City of Oldsmar History
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Recollections of Oldsmar 1913-2009 by Jerry Beverland
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Oldsmar Revisited in Pictures and Stories 1916-1926
by Jerry Beverland
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Find more historical photos on the Florida Memory Project site.
Ransom Eli Olds and the American Dream
The City of Oldsmar sits on the Eastern edge of Pinellas County at the Northern end of Tampa Bay. A charming town with lovely oaks and beautifully planted medians, it is like a breath of fresh air in the midst of Pinellas County, the most densely populated county in the State of Florida. Strip malls, fast food restaurants, and crowded highways dominate much of the area, but the little town of Oldsmar has the distinct flavor of a sleepy Florida town.
The raw essence of old Florida has been well preserved in Oldsmar. There is a small town feel augmented by a feeling of space. The city is thoughtfully planned with the streets fanning out from Shore Drive along Tampa Bay. Many houses both new and old, grand and modest, sit on large treed lots. The main street in town is State Street, home to City Hall, the Library, and the fire station. Park Boulevard stretches from City Hall on State Street to R. E. Olds Park located on the edge of the sparkling waters of Old Tampa Bay. The view of the bay is spectacular from Shore Drive. Much of the shore line is undeveloped parkland and is a gentle reminder of the incredible natural beauty that remains in some parts of Florida.
There were only a handful of settlers in the area in 1913 when Ransom Eli Olds decided to purchase 37,541 acres on the northern tip of Tampa Bay from Richard Peters in what is the present day Oldsmar. At the age of 52, the inventor of the Oldsmobile and REO cars embarked on a grand undertaking, turning the untamed land in northern Tampa Bay into a bustling community. He paid $400,000 for the land $200,000 in cash, $75,000 in bonds and a $125,000 apartment house in Daytona Beach. The town was originally named R. E. Olds-On-The-Bay. The name was later changed to Oldsmar. In 1927 the name was changed again to Tampa Shores, and finally in 1937 it was changed back to Oldsmar.
The early settlers had to contend with water from cisterns and individual wells. Cheesecloth was used to sieve the mosquito larva out of the water. The city built a water tower in the twenties and water was pumped into it every morning and sulfur water flowed from the taps. Somehow a faucet with St. Petersburg water was installed by the railroad tracks and everyone brought jugs to fill for drinking water. The nearest stores were located in Tarpon Springs and Dunedin.
Strategically situated between Tampa and St. Petersburg, Oldsmar was ripe for development. The long bridges across the bay had not yet been built and the shortest way from Tampa to St. Petersburg was through Oldsmar. Olds designed a community for working people rather than for the wealthy. He used engineers and surveyors from Boston to design a well-platted community, modeled after Washington, D.C., with tree lined boulevards leading from the bay to downtown. A power plant that served parts of Safety Harbor, Dunedin, and Clearwater was constructed. The streets were paved with oyster shells obtained nearby. R. E. Olds named many streets himself. Woodward, Jefferson, and Congress reminded him of Detroit. Olds named Gim Gong Road after a Chinese American horticulturist from Deland Florida. Gim Gong was working on developing frost resistant citrus crops. The streets of Oldsmar were unusually wide and more than 20 miles of sidewalk were installed. Over the years much of the sidewalk was buried under a layer of sand.
Advertisements glorifying the virtues of Oldsmar were placed in the Detroit papers. He used the slogan Oldsmar for Health, Wealth and Happiness. He tried to entice Northern companies to move their businesses to Oldsmar by offering cheap labor. Olds spent $100,000 drilling the infamous oil well that yielded water not oil. It has been said that oil was poured into the well each morning to make it look like they had struck black gold. The oil well is now capped and sits on the grounds of the Tampa Bay Downs Racetrack. (There were three other oil wells in Florida, one in Sarasota and two in the panhandle but none of them possessed the technology to drill through the Florida aquifer).
Special excursion trains ran from Detroit. The first regularly scheduled commercial passenger flight in the United States began operation in 1914 between Tampa and St. Petersburg. A yacht serving liquor from the islands would bring prospective home owners over from St. Petersburg. A 60 room hotel, The Wayside Inn was constructed in 1921. It was a lively place catering to tourists. The bottom floor housed a grocery store, drug store and a hardware store. R. E. Olds encouraged workers in his Michigan plant to move to Florida. Olds built primitive shacks without proper sanitary facilities for his employees. R. E. Olds was not a particularly well-liked man.
The first library in Oldsmar was started by the Woman's Club in 1919. In 1977 the Oldsmar Library was donated to the city and moved from the Woman's Club building to State Street in the City Hall Annex. At this time the Friends of the Library was established to help promote the library. The first school in town was located in a church at the intersection of Buckingham and Jefferson Avenues. Another early school had one room for first, second, third and fourth grades, a second room for sixth, seventh and eighth grades, and high school was in the hall. The Post Office was downtown in the middle of an animal display park featuring alligators. During the 1921 hurricane, all the alligators escaped.
Original plans for Oldsmar included a golf course and a luxurious hotel on the bay but neither ever materialized. A saw mill and foundry that made cast iron engines for tractors and grove heaters became established. The mill produced the Olds Chair (also called the Oldsmar Chair)--a sturdy chair made out of either yellow pine or cypress. The Olds Chair was similar to the Adirondack Chair and it was sold throughout the United States.
Olds provided financial backing for Kardell Tractor and Truck Company to move into town. Renamed Oldsmar Tractor Co., Olds was hoping they could devise a machine to cut through the palmetto roots. Building roads and clearing land was frustrating and expensive in Florida. The palmetto roots were impervious to bull dozers and other northern machines.
Oldsmar had dairy farms and farms of peppers, tomatoes, corn, gladioli and grapes. In the early days, it was not uncommon for cattle and hogs to run loose through town. A huge banana plantation was established on the bay but the winters were too harsh for it to flourish for long. The waters at the northern end of the bay were clean during the twenties and thirties. Fishing, oystering and crabbing were wonderful. Towns people could take their catch to the Rex Cafe to be cooked. Big fish fries and dances were a weekly event.
A casino was constructed by the bay and busloads of people from Tampa and Pinellas County would flock to the Oldsmar Casino to spend the weekend. The Oldsmar pier stretched out a thousand feet into Tampa Bay, and during prohibition, boats loaded with coconuts would arrive at the end of the pier with bottles of rum hidden in with the coconuts. The pier was so sturdy and wide that two cars could drive side by side all the way to the end to pick up cargo. The Oldsmar Casino later changed its name to the Two Bits Club.
Oldsmar sits like a plateau where the land elevation never rises higher than 20 feet above sea level. In 1921, the town was hit by a devastating hurricane. Large pine trees were uprooted and most of the town flooded by water levels 14 feet above normal. Some of the oldest homes built in Oldsmar remain on Park Boulevard. Many homes still standing after the hurricane were moved by barge to St. Petersburg during the 1920s and 1930s.
Olds had over 4.5 million dollars invested in the community in 1923. When he realized Oldsmar was not growing as he had anticipated, he started liquidating his assets. He started selling the unplatted parcels of land. The racetrack was nearly completed when he traded it for the Fort Harrison Hotel in Clearwater. The rest of the land was traded for the Belerive Hotel in Kansas. Ransom E. Olds left the town of Oldsmar after suffering a financial loss of nearly $3,000,000. Olds envisioned a city of 100,000. The population of Oldsmar was only about 200 when he left.
Harry A. Prettyman, a St. Louis promoter, and his associates continued to sell lots in town after Olds left. Prettyman staged promotional gimmicks like Gold Rushes where pieces of gold were buried on a vacant lot and everyone got to dig for it. In 1927 Prettyman was caught selling underwater lots. To avoid scandal, the town of Oldsmar was renamed Tampa Shores. It wasn't until 1935 that the last of the property owned by R. E. Olds was finally sold.
Modern Oldsmar: Rediscovered at Last
When the Gandy Bridge was built in 1924, and the Courtney Campbell Parkway completed in 1934, traffic no longer went through Oldsmar to go between St. Petersburg and Tampa. After hurricane damage, scandal, and rerouted traffic, Oldsmar was all but forgotten.
There wasn't much left except the success of the horse track to support Oldsmar during the lean years following the depression. The Tampa Bay Downs racetrack is just outside the city limits, but it has had a significant impact on Oldsmar. After it opened, thousands of visitors drove in just for the racing season. Owners of the horses often stayed in Oldsmar for the winter. The area along Race Track Road remains a picturesque drive past green pastures and racing stables.
There was little change in Oldsmar during the next few decades. Then in the 1980s Oldsmar was discovered again. Pinellas County, the most densely populated county in Florida was nearly built out and the Florida population explosion reached Oldsmar. The city increased by only 1,100 new residences during the 1970s. But in the 1980s, Oldsmar population tripled. Oldsmar grew faster than any other city around Tampa Bay and faster than almost any other city in Florida. The city sewage plant was so overworked in the early eighties that environmental officials issued a moratorium on any new hookups.
The solution to the moratorium was to build a new eight million dollar state-of-the-art sewer plant for immediate needs and future development. Upscale housing developments in Cypress Lakes and Forest lakes were expected to add 10,000 new residents to Oldsmar. But in 1992 almost 1,700 acres were sold to Pinellas County for the Brooker Creek Wildlife Preserve. The loss of this acreage has permanently cut the potential population of Oldsmar in half, but prevented development of sensitive land. The 8,000-acre preserve north of Oldsmar is now a protected environment of pine flatwoods, cypress domes and wetlands.
1996 & Beyond
Oldsmar is a small town but still manages to make a positive impact on the local environment. Concern for the environmental health of the community prompted the city to take an active role in surface water improvement and management of the estuaries along Tampa Bay. In addition to land that went toward the Brooker Creek Wildlife Preserve, Oldsmar set aside 34 acres of protected wetlands as the Harbor Palms Nature Park.
In recognition of the resource conservation needs of the region, Oldsmar has also set up a distribution system for reclaimed water. A reclaimed water storage facility, a million-gallon storage tank is already completed. The existing transmission system for reclaimed water is being expanded for irrigation use in state road improvement projects and subdivisions under development. A drainage improvement project in the city will augment the supply of reclaimed water by reusing storm water. This is an exceptional environmental program by the City Public Works Department. Only one other community in Florida is known to have developed a similar system for reusing stormwater.
No less than eleven subdivisions are under development in Oldsmar adding more than 1,100 new homes. The population is expected to increase from 8,500 in 1995 to more than 11,000 over the next five to seven years.
An Oldsmar Town Center is being designed to incorporate a sense of community. Planned for the State Street area, the Town Center, will favor interesting shops, unique restaurants, art galleries, historic homes, and entertaining events. The streets will be landscaped with oak trees and tropical foliage. The sidewalks will be styled for strolling.
Oldsmar has by stubbornness and happenstance avoided the hype and glitz invading some of the better known Florida communities. Instead, Oldsmar has grown in its own time, with its own style, guided by people who understand how much a small town in Florida has to offer.
(Excerpted from Reflections of Oldsmar, 1996)
Ransom Eli Olds and the American Dream contributed by Ann Liebermann
Modern Oldsmar: Rediscovered at Last contributed by Paula Geist