History of the Old House

New Guys in the Old House
NORTHEAST JOURNAL | John L. Bailey
November/December 2009

Until Man came to Florida and started developing it, this area of wilderness was a difficult place to live. Early settlers started moving into southern Florida soon after it became a state in 1845. The fledging state was only marginally acceptable for any except the most hardy individuals who eked out a living from the inhospitable land.

Pinellas county was among the last to be settled in central Florida, mainly because it was surrounded by salt water, and only accessible by land from the north. Early pioneers frequently arrived in covered wagons.

These rugged settlers established homesteads and farms. Some eventually planted acres of orange groves beside Tampa Bay, stretching into the lake-filled areas such as Crescent Lake.

One of those old farmhouses is located at the corner of 4th Street and 15th Avenue North. The present owners are Robin and Jack King, who have recently established the Three Birds Tavern at that location. Part of the building is the original farmhouse of a sprawling property that stretched all way northward past 22nd Avenue.

It is this original building, 1492 4th Street North, that serves as the principal dining area, featuring a large, distinctive fire place. Another of the buildings for that farm property is the original building of The Melting Pot, north of 22nd Avenue. That was the carriage house for this large farm. A third building, known as the old School House, was moved several years ago to 18th Avenue Northeast.

Robin and Jack especially enjoy seeing their customers relaxing in the comfortable surroundings of this history-filled restaurant. Many find it hard to believe this was an old farm home.

The belief takes on reality when one digs into the history of this sand-filled peninsular wilderness, once covered by scrub palmetto and pinewood hills.

One wealthy man in particular had a considerable influence in Pinellas Town, as it was called at that time. This is even before the legendary exploits of Peter Demens and John Williams. This man, Hamilton Disston, had begun negotiations with politicians in Tallahassee because of a financial crisis in Florida in the late 1870s.

The state of Florida faced the necessity of paying $1-million interest on railroad bonds that was nearly in default. If this interest amount had defaulted, the alternative was bankruptcy.

Florida had only one asset that could be offered to someone who would give the government in Tallahassee the $1-million it needed. This asset was 20,000,000 acres of land, officially designated as “swamp and overflowed” land that had been acquired by Florida from the Federal Govern-ment in 1850, with the provision the land was to be drained.

The 1881 land purchase deal that saved Florida was innovative and ingenious. Florida Governor William D. Bloxham decided to sell four million acres of this wilderness to Hamilton Disston for 25¢ an acre, thereby providing the state the $1-million needed to repay its creditors. This made Disston the largest landowner in the United States, and perhaps the world. Disston eventually controlled “swamp and overflowed” land in 25 counties, stretching from Ocala to south of Lake Okeechobee.

Disston envisioned draining the land for an empire in Florida. As the drainage progressed in southern Florida, he established a 12,000-acre city on Boca Ciega Bay. Hamilton named the community Disston City. It featured 100-foot wide streets. He dreamed of 50,000 inhabitants who would come to buy homesites. These thousands of people never materialized. This community is neither a port nor on the Gulf of Mexico, although it is now called Gulfport.

Some feel that this well-planned community served as the model for the larger city that developed in the late 1890s. That city is St. Petersburg, with wide streets and a logical grid-based layout.

Part of Disston’s purchase is the area just north of downtown St. Petersburg up along 4th Street and bordering on what is now the Old Northeast and extending all the way to Boca Ciega Bay. Property records show one of the owners of the land between 5th Avenue North to 22nd Avenue to be Lake Butler Villa Company, one of four land development companies established by Disston.

Over the years there have been a succession of owners and restaurants at 4th and 15th — the former Brass Rail, a biker bar, Cockney Rebel, Limey’s and now Three Birds Tavern. There is a full basement, where liquor is stored, along with the array of kegs for the variety of beer on tap. It is amazingly cool in the basement, even on the hot day I first visited to talk with Robin and Jack and to look around at all the history contained in those walls.

Some of these owners can be found in old newspaper accounts. From The Independent, St. Petersburg, Florida, Thursday, June 21, 1923 edition is this news item extract:

“The North Ward Welfare club held its monthly summer meeting yesterday afternoon at the home of Mrs. James Cox, 1492 Fourth street north. This was in the form of a silver tea and proved to be most delightful…”

Another owner is identified in the Monday, April 16, 1928 edition of The Independent:

The Victory class of the First Methodist church will hold its monthly business and social meeting tonight at 7:45 o’clock at the home of Mrs. James Gordy, 1492 Fourth street north. Mesdames F. E. Fowler and R. H. Gustafson will be joint hostesses. All members and young matrons interested in the class are invited to attend.

While I enjoyed a cool and delicious fruit and cheese plate, at Three Birds Tavern, we talked about the origins of the building. One can easily see the difference in brickwork between the original farmhouse and later additions.

Perhaps one of the reasons for the coolness is the presence of the “ghost of 1492” reputed to inhabit the stairway leading to the anomaly of a basement in Florida. Some of the waiters will say with a straight face, “Yes, there’s a ghost down there.”

Maybe it’s the ghost that led Robin and Jack to adopt this motto for the restaurant — “Don’t Worry About a Thing.” It comes from the Bob Marley song, Three Little Birds:
Rise up this mornin’
Smiled with the risin’ sun.
Three little birds
Pitch by my doorstep,
Singin’: “Don’t worry ’bout a thing ’Cause ever’ little thing gonna be all right!”

Robin and Jack get a lot of use out of the comfortable first floor room of the old farmhouse plus the full basement, and they even have office space in the original second floor.

Others were also getting use out of the comfortable surroundings of the home, as this fragment of a story in the St. Petersburg Times, of Thursday, February 23, 1950, indicates:

…just to keep the record straight, since the African tulip tree is coming into bloom, here are the locations: South side of yard, 1492 Fourth Street North…

And a favorite for many years, The Brass Ring was featured in the Alfresco column of the St. Petersburg Independent, on Wednesday, April 9, 1986:

A generous number of yellow and white umbrella tables are clustered around an old swimming pool. This is South Florida! Dine under the stars on entrees ranging from…

The Three Birds Tavern is becoming the trendy favorite of the neighborhood, with it’s comfortable dining areas indoors, or on the spacious verandah, plus new patios that have been recently added. As the cooler season approaches, these spacious outdoor areas will start to fill up quickly.

Get acquainted with Robin and Jack at Three Birds Tavern, “Cause ever’ little thing gonna be all right!” 

Background information sources include: Florida’s Promoters, Charles E. Harner, Trend House, Tampa, FL 1973; Remembering St. Petersburg Florida Sunshine City Stories, Scott Taylor Hartzell, The History Press, Charleston, SC 2006; St. Petersburg: Once Upon a Time, Del March, City of St. Petersburg, FL, 1976; City of St. Petersburg public library.