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Agnes Rice, 89, remembers construction of Davis Causeway

TAMPA

Ben T. Davis, a Lone Star State native, married man and father of two boys, dressed impeccably, spoke smoothly and was always polite.

"A Texas gentleman," Agnes Rice said of Davis, who made his money in Texas cattle before settling here.

On June 28, 1934, 75 years ago today, Davis opened a 9.9-mile stretch of road that ran at sea level along Old Tampa Bay and substantially shortened the commute from Tampa to Clearwater.

Fittingly, he named it the Davis Causeway.

Decades have passed since Davis forever changed the landscape of the area, but Rice's memories of the era, and of the man, remain vivid. In fact, the 89-year-old Treasure Island resident knew him well.

Rice, owner of Gators Cafe & Saloon in John's Pass with her family, was 8 when construction began on the causeway that would later become the Courtney Campbell Parkway and 14 when it finished. Rice, then known as Agnes Hawrsk, moved to Tampa with her family from Connecticut in 1924 and lived on Rocky Point, a spot that was bare, to say the least.

"There was hardly anything there," Rice said from an eighth-floor room at the Grand Hyatt Tampa Bay that overlooks Rocky Point, where she stayed Wednesday night so she could attend a Thursday morning celebration of the parkway's 75th anniversary.

Only three families lived on Rocky Point at the time, along with a man Rice described as a hermit. The home Rice's family rented sat on the point's eastern side and faced Tampa. Her father operated a fishing camp there. Her mother watched after the children.

Rice did her part at the camp, cleaning boats and poles and doing whatever else needed to be done. For fun, she and her three siblings (two brothers and a sister) would head downtown to the Tampa Theatre, located on what was then a bustling Franklin Street.

"We'd go there barefoot," Rice said.

An engineering graduate who built the first railroads in Mexico, Davis moved to Tampa in 1926 when he was in his late 50s. Back then, only the Gandy Bridge (which opened in 1924) crossed Old Tampa Bay, and most traveling between Tampa and Clearwater went north through Oldsmar.

According to newspaper accounts, Davis parked his Ford Model T on the western shore of Old Tampa Bay one morning, squinted into the sun and decided to bridge the bay. In 1927, he put down $1.5 million to begin dredging and filling the causeway.

"He gave lots of people a lot of work," Rice said.

Rice and her siblings got to know many of those workers, and sometimes played on the barges used to build it. Workers often stopped by the camp to buy fish sandwiches.

After the causeway opened, Davis and his family moved into an apartment above a tollhouse on the Pinellas side. When he needed housekeeping done, he asked Rice and her sister, Paula, to help and they obliged.

Davis eventually moved back to Texas, where he died in 1946. Two years later, the causeway was renamed for Courtney Campbell, a state road department member instrumental in bringing major repairs and beautification to the parkway. Today, a recreation area on the Hillsborough side of the parkway is named for Davis.

At 23, Agnes Hawrsk married Charlie Rice and moved to the beaches.

For Rice, whose husband died nearly three decades ago, the parkway's 75th anniversary is a time to reminisce. About life on Rocky Point, about the causeway and about Davis, the friendly man from the Lone Star State who left a Texas-sized imprint on the Tampa Bay area.

"He really wanted that bridge."

Keith Niebuhr can be reached at kniebuhr@sptimes.com or (727) 445-4156.

Agnes Rice, 89, remembers construction of Davis Causeway 06/27/09 [Last modified: Saturday, June 27, 2009 4:07pm]
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