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Childhood home memories come alive -- 64 years later

A New Jersey lawyer returns to the Dickens House, now a B&B, after six decades and shares its history with an old friend.

By SCOTT TAYLOR HARTZELL
© St. Petersburg Times
published March 20, 2002


ST. PETERSBURG -- After more than six decades, Nathaniel "Buz" Bedford came home.

"It looks pretty much the same from the front, " Bedford said with sparkling eyes as he approached his past.

Bedford, 83, came home recently to reminisce about the city and the house that was his childhood base from 1924 to 1938. He hadn't been inside the dwelling -- now the Dickens House Bed & Breakfast -- for 64 years.

"It's very rare you get a chance to eat and sleep at the place where you grew up," said artist Ed Caldwell, who purchased the Dickens House at 335 Eighth Ave. NE in 1995 for $40,000.

Caldwell's $300,000 restoration didn't erase Bedford's memories of the living room, where he often gathered with friends to socialize. In the dining room, names such as George Gandy filled the air alongside the aroma of chicken.

While enjoying a recent breakfast with several friends, Bedford unveiled a verbal snapshot of St. Petersburg's past. "This home and the city was central to my life," said Bedford, a lawyer who lives in New Jersey. "It was a great time."

In 1924, the Bedfords moved into the home built 12 years earlier by Henry and Sadie Dickens, members of St. Petersburg's social and business elite. Bedford, age 6, played on the third floor with his train, which transported his pet white mice. His father helped Gandy evaluate the profitability of the Gandy Bridge.

As a Boy Scout, Bedford once borrowed Gandy's dog for his troop's Mutt Dog Show. Bedford won a Scout ax, the award for the longest-tailed canine. "My father made me take the ax to Gandy, over my sincere objections," Bedford said. "Gandy let me keep it, and I prized the ax the rest of my Scout days."

Eugene Elliott, who marketed $2-million worth of Gandy Bridge stock, "was a super salesman," Bedford said as his silver hair and Indian nickel bola reflected the light. "My father bought three shares of the stock in my name. I think I got about $5 from it."

Bedford attended Shorecrest School for Girls and Boys at 13th Avenue and North Shore Boulevard. There he encountered Mark Dixon Dodd, renowned artist and designer of the Driftwood community. "(Dodd) tried to develop an interest in art within me," said Bedford, a St. Petersburg High School graduate with degrees from Princeton and Columbia Law School, "but he flunked me."

During breakfast, both Bedford and his boyhood friend, Bill Futch, recalled the Festival of States parades. Bedford played the bugle; Futch, the drum. Frolicking at the Vinoy Park Hotel was a hoot, too. "We ran up and down the halls," said Futch, 84. "We played hide and seek."

Bedford said his father helped finance the Don CeSar's construction and the Soreno's expansion during the economic boom. The Depression, he recalled, slowed such business ventures. Then came the day he'll never forget.

"Rudy Lewis, a family friend, burst into the house saying the Central National Bank had closed," Bedford said. "It was the last bank to close here in 1931. That eliminated all the available cash in the city. People didn't have money to buy groceries. But actually it wasn't too bad for us. A breakfast of eggs, bacon, a glass of orange juice and a spoonful of grits was just 6 cents."

Bedford received $2 a week in allowance. As a teen, he had a 1932 Plymouth. "You could drive at 14," he said. "Gas was 25 cents a gallon. Cokes and peanut butter crackers were 5 cents each."

The Million Dollar Pier was the center of social activity, said Futch, who practiced medicine here for 47 years. The Coliseum was another hot spot. "On Friday nights we'd go to dances there," he said. "I think it was 25 cents a couple. And we danced."

On many occasions, Bedford and his friends gathered at his home. "We used to roll back the carpet and dance right in the living room," he said.

Bedford said that friends once posted a sign at Williams Park: "Girls and boys are matriculating and using the same curriculum at St. Petersburg Junior College. " It was a joke, but many alarmed residents still questioned the college.

Bedford is a father of four who has been married 61 years. As he finished his breakfast, he was reminded of author Thomas Wolfe, who wrote You Can't Go Home Again. Should people dare return to their roots? Bedford was asked. "Those who have been lucky should," he said. "And if you can share those memories with friends, it's great."

-- Scott Taylor Hartzell can be reached at hartzel@msn.com.

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