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Road returns to St. Petersburg

Odd the paths that lead to St. Petersburg.

Fred and Maxine Gardner live in sunny Roberts Mobile Home Park with a green yard and flowers, pretty china in a plate rack over an antique sideboard and pictures of grandchildren on the wall.

But Fred Gardner's life was not always easy.

His trip here began when he left his native England at age 1. He, his mother, Ellen, an aunt and his three sisters ages 5, 3 and 3 weeks, left one night in January 1916 to board a black cruise ship. They fled because England was at war. Gardner's father, Charles, was chauffeur to Lloyd George, England's prime minister. George had been sent to Canada for safety, and his chauffeur went with him. So it was up to Mrs. Gardner to shepherd the family to Canada.

The aunt was not much help _ she was seasick the entire trip. Gardner remembers nothing of the crossing but says two of his sisters contracted whooping cough. Their mother told them not to dare cough at Ellis Island, he said, or "They won't let us in."

Lloyd George returned to England, but the Gardners settled in Toronto. By the time Fred was 7, they had wearied of the snow. In 1922, the family headed to St. Petersburg, where a cousin lived.

The senior Gardner and a nephew, Leslie Mott, drove a Model T Ford all the way, Fred Gardner says.

"They took along about 10 spares because they were always repairing those skinny tires," he says. "It took them two weeks, and if they hadn't both been mechanics, they would never have made it."

Mrs. Gardner arrived by train with the children, now numbering five. En route, her purse was stolen in Washington, D.C., and she turned to Traveler's Aid until her husband could wire money to her.

The family settled in the little fishing village of Gulfport, where Gardner remembers walking to school with high weeds on both sides of the sidewalk. He rode the open trolley car to St. Petersburg through the high weeds.

Another year found the family living at 22nd Street and Second Avenue S, adjacent to the garage where the senior Gardner had found work. The children walked the 20-some blocks to Central Primary School at Fifth Street and Second Avenue N. In another year, Gardner, wearying of grease, got a job working for Franklin Mason building the Mason Hotel, which later became the Princess Martha.

Gardner also became a builder in his spare time, building the family a home at Orange Street and Division Avenue in 1924, now 35th Way and 56th Avenue N. From there, the children walked to Harris Elementary on Haines Road.

"There were no school buses back then. In fact, I never rode a school bus until I went to St. Petersburg High School," Gardner says.

Lealman Elementary and Junior High schools soon were built, and they were nearby, he added.

He worked summers at a dairy on 54th Avenue N and says he picked blueberries on the way to work.

By the time he was 10, Gardner's parents decided he should contribute to the family income and got him a paper route. "We went around to everybody in the area and asked them if they'd like the paper delivered," he says. "They thought it was a good idea.

"My dad took me down to the (Evening) Independent and made the arrangements. They thought I was awfully young for the job, but said they'd try me."

His original route covered 15 miles and comprised about 50 customers. The papers were left each afternoon in big bundles under a tree at 30th Avenue N and 16th Street. At first, his mother drove for the route's far portions.

"But after two or three weeks, I bought a bicycle," he said.

After all, he was making 7 cents per customer per week. (The Independent made 8 cents.) The second-hand bicycle cost $5 or $6, he recollects.

"I had to fold up all the papers and put them in a canvas bag with a flap over the top so they wouldn't get wet," he says. "The summer showers would always start up about the time I delivered, and I would get soaked."

The Gardners had one more son, completing the family at two boys and four girls.

Times were tough. Sometimes lunches were potato sandwiches, and sometimes Gardner did not get enough to eat. His mother, he says, really knew how to stretch the food allowance.

"Bananas were cheap, 3 cents a pound. We ate a lot of them," he says. "And we used Klim, a powder you mixed with water to make milk. It was a lot cheaper than milk."

His mother also saved the water she boiled her potatoes in to make soup later.

But there also were good times. Gardner remembers his mother driving the children to the Mirror Lake Library where he read all the Hardy Boys, Tom Swift and the Bobbsey Twins books.

He also remembers when she would pack lunches and the children would hitchhike to The Pier. "Hardly anybody would pass us by," he said. "We'd spend the day swimming and sit under the shade of the trees.

"Then we always had a little bit of loose change. On the way home, we'd stop at a little bakery on Ninth (now Dr. M.L. King) Street and buy a pie," he said. "The lady would cut it in as many pieces as there were kids."

After Fred had been delivering papers five or six years, he turned the route over to his younger sister Edith and went to work in the doughnut shop his father bought at 13th Street and Central Avenue. Fred delivered doughnuts to local restaurants and picked up the stale ones for resale at the shop.

His father would buy old eggs because they were cheaper. "But one got past him one time (it had spoiled) and he ruined a whole batch of dough," Gardner says.

That finished the doughnut shop, and in the early 1930s, both father and son set out across the country on job-seeking odysseys.

Gardner and his wife, Maxine, whom he married in Indiana, returned to St. Petersburg and raised their four children in a big home on 82nd Avenue N.

Their life was a far easier one than his parents had, but for all the hard times, all five of Fred Gardner's siblings are alive and well and have great stories to tell at family reunions.