Davis Islands and World War II

Davis Islands and World War II
by Rodney Kite-Powell
Curator, Tampa Bay History Center
With the Sixtieth Anniversary of the end of World War II close at hand, it is interesting
to look back at what effects the war had on Davis Islands. The war, and the Depression which
preceded it, serves as break between the two major growth periods on the Islands, the 1920s and
the 1950s. It also serves to demonstrate on a small scale what was occurring in Tampa, and
Florida, as a whole.
World War II brought a variety of benefits and liabilities to Davis Islands. One of the
primary concerns of local political leaders and their military counterparts during the war
concerned the housing of soldiers in town for training. Davis Islands’ apartments and hotels,
particularly the Mirasol and the Mirasol Plaza (formerly the Palmerin, now Hudson Manor)
hotels, accommodated some of the city’s newest military residents. Laursten G. Moore, vice
president of Davis Islands, Incorporated, was too old to serve in the military, but still contributed
to the war effort by serving on Hillsborough County’s rationing board.
Among the most pressing concerns early in the war was the question surrounding the
future of Peter O. Knight Airport. The Army Air Corps had taken over two of Tampa’s
municipal airports, Drew and Henderson Fields. Peter O. Knight, then, became the only airfield
in Tampa available for commercial and private planes. This did not protect the field from
closing “for the duration,” which was seen as a method of securing the area and reducing the
number of airplanes appearing in local skies. The main drawback to the closure plan, though,
was the elimination of civilian air travel in a large portion of the Tampa Bay area. The Tampa
Aero Club mounted a campaign to save the airport, which proved successful. Passenger and
private planes continued to use Peter O. Knight Airport throughout the war.
As pro-airport advocates correctly predicted, Peter O. Knight gained importance due to
its role as the only public airport available and its close proximity to downtown, but its
deficiencies also began to show. It seemed apparent, as early as 1943, to some of the area’s
aviation boosters that the Islands’ airport was too small for the larger passenger planes. People
such as Roslyn Burritt, who championed the saving of Peter O. Knight Airport, now wanted
Henderson Field, near Temple Terrace in northern Hillsborough County, to be the county’s
international airport when the war ended. County leaders began constructing Henderson Field
before the United States became involved in World War II, but the war department intervened
before construction could be finished.
Neither Peter O. Knight Airport nor Henderson Field became Tampa’s international
airport. Drew Field, in existence since the 1920s and expanded by the army air corps during the
war, became Tampa International Airport in 1947. Peter O. Knight currently serves small,
private planes. Remnants of Henderson Field=s asphalt runways are barely visible amid the
tourist meccas of Busch Gardens and Adventure Island.
While Allied forces raced through Europe, giving the people of the United States a sense
that an end to the war in Europe was near, things began to stir on Davis Islands. On January 10,
1945, Mr. and Mrs. Melvin Hudson purchased one of the Islands= original hotels, the Mirasol
Plaza Hotel, located at 115 East Davis Boulevard, plus three rear lots which fronted on Columbia
Drive. Previously known as the Palmerin (and not to be confused with the Mirasol Hotel, 84
Davis Boulevard), the hotel soon became known as Hudson Manor. The hotel featured 52
rooms, each with a bath, and “was filled with guests” at the time of the purchase. The former
owner, Dr. Sherman Smith, owned another set of 1920s boom-era properties in the area, Temple
Terrace Estates, which he sold to Florida Christian College earlier in 1945.
Events on the other side of the globe quickly grabbed headlines in the middle of 1945,
culminating with the news that Japan had surrendered on August 14, 1945, ending World War II.
Closer to home, W. Howard Frankland, owner of Tampa’s Pioneer Tire Company, began to
acquire a real estate empire consisting mostly of 1920s properties in downtown Tampa. His
investment company, Crest View Realty, purchased the Wallace S. Building, the Stovall Office
Building and the Haverty Furniture Company Building in February of 1945. These
procurements were small in comparison to his takeover, with three partners, of Davis Islands,
Incorporated on October 22, 1945. The sale encompassed “the stock of the corporation and its
realty, consisting of between 800 and 1000 lots on the island, as well as the Davis Islands
Country Club.” With the purchase of Davis Islands by Frankland’s syndicate, the property
returned to local hands. Vast amounts of vacant land sat ready for development, which was right
around the corner.

Davis Islands and The Depression

Davis Islands and the Depression
by Rodney Kite-Powell
Curator, Tampa Bay History Center

Though far removed from the scene by 1930, Davis= influence, and that of his plans for
Davis Islands, were still followed by Davis Islands, Incorporated and the firm=s resident vice
president, Lauriston G. Moore. Working on the Davis Islands development since 1925, Moore
served as director of the contract department for DP Davis Properties. When Stone & Webster
purchased the Islands from Davis they kept Moore, who would serve the company in various
capacities, including vice president, from 1931 until 1945. The company also retained Edith
Davis (no relation to David), who was the office manager for D. P. Davis Properties and Davis
Islands, Inc. from 1925 until her death in 1952.
When Moore assumed the vice presidency of Davis Islands, Inc., which included site
management for the absentee owners, the entire property consisted of 115 structures, including
92 homes, 11 apartment buildings, 2 hotels and 10 commercial and public buildings. Of the 51
streets that currently run through Davis Islands, only 17 were listed in the 1931 city directory,
indicating that the remaining 34 had not been completed. While the Spanish, Italian and
Mediterranean Revival styles still dominated the built environment, some humbler styles began
emerging, with the approval of Davis Islands, Inc. The most prevalent of these new
styles was red brick, with the Kornell Apartments building, located at 25 Davis Boulevard, a
prime example. Built in 1928, the two story, box-shaped building represents an era on Davis
Islands when less expensive building materials and simpler construction techniques dominated
blueprint pages.
Despite the slumping real estate market, work continued on the Davis Islands project. As
a result, definite improvements could be seen by 1936. By this time, only nine Davis Islands
streets remained absent from the pages of the city directories and work progressed on the new
airport at the end of the Islands. Growth in the real estate market continued at a slow pace
during the first half of the 1930s, with the addition of only nine homes and one hotel. A club
house for the development=s nine-hole golf course also added to the slowly climbing building
tally.
One of the biggest building projects on the Islands, perhaps second only to Tampa
Municipal Hospital, was the construction of the “Downtown Airport,” begun in June 1934. The
airport soon received a new name B Peter O. Knight Airport, in honor of the savior of Davis
Islands and one of the most influential Tampans of that or any time. The project, one of many
funded by the Works Progress Administration (WPA), sat at the southeastern end of the Islands.
Though first proposed in 1930, the idea did not come to fruition until four years later.
Davis Islands seemed, during its early years, to be the perfect location for civic and
government leaders to spend public funds. In addition to the hospital and Peter O. Knight
Airport are, the late 1930s saw the beginning of another public project, one that would have
converted most of the southern end of the Islands with a park and museum commemorating the
Spanish – American War. Property for the project, located on the waterfront near the airport,
was acquired by the City of Tampa, Congressional support was sought and granted and plans
were drawn for a $500,000 building and memorial park encompassing forty acres of land.
Delays soon set in, and, like many projects begun at the cusp of the 1940s, the project never
materialized. Ironically, a museum and park commemorating one war, and the veterans of that
war, was delayed and ultimately abandoned to support the men and women fighting in another
war — World War II.
As Tampa emerged from the 1930s, even with world war looming on the horizon, life
was beginning to improve. The Tampa Daily Times, on March 15, 1940, pointed to the increase
of housing construction throughout Hillsborough County as an indicator of better times, stating
that Abuilding in Tampa and Hillsborough County is at a new post-boom peak.@ The paper was
quick to point out that the statistics did not include Abig government building programs,
including slum clearance projects here.@ At the end of 1940, a Daily Times headline announced a
A13-Year High Reached Here In Building.@ The story explained that, in the first 11 months of
1940, 287 homes had been built in the City of Tampa.1
The people of Davis Islands felt the effects of the city=s growth. By 1941, the Islands
included 175 homes, 15 apartment and hotel buildings and 13 commercial and public buildings,
for a total of 203 structures. The growth of the housing market on the Islands, with 74 new
homes built since 1936, extended into previously unoccupied territory. Streets in the lower half
of the Islands, such as Marmora, Severn, Erie and Lucerne, started to receive attention from
home builders. It would still take a second land boom, following World War II, to really reignite
growth on the Islands.
1 Tampa Daily Times, March 15, 1940; December 30, 1940.

Early History of the Davis Family

The Early History of the Davis Family
by Rodney Kite-Powell
Tampa Bay History Center

This month’s history article focuses on David Davis’ family, specifically his
grandfather, George Mercer Davis, who came to Florida from South Carolina in 1853.
Florida was among the newest states in the Union at the time, earning statehood in 1845.
Settlers such as Davis streamed south to stake their claim in America’s vast southernmost
frontier. For the bulk of those recent arrivals, Florida only went as far south as Lake
George, the source of the St. Johns River – to them North Florida was Florida.
Born on April 26, 1832, George Mercer Davis came to Palatka, Florida as a
talented twenty-one-year-old carpenter. The hand-hewn rafters he supplied for St.
Mark’s Episcopal Church in 1854 were among his first major contributions to his new
hometown. On May 5th of that same year, Davis married fellow South Carolinian Martha
A. Baisden. Eleven months later, in April 1855, the Davises welcomed their first child
into the family. Harriet “Hattie” Davis was the first of eight children born to George and
Martha Davis. Their second child (and David’s father), George Riley Davis, arrived
January 15, 1857. Like his sister, George Riley was born in Palatka.
The Davis family left Palatka sometime between 1857 and 1860, going upriver to
the new settlement of Welaka, on the eastern bank of the St. Johns River, twenty miles
south of Palatka and seventy-five miles south of Jacksonville. According to the 1860
Federal Census, the family’s new land held a value of $1,000, plus Davis had an
additional $500 in personal property (a combined total of $30,000 in today’s dollars).
The census also reveals that the Davis family lived better than most of their neighbors.
Of the sixty-six total families enumerated in Welaka, only fourteen held more real estate
and twenty-five owned more personal property.
The relative peace and progress of the Davis family, like that of almost every
family in Florida, if not the South, would soon be shattered. Long simmering national
tensions between North and South finally boiled over with the 1860 presidential election.
South Carolina was the first state to leave the Union in protest over Abraham Lincoln’s
victory, followed by Mississippi on January 9, 1861. The next day, Florida’s secession
convention voted to depart. Soon, Florida would join a new nation, the Confederate
States of America, headed by Mississippi’s Jefferson Davis.
Members of the Davis family were caught up in this early surge of southern
patriotism. When their fourth child was born in 1862, they named the boy Jeff, giving
him the same name as the Confederate president. The family had returned to Palatka by
this time, though nothing exists in the historic record to explain the move.
George Mercer Davis enlisted, along with forty-four of his neighbors, in the
Confederate Army in Palatka on August 2, 1862 as a member of the First Partisan
Rangers Battalion. His unit’s designation would change to Company B, Second Florida
Infantry Battalion (IB) on June 24, 1863. By that time, Davis had seen light action in the
defense of his state. That would soon change.
Perhaps the most overwhelming period of Davis’ military service was as a
member of the Army of Northern Virginia during the Union siege of Petersburg,
Virginia, which began in June 1864. Arguably the most sensational episode of the siege
was the Battle of the Crater, July 30, 1864. Union soldiers of the Forty-eighth
Pennsylvania dug a 511-foot mine shaft underneath the Confederate lines. The former
anthracite coal miners then dug a seventy-five foot powder chamber running parallel to,
and twenty feet below, the Rebel positions. The chamber was filled with explosives and,
at 4:44 a.m. on July 30, 1864, the command was given to light the fuse.
The initial blast, which opened up a crater nearly a quarter acre in size, instantly
killed or wounded 278 Confederate soldiers, but the Rebels soon regrouped and began
pouring a merciless fire down on Union troops, who had crowded into the crater in an
attempt to get through the Confederate lines. By 9:30 in the morning the battle was over.
Total losses were 4,000 Union soldiers dead, wounded or missing, and 1,300 Confederate
casualties, most of them wounded. The battle was a Confederate victory, but the morale
of both sides sank in the aftermath.
Eventually the rigors of military service, the prolonged separation from his wife
and children and the growing hopelessness of the Confederate cause, drove Davis to
desert the siege lines at Petersburg on August 22, 1864. He did not go alone. With him
were Sergeant David A. Dunham and Private Alexander L. Davis (no relation), both of
whom enlisted with Davis in Palatka two years before. Two other Palatkans, Privates
John Green and Lewis Roberts, were killed at Petersburg before Davis’ desertion. The
three deserters, soon captured by Federal soldiers, took an oath renouncing the
Confederate cause and pledging their allegiance to the United States. They were then
sent to Philadelphia – the war, for them, was over. Davis returned to Florida after the war
and eventually became a prosperous businessman.
Rodney Kite-Powell is the Saunders Foundation Curator of History at the Tampa Bay
History Center.

Davis Shores in St. Augustine

Davis Shores, St. Augustine, Florida
by Rodney Kite-Powell
Curator, Tampa Bay History Center

Despite his success in Tampa, and partly because of it, Davis Islands creator David P.
Davis grew restless during the early months of 1925. Though Davis Islands was still in its
infancy, he began to look for something new. As the project taking shape in Hillsborough Bay
was the next step for Davis to take from his Miami experiences, Davis Islands became a stepping
stone to an even more ambitious project. That project, Davis Shores in St. Augustine, arguably
led to his financial downfall and untimely death.
On October 15, 1925, the same day Davis completed sales on Davis Islands lots, and just
five days after his marriage to Elizabeth Nelson, he announced plans for a new development in
northeast Florida on St. Augustine=s Anastasia Island. As in Tampa, St. Augustine’s newspapers
heralded the news of a new Davis development as a magical elixir. The Evening Record’s banner
front page headline stated simply “Davis to Develop Here.”
St. Augustine=s history is as storied as any place in the United States. Established in
1565 by Spanish conquistador Pedro Menendez de Aviles, it is the oldest city in the United
States. Both fought over and neglected through the years, St. Augustine always maintained a
presence on Florida=s northeast coast, holding the mouth of the Mantanzas River as it enters the
Atlantic Ocean.
More a point of entry than a place to stay, St. Augustine still attracted her share of
characters. The city served as railroad tycoon Henry Flagler=s Florida foothold in the 1880s, but
was roundly rejected in favor of her southern sisters during the early portion of Florida=s Land
Boom. Davis, born only thirty miles west of the AAncient City,@ planned to change that.
If Davis=s plan for Davis Islands seemed ambitious, those he held for Davis Shores
appeared close to impossible. Davis asserted he would spend $60,000,000 on the Shores project,
twice his pledge for Davis Islands. The layout featured a $1,500,000 hotel, $250,000 country
club, a yacht club and a Roman pool complete with a casino, each costing $200,000 and two
eighteen-hole golf courses, all crisscrossed by fifty miles of streets and one hundred miles of
sidewalks. Each lot was designed to border a golf course or the water. Unfortunately for Davis,
few of these plans would actually materialize.
Why did Davis decide to start a large-scale real estate project in St. Augustine? Previous
developers, going back to Flagler, viewed the old city as merely a gateway into Florida. Davis
was seemingly going in reverse, from Miami to Tampa to St. Augustine. Part of the reason lies
with his partner, A. Y. Milam. Milam, along with J. Clifford R. Foster, Adjutant General of the
State of Florida, put the idea into Davis=s mind. Jacksonville financiers, undoubtedly the Milam
brothers and/or their associates, backed the project with a $250,000 investment. Davis placed
Foster in charge of acquiring the land, a total of 1,500 acres covering the northeastern portion of
Anastasia Island.
The early press regarding Davis Shores always mentioned the historic importance of St.
Augustine, as well as its beauty and charm. Davis admitted that it would be a daunting task to
integrate Davis Shores into the existing architecture of St. Augustine, which the reader was
constantly reminded lay only 2,200 feet away. Advertisements for Davis Shores demonstrated
his belief that the company was up to the challenge.
Organization of Davis Shores= corporate structure would follow that of Davis Islands,
with Davis and the Milam brothers in the top positions. Davis held the office of president, with
A. Y. Milam as vice president and R. R. Milam general manager. A host of other positions filled
out the corporate flow chart, including architects, accountants, engineers and stenographers.
Davis wanted to build the Davis Shores office on St. Augustine=s main plaza, an area
held sacred by many St. Augustinians. Citizens sued and won, forcing Davis to consider a spot
south of the plaza on Aviles Street. That office would never be built.
The first stage of land sales began November 14, 1925. Within a few hours, all available
lots sold for a total of $16,268,000. The first one hundred days of operation, Davis crowed,
brought in a total of $50,000,000 in lot sales. Unfortunately for Davis, that was the total value of
the land. Buyers paid only a small percentage of the total land cost, usually five to ten percent,
as a down payment, with the rest coming in as monthly mortgage payments. Only a fraction of
the $50,000,000 actually flowed into Davis Properties coffers.
As with Davis Islands, dredging was a necessity for the ultimate success of Davis Shores.
A Aworld record@ dredging contract, which would go on non-stop until all 13,000,000 cubic feet
of fill was in place, began on Halloween 1925, fifteen days prior to the first sale of land.
Ultimately, it would be Davis who was haunted by the specter, rather than the spectacle, of
Davis Shores.
Next month: The Florida land boom goes bust, and so does D. P. Davis

Cocoa Beach Development

Davis Development in Cocoa
by Rodney Kite-Powell
Curator, Tampa Bay History Center

Real estate developers scoured Florida during the 1920s land boom. Pitchmen
covered the state, focusing mainly on the still largely untapped coastal lands for which
Florida is now famous. One such area was the City of Cocoa, located on the Indian River
about 200 miles due north of Miami. Beginning in late 1923, David P. Davis, who was
moving toward the end of his time in Miami, had an interest in Cocoa, specifically a
development known as Carleton Terrace.
The Cocoa of Davis’ time was a small city, with a population of around 1,500.
The city was incorporated in 1895, but the area was first settled just before the Civil War.
Nestled along the Indian River, Cocoa was in the middle of one of the best orange
growing regions in the state, with some groves dating from the 1860s. As such, Cocoa
served as a center for citrus shipments on Florida’s east coast.
Word of Davis’ involvement in a local real estate development was front-page
news in the December 13, 1923 edition of the Cocoa Tribune. The main headline read,
“Big Development is Started in North Cocoa, Carlton Terrace Name,” with the subhead
stating, “D. P. Davis of Miami Purchases Large Waterfront Tract for Highest Class
Residential Section.” The article reads like most from that time, and lists Davis’
accomplishments in Miami and his plans for Cocoa. The article also mentions that
Milton Davis, D. P.’s brother, would be a partner in the endeavor, and that the brothers’
company, United Realty, had already purchased 100 acres of land for the new
development.
Carleton Terrace, was designed and put to paper in March 1924 by the Miami
engineering firm of Watson & Garris. The plat, filed in Brevard County the following
month, on April 21, featured the hallmarks associated with Davis and other high-class
developers of the period: broad, well-landscaped streets with exotic names situated close
to a body of water. A small development, the neighborhood consisted of only fourteen
streets, including the Dixie Highway (US 1), which ran north-south through the eastern
portion of the subdivision.
Davis partnered with a local firm, Trafford Realty Company, on this project. A.
R. Trafford, according to the Cocoa Tribune, had been working for over a year to get
Davis to go to Cocoa and partner with him on the project. After the initial meetings and
interviews, the main weight of the project would be borne by Milton Davis, not his older
brother – D. P. had a much larger project in mind in 1924.
Carleton Terrace serves as an interesting bridge between Davis’ work in Miami
and Davis Islands. The streets in Carleton Terrace are not on a grid, but instead are
curved or run at odd angles. Another characteristic of the development, its street names,
demonstrates that Davis was at least partially involved in the development. The names
Biltmore, Bellaire and Dade reflect his past experiences in Miami, as does Lucerne, a
street name Carleton Terrace shares with Miami Beach and Davis Islands in Tampa.
Another shared feature of the Davis developments in Miami, Cocoa and Tampa was
Miami architect Martin Hampton, who designed homes for his projects in all three cities.
By 1925, D. P. was far too busy to spend much time with Carleton Terrace.
Milton, too, was pressed into service for both Davis Islands and Davis Shores in St.
Augustine, thereby lessening his time spent with Carleton Terrace. Still, work progressed
in Cocoa, with over eighty homes completed between 1924 and 1926.
Today, the neighborhood carries the same layout and, with few exceptions, the
streets retain their original names. Additionally, twenty-two homes dating from the
heady days of Florida’s boom are still standing, another testament to the life of D. P.
Davis.
Thanks go out to Michael Boonstra with the Brevard County Library, and fellow Davis
biographer, for generously sharing some of his research materials on Carleton Terrace.

Davis Loses His Islands

Continuing Story of D. P. Davis – Davis Loses His Islands
by Rodney Kite-Powell
Curator, Tampa Bay History Center

Florida real estate in the mid-1920s seemed like a sure investment. With very little
money down, one could purchase a great deal of land, then turn around and sell it for a profit –
without ever making a mortgage payment. This type of land speculation was the engine that
drove the land boom. Unfortunately for those involved, the engine was about to run out of gas.
In 1926, there were over 850 companies and individuals listed in the Tampa City
Directory under its various real estate listings. The realtors hawked properties in Hillsborough
County and west Central Florida, with a few touting investments in South Florida. Eighty-two
of these companies placed real estate ads in the directory’s special advertising section, up from
seventy-four in 1925. The land boom was still alive, but economic signposts of 1926 began to
suggest a turn in another direction. The year began with news of slow real estate sales, a
condition which did not worry Davis or most other Florida developers. But as the temperature
increased from winter into spring, so did Davis’ problems. Instead of receiving an expected four
million dollars in second payments on Davis Islands property, only $30,000 in mortgages
payments arrived. Both Davis Islands and Davis Shores had sold out by this time, and resales
were moving slowly. In short, Davis had a serious cash flow problem.
Con men had so infested the Florida real estate market, stealing millions of dollars from
hapless investors across the United States, that potential buyers grew very skittish. Northern
banks, too, grew weary of Florida investments. This stance against any Florida real estate
investments soon spread across the country. The state of Ohio passed “blue sky” laws that
forbade “certain firms” from selling Florida land in Ohio. This view was shared by a Chicago
investment banker who claimed that “this Southern land boom is a fertile field for pirates of
promotion.” Though not a “pirate of promotion,” Davis’s luck changed as well, with more and
more investors defaulting on their loans, starving him of much needed cash.
Davis was not alone in his fall from realty grace. The entire Florida real estate market
began a steady decline in 1926 and outside observers were quick to point that out. The New
York Times reported a “lull” in the Florida market in February. By July, the Nation claimed that
the real estate business in Florida had collapsed. “The world’s greatest poker game, played with
building lots instead of chips, is over. And the players are now … paying up.”
Davis Shores continued to draw away all available resources, resulting in slower
construction on Davis Islands. An overall shortage of building materials made matters worse.
Davis had little choice but to sell his Tampa investment.
The failure of a project on the scale of Davis Islands spelled potential catastrophe for
Tampa, both in terms of pride and prosperity. A considerable number of important people
bought into the islands and now the situation looked bleak. Though it is not known which bank
or banks Davis utilized for deposits and credit, it can be assumed, given his problems with Dr.
Louis Bize, that it was not the Citizens Bank and Trust Company. Two more likely choices were
First National, which had direct ties with Jacksonville and, potentially, with the Milam brothers
(Davis’ partners), and Exchange National Bank, where Peter O. Knight served as a vice
president.
Either way, Knight, who at the time was president of Tampa Electric Company, had an
intense interest in keeping Davis Islands afloat. Despite stories to the contrary, the dredging
project was far from completion, roads awaited paving and large improvements such as the pool
and the promised bridge still lay years in the future.
Knight convinced the Boston engineering firm of Stone & Webster, owners of Tampa
Electric, to purchase Davis Islands. Stone & Webster formed a new subsidiary, Davis Islands
Investment Company, which in turn purchased Davis Islands on August 2, 1926. Davis received
forty-nine percent of the stock in the new company, which he immediately used as collateral on a
$250,000 loan so work could continue on Davis Shores. This amount proved far too small to
plug the gapping holes in Davis’ St. Augustine financing – Davis Shores was simply too
expensive.
Davis was left with few options. He booked passage on the luxury liner Majestic with a
diverse cast of characters, from his lawyer and mistress to his eleven-year-old-son. Davis did
not complete the voyage to France, but instead fell overboard in the middle of the Atlantic
Ocean. Why, or how, this happened remains a mystery.

The Davis Family Today

The Davis Family Today
by Rodney Kite-Powell
Curator, Tampa Bay History Center
I study dead people. More accurately, I study the lives of people who came before us; the impacts they made and the legacies they left behind. I have spent much of the past six years studying the life of one person in particular – David Paul Davis. My research has taken me all over Florida; from big cities like Jacksonville, St. Augustine and Miami, to lesser-known towns like Palatka, Green Cove Springs, Cocoa Beach and Welaka. All of them, and Tampa, too, were home to Davis and/or his family. I have sorted through mountains of documents. I have searched through cemeteries, wandered down narrow brick streets and photographed vestiges of Davis’ past. In the course of all of this, I have tried to piece together bits of evidence to construct as complete a story of one man’s life as I could.
Unfortunately, something has always been missing. While I can recite cold facts about the man, I did not have any notion of the person. Who was D. P. Davis? What was his family life like? What happened to his children? I now know the answer to that last question. I have a rare opportunity, as do all of you, to meet the descendents of D. P. Davis.
On Thursday, March 31, Greg Davis, one of D. P. Davis’ grandsons, his wife, Nancy, and their two children will be in Marjory Park for a ceremony in their family’s honor. The program will begin at 1:45 and will feature Tampa Mayor Pam Iorio and the dedication of a tree and plaque honoring the Davis family.
This branch of the Davis family hails from northern California, not too far from where D. P.’s sons were raised by their great aunts after his death. The Davis boys, George Riley Davis, II and David P. Davis, Jr. are still alive and both currently reside in northern California. With the help of Nancy Davis, I have learned quite a bit about their father and have had some long-standing questions answered. One of the biggest questions I had centered on the Davis House on Davis Islands, specifically which one was it?
The home at 116 West Davis has long been considered the Davis House, but I have felt for years that the home at 32 Aegean, across from Seaborn Day School (formerly the Davis Properties Administration Building) was really Davis’ home. Nancy Davis sent me a photograph, shown here, of the Davis Home. Though it has since been altered, the home at 32 Aegean is clearly the building in the photograph. Nancy Davis also provided me with a bit of personal information about D. P. Davis.
It is obvious in looking at photographs of Davis, when pictured with other people, that he was a diminutive person. Still, I did not know his exact height. That mystery is now solved, too. D. P. Davis stood five feet, six inches tall. He said as much himself, in the description of a tree in his Jacksonville yard. I still feel he was an inch or two shorter (people are prone to lie about their height) but it does give a good upper limit to work with.
The death of D. P.’s wife, Marjory, is another part of the story that has been clarified. I had been under the impression that Marjory died while giving birth to the couple’s second child, D. P. Davis, Jr, in 1922. As it turns out, she died two months later – from complications stemming from the birth.
This extra detail, though not exceptionally significant, is important. Perhaps the most important piece of information that Nancy Davis supplied me with was the fact that both of D. P.’s sons were still alive. She has been very helpful in obtaining copies of photographs and asking them some of my long-held questions.
Nancy has also been extremely helpful with the planning of a trip I intend to make to California in mid-March to interview both of the sons. I am excited about the opportunity to speak with them. Despite the fact that both were very young when their father died, they both can provide a unique insight into the Davis story. Plus, George Davis, the older of the two, was on board the Majestic when his father went overboard.
The interviews will be recorded, and audio copies and transcripts will eventually be available at the Tampa Bay History Center, USF Library and the public library downtown. The Davis Islands community will be welcoming the Davis family to the Islands on March 31. Be sure to join the festivities at Marjory Park at 1:45 and meet Greg and Nancy Davis and their children. They are looking forward to their visit with great anticipation – lets make them feel at home on their grandfather’s island.

The Davis Brothers

The Davis Brothers
by Rodney Kite-Powell
Curator, Tampa Bay History Center

Sacramento, CA – I am writing this month’s article from a hotel room in
Sacramento, California (hence the dateline). I have spent the past two days
interviewing the Davis brothers, George and David P., Jr. Both men have
spent most of their lives in northern California, where they still make their
homes today; George in Woodland, outside of Sacramento, and “Junior” in
Walnut Creek, near San Francisco. Though they were orphaned at an early
age, they each have some distinct memories of their father, David P. Davis.
Both men asked why I wanted to come all the way out to California to talk
to them. It was difficult for me to put the answer into words. There are a lot
of reasons, not the least of which being the opportunity to meet D. P.’s sons.
They have memories of events that I could only guess about. Plus, they
have lots of photographs, scrapbooks and their baby books, all containing
even more information. Why did I want to go? How could I not go!
I began my series of family visits with a barbeque at the home of Greg and
Nancy Davis. Greg is one of Dave Jr.’s sons, and Nancy is the person who
connected the Davis brothers and me. Greg and Nancy live in Sunol,
California, a very hilly and picturesque town, located about forty miles east
of San Francisco. This segment of the Davis family, along with their
daughter Keri and Greg’s son Devin, will be in Tampa at the end of March.
The following day I met David Paul Davis, Jr. He was born on March 1,
1922 in Miami, Florida. Since Dave was only four when he and his brother
left Florida to move to California, he does not have many memories of his
time there. He remembers being “surrounded by water,” perhaps recalling a
visit to Davis Islands during construction. He does remember his father as a
kind, caring man. Dave’s mother died two and a half months after his birth.
The cause of death seemed to stem from complications following the birth,
but there are photographs of her at the family’s Miami home, apparently
healthy and holding her newborn son.
Dave gave me a tour of the town where he and his brother grew up,
Piedmont, California. Their mother’s aunts, Harriett Grange Mann and
Mable Grange, raised the boys. Piedmont was, and is, a very nice
community. Completely surrounded by the city of Oakland, the town sits as
a separate entity, with its own schools, police and fire departments, and city
government. The home they grew up in, 34 Sharon Street, still stands today,
though the empty lots Dave remembered as a boy are long gone – replaced
by more homes. Dave has very fond memories of his days in Piedmont,
from the streets were he had a paper route to the tennis courts where he first
met his wife, Elizabeth.
I interviewed Dave’s brother the following day. George Davis was born on
August 21, 1916 in Jacksonville, Florida. He has very distinct memories of
his father, whom he accompanied on a wide variety of trips, boat outings,
golf games and excursions to Davis Islands. He remembers his father’s
yacht, which was moored on the Hillsborough River in front of the Tampa
Bay Hotel. George also remembers his older relatives, including his
grandfather and namesake, George Riley Davis.
George related several stories about his father and about growing up in
Florida. Perhaps most importantly, he remembers being on board the
Majestic when his father fell overboard and drowned in October 1926.
While he thinks he was asleep in his own room during the actual event and
subsequent search, he remembers the sadness he felt when he found out his
father was gone. He also recalls continuing on the trip to Paris after the ship
reached Cherbourg. He realized, even then, that it was a bit unusual to be
traveling after such a traumatic event, but he went anyway. He is almost
positive that his chaperone for the Paris trip was his father’s girlfriend,
Lucille Zehring. He even remembers Zehring taking him to the Moulin
Rouge to see a show – one not necessarily appropriate for a ten year old boy,
much less one who just lost his father.
George thinks that, when he arrived back in Tampa, he and his brother lived
with his dad’s second wife, Elizabeth Nelson, at the Venetian Apartments on
Davis Islands. He speculates that he and Dave moved to their great aunts’
home in California in Spring 1927. Both men remember an accident at
Raton Pass along the Colorado/New Mexico boarder that almost killed them.
Fortunately for them, their families, and me, that did not happen.
I will end with a message of thanks to the entire Davis family. They all took
time out of their lives to talk to me and share information, some of it very
personal, about their family and D. P. Davis. Special thanks goes to the
Davis brothers, George and Dave. They patiently answered all of my
questions and never once objected to this nosey stranger who came all the
way out to California to talk to them about their parents, their childhoods
and their lives. All I can say is thank you.

Davis Acquires Islands

Davis Acquires Land (and water) for Davis Islands
by Rodney Kite-Powell
Curator, Tampa Bay History Center

In the early days of 1924, David P. Davis began the lengthy task of
assembling property for his Davis Islands development. The first step
centered on land acquisition and a contract with the city of Tampa that
would sell him Little Grassy Island plus its share in Big Grassy Island. He
also needed to receive permission to fill in the surrounding submerged lands.
Negotiations between Davis, represented by attorney Giddings Mabry,
and the city were surprisingly public, with the Tampa Morning Tribune
covering their progress on an almost daily basis. Though Davis and the city
quickly came to terms, some public opposition did exist. A small, but
wealthy and influential group of residents who lived on or near Bayshore
Boulevard objected to Davis’ plans because it would be detrimental to their
view of Hillsborough Bay.
These residents, led by Dr. Louis A. Bize, president of Citizens Bank
and Trust, outlined their problems in a letter sent to Tampa City
Commissioners on February 12, 1924. The Bayshore residents’ view
corridor was not their only concern. Their letter outlined six points of
“protest” to the city commission. The first four stated that the city had no
right under Florida law to sell the riparian (under water) rights to Davis, or
any other developer, for the purpose of filling in. The fifth point served as
an appeal to the environmentalists on the commission (there were none),
explaining that the development “would be a spoilation of a great portion of
Hillsboro [sic] Bay, the greatest natural attraction in the vicinity of said
city.” They ended with a general attack on the contract itself, which Bize
and his neighbors saw as “vague, uncertain, indefinite, and fails to provide
limitations against additional encroachments upon the lands held in trust by
the City of Tampa and the State of Florida.”
Though submitted by eight people, the neighborhood contingent kept
their protest to one page. In contrast, Karl Whitaker, a powerful local
lawyer and future city attorney, wrote a twelve page screed, attacking the
proposed contract point by point. Whitaker began by explaining he did not
“care at this time to enter into a discussion as to the merits or demerits of the
so called Davis Development Project.” Whitaker then outlined what he
would like to see happen to Little Grassy Islands – a park similar to one in
Miami’s Biscayne Bay.
His comments then ranged from the legalities and limits of the project
to the wording of certain parts of the contract to the size and dimensions of
planned city park space to the small number of limitations placed on Davis
and his development. While the city did adopt some of Whitaker’s
suggestions in this regard, such as the prohibition of “railroad terminals,”
they did not include a covenant restricting “persons of African descent” from
buying property within the Davis Islands neighborhood. The appearance of
such a covenant would not have been unusual, as there were other
developments in Tampa and around the country that included them, but it
was not expressly detailed in the final contract.
While wrangling with the city and citizenship over his proposed
contract and development, Davis also went about the task of purchasing the
non-public portions of Big Grassy Island from the estates of the Brown,
Henderson and Whitaker families. Davis and his attorney negotiated the
purchase of the Brown and Henderson portion of Big Grassy Island for
$100,000, or $1433.69 an acre. He was not as fortunate in his dealing with
the Whitaker Estate, of which Karl Whitaker was an important part. Davis
finally purchased the six and one third acres of Big Grassy Island for
$50,000 – $7936.50 an acre. Following the mantra of the times, if Whitaker
could not stop progress, he would at least profit from it.

The Marriage of D. P. Davis and Elizabeth Nelson

The Marriage of D. P. Davis and Elizabeth Nelson
by Rodney Kite-Powell
Curator, Tampa Bay History Center

David P. Davis led a passionate life. He was an adventurer, thrill seeker, gambler
and a fierce entrepreneur. His intensity sparked both his personal and professional life,
helping him reach great heights in the business and real estate world, but also
contributing to his downfall and eventual death.
It is safe to say that he was in love with at least three women during his life: his
first wife, Marjorie Merritt, whose 1922 death in Miami forever changed Davis;
Hollywood starlet Lucille Zehring, who Davis dated off and on from 1923 until his own
death in 1926; and Elizabeth Nelson, the young Tampa socialite who married Davis in
October 1925.
One of the enduring stories regarding Davis’ life centers on what seemed at the
time an absurd assertion, allegedly made by Davis over a glass of champagne on New
Year’s Eve in 1924, that he would marry the next Queen of Gasparilla – who had yet to
even be named. As the legend goes, Davis once again showed he could accomplish
anything he truly desired, marrying twenty-two-year-old Elizabeth Nelson, Queen
Gasparilla XVII, on October 10, 1925 (a month shy of his fortieth birthday).
Assuming the story is true, how did Davis manage to fulfill his daring boast? The
naming of the Gasparilla court is a secret, and is decided in advance of the February
Coronation Ball. Davis had a number of connections within the Krewe (some sources list
Davis as a member), and it is quite likely that he knew Nelson would be elected queen.
The real questions are: did he already know her and did they have a secret relationship;
did he have an unrequited desire for her, using his boast to gain her interest and attention;
did he even care who it would be? We will probably never know.
What we do know is that in the afternoon of October 10, 1925, Davis and Nelson
were wed at the “Presbyterian manse” in Clearwater (possibly Peace Memorial
Presbyterian Church on Fort Harrison Avenue and Pierce Street). The only people to
attend the hastily planned wedding were Nelson’s sister, Mrs. C. G. Rorebeck and Ray
Schindler, one of Davis’ business associates.
Tampa’s two daily newspapers, the Daily Times and the Morning Tribune, each
ran stories about the wedding in the following day’s editions. Both papers related the
basic facts, including the status of Nelson as the reigning Queen of Gasparilla. The
Tribune’s headline “D. P. Davis and Elizabeth Nelson, Prominent Tampans, Are Married
in Clearwater; Surprise Families” topped that day’s Feature stories. The Times addressed
the secrecy behind the marriage, stating, “There were occasional rumors of the romance,
but the marriage … came as a complete surprise.” The paper further alluded to her age,
stating that she was “one of the most popular members of the younger set here.”
Elizabeth Nelson was not the only young woman in Davis’ life. According to D.
P.’s brother, Milton, the marriage to Nelson was designed to make Zehring, whom Davis
continued to see since his Miami days, jealous. Davis and Zehring maintained a long
distance, on again – off again relationship, which apparently was in an “off” phase.
Whatever the reason, it is clear that the marriage was an unsteady one. Davis and Nelson
divorced and remarried in the span of eight weeks. Rumor and innuendo flew as to the
reasons why the couple’s relationship was particularly stormy.
By this time, Davis had developed a substantial drinking problem, an unintended
consequence of prohibition colliding with the Jazz Age. Like many men of his time,
Davis enjoyed the advantage Florida’s coastline provided bootleggers who brought elicit
alcohol into the state. While no evidence exists showing Davis’ drinking affected him
professionally, contemporaries acknowledge that it brought out his melancholy side and
greatly affected his personal life.
Further compounding any problems Nelson and Davis had was the fact that her
family, her parents in particular, did not like Davis marring their daughter. They were
not very fond of Davis as a person, either. No doubt his relationship with Zehring made
the situation that much more difficult. What is known is that Davis and Zehring did
maintain some kind of contact, culminating with Davis’ ill-fated trans-Atlantic journey.
Despite – or possibly because of – his success in Tampa, Davis grew restless once
again. The same day Davis completed sales on Davis Islands lots, and just five days after
his marriage to Nelson, he announced plans for a new development in northeast Florida
on St. Augustine’s Anastasia Island. Clearly, Davis’ attention to Davis Shores proved
disastrous to his relationship with Nelson. Davis Shores also pushed Davis into financial
ruin, which in turn forced him to sell Davis Islands.
Thus the stage was set for Davis’ ocean voyage to Europe. He was accompanied
by Zehring, his oldest son George, and a number of business associates. Stories conflict
as to whether Nelson was in Paris at the time, and if so, why Davis was going to see her.
One of Nelson’s grandchildren, John Rudolph, relates that his grandmother had both of
Davis’ sons with her in Paris and they were all awaiting his arrival so they could tour the
country. This is in direct conflict with what members of the Davis family have said,
including both of Davis’ sons, as well as some other contemporary accounts.
Davis’ death in October 1926 left Nelson a widow. She was courted by a St.
Petersburg physician named Councill Rudolph, who read about Davis’ death while riding
the train that was bringing him to the south Pinellas city. According to John Rudolph, his
grandfather rode the ferry to Tampa so he could meet and date Nelson, and they were
finally married in 1929.
Rudolph’s grandmother did not speak of her relationship with Davis, though his
grandfather did mention it on occasion. Rudolph also recalls that all Nelson got from her
relationship with Davis were “some dishes, her coats and some stocks that she owned
before they were married.” The memories, it seems, she kept to her self.