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Sidewalk builder's mark still lingers around city

Like a proud artist, builder Hope Aciel Farmer left his name on every sidewalk he completed.

"About every city block he laid a slab that was stamped "Farmer Concrete Works,' " said David M. Jackson, great-grandson of Farmer, who founded the enterprise in 1912.

Farmer Concrete Works was among the city's first industries. It laid St. Petersburg's first hexagonal sidewalks.

"We grew up walking on those sidewalks," said Maxine Lee, 86, pioneer Mattie Lou Cherbonneaux's daughter. "Wonderful to play hopscotch on."

Farmer's venture operated nearly five decades, and some signature blocks still survive.

"Check the 200 block of 11th Avenue NE," said Will Michaels, director of the St. Petersburg Museum of History.

"The more I saw those stamped blocks, the more I saw my heritage," said Jackson, 58.

Numerous conversations with his grandmother _ Edna Farmer Otis, Farmer's daughter _ enlightened Jackson about the family enterprise.

Hope Farmer was born in 1863 in Starke. About age 42 in 1905, he came to St. Petersburg to help a friend build a home. Farmer later asked his wife, Rebecca, to join him.

"She'd weep awhile and pack awhile," said Mrs. Ernest Duval Farmer, Farmer's daughter-in-law. "But after she got here, she loved it."

According to family Bibles at Jackson's home, the Farmers had 10 children, four of whom died months after being born.

Farmer subsequently established H.A. Farmer Contractor and Builder at 825 Third St. S. He owned the second registered car in St. Petersburg and later built the Bradford County Courthouse.

By 1912, St. Petersburg had advanced from the wooden slab sidewalks fashioned by the Women's Town Improvement Association in 1891 and moved from shell to asphalt walkways.

Farmer renamed his concern Farmer Concrete Works and began creating hexblocks cast in gray, red, green, blue and yellow.

City fathers liked Farmer's 12-by 18-inch concrete blocks because they believed they would float smoothly atop shifting sand. Other reports circulated that officials were imitating the sidewalks of Rio de Janeiro.

In 1927 Farmer died, and his son Ernest Duval Farmer became the company's president and treasurer.

The city's economic bust beginning in the late 1920s didn't impede the Farmer industry.

"Sidewalks were being laid, but no building was going on," said local tailor Angres Chapman, 81, whose father Simmie Chapman was a cement finisher then.

In 1946, resident Lon Cooper and his wife unearthed some bust-era sidewalk.

"Dartmouth Avenue N did not exist as a cleared street and 53rd Street N was just two sand ruts," said Cooper, 83.

"Dot and I went there with a shovel. We dug down and found a Farmer's sidewalk dated about 1926."

By the 1940s, the city had realized solid sidewalks were 34 cents cheaper per square foot than hexblocks. It ceased using them for new sidewalks, reserving them for repairs to existing hexblock walkways. Reinforced 4-inch concrete solid-style slabs became the norm and still are.

After laying about 100 miles of hexblock sidewalks, Farmer Concrete fashioned building blocks and garden furniture and specialized in driveways and patios.

By the 1950s, Ernest Duval Farmer was smoking a Sherlock Holmes pipe and placing his name on shuffleboard courts.

Fred E. Wilder, former owner of Wilder Trailer Park, remembers the sharply dressed, 5-foot-11 Ernest Duval Farmer kneeling on a newspaper to check the level of the courts at the park.

"He talked slowly," said Wilder, 92.

"Rather dry sense of humor. All business. Farmer shuffleboard courts were the best. If he couldn't do it, no one in St. Pete could."

Farmer Concrete Works ceased operation in 1961.

Scott Taylor Hartzell can be reached at hartzelmsn.com.

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