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Pinellas County turns 100 years old

Six hours. Not a minute less. Six long, sweaty, summertime hours to drive a car from St. Petersburg to Tampa in the early 1900s. The roads in Tampa weren't the problem. They were paved — with bricks, but still paved. The newfangled automobiles could navigate those just fine. But the roads on the Pinellas peninsula were knee-deep sand that became a quagmire whenever it rained. The limping ex-Michigander who edited the St. Petersburg Times, W.L. Straub, knew who was to blame: the short-sighted bureaucrats in the county seat of Tampa, who ruled over the vast region known as Hillsborough County. He called it Pinellas' "master across the sea."

Ever since Florida's Territorial Council had designated Hillsborough as a county in 1834, it had controlled the fate of a sprawling expanse that covered not only Pinellas but also what's now Polk, Manatee, Sarasota, Charlotte, DeSoto, Hardee and Highlands counties, most of Glades and part of Lee.

Hillsborough collected taxes from the residents of the Pinellas peninsula, but barely paid them any attention when it came to providing basic services, Straub contended. Someday, he warned Hillsborough officials, the resentment in Pinellas over the poor condition of the roads and other slights would "stir up a revolution over here."

He was right. Pinellas County turns 100 today, and in a century packed with stories of warring cities, bootleggers, would-be movie moguls, a phony count, a fake oil well and a cavalcade of corrupt commissioners, Straub's fury over the long, nasty drive to Tampa would prove to be the turning point.

In the beginning, though, the water was enough.

For the bronze-skinned people who hacked out settlements here in the centuries before Christ, the brackish water of Tampa Bay and the salty sea of the Gulf of Mexico supplied plenty of food, not to mention shells they could turn into tools and pile up in huge mounds. When they wanted to travel, they could paddle wherever they wanted to go, sliding dugout canoes among the mangrove tangles.

The first white visitors came by water too: one-eyed, red-haired Pánfilo de Narváez and his 300 men, who landed near what is now Jungle Prada in St. Petersburg in 1528. When they tried traveling inland, though, they discovered the gold they sought was just a mirage and the natives fierce enough to wipe out the entire force.

Then Odet Philippe sailed his ship, the Ney, into Tampa Bay. Philippe claimed to be a French count, an old pal of Napoleon, a trained surgeon. He claimed a pirate named Gomez had told him Tampa Bay was "the most beautiful body of water in the world." His biographer discovered none of that was true.

But this is true: In 1842, near a massive Indian mound, in what is now Safety Harbor, Philippe built a plantation, and thus became the first white settler in Pinellas County. He was also the first citrus farmer in Central Florida, planting the seeds from oranges, limes, avocados, pears and bananas he had collected while sailing through the Caribbean.

The federal government's Armed Occupation Act, aimed at quelling the Seminole Wars in Florida, said any man who would bear arms and live on the land for five years could claim 160 acres. That prompted more settlers to join Philippe on the peninsula.

Many were fishermen and shipbuilders, comfortable with traveling by water. But soon cattlemen with names like McMullen joined them — and they needed roads to get their stock to Tampa. Some chopped down trees to build Pinellas' first crude road in 1856.

The settlers began forming small communities dotted around the peninsula's shoreline. On the cusp of the Civil War, Clearwater set up the first post office. In 1884, Dunedin, which once boasted the state's largest fleet of sailing vessels, saw the debut of the weekly West Hillsborough Times, the forerunner of today's Tampa Bay Times. In 1887, Tarpon Springs — founded by former Arizona Gov. Anson P. K. Safford, whose passport listed his height as 5 feet 3 — became the first incorporated city, with a population of 52.

A year later the Orange Belt Railway reached Tarpon Springs. Run by a Russian exile born Pytor Alekseyevich Dementyev — he shortened it to Peter Demens — the railroad would extend all the way to the end of the peninsula, where Demens named the terminus community after his hometown of St. Petersburg before selling out and moving to North Carolina.

The railroad, and the jobs it offered, brought Pinellas its first big influx of African-American settlers. The railroad also spurred the start of new industries — cotton, fruits and vegetables, more citrus groves — because now the product could be shipped elsewhere.

With easier access, tourists and new settlers came flooding in. It helped that, at an 1885 medical convention in New Orleans, Pinellas was touted as the healthiest spot on earth.

But more than the railroad, what spurred a change in Pinellas was the arrival of the horseless carriage.

The peninsula that the Spanish once called "Punta Pinal" was fast outgrowing its old constraints, but the people in charge across the bay were slow to catch on. Their efforts at improvements just made things worse.

The first automobiles began jouncing along what passed for roads in Pinellas at the turn of the century, and bogging down with disturbing frequency. The first St. Petersburg resident to own a car, E. H. Tomlinson, got so sick of getting stuck that he started driving on the wooden sidewalks, which wasn't yet against the law.

A drive or a boat ride from Pinellas to the county seat took so long that, for most folks, it required finding some place to stay overnight and returning home the next day. In Tampa, Pinellas visitors saw cars cruising along a network of brick streets surrounding an ornate brick courthouse topped with a silver dome. The contrast was infuriating.

In 1906, Hillsborough County finally built the first highway to what would eventually become Pinellas. Old Tampa Road stretched from Tampa to the fishing village of Ozona. It was paved with shells taken from Indian mounds. But most of the Pinellas population lived south of Ozona, so they felt insulted to be left out.

Straub had had enough. The editor had been born with a bad leg, but he knew how to kick hard. In 1907 he launched an editorial campaign demanding the Legislature let the Pinellas peninsula split from its "master across the sea."

His leadoff editorial, which came to be known as the "Pinellas Declaration of Independence," contended that as its own county Pinellas could keep its thousands in tax money and spend it on better roads and other amenities.

For every argument against the new county, Straub had a retort. For instance, to the argument that in area Pinellas would be the smallest county in Florida, he pointed out that its population of about 7,000 people would put it ahead of 15 already existing counties.

Hillsborough's leaders were aghast at Straub's impudence, says historian Gary Mormino. The Tampa Tribune's editor, W.B. Stovall, wrote of Pinellas, "What child ever benefitted from being taken from the breast of the nourishing mother?"

Tampa's upper crust regarded Pinellas as their playground. One cigarmaker built a home on Indian Rocks Beach with marble baseboards and the area's first swimming pool. His housewarming party lasted three weeks.

Straub's call for independence stirred up such great passion in Pinellas that one 1908 story compared a meeting on the topic to the Boston Tea Party. To plot their strategy, supporters gathered on the front porch of Solomon Coachman, who had sawed the lumber for the Belleview Biltmore Hotel.

The cause at last bore fruit in 1911, when a senator named McMullen helped push a county division bill through the Legislature. Gov. Albert Gilchrist signed it. Coachman sponsored a street dance in Clearwater to celebrate. Voters ratified the measure, and so, on Jan. 1, 1912, Pinellas County was born.

Controversy quickly followed.

First came a fight over where to put the county courthouse. Straub had long advocated Clearwater, but others thought St. Petersburg deserved the honor more.

Clearwater's backers quickly built a ramshackle wooden courthouse. They lit bonfires so construction could go on around the clock and posted armed guards at night so no one from south county could put a torch to the site. The building was thrown together so quickly that the restrooms were left out.

Then the new county's leaders had a hard time persuading the voters to pass a measure allowing them to borrow money to build all those roads everyone said they wanted. It took three tries to raise enough money to build 70 miles of 9-foot-wide brick roads.

Meanwhile, though, a grand jury investigation found that the first board of commissioners mismanaged the road construction money. Commission Chairman Coachman, for instance, was accused of using county workers and material to build a road to his own citrus grove.

Still, the new roads brought more people to the new county. In 1913 Ransom E. Olds, whose mass production of the Oldsmobile had made him a wealthy man, decided the right place to build a town with his name on it — Oldsmar — was smack dab between Pinellas and Hillsborough counties.

Olds built a casino that drew customers by the busload and a 1,000-foot pier that attracted bootleggers smuggling booze under loads of coconuts. He also spent $100,000 drilling an oil well, and when it produced water instead of black gold, someone tried fooling the investors by pouring a little oil into the well every morning.

Not every new idea involved a scam. In 1914 Tony Jannus showed the world how to run a commercial airline by flying from St. Petersburg to Tampa in 23 minutes, and not losing any luggage. And in 1916, a McMullen built a wooden toll bridge — nicknamed "Old Noisy" — to Indian Rocks Beach, opening the beaches to vehicular traffic. Bridges to Clearwater Beach and Pass-a-Grille soon followed.

In 1921, disaster struck. A hurricane roared ashore, smashing homes and cars and docks, destroying the wooden casino in Gulfport, cleaving Caladesi Island from Honeymoon Island. Estimated now as a Category 3, the unnamed storm killed at least six people and caused more than $1 million in damage.

Yet it didn't deter people from pouring into Pinellas. For the first time, mass-produced autos were fully enclosed rather than open to the weather, and cheap enough so even middle-class families could drive down to Florida.

To attract visitors, St. Petersburg used sex. The city hired a publicity agent who concocted a "purity league" to protest all the women in skimpy bathing suits who were running around on the beach in the winter. Sure enough, Northern newspapers ran stories and photos under headlines like "Wives Ask Mayor to Shield Their Husbands from Wiles of Sea Vamps."

As tourism grew into an industry, it spurred the construction of hotels such as the Vinoy and the Don CeSar, as well as a plethora of "motor courts" and service stations. A lot of visitors liked what they saw in Pinellas and decided to stay. A population that barely topped 18,000 in 1915 surpassed 28,000 in 1920 and then hit 51,000 in 1925.

The new residents included slick developers like "Handsome Jack" Taylor, who made the down payment on much of what is now Gulfport by asking his wife, Evelyn, to roll down her stocking and pull out one of the $10,000 bills she had hidden there. Later they threw lavish parties — financed by other people's money.

The good times were fueled by abundant alcohol. Prohibition, imposed in 1919, was no problem, thanks to all the mangrove-covered coves and private docks where smugglers could land a load of hooch. The wildest parties took place at the San Remo nightclub out on Weedon Island, where bootleggers settled their turf battles with hot lead.

The demand for land drew speculators out to make a quick buck, who drove prices higher than anyone thought possible. A lot worth $10,000 went for $200,000. One edition of the Times carried 130 pages of real estate ads. The boom became, as road planner and developer Walter Fuller later wrote, "a greedy delirium to acquire riches overnight without benefit of effort, brains, or services rendered."

When builders ran short of land, they brought in dredges to dig up the bay bottom, creating a series of small peninsulas that stuck out like grasping fingers. Then they hired aggressive "binder boys" to whip potential buyers into a frenzy.

George S. Gandy hired one of the fast-talkers to help him raise money to build a bridge across Tampa Bay. When stock sales hit $1 million, Gandy commented that it wouldn't be long before they could start construction. Stunned, his super salesman asked, "You're really going to build it?"

When Gandy's 2 ½-mile span opened in late 1924, the governors of 17 states and 30,000 spectators attended the ceremony. It was the longest automobile toll bridge in the world, and it sparked even more development.

By then, though, there were signs Florida's bubble was about to burst. Northern newspapers, once full of ads for Florida land, now were full of stories about Florida scams.

In the summer of 1925 the state's railroads, overwhelmed by the people and freight heading south, imposed a moratorium on shipments of building materials. Contractors galore declared bankruptcy.

To make matters worse, when a national investment bankers' convention gathered in St. Petersburg in December 1925, expecting fun in the Sunshine City, they saw nothing but a gloomy drizzle every day for a week. Instead of enjoying fishing and golf, the bankers started asking some hard questions about the real estate market, getting answers they didn't like.

Speculation soon faded to stagnation. Before Florida real estate could recover, the nation headed into a Depression, drying up the nascent tourist industry too. What could replace it?

Agriculture helped. In 1927 Pinellas shipped out 3,600 railroad cars of fruit, the fourth most of any county in the state. Largo became "Citrus City," with groves so magnificent that in some places the trees towered 40 feet high. A Dunedin company adapted technology from the drying of blood plasma to begin producing an early version of orange juice concentrate.

Meanwhile, a couple of would-be auteurs built a movie studio on Weedon Island and started churning out pictures, such as 1933's Playthings of Desire. Their plan to create an eastern Hollywood went well, until tax agents shut them down for not paying Uncle Sam.

Times were so tough that the Pinellas County School Board paid its employees in scrip, not cash. Signs posted outside St. Petersburg said: "Warning — Do Not Come Here Seeking Work."

Ultimately, Uncle Sam bailed Pinellas out of the Depression. Federal money paid for building a $1 million veterans' hospital at Bay Pines, as well as Albert Whitted Airport in St. Petersburg, a new Pinellas water system, parks, sewers, roads, even the St. Petersburg City Hall.

When World War II arrived, it proved to be both a blessing and a curse. Travel restrictions blocked tourists from visiting. But then the Army Air Corps filled up the Vinoy, the Belleview Biltmore and the Fort Harrison Hotel with GIs who needed training and turned the Don CeSar into a hospital. Meanwhile the government lodged workers from Tampa's shipbuilding and defense industry plants across the bay in Clearwater and St. Petersburg apartments, homes and motels.

GIs from around the country got their first look at Pinellas, with some help from vivacious local girls with a morale-boosting group called the Bomb-a-Dears. After the war, a lot of those GIs — some now married to former Bomb-a-Dears — decided it was where they wanted to live.

Getting to Pinellas got a lot easier in the 1950s when the first span of the Sunshine Skyway bridge opened, eliminating the old Bee Line Ferry Service across the bay, and the Gulf Coast Highway — now known as U.S. 19 — linked Pinellas with North Florida.

To accommodate new home buyers, builders laid out subdivisions with curving streets, cul-de-sacs and few connections to the outside world. They funneled the cars onto major roads at what soon became major choke points.

There were signs of looming problems that Pinellas couldn't just pave over: saltwater intrusion in water wells, pollution in the bay that fouled up the fishing, clogged roads. The county adopted zoning regulations and a building permit procedure, but it did little to control the crazy-quilt growth.

There still wasn't enough waterfront property, so the developers made more finger canals. By 1957 dredges had filled in so much of Boca Ciega Bay that Gov. LeRoy Collins joked that "pretty soon we're going to have to drill to find water here."

By 1960, Pinellas held 374,665 residents, 91 percent of them packed into urban areas. A 1962 freeze wiped out many of the remaining citrus groves, leading the owners to sell out to mobile home parks and subdivision builders, spurring still more development.

Eventually some people began thinking the only way to keep Pinellas a paradise was to keep some of it intact. They persuaded commissioners to declare the county a bird sanctuary. They voted down a proposed north-to-south expressway. They helped persuade the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to reject a dredge-and-fill development based its environmental impact — a first for the nation.

Yet still growth surged, with more than more than 30,000 building permits issued in 1972. That turned out to be more than the county could stand. In 1973 the county imposed water rationing and a short-term building moratorium.

Developers still pushed for more, by any means necessary. Two years later, three commissioners were charged with taking bribes to approve rezoning requests. All three went to prison.

The 1970s brought other big changes. Pinellas' schools had been segregated since before Pinellas became a county. The separate school systems were anything but equal. The School Board paid for the black schools to stay open for just six months while whites attended for nine, and the curriculum in black schools trained the students for work as laborers and domestic servants rather than preparing them for college.

A black lawyer named James B. Sanderlin led a seven-year legal battle to change the system. As a result, in 1971 Pinellas became one of the last school systems in Florida to desegregate, but the first to approve a voluntary, all-inclusive desegregation plan using busing. Angry white parents promised that 20,000 children would be kept home on the first day of school. The number of absences turned out to be one-tenth that much.

Despite that triumph, the county's black population suffered other losses, primarily from the arrival of Interstate 275. Building the elevated highway required demolishing minority-owned homes and businesses, disrupting neighborhoods that had existed for decades.

The one constant in this world of change remained the county's steady population growth — until, around 2006, it started going in reverse.

A century after its birth, Pinellas County is virtually built out. It is the most densely populated county in Florida — but for the first time, its population has declined.

The state's mortgage meltdown, fueled by speculation and fraud just as in the 1920s, left the real estate and construction industries in limbo. It also caught government officials — used to constantly being asked for more of everything — off guard.

"I don't think in 1998 anybody ever anticipated that we would actually sell less water than we sold the previous year," Tampa Bay Water general manager Gerald Seeber said last year.

The county's future, says Commissioner Karen Seel, is likely to turn on how it handles redevelopment of already built-up areas.

The key may turn out to be something that would not have surprised W.L. Straub: how the county deals with transportation. But unlike in Straub's day, government officials are focused less on roads than on something Peter Demens would like, a rail line — and on linking it back across the bay to their former "master across the sea."

"If this region wants to be competitive, it needs a regional rail system. It's kind of a given," said Rick Mussett, St. Petersburg's senior administrator for city development.

A report that county commissioners will discuss Jan. 24 calls for building a rail line connecting Clearwater, Largo, the greater Gateway area, Pinellas Park and St. Petersburg in Pinellas County, with a regional connection to Tampa.

The report predicts the rail line will create 66,000 jobs and stimulate redevelopment near the train stops. And as for the millions it would cost to build? Just as in the Depression and World War II, Pinellas will be hoping the federal government can help. Supporters want to put it to a referendum vote in 2013 — just as Pinellas County's creation required a referendum a century ago.

Times staff writers David DeCamp, Michael Van Sickler and Sandra Gadsden contributed to this report. Craig Pittman can be reached at craig@tampabay.com.

For further reading

Fuller, Walter P. St. Petersburg and Its People. St. Petersburg. Great Outdoors Publishing Co. 1972.

Straub, W.L. History of Pinellas County, Florida. St. Augustine. The Record Co. Printers. 1929.

Young, June Hurley. Florida's Pinellas Peninsula. St. Petersburg. Byron Kennedy and Co. 1984.

Goldman, Sue Searcy. "A History of the Board of County Commissioners of Pinellas County." www.pinellascounty.org/PDF/HistOfBCC.pdf. 1996.

Pinellas County Planning Department. "Pinellas County Historical Background." www.pinellascounty.org/Plan/pdf_files/PCHB.pdf. 2008.

Five who made

a difference

Odet Philippe: First white settler on Pinellas peninsula, first to plant citrus.

W.L. Straub: Editor who led crusade to split Pinellas off from Hillsborough County.

George S. Gandy: Built first bridge to Tampa.

Dr. Gilbert Leggett: Dentist who led 1944 legal action that resulted in black residents being allowed for the first time to vote in the Democratic primary.

Mary Grizzle:

Belleair Bluffs legislator who sponsored bills to clean up sewage dumped in bay, require licensing for day care centers and allow married women to own property in their own name.

Five scandals

1959: County attorney and St. Petersburg postmaster charged, along with brother of mobster Santo Trafficante, right, with trying to bribe a sheriff's candidate to let them set up a Pinellas bolita operation. They were acquitted of bribery but convicted of conspiracy.

1975-1976: Three county commissioners sent to prison for taking bribes in exchange for their vote on zoning requests.

1980: Television evangelist Jim Bakker has sexual encounter with church secretary Jessica Hahn in Clearwater Beach, pays her to keep quiet. Public exposure forces his resignation from PTL organization in 1987, while Hahn poses for Playboy magazine.

1996: Pinellas County Commissioner Bruce Tyndall arrested in a hotel room with a pocketful of cocaine and two women. He resigns, pleads guilty to cocaine possession, is sentenced to probation.

1997: A Tierra Verde fire set by the then-wife of the Rev. Henry Lyons touches off investigations of his National Baptist Convention presidency, leading to him being convicted in 1999 of grand theft and racketeering.

Pinellas County turns 100 years old 12/29/11 [Last modified: Monday, January 2, 2012 8:09pm]

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