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For Coquina Key, cycle of rum, boom and bust

The island wasn't yet an island when developers arrived. Rumrunners plied their trade until builders came in waves.

By SCOTT TAYLOR HARTZELL
© St. Petersburg Times
published September 4, 2002


ST. PETERSBURG -- Under cover of darkness during Prohibition, rumrunners unloaded their cargo on Lewis Island. Other secrets lurked among the scrub oaks and laurel.

"Those were the days when they made liquor in copper stills in the woods," wrote journalist Paul Davis, "as well as bringing in spirits by schooner from wet Cuba."

After being slated for upscale development in the 1920s, Edson T. Lewis' property was transformed into an island. Investors shunned it during the Depression and World War II. In 1957, the isle was renamed Coquina Key. Today it is a diverse community of about 4,300 residents.

"Things have changed," the St. Petersburg Times said in 1986 about Coquina Key. "But the old-timers and newcomers alike say there's still something special about the island."

Lewis, a banker and grocery store owner, had purchased most of the peninsula between Little and Big Bayou by 1910, hoping to create an elegant development.

A map from Lewis' former office at 266 First Ave. N showed that the Lewiston Subdivision had 172 lots. Less than 15 were sold, all in 1913. "It was way out of town, just wilderness," Florence Hodgkinson, a former Lewis employee, said in 1972. "Utilities weren't available."

About 1923, a newly cut channel converted the peninsula into an island and a bridge was built at 45th Avenue S. "You kind of wondered if you were going make it across the thing," said Lon Cooper, 80, who picnicked there. Moonshiners also crossed the bridge.

"White mule or white lightning," noted the Evening Independent's Davis after a moonshine hunt in the 1920s. "The eagles of the law found a wooden keg. Did we care to sample? No, but we did in the interest of law enforcement."

Helen Gandy O'Brien, 79, recalled the early 1930s when an American Indian was the island's only human inhabitant. "To a child's eye, he was tall and erect, very quiet. He taught us how to bead necklaces, rings and bracelets. We called him Indian Joe."

World War II further stifled the chic development local residents had hoped for. In the late 1940s, only a few cottages and the Florida Power Employees Club occupied the 400-acre island.

In 1952, William W. Goldman purchased 89 acres for $89,000. He promised to make "a city within a city," but by 1955 his funds had run out.

Elliott Mackle and his two brothers paired with the Chemical Research Corp. in 1955 to purchase 350 acres for about $600,000. The Mackles -- then the nation's ninth-largest home builders -- later became principal owners.

They planned homes priced from $8,000 to $60,000, with a hotel, a 10-acre school, a 5-acre park and a 14-acre shopping center. During the April 1955 grand opening, 20,000 visitors invested $400,000. Developments began at Elkcam Boulevard (Mackle backward).

The Mackles spent nearly $50,000 on advertising in the North. Four sales teams traveled to cities such as Boston and New York in 1956. Local real estate agents were told they weren't needed; a backlash resulted.

"Everybody began knocking it because it wasn't going to be the luxury development they'd hoped," the Times reported.

In 1957, after building 200 homes and a 39th Avenue bridge, the Mackles yielded to the Green brothers and Dr. Bradley Waldron. "I sold to Irving Green in 30 minutes," said Elliott Mackle, who received $1.3-million for the land he had purchased for $600,000.

More than 19,000 entries flew in when Irving Green held a monthlong contest in 1957 to rename the island. Mrs. George B. Hobach of Snell Isle submitted Coquina Key; Carribee Key and Memorare Island were second and third choices.

The Hobachs won a 16-day West Indies cruise, and Connie McDonnell was chosen Miss Coquina Key. Island natives considered the name abysmal. "I still have to see the first coquina shell on Lewis Island," Florence Bethel Loader said at the time.

On opening day in November 1957, homes sold from $12,390 to $14,290. Every buyer received a television set; some down payments were $650. After the collapse of the land boom in the early 1960s, Coquina Key was a wasteland of vacant foreclosures.

Frank Stumm, owner of 608 lots by 1966, promoted Coquina Key into a rebound. Thomas Mahaffey and his sons Mark and James continued the island's resurrection with the 63-acre Coquina Key Arms South (1972) and the 25-acre Coquina Key Arms North (1979).

"We thought we could be successful," said Mark Mahaffey, 58, who as owning partner with the Hardaway Co. said he enjoys full occupancy at Coquina Key Arms' 1,006 total units. "And here we are 32 years later."

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

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