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Author takes crowd on nostalgic tour

Florida history buff or not, you gotta love the way Vic Knight reels off the facts and the funnies.

The audience of 110 at the University of South Florida guffawed, chuckled and nodded in remembrance Wednesday as the author, bandleader and former St. Petersburg Times newsboy fast-tracked them through centuries and cities. Then at least 25 people lined up to buy his book, Vic Knight's Florida, now on sale at area bookstores for $16.95.

An avowed nostalgia freak, Knight actually re-rode his early 1940s paper route while here, looking for the familiar houses, garage apartment steps he used to bounce the paper up, the roofs where he would throw the papers when subscribers wouldn't pay their bills.

"I made $8 per 100 customers," he said "and I had 400 on my route so that was $32 a week. That was BIG money in those days."

The Gulfport native and other neighborhood newsboys would pick up their papers at the trolley stop on Tangerine Avenue S, roll them and stuff them in their big green canvas bags on the front of their bicycles, "and then we'd hitch a ride on the trolley as it came by." They did this by hanging on the iron bars on the windows.

His own fast-paced history is enough for three people. After growing up in St. Petersburg, at age 16 he moved with his family to Indianapolis where he was a disc jockey, orchestra leader (he plays a mean trombone) and ended up operating 17 dance orchestras.

At age 36, the 10th-generation Floridian returned to Florida, where he and other investors founded his radio station company. He acquired WDBF in the Palm Beaches and stations in Daytona Beach and Gainesville in 1965.

Ten years later, he sold all but WDBF, and he went back to his first love, forming the WDBF all-star big band. "Everybody in it has been in one of the big bands," he says. The 17-member band performs at numerous charitable events in the Palm Beach area.

So nighttime finds him performing with the band and daytime finds him speaking on the radio or to clubs, benefits and gatherings all over the state. And spare time somehow has found him writing two subsequent books, The Cracker Braggers, just due to come out, and soon to be published, Florida, Land of the Scam.

In his lecture, one of the Bayboro Lyceum Series sponsored by the university, Knight focused on local developer Hamilton Disston, telling of a state in bankruptcy when Disston, a wealthy Philadelphia tool manufacturer, came down to buy land.

In his book, Knight traces 135 Florida "evangelists," who brought their fortune to Florida from 1880 to 1930. "Nobody retires in Chicago, you know, and nobody has a second home in Green Bay."

Disston was the forerunner to all the wealthy investors. He was the "grand visionary of them all" when he came to Florida in 1968, Knight says. Disston bought 4-million acres at 25 cents an acre, and the only land the state would sell him was swampland.

"They didn't call it wetlands back then, and it was not game preserve. It was swamp. And he said "I'm gonna drain that sucker'

"

Some 14,000 acres of this land was what is now Gulfport, and Disston helped finance the Orange Belt Railroad, which he planned to have terminate there.

But the railroad's other developers intervened and "the railroad turned left in downtown St. Petersburg. You can look right down there on the waterfront and see where it went," Knight told the crowd. "That sealed the fate of St. Petersburg and Gulfport." Broke and brokenhearted, Disston took his own life in 1894.

Knight also told the crowd the United States was really founded on Easter Sunday 1513, when Ponce de Leon discovered Florida.

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