Jan. 26, 1973.
Education and Politics SLW
W: Arthur White, assistant professor of Education, interviewing Walter
Fuller, member currently of the Pinellas County Housing Authority,
also retired from active work in the St. Petersburg area, and is now
writing books. His most recent publication St. Petersburg and its
People. The interview is taking place in the office of the Pinellas
County Historimuseum and Commission on January 27, 1973 at approxi-
mately 12:20 P.M.
F: This is Walter Fuller. I am that rare animal in Pinellas County--a
native born Floridian. I was born in Bradenton, April 6, 1894. I
came to St. Petersburg in 1915 and have been active in business and
political affairs since that time. I am currently retired and am
making a very dismal failure of retirement because I'm busier than
I ave ever been in my life. The only difference is I mainly do things
that I like to do rather than things I have to do to make a living.
Yes, I came, I came to St. Petersburg in 1915 because of 80 hungry
mules. There was a money panic and my father was a contractor in
Bradenton and he could get no oats or grain because he had no cash.
He had, he couldn't cash his checks in Bradenton because they had no
But St. Petersburg had just sold a small road bond issue, the money was
in a bank in New York and was not tied up in the Florida tightness
on money; so he came up here with his mules and bid on the road con-
tract and got it, and the family has been here ever since.
we were. And I was introduced to him at that time.
W: What year was that?
F: That was 1915 or '16, that was right after I was first here. A little
later than that perhaps, because people didn't come to Clearwater
easily in those days because there was no way to come except on the
train--there was no road and if a St. Petersburger came to Clearwater
on business he had to stay there all day and go home on the night
W: ... personality did he have? Was he abrupt? Was he an impressive
kind of man?
F: Mr. Hollings was a big man. He was inclined to be too heavy; he had
a ery large face and head. He would never look directly atyou. But
don't let that fool ya. Because he knew exactly what you were doing
and what you were looking at and usually he knew what you were
W: What kind of a person was he?
F: Wijen Dixie Hollings came into a room, he immediately was one of the
strong radiating influences there and was pretty apt to dominate
the conversation and the action from that point on. He never appeared
to do this however, he, he was indirect usually, and sly, and I
hesitate to use the word but he was tricky. Uh, you, if you listened
to what he said. you were just being fooled; the thing to do was to
try to figure out what he was thinking And that was hard to do because
he could think faster than most of the rest of ,us could. Dixie
Hollings was very active in politics, and very powerful for the reason
that he was one of the power group that largely owned and almost
entirely ran St. Petersburg, and to a lesser degree, the county. One
must realize that in those days there was bad feeling between up
F: My father had owned a steamboat on Tampa Bay, he was controlling owner
of the local street car line he had ten or eleven real estate, land
and subdivision developments, he was mostly in Philadelphia bor-
rowing money and without any experience whatsoever, shortly before I
was twenty-one, I was made assistant general manager of this complete
complex of businesses. So I got off to a rather hectic and flying
Business conditions in St. Petersburg were active in 1915 but
could not have been considered a boom. The boom begun to develop in
1921 and got to its heighth in 1925.
W: That's a long way back, and I know Dixie was, he just died here what,
ten years ago. Can you remember him in this period at all--1915,
1916, Dixie Holland?
F: I remember him very vividly. He was active in school affairs in Pi-
W: Give his name. It's not on the tape.
W: Give Dixie Holland's name, it's alright ...
F: Um, I'm talking about Dixie M. Hollands, who was born in north Florida
someplace I think. And he came here and became superintendent of
schools. The first time I ever saw Dixie I was within a hundred
feet of where I now am at the old county building which was a
wooden building. A man I was with was looking down the street. He
said, "There comes Dixie Hollings. He apparently never looks at
anybody, but he knows everything that's going on." He said, "Now
watch him. He's approaching somebody he don't want to see. And
watch him slide across the street." Which he did. And after a little
bit went back to the other side and came on down the street to where
county and down county, which started when the county formed in
1912, and separated from Hillsborough County. All of Clearwater's
financial and political connections were with Tampa rather than
St. Petersburg. And St. Petersburg even to this good day is the
outsider in county affairs and there are still firm traces of the
antagonisms between the two cities. I have been asked to discuss an
organization known as the "Guardians of Liberty." Sidney J. Katz,
from Alabama, came into Florida seeking the governorship which he won.
His first vehicle and a very insiduous one was "Guardians of Li-
berty." He formed these organizations primarily in north Florida;
convinced the boys of that area that the Pope / the
Catholic church was about to take over Florida, and he was their
rescuer. These "Guardians of Liberty were ... their membership was
secret, their meetings were secret. They formed one in St. Peters-
burg, and they sent word to me, I was managing this complex of
companies that I had too many Catholics in my organization, and they
didn't request, they gave me orders to get rid of some of 'em. I
asked to appear before them and I did. I told 'em that I did
not know the religious affiliations of any of my employees,
it was none of my business, I had no interest.in it, and it was none
of their g.d. business, and if they would tend to theirs, I would tend
to mine. And they threatened Ve with all kinds of ....
W: What were some of the threats, Mr. Fuller?
F: Oh, they were gonna, they were gonna shanghai me, they, they were
gonna, I was in physical danger from they; they were gonna rough-
W: Would they have hurt your business at all, burn your plant or ...
anything like that?
F: Well, they made, well, they attempted to do that, they couldn't,
they couldn't stop people from travelling on the street car line or
buying electricity or travelling on the steamers; there was no
way they could hurt us, unless they did so with fear, and fortunately
I had none of them and told 'em so. And tol 'em to mind their business
and they did. They, they stopped trying' to do anything with me. I
could tell a very amusing story about Sidney Katz if you'd like it.
W: Yeah, sure.
F: He, he ran as ai independent for governor again after his one term.
There was an interlude and he claimed and he was probably right, that
if elected he would be legally governor again. And he was running.
Meantime I was in Bradenton running a weekly newspaper down there,
he got off the train one day and I took him up to the Garr House,
a cheap hotel, he asked for the cheapest hotel in town, he had no
money. So when we got to the hotel he had, he'd gorten his clothes
wet making a speech in Manatee in the rain. It was the only suit he
had and he asked me to take the suit out to a dry cleaner place and
get it dried out, which I did. The charge was $1.00. So I took
the suit back and delivered it to him and said, "Mr. Katz, you now
owe me $1.00. That's what that costt" He said, "Well, you would
like to contribute a dollar to my campaign, wouldn't you?" And I
said, "No, I wouldn't." So he said, "You just have." And that was
that. I remember very little actually in detail about that campaign.
Dixie campaigned more in private conversation, than he did in
speeches, although he did both. He was well-heeled with money; he
had tremendous energy and ... 'scuse me, he had the knack of getting
people to work for him, and do things for him, so taht he was, he
was that rarity, and excellent campaigner and excellent candidate,
and he was also, give the devil his due, a competent administrator.
He knew how to run things, he knew how to organize things, and he
did a good job. I, I have no personal reliable knowledge or in-
formation as to how Dixie had acquired his money or how much he had.
It was obvious he had money and he was not afraid to spend it. There
was a widespread belief that Dixie got substantial financial assis-
tance from the the marketers of school books. There were rumors
without any definite factual information, that he was being supplied
with money by the "Guardians of Liberty," but I think Dixie mainly
got his money from his own bank account and from the lawyers and business
leaders and the bankers of both upper and lower county because he had
the unique advantage of being acceptable to influential group of
peoples, people in both north Pinellas and south Pinellas. And that
very rarely happened in those, those days.
F: Well, he had connections with all of the bankers and the big owners
of downtown business property in both Clearwater and St. Pet~ersburg
who were few in number and who had a clannishness that it was hard
for a person like me to break into, in fact for me it was impossible
I was never acceptable to the power group in St. Petersburg.
W: Why was Dixie acceptable? He came from the outside.
F: Dixie was acceptable to 'em because he got things done, he had the
gift of keeping' his mouth shut, and people could depend ... people who
... key people could and did depend on him.
W: ... Same kind of business ...
F: Yes, well, Dixie, of course, went into the bond business, and his
principal business was refunding the bonds of cities and .counties
that had gone bankrupt. One of his biggest deals and the one I kneo
most about was in St. Petersburg. The, after the 1925 boom, begin-
ning in 1931 cities and counties begun to default on not only their
principal payments but their interest payments on their bonds. And
their was a bondholders committee formed of the big national bond
houses who had marketed these bond issues and Dixie Holings was
hand and glove with them, and participated in many of the refundings.
I came in direct, direct conflict with him on the refunding of St.
Petersburg. was in that same business and I was a bidder for the
refunding job in St. Petersburg, as was Dixie. Dixie beat me hands
down on getting the refunding contract. In the meantime I had got
elected to the Florida legislature, in those golden days there were
no such animals as Republicans in Florida that were visible; and if
you won the Democratic primary you were home free, because you had
no opponent in the general election. So I had been nominated for the
legislature, and Dixie found himself in a dilemma. We were rivals
for the St. Petersburg contract, and while a refunding had been en-
dorsed by a referendum of the voters, this specific refunding pro-
posal needed validation by the legislature. That being a local bill
Dixie had to get Fuller to pass his bill. So he went for me one day
which was a Saturday and begun to butter me up, which he could do very
well, and it was old man this and old man that, old palsy-walsy
stuff you know, and he said, "Now, Fuller, I've got to have this
validating act of the legislature, and I'm gonna have to depend on you
to get it for me, and I'm willing to pay you $5000 for it." I said,
"Dixie, you so-and so, I wouldn't take that kind of money from you
or anybody else. I never have and I don't have to know. But I tell
you what I'll do. I happen to be the only person who owns a complete
list of the names and addresses of the St. Petersburg bondholders.
It would take you amny months and much money to acquire that information.
I will sell you that list.'" He said, "Alright, what do you want for
it?" I said, "$3500." So he hemmed and hawwed and searched
through his pockets and he said, "Old man, I haven't got that much a
cash today. This is Saturday, you know, and the banks are closed.
But I'll get it for you the first thing Monday morning." I said, "No,
Dixie, you won't. I don't want cash from you. I want a check. And
I want you to state on that check what this $3500 is for." Well, it
distressed him very much but he had to settle with me on that basis.
He gave me the check for $3500. Of course that list had cost me years
of effort and a great dela of money so that the $3500 price was not
only reasonable it was cheap. I was more concerned with the wel-
fare of St. Petersburg than I was the welfare of Dixie Hollings. As
to the reason why Dixie ran against Mr. Sheets--it is my sincere
opinion, giving the devil his due, that he had a strong interest in
education, and & that time his principal thought was to make that his
life work--education. And he ran for very sincere and very proper and
very admirable reasons. Well, being a fairly honest person I had to
agree that Dixie had already shown ability superior to those of Mr.
Sheets. Mr. Sheets was obviously in bad health, was limited in
energy and activity, and Dixie undoubtedly was better material for
the job than was Mr. Sheets, although he had had an honorable and an
admirable career. He like all politicians, all public officials, he
didn't know when it was quittin' time. As to the 1920 campaign
I had to be very inactive because my, my information dn intelli-
gence told me that Dixie was the man, and I just couldn't bring myself
to vote for him, and Mr. Sheets, I admired and respected, and I didn't
want to hurt or offend him, so I jst put my hands in my pocket
in that campaign and took no part in it in spite of many pressures
to do so on one side or the other.
F: Well, I was asked by, by a banker in St. Petersburg, I was asked by
two or three of the principal merchants, I was asked by some of the
school teachers to support one or the other, but I was asked more
often to support Dixie than I was to support Mr. Sheets. Mr. Hollings
was a large man; he had a big frame, not fat, just a big, heavy
frame, big head, big, powerful hands, but his handshake gave you the
creeps. He, he wouldn't, he wouldn't grasp your hand firmly. His
hands were always cold, and you felt they were slimy; you felt un-
comfortable shakin' hands with him. A handshake with him was very,
very brief and I'm repeating myself but my main objection to him i
was he would never look at you.
The 1915, 1920, 1921 period of Florida was a very.placid, easy-
going one. A majority of the citizens were native-born Floridians,
or escapees from Florida. We were leisurely people and when the
vigorous Northerners came down a preponderance of them being Re-
publicans, we were swamped by 'em before we realized. I like to
give this comparison which might be germaine to your subject. The
year I was born there were about 400,000 people in all of Florida.
Today in Pinellas County alone the smallest county in Florida there
are 50% more people than there was in the entire state of Florida
when I was born. Now Ralph, you may want to correct me about Pinellas
being the 1f smallest county, 'cause most people say it is the second
smallest, but actually in land area it is the smallest. By law in
order to figure out the amount of gasoline tax that each county gets,
the coastline counties, you have to include three miles of the gulf.
And that three miles of water, three miles wide by thirty-odd miles
long increases the size of Pinellas about twenty-five, about twen-
ty five per cent. And you subtract that and just measure the land
Pinellas is actually the smallest county, of the sixty-seven in