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Summer event spawned fortune-hunting fever

A newspaper's published clues would touch off a frenzied search for buried treasure. For the lucky finders, glory and riches awaited.

By SCOTT TAYLOR HARTZELL

© St. Petersburg Times, published May 31, 2000


ST. PETERSBURG -- For 17 years, an annual civic celebration called Florida Funtime culminated in the Treasure Hunt, a finale that newspaper accounts described as "the greatest show on the sea," and "a chase through the islands, unraveling clue after clue until the chest is found."

In 1955, Howard and George Khouri beat 300 rivals to the prize -- 100 silver dollars buried on Hospital Key near Fort De Soto.

"You read about pirate treasures," said Howard Khouri, who for sentimental reasons has saved 33 of the coins. "This was like finding a real treasure."

"The wild pursuit of buried riches was a big, big feature of St. Petersburg's Florida Funtime celebration," Dick Bothwell wrote. Sportswriter Rube Allyn organized the quests and the Times published clues in advance of the hunt. The festivities ran from 1950 until 1966.

Long before, the Khouri brothers had displayed a knack for finding the concealed. "Our first house once belonged to a bootlegger," said George Khouri, 82 and now retired from the Times and the Evening Independent. "We'd tap hollow walls and find booze."

But both brothers agreed that capturing the treasure went down better than a smooth gin.

That Aug. 21, more than 100 boats converged at The Pier for the hunt. "Burly sailors, Sunday skippers and mothers with their entire flock -- all with one idea, find that chest of silver," the Times wrote.

The boaters, many in swashbuckling garb, carried their clues, shovels and maps from Kelly's Bait House. A Coast Guard helicopter hovered, ready for any emergency.

At 10 a.m. "came a roar of motors, as a fleet of treasure-hunting boats went dashing off in a smother of foam," Allyn wrote.

"We went straight to Hospital Key," Howard Khouri said. A clue about a nurse sent the Khouris speeding off in their aluminum, 7.5-horsepower, three-seat boat. "You could fly in that."

One boater struck a submerged piling at the Sunshine Skyway. "The treasure hunters, preoccupied with the search for clues, paid no heed to the sinking boat," the Times reported.

A clue sent treasure hunters in pursuit of a fisherman sporting a straw hat. When they found him, the boaters dove overboard in an underwater search for more hints.

"The hunts had the frenzy of a top-notch fishing tournament," recalled Eugene Turner, 80, a local boat builder and fisherman.

And there are more anecdotes:

Nathan White, 74, and Jim McMannis, 82, remembered a mid-1960s hunt in which one boat plowed through another. "It's amazing no one was killed," McMannis said.

In 1956, the treasure buried near the Corey Causeway was almost unreachable. "It was like digging in rock," said Howard Khouri, who participated in two hunts with his brother. "People got so frustrated they threw Rube (Allyn) overboard."

In 1964, Hurricane Dora and high tides claimed most of the treasure.

Mr. and Mrs. Charles Reubel beat the Khouris to Hospital Key, but the brothers beached closer to the treasure, with Mr. and Mrs. Braden Quicksall in hot pursuit. It became a three-team hunt.

Following instructions, the Khouris stepped off the final paces. "We carried clam forks with us," said Howard Khouri, 83, a former employee of the Times and Florida Power. "If we didn't find the treasure, we were gonna find clams."

They found the chest amid mangroves, partially buried and surrounded by animal tracks. "When we saw the chest's green corner, we knew we were on the right island," George Khouri said. "A raccoon found the treasure before us."

As the brothers unearthed the chest, 50 more boats arrived. Howard Khouri, with cache in hand, greeted them: "Is this what you're looking for?"

Allyn exchanged the chest's certificate for the treasure and, at 11:20 a.m., the brothers relaxed in the white sand, the coins raining through their hands like silver water.

"The best part was seeing the money," George Khouri said. "A lot of people were looking for it."

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