarrow.

"For the next few months the Fullers were undoubtedly the most popular family in St. Petersburg and quite literally the toast of the town," Fuller wrote. And he wrote a lot — including books called This Was Florida's Boom and St. Petersburg and Its People, the former based on columns he had written for the Times.

Here's how he characterized the start of the land boom in St. Petersburg in This Was Florida's Boom: "The 1925 land boom started, I always have thought, that late afternoon in the winter of 1922-23 when the quite lovely Evelyn Taylor turned her back on a group of slightly flustered men, including myself, blushingly rolled down her stocking and peeled off a $10,000 bill." It was one of seven such bills she had wrapped around her leg, concealed by blue stockings. It went to buy the Pasadena section where Evelyn and her husband, Jack, eventually built the luxurious Rolyat ("Taylor" spelled backward) Hotel, now Stetson University College of Law.

Fuller's nightclub went through many phases. One of its performers was a dancer named Paige (pronounced pay-gee). She wore a tiger costume with a shoulder strap. The strap broke in rehearsal one day and Paige went on with the act, sans suit. Word got out and customers flocked to the Gangplank, hoping to see the strap break again. But it never did.

For a while, the Prado was a motel. My family and I stayed there for a month in 1950 while our new house was being completed. That put us in the same league as gangster Al Capone, who had stayed there in the 1920s. Later, Jungle Prado housed Saffron's Restaurant for a number of years.

When Fuller was a young man, St. Petersburg was full of "tin can tourists," people who motored to the new city in Model T Fords, ate a lot of canned goods and lived in tents. He put a lot of them in homes. The future bootlegger also co-founded the first Boy Scout troop in the city in 1915, played football and became the first paid football coach of the St. Petersburg High School Green Devils.

Fuller built himself an estate in 1916 and chronicled its history in 1961. It was built on 2.5 acres of Park Street waterfront across from his Jungle Hotel. He lost title to the place, regained it in 1921, then sold it for $75,000 during the 1925 boom. When the boom collapsed, the property at 424 Park St. was resold for $15,000 in 1928. The estate was purchased for $830,000 in 1986 by Kent and Siri Rawson, who renovated it and for a time had it up for sale (its asking price in 2007: $8,950,000).

Fuller was long gone by then. He died in 1973 at 79. But he would have grinned at that asking price. His original advertising sign for Jungle property had read, "Jungle Terrace — where Nature did her best." But he wrote that someone with a can of paint had added a postscript to the sign: "But look what Man did to it."

Times researchers Mary Mellstrom, Carolyn Edds and Vicki Zook contributed to this report. Jerry Blizin now lives in Tarpon Springs.

Developer Walter Fuller wore many hats, colorfully 12/12/09 [Last modified: Saturday, December 12, 2009 3:31am]
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