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Tampa, Florida

The Florida Review


As Tampa was discovered some time around 1539, but the Oldest Inhabitant and Vox Populi can only remember back as far as the freeze of eighteen ninety five, this story is not going to dig up ancient history and smear it over three or four pages. That is left to historians and geographers—the kind we studied when we attended the little log schoolhouse and they pictured to us Florida with a lot of criss-cross marks over the whole peninsula, with a footnote stating that all this territory was a vast wilderness and swamps, and only inhabitable along the sea coast. To add to the horror of the text the publishers inserted a picture of a lagoon with tangled underbrush stuffed with Florida moss until there was enough to fill a mattress.

Over the water was a tree, and from that tree hung a snake about one rod long. Its body was arched ready to strike. The open mouth could have swallowed a calf, while the forked tongue looked like a hay tedder.

That's the reason Florida is the oldest state in the union and the lest populated per square mile.

She got a back-slap from the school system of the United States, and millions of the rising generation were taught to leave this hotbed of disease and swampy wilderness seriously alone.

Not until a few tourists came down here and told others that some one had made a mistake in their reckonings and sent other tourists and prospectors down here, was South Florida given a square deal. Once that endless chain of truth was started we began to grow.

Today the entire state stands proudly as leader of all other states east of the Mississippi river in point of increase of population since 1900, credited with 42 per cent.

Today Hillsborough county stands first of all counties the state of Florida, credited with 117 per cent gain. Today Tampa stands first of all cities of over 6,000 population in the state, with 143 per cent.

And West Tampa stands first in percent increase population over all cities, with 250 per cent.

To Tampa it has not been a long cry from a mere fishing hamlet to the metropolis of South Florida.

It was nearly 350 years from the time Hernando de Soto struck the headwaters of Tampa Bay until Tampa was big enough to afford incorporation papers.

In thirty years Tampa jumped from condensed milk fed through a rubber nipple to a city of 51,000 prosperous people, taking its sustenance through a 24 foot deep sea channel and seven miles of municipal controlled docks.

There are no broken pillars and ruined aqueducts in Tampa. She is young and charged to the brim, and if she attains the age of Old Jerusalem she will number her years more by the strength of her institutions than the crumbling of old buildings.

The visions of thirty years ago are translated today into stone, brick and cement. The dreams of the pioneers are accepted as the ordinary facts of every day life, and they, in turn, give place to vaster and more far-reaching imaginations.

Tampa is a Seminole name. It means "Splitwood for a quick fire." The savage Seminole named Tampa aright. Site was destined to be a town. She does things like every movement was kindled by pine splinters, rosin-soaked. She grew up overnight. She changed her swaddling clothes between two suns. And as soon as the hobble skirt goes out of fashion she will make another change and get into the census "blue book," classed for the first time with cities with over 25,000 population.

The first people to inhabit these parts were Indians, not pirates as generally supposed. The pirates did not come until 1905 or 6. They are selling tourists souvenir post cards at 1,000 per cent profit and kumquats in pill boxes at the rate of ten cents a piece when they buy them at twenty cents a bushel.

The Indian wars brought the first permanent white families to Tampa. These were soldiers with their families. Naturally other whites came here for the protection the soldiers afforded.

In 1843 a town site was laid off and Congress asked to so designate it. This site was a mile square, and was then and is now known as the Fort Brooke Reservation. On it was the officers' headquarters, yet standing, and known as the Carew home.

In I845 the first saw mill for all of the country south of Ocala was built, and in 1847 the second mill was erected. The rivalry between these mills was so intense that both were burned within five years. Between 1845 and 1850, with advent of the saw mills, Tampa took on a boom, although the foreign colonization companies were not yet operating from their Chicago offices, and paying $1,000 a magazine page to tell of profits of $5,000 an acre from one crop of celery and three other crops off the same acre still to be harvested.

In 1857 Tampa was incorporated and Capt. James McKay was elected mayor. Ninety seven votes were cast for him and the rival candidates. The campaign had been a sizzler with torch light processions every night until all the pine knots for miles around had been utilized and they began to burn twisted cotton dipped in mullet oil. As there were not ninety-seven voters in Tampa at that time there were charges of fraud and ballot-box-stuffing, but as the ten-cent-magazines had not been popularized, the matter never got into public print and the sensation was buried in the good time the people had the night that the mayor was inducted into office. The procession was a mile long, and as every man, woman and child was in line, and there were no spectators, it is said that it was a howling success.

In I853 the Seminole Indian was on the war path. He couldn't appreciate civilization and had smelled afar off the burnt odor of cylinder oil and gasoline and heard the whirr in the heavens of the aeroplane.

The citizens and soldiery of Tampa and the whites for miles around massed at the Reservation for protection sake.

It had been agreed that in case of an attack that the outposts ring the court house bell, and every one would flock to the barracks and there make a determined stand against the Indians.

There were practical jokers in the city, as there are in all places, and these wits, namely; Eli Adcing, George McKay, Billy Ferris and Ed. Spencer, conceived the idea of creating a little amusement. One night when the barracks was wrapped in slumber they rang the courthouse bell good and loud.

In an instant Tampa was up in arms. Men took up the alarm, women screamed, children cried, dogs barked. Every one was out of bed and grasped firearms and ammunition and hiked for the barracks. The old muzzle-loading guns were about all they took along. It could hardly be called a full-dressed gathering. Some were so scantily attired that the moon went behind a cloud until the curtain was ready to be hung up.

Hardly had the people assembled until a human form was seen approaching. Everybody opened fire upon the object After the first volley the citizens recognized the voice S. M. Brockway, a gunsmith who was belated as he had gone to his shop for a wheelbarrow load of guns and ammunition. After he was brought into camp, and unharmed, he was complimented upon his bravery. "Well," said he, "whether you had peppered me or not, you would have gotten this ammunition and these guns."

And the Carnegie hero fund was not in existence those days, more's the pity!

In the meantime, the hullabaloo and the firing on Brockway had caused the jokers to think that probably the Indians were attacking the barracks, approaching from a direction opposite to their outpost. So they rushed to the barracks for protection. As they were fully dressed and were sporting new neckties and gunmetal shoes, the citizens and soldiers suspected a trick and when given the third degree the boys confessed.

They were marched over to a muddy pond and Mayor McKay gave each one a ducking, filled their ears with mud and their trousers with an assorted lot of boot tips, properly and artistically applied.

This was Tampa's first and only real Indian scare.

The civil war came next and Tampa was devastated. After the war came the negro domination and the carpet bagger, both more disastrous than the Seminole or the civil war.

Negro soldiers disappeared mysteriously, and carpetbaggers left their carpetbags behind, and in a few years the Floridian was in control.

But it was slow going. Rats and bats were the only inhabitants of most of the houses. The god of war had be unkind to South Florida, but the God on High was kind as he always has been, and with brave hearts and brawny muscles the pioneer staid on the job, and gradually picked up the loose threads of prosperity began to weave the structure of today. Yet as late as 1873 to 1876 there were but three new houses, such as they were, erected in Tampa.

Then came the Spanish-American war, and Tampa was elected as the point of movement of the army to Cuba, and 30,000 men from all over the United States were thrown upon us. After the war and their return home these men disseminated the greatness of the southland to their friends.

From that time Tampa and the south of Florida began to grow. And we shall continue to grow as people know us better.

Excerpt from Powell, W.B., "Tampa—'Split Wood for Quick Fires'" The Florida Review, 1911.


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