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Murphy clan passed down stories of area's early days


© St. Petersburg Times, published October 11, 2000

ST. PETERSBURG -- The way John R. Murphy heard the story, one day in 1888 the Detroit Hotel's soup was just too hot.

"My father happened to be in the dining room when those Russians -- (Peter) Demens and his group (who brought the Orange Belt Railroad here) -- were invited there for dinner," Murphy said in 1987. "Demens spit (soup) all over the table."

Demens' associates thought it was an American custom, so they followed suit.

J.R. Murphy and his father, John Freeman Murphy, bore witness to early life here and wove many tales. The St. Petersburg Times called J.R. the oral historian of his pioneer family.

"My father told me all this information and my brain absorbed it," J.R. once explained. "It's like a folklore."

Some stories concerned Henry Peter Murphy, J.F.'s grandfather, who was a cabin boy on a slave ship. H.P. Murphy also befriended Davey Crockett, who later died at the Alamo.

H.P. settled at Anona, a village near Indian Rocks. J.F. Murphy was born there and came to St. Petersburg as a 1-year-old about 1877.

"The Murphys lived at 26th Street and 54th Avenue N . . . homesteading 40 acres," the Times wrote. Like many Florida pioneers, they had a log house with a main room, a breezeway and a kitchen.

"There were just two little stores," J.F. said. "(John) Bethel's at Big Bayou and one run by a fellow named Grubb."

Residents raised hogs, chickens, turkeys and guinea fowl and had vegetable gardens. "Plenty of deer," J.F. noted. "We used to have to sit up nights to keep 'em out of the sweet potato patch."

Oysters or mullet were common suppers. "The mullet was so thick you could walk on them," Helen M. Young, J.R.'s daughter, remembers being told. "One jumped up once and hit my uncle in the head."

And there was cane beer. "It'd knock the chocks out from under you," J.F. told the Times. "Everybody had their own sugar cane patch."

In 1901, J.F. Murphy met Effie Mae Shepherd while building her family's home at 792 29th Ave. N. They married 11 years later and had two children, J.R. and Oscar A.

J.F., a carpenter who worked 10 hours a day for 10 cents an hour, built his home in 1920 at 2825 Ninth St. N. "We still have his tools," Young said, "with his initials carved in the handle."

Young often sat with her grandfather on his backyard green benches. Her grandmother made soap and guava jelly while J.F. spun his tales.

"Every pond had alligators," J.F. said. "They'd catch your hogs. What little money there was in the community came from orange shipments -- $1 per crate -- or cotton, which went by boat to Cedar Key's railhead."

J.F. suffered a stroke in 1969 and died two weeks later on Dec. 26. "A good bit of Pinellas history came toppling down, like an old tree downed by a windstorm, when John Freeman Murphy passed on," columnist Dick Bothwell wrote.

Born Dec. 5, 1916, J.R. Murphy later attended St. Petersburg High School. He was a Union Trust Bank teller and subsequently a Pinellas (Wicks) Lumber Co. foreman. He married Dorothy Helen Beers in 1948.

For 67 years, J.R. lived in the Ninth Street and 29th Avenue N area. Most of the Murphy clan "were all raised on this street," J.R. said.

Young, J.R.'s only child, said her father "was a home-loving man. He played (the harmonica) for me at bedtime" and retold J.F.'s stories.

"Grandfather told the longer stories and was more animated," said Young, 50. "Father was more jovial with his accounts."

Many were about hunting. "My dad and Billy O'Quin used to go hunting, and they shot themselves a wild boar and a deer in Williams Park," J.R. would say from the edge of his seat.

Some tales resurrected pioneer Christmases. "We didn't have much presents," J.R. would remember his father saying. "There was a community tree. We would exchange small gifts -- candy and books."

J.R. died of leukemia on New Year's Eve 1987. "I miss all the family and getting together on the holidays," Young said. "They're all gone."

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