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Giddiness breaks out as Pinellas breaks away

St. Petersburg leads a 24-year fight against Hillsborough; North Pinellas is promised the county seat. In 1911, the tide finally turns.

By SCOTT TAYLOR HARTZELL

© St. Petersburg Times, published July 26, 2000


Inspired by "the most remarkable political and legislative victory in the history of Florida," hundreds gathered amid bonfires in Clearwater in 1911 to celebrate the possibility of Pinellas independence.

The date was May 22. Four days earlier in Tallahassee, legislators agreed that area voters could decide if the Pinellas peninsula was to separate from Hillsborough County.

When the news reached the separatists in St. Petersburg, it was time for a party that exceeded "Philadelphia in 1776," the Times said.

St. Petersburg led the 24-year fight for sovereignty. "Clearwater and upper Pinellas were extremely lukewarm about division," historian Walter Fuller wrote.

Separatists complained that Hillsborough, which had governed the peninsula since 1834, neglected area roads, bridges and schools. The distance to the Tampa county seat also infuriated the Pinellas rebels.

The Revolutionary War proved that government should be "as near the people as possible," C.H. Evans said.

State Rep. W.A. Belcher ignited the battle to free "the Point of Pines" in 1887. His bill would have created Gulf County, but Sen. Joseph Wall killed the effort, angering many of the area's 1,200 residents.

On Feb. 23, 1907, Times editor William L. Straub established himself as the premier separatist with an editorial, "Pinellas County," which became the Pinellas declaration of independence.

"There is not an argument to be brought against division," Straub wrote. "Now is the time."

Straub's editorial page was "an engine of political reform," historian Ray Arsenault wrote. "(He) missed few opportunities to snipe at Tampa's deficiencies."

After Straub drafted a separatist bill in April 1907, "the heat in Tampa increased," historian Karl Grismer wrote. That effort also failed, but the battle continued.

Don C. McMullen won a Senate seat in 1909 by openly swearing he opposed division but secretly telling separatists he would favor the move in 1911.

Hillsborough had much to lose. The peninsula guaranteed $4-million in tax revenue.

"The Tampa political machine brought every pressure to bear," Grismer said.

The Times described the separatists as being in the ninth inning facing a "third strike with two outs."

Straub placed legislators on his newspaper's mailing list and drowned them with separatist ideology. North Pinellas was promised the county seat to gain its support.

"Clearwater it must be," Straub said.

St. Petersburg resident S.D. Harris and Largo's J.S. Taylor lobbied heavily in Tallahassee as the Legislature deliberated. It was a "long and masterful campaign of Mr. Taylor," the Times noted.

Fuller wrote that "it took nearly the whole 1911 session to worm this division bill through. It was a slow, torturous course."

On May 18, Hillsborough Sen. McMullen kept his promise to back division, and the bill passed. Taylor wired St. Petersburg days later: "Governor (Albert Gilchrist) has signed the bill."

Thunderous crowds filled St. Petersburg streets on May 22 to celebrate and anticipate a November referendum to decide the issue.

That evening, almost 200 St. Petersburg residents paid $1 each to take two train coaches to Clearwater.

The Cornet Band played as separatists sipped lemonade, the Evening Independent reported. The speeches began at 8 p.m. as cigar smoke filled the air.

J.J. Mendenhall said he felt like slinging mud and brickbats at the Tampa bunch.

One speaker proposed a monument to S.D. Harris and J.S. Taylor, who in 1913 became Pinellas County's first representative to the Legislature.

Another orator predicted that "Los Angeles would be insignificant 20 years hence when compared with Pinellas."

On Nov. 14, 1911, voters approved separation by 1,379 to 505. Pinellas, with a population of 13,193, became Florida's 48th county on Jan. 1, 1912.

The battle has "been fought to a successful end," the Independent wrote. "Hurrah for Pinellas County."

Next week: The new county immediately experiences growing pains. Please forward comments or story ideas to Scott at hartzel@gate.net.

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