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Pothole filler, flight taker, skyscraper maker

Before A.C. Pheil smoothed the way about a century ago, a ride down Central Avenue could be a shattering experience.

"He used this to fill potholes," great-grandson Tommy Pheil II said, sifting through sawdust at his furniture business.

The "sawdust trail" from Seventh Street to the waterfront was just one journey of the builder, businessman and politician.

"To none of its progressive citizens does St. Petersburg owe a greater debt than to Abram C. Pheil," wrote the Tourist News in 1922.

Pheil, blinded in one eye from a childhood accident, came to Citrus County in 1884 and profited in the rock phosphate business. He was 17. When Pheil (pronounced File) moved to St. Petersburg 10 years later, virgin pine trees lined Central, he later told the Evening Independent.

According to lore, Pheil was broke when he arrived. "It's more likely he had money," said granddaughter Betsy Pheil.

He worked for founding father John C. Williams and sawmill owner George King for about $1 a day. Pheil eventually would buy King's mill.

"He could look at a tree and tell you how many board feet were in it," said Tommy Pheil II, 37.

After marrying Lottie Close in 1896, Pheil settled at 402 Third St. N. A.C. and Lottie had five children: Emma, who died at 5 months, Abram L., Bertha, Harvey and Clarence.

In 1897, Pheil bought the St. Petersburg Novelty Works at Seventh Street and First Avenue S for $2,500. The hardware business covered 6 acres, or 30 city lots, when he sold it for $40,000 in 1912.

Pheil, a tuba player, founded the city's first brass band, Karl H. Grismer wrote in the History of St. Petersburg.

After serving on the first city council from 1904 to 1907, Pheil became mayor in 1912.

Pheil fought for city ownership of public utilities and saw voters approve a city-owned gas plant in 1913. He orchestrated the widening and straightening of Central Avenue.

On Jan. 1, 1914, Pheil paid $400 at an auction to become the nation's first passenger on a commercial flight. "He had talked about it for several days," Pheil's wife told journalist William Snyder. "I was worried all the time he was gone."

Pilot Tony Jannus and his passenger took 23 minutes to fly to Tampa. Engine problems forced a water landing. "My grandfather arrived in Tampa with grease all over his hands," Betsy Pheil told the St. Petersburg Times in 1995. The return trip took 20 minutes.

In 1916, Pheil began building his hotel, the city's first skyscraper and his "monument," Grismer wrote.

World War I delayed construction, as did inflated post-war prices. It was on and off, Ray Arsenault wrote in St. Petersburg and the Florida Dream. As the 1921 hurricane pounded his hotel, Pheil said: "What man may do . . . to injure me, I would resent. This is His work, and I shall not complain."

Pheil died of cancer on Nov. 1, 1922 _ before the hotel opened. He was 55.

City offices and businesses closed from 3 to 5 p.m. the day of Pheil's service. To honor the first commercial passenger in flight, aviator Johnny Green circled St. Bartholomew's Cemetery.

But a family statement read: "The building most certainly will be completed. We will carry on the work for him."

The 11-story hotel at 424 and 426 Central Ave., with gift shops and a theater, opened in 1924.

About 1952, Pheil's home was separated and the two houses were moved to 50th Avenue S. Tommy Pheil Sr., 62, lives at 720 and his son and family reside at 722.

Pheil II's home boasts original heart pine floors. The kitchen was Pheil's bedroom, where he died. It's where the patriarch possibly summoned his family before the end and told them:

"I want you to go right ahead with your lives . . . just as if I were with you. For I will be. I want you to feel always as if I could walk in the front door any minute."