Magnate incarnate tells all at library
By JULIANNE WU
© St. Petersburg Times, published April 26, 2001
SEMINOLE -- Nineteenth century railroad tycoon Henry Bradley Plant was one of the first people to promote tourism on Florida's west coast.
"You've all gotten the enjoyment and the benefits of my hard work," said Dr. Kelly Reynolds, a retired University of South Florida English professor, acting as Plant at a meeting Wednesday of the Friends of the Seminole Library. About 100 people attended the event.
As Plant, Reynolds -- who closely resembles the Plant seen in photographs, down to the handlebar moustache -- mentioned various ways the millionaire spurred development in what are now Pinellas and Hillsborough counties.
For instance, in 1896 Plant built the Belleview Biltmore Hotel, which still operates as a hotel and resort in Belleair. And between 1888 and 1891, he built the posh Tampa Bay Hotel, which now houses the Henry B. Plant Museum and offices and classrooms of the University of Tampa.
Originally from Branford, Conn., and educated in a one-room schoolhouse, Plant worked for a steamship company. Later, as a self-made entrepreneur, he saw great potential in building railroads, particularly linking towns on the east and west coasts of Florida.
With his Atlantic Coast Line, Reynolds (as Plant) said, "By 1882, you could ride all the way from New York to Tampa without changing cars."
Reynolds, who has written a soon-to-be published book about Henry Plant, said the railroad tycoon saw the need for building luxury hotels and other amenities, particularly for Northerners, so his railroad would thrive.
"You know what the view was out the window of the Belleview Biltmore?" Reynolds, in character, asked the audience at Seminole Community Library.
He answered himself: "Railroad cars. We wanted to make an overnight stay at the hotel so pleasurable that the guests would leave their money there."
Eventually, Plant and his partners added golf courses to their empire of railways, steamship lines, hotels and investment companies. It was another way to offer visitors a unique experience in Florida.
"Before 1910, do you know how we kept our golf courses trim and smooth?" Reynolds asked the audience.
Someone shouted out "goats."
Reynolds, as Plant, said: "You're close. We used sheep."
Reynolds, 65, of Bradenton, has been acting as Henry Plant for about five years, he said. He still performs as Plant on weekends at the Belleview Biltmore Hotel.
"Plant represented individual involvement in community development, rather than a governmental agency," said Reynolds. "He managed to make a success of himself without hurting anybody."
Mali Schantz-Feld of Seminole couldn't wait to talk to Reynolds after the performance.
"I went to school with Dr. Reynolds when I was working on my master's degree. I think he did a wonderful job re-creating the history of this area," she said. "It is a rich history."
- Information from Times files used in this report.
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