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A horseless Hitching Post trotted through Depression

By SCOTT TAYLOR HARTZELL

© St. Petersburg Times, published November 15, 2000


ST. PETERSBURG -- "You know, there once was a 100-foot hitching post in town with no horses," John Thornton said, a smile crossing his face. "It was mine."

From 1931 to 1949, Thornton owned a Central Avenue fruit, vegetable and novelty store called the Hitching Post.

"He specialized in watermelons," said William Mangold, 86, who lived near the Post. "He was the first to sell it by the slice. I think they were 10 cents."

Thornton enjoyed business success and marital bliss as he grew with the city. He also felt the sting of the Depression and the tragedy of his twin brother's murder.

"There are ups and downs," said Thornton, 87, who also worked for "Doc" Webb. "Through it all, we've been blessed."

Just 21 years after the city's incorporation, Thornton was born in 1913 in a two-story house at 395 Ninth Ave. N. "I doubt there's many people that's been born here and been here as long as I have," Thornton said.

Thornton's father was a developer who had the first gas station between here and Tampa, near their home. "Dad didn't believe in selling property," he said. "Had 99- year leases. Lost it all during the bust."

After attending St. Petersburg High School, Thornton established the Hitching Post in 1931 at 1622 Central Ave. The 25-foot shed sat amid huge oak trees. Monthly rent cost him $7.50.

"Weeds were growing in the streets," Thornton said. "It was the depths of the Depression. West of Ninth Street, there was hardly anything. Rogers Dry Cleaning. Pinellas Lumber. Everything was scattered around."

Thornton traveled to Largo for produce, where oranges were 25 cents a bushel and grapefruits half that price. "The trees were loaded," said Thornton, who filled his Ford, minus the rumble seat, with fruit.

Within eight months, Thornton's visits to Largo required a trailer. Trips to Palmetto and Ellenton via the Bee Line Ferry followed. Capt. Early McMullen was tipped with fruit, Thornton said.

At the Post, 5-foot galvanized tubs were filled with watermelon and ice. "I'd end up at the end of summer with about 700 pounds of seeds," Thornton said.

Bill Cooper, 83, remembers "stopping there with dad and buying watermelons." The Post was open from 7 a.m. to 10 p.m.

In 1937, Thornton's twin brother, police Officer James Thornton, was shot and killed.

"They had roadblocks everywhere," Thornton said. "I was tore up."

One year later, Thornton married Alabama native Georgia Thompson. "On our first date, I took her to see Jay Starkey's hogs," Thornton said. "She liked it, so she married me." The couple had three children.

During the war, the Hitching Post was the city's source for bananas. "I made a deal in Central America that brought me 200 stalks," Thornton recalled.

By 1945, the Post was 100 feet long and Thornton drove the town's first Ford convertible. "Cost me $1,200 new," he said.

When the Post's monthly rent ballooned to $150, Thornton moved to 1644 Central Ave. "We really went into novelties then."

Mexican serapes, sombreros and expensive leather goods filled the Post.

A cranberry scare about 1948 wounded Thornton. "People were told they could get cancer from cranberries," Thornton said. "Lost the works, 25 crates."

In 1949, Thornton "tired out and sold (the business). The buildings are bulldozed over now."

Thornton spent his next 17 years working for "Doc" Webb. He left Webb in 1966 as the vice president and division manager of the food department.

"(Thornton) worked long hours and did a lot of hard work," said Doris McIntyre, 81, the first nurse in Webb's first aid department.

After serving 11 years as a meat inspector, Thornton retired in 1977 from the Florida Department of Agriculture. Gardening, talking history and painting by number have filled his 22 years of retirement.

Some of his 150 paintings hang inside his Carlton Arms apartment, where Thornton's smile returned upon mention of the Hitching Post. "We had a good business," he said. "It was really wonderful times."

- Contact Scott Taylor Hartzell at Hartzel@gate.net

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