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The old man and the sea: Pass-a-Grille's Frank Hurley collects a lifetime of stories

PASS-A-GRILLE

Frank Hurley's town is modern now. Sometimes he misses old Pass-a-Grille. Next birthday he will be 86. He gets around with the help of a walker. He never has to hop over a rattlesnake anymore. Maybe modernity is a good thing. • In the old days rattlers appeared regularly. Mosquitoes swarmed by the gazillions. Nobody had air-conditioning. There were folks in his circle who remembered the last hurricane to score a direct hit on Pinellas County. That powerful storm devastated Pass-a-Grille, the southernmost part of St. Pete Beach, in 1921. • Frank wasn't born yet, but when he was young he talked to people who told him the awful details. The storm knocked over buildings and flooded the island and ruined the economy for a spell. He is glad to have missed the 1921 hurricane. • Some things he is sorry he missed. If he could climb into a time machine, he would enjoy talking to the Tocobaga, the native people who lived on the coast in the 16th century. He'd show a tattooed warrior his old pottery shards, which he found on the key, and ask, "Does this look familiar?" He might even find someone to tell him, definitively, how Pass-a-Grille came to be named. Perhaps a 17th century fisherman might point him in the right direction. • "Yes, senor. We grilled fish on the beach near the Pass. Cajuns sailing by us along the beach called the location Passe aux Grillard." • Frank Hurley has been many things in his life, including a soldier, a journalist and a real estate salesman. Curiosity always has been a strong suit. His passion is collecting stories.

He began collecting when he was a kid. One grandfather told him about life during the Civil War. Another told him about a career as a federal agent on an Indian reservation in Montana. Frank grew up in a good history town, Washington, D.C. After his discharge from the military in 1946 — he can tell you stories about the fighting in Okinawa — he moved to Pass-a-Grille. He tried journalism at the now defunct Evening Independent before joining his dad in the real estate business.

He sold oodles of property. One man who never needed his services was Silas Dent, a hermit who dwelled in a palm hut on Cabbage Key, today's upscale Tierra Verde. Silas planted a garden, ate fish and drank rainwater. His bare feet were hard as leather. He caught bone-crushing stone crabs by sticking his naked big toe in their submerged lairs.

Frank Hurley fished with more conventional tools. "One time my brother and I were out in the gulf in a little tin boat with a 10-horse Johnson engine. The motor conked out. A big storm was headed at us. Silas Dent rowed past us. Then he turned around and towed us in. I said, 'Mr. Dent, would you like to join us for supper?' He said no and rowed off into the rain."

Hurley is very thin now. He never was blessed with thick hair to begin with. Dent had long white hair, a beard and an abundant waistline. For a hermit he was social. At Christmas, he sometimes rowed over to the island to play Santa Claus at kids' parties. When he turned 74 his niece persuaded him to move in with her, into her house, with indoor plumbing, so she could take care of him. Unaccustomed to bathing, he slipped in the tub and broke five ribs. He moved back to beloved Cabbage Key, where bathing was seldom a necessity. "Civilization is too dangerous," he told friends.

• • •

On Oct. 10, 1921, a tropical storm whipped up in the southwestern Caribbean. When it roared across the Yucatan Peninsula three days later, it was a full-blown hurricane. As it took aim at west Florida, it grew into a monster Category 4 storm with winds approaching 140 mph.

On Oct. 25, the storm shifted northeast. Fortunately, it weakened before barreling ashore near Clearwater. Even so, a 10-foot surge flooded downtowns throughout the bay area. Rickety buildings fell like Tinker Toys and boats ended up on the highway.

Pass-a-Grille was cut off from the civilized world. The next morning the St. Petersburg Times printed a special edition.

TROPICAL STORM SWEEPS CITY was the main headline. Underneath was a smaller line of type.

RUMOR PASS-A-GRILLE WIPED OUT.

"I think that was the most interesting thing for the people who lived in Pass-a-Grille," Frank Hurley says 89 years later. "They got to read their obits."

Damage was substantial, but even Silas Dent survived to tell stories.

• • •

Hurley collected old stories and put them in a self-published book called Surf, Sand and Post Card Sunsets in 1977. He kept finding new information and printed two other editions. He sells them at his office at 2506 Pass-a-Grille Way in a sturdy building that has stood on the corner since 1918. Every inch is crammed with mementos. The collector can tell a story about each one.

He stands, grabs his walker and inches to the front door. His wife, Betty, opens it. Pass-a-Grille Way has four lanes now and big sturdy houses that might withstand a hurricane. He remembers the rickety cottages. He remembers driving a 1934 Ford Roadster along the lonely two-lane road. He could smell the beach and the fish through open windows. Sometimes he slowed to avoid hitting the rattlesnakes.

That Pass-a-Grille is forever gone. But if you have the time, he has the stories.

Jeff Klinkenberg can be reached at klink@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8727.

The old man and the sea: Pass-a-Grille's Frank Hurley collects a lifetime of stories 10/15/10 [Last modified: Sunday, October 17, 2010 1:23pm]

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