Equestrian St. Petersburg
When St. Pete was incorporated as a town in 1892, one of the first ordinances passed prohibited horse racing, or even riding too rapidly, through town. Some school children were transported in horse-drawn school buses. As historian Fuller wrote, the early city “gentry” as a matter of status kept a “carriage and pair,” usually tucked away in a stable at the rear of their residential lot.The first major horse-related business appears to have been the Blocker Livery and Transfer Company. The business was started by Albert T. (“Bert”) Blocker and his brother in 1898. Bert Blocker would later be elected city mayor and play an important role in creating our celebrated downtown waterfront parks. The “Livery” part of the business referred to horses and carriages available for hire. “Transfer” referred to the hauling of freight and baggage. The company soon boasted forty horses and mules and 30 “drays” or other conveyances, including a hearse. The company was primarily in business to haul building materials to construction sites, but also moved household goods and rented horses and carriages for pleasure riding and other purposes. Located near the train depot, the company met all the arriving trains and delivered baggage to area hotels. The livery stable was a busy place. It also had a hitching rail where farmers tied their horses and mules, while they sold produce from their wagons. The original company, located on the 100 block of 2nd Street South had the city’s first telephone number (#1 of course). This company later evolved into today’s Blocker Transfer and Storage Company located at 2300 31st Street North.
It is not known whether Bert Blocker had his own blacksmith or farrier on site at his Livery and Transfer Company, but if not, there was at least one not too far away. That was Henry R. Binnie’s blacksmith shop, originally located near the southeast corner of 3rd Street and 1st Avenue North, and later relocated a little farther east on 1st Avenue. Later still, a new blacksmith shop was built of brick in 1912. This structure still stands, facing the alley behind the Bishop Hotel at 256 1st Avenue North, now operated as MacDinton’s Irish Pub and the Bishop Tavern. Binnie learned blacksmithing as a teen from his stepfather, Abner Farthing. Farthing and Binnie came to St. Petersburg in 1899, and the two opened Farthing and Binnie Blacksmithing in 1900. Farthing died in 1901, and Binnie continued to operate the blacksmith business on that site into the 1920s, but by 1925 had shifted the focus of the business from horseshoes and carriages to locksmithing, key making, umbrella and bicycle repair, and general garage work. In 1912, he built a hotel and rooming house that was named after him adjacent to the black-smith shop. Binnie’s family lived above the shop. A second structure was added to the east in 1921. The complex was also known as the Robinson Hotel and Northern Hotel. In 1948, the hotel was purchased by Mr. and Mrs. Roy C. Bishop, and thereafter became known as the Bishop Hotel.
City pioneer Mattie Lou Cherbonneaux recalled, “Papa had Mr. Binnie shoe his horses and mend his plows and other farm equipment. It was exciting to watch Mr. Bennie, clad in a leather apron, blowing the coals red hot with the bellows, grasping the hot metal with tongs and hammering it into the desired shape with a steady, musical rhythm.” The Bishop Hotel was recently recommended for desig-nation as a city landmark by St. Petersburg Preservation and the City.While we tend to think of blacksmiths as making horseshoes, they made – and still make – many other iron and steel implements. On the other hand, a farrier is one who actually shoes horses, combining some blacksmith skills with some veterinarian skills. Some are both blacksmith and farrier. An examination of early city directories helps to trace the evolution of the city from horse transport to car and truck transport. The 1908 directory lists H. R. Binnie under “Bicycle Repairs” and “Machine Repair and Blacksmithing” (one of two such listings). In total there were 48 occupational categories in the 1908 directory including two saloons, three windmills and wells, one architect, 16 hotels and boarding houses, and amazingly 13 physicians and dentists. The 1914 directory again lists Binnie under Bicycles and Blacksmiths (2), but also lists him under “Horseshoer” and “Carriage Painter.” The 1920-21 directory lists four blacksmiths; in 1925 there were seven; in 1930 four; and in 1947, one. St. Petersburg’s most famous cowboy was Jay B. Starkey. Starkey was the son-in-law of William and Sarah Straub. William Straub was the longtime editor of the St. Petersburg Times, and the city’s most notable civic leader. Starkey married their daughter Blanche in 1920. Jay was born in Minnesota in 1895, and arrived in St. Petersburg in 1900. As a senior in high school, he was in the crowd that witnessed pioneer aviator Tony Jannus take off from the St. Petersburg Yacht Basin to cross Tampa Bay for the world’s first airline. He later began his career as a rancher by buying ten acres south of nearby Largo in 1922, which became known as the Ulmerton Ranch. He raised pigs and beef cattle. In 1937, with three partners, he started the massive Anclote River Ranch, popularly known as the Starkey Ranch, which evolved into 16,000 acres of Florida wilderness stretching from the headwaters of the Anclote River and reaching through the Pithlachascotee River east of Newport Richey.
In his 1979 memoir Things I Remember, he recounted many of his experiences with horses and early St. Pete. As a sophomore in high school, about 1912, he worked as a bill collector for the Blocker Livery and Transfer Company. He remembered the names of all their horses, particularly Rex and Chief who were hired on one occasion to haul a carriage on a fishing trip to Maximo Point. Unfortunately the horses were tied to a tree near a yellow jacket nest. The horses were stung, became crazed, broke their tie ropes and lit out through the woods. One of the horses made it back to the Blocker stable with his collar and a bit of harness. The other died somewhere south of Lake Maggoire.In 1914, Starkey took a horseback trip with a friend from St. Pete to the vicinity of Alva, near Ft. Myers. At that time cattle ranchers did not need to own the land on which their cattle grazed, and they were allowed to fence land they did not own. A great many cattle were still in Pinellas as late as 1916, including the area south of Lake Maggoire and on Snell Isle. But Pinellas was about to implement a new law prohibiting fences on unowned land. Starkey was on a mission to find new open range for his employer.
His equipment was one blanket; a mosquito bar 6´ long, 2´ wide, and 18´´ high; one sheet; a riding slicker; saddle bags for rations and a bag of grain; a nose bag to feed the horse; and a tie rope for the horse. The trip lasted three weeks and he and his friend traveled 325 miles. They made stops at Punta Gorda, Avon Park, and Arcadia, where they ate dinner in the jail. The sheriff was a friend of the Starkey family. “We got the red-carpet treatment in a county jail after three-and-a-half days riding and eating out of saddlebags. That was one of the best meals two boys ever ate.” They then rode to the vicinity of Lake Okeechobee and Fish Eating Creek.
While Starkey was an experienced rider as a youth, he did not actually own a horse until about 1920, when he bought a blue roan from a family living near today’s Clam Bayou and Maximo Moorings neighborhoods. Recalling this, he observed that he “was never very excited about a new automobile. I don’t care what model it is, there are thousands more just like it. A horse is different. They are somewhat like people. No two of them are exactly alike. A good cow-horse is a pleasure to own and ride. Some are real smart and some a little bit dumb.” He bought his first car a year after he bought his first horse: a Model T Roadster, “brand new and shiny.”After purchasing the roan he bought another horse, the only horse that ever ran away with him. While out riding, a bolt of thunder struck a pine tree within 50 yards, causing a ball of fire “probably 30 feet in diameter clear to the ground around that tree followed by a tremendous thunder clap. That horse bolted into a dead run. I could pull his lower jaw clear down against his chest, but could not even slow him down. After trying for several hundred yards I gave him his head and let him go until he began to tire.”
Jay Starkey’s daughter, Marion Gay, grew up on the original Starkey ranch, or farm as she called it. It was an isolated place at the time and she recalled she had no one to play with. But, she had her own horse, Tony, “a small Palomino gelding with a beautiful flax mane and tail,” which she frequently rode after school.Jay Starkey was not just a very successful cowboy. He was also a civic leader, serving the public in many capacities including county tax collector. He effectively donated the Starkey Wilderness Park for purposes of water conservation. When asked about this gift to the public, he stated, “Sure, I could have sold it for two or three times more than I got for it if I had been willing to sell it to the fast-buck boys. They would have chopped it up, dredged it, drained it, and bulldozed it under. They don’t care what they do to the land and to our natural resources as long as they can get their money and get out.” Starkey was also an advocate of history. “It is hard for me to under-stand why some people… do not appreciate their heritage more.” He was a founder of Pioneer Park on the downtown waterfront in St. Petersburg.
While the use of horses for everyday transportation in St. Petersburg generally died out by the end of the 1920s, recreational use continued into the 1970s. In 1930 a “Riding Academy” appears in the local directory, the Jungle Riding Academy located at Park Street and 5th Avenue North. The Jungle Academy was still listed in 1936, along with the Cass Riding Academy at 254 16th Avenue South. By 1947, the only listing under Riding Academy is for the Dandy Jim Ranch at 1025 52nd Street South. Two later popular riding stables were Sky-Brook, located on the site of the former K-Mart Building, now Value Fair Market, near the corner of 38th Avenue South and Highway 19 (34th Street); and Pine View, located near the corner of 54th Avenue South and 31st Street. Sky-Brook boasted approxi-mately 30 stalls and maintained perhaps 50 horses. In the 1960s, the area surrounding Sky-Brook Stables was still very wild and horses could be ridden to Boca Ciega Bay and east in the vicinity of 54th Avenue South. Pam Gaylor, who boarded her horse Twilight at Sky-Brook, has many fond memories of that time. She occasionally rode her horse to her home in the Bahama Shores neighborhood near Little Bayou, a distance of nearly five miles. One Halloween, she rode her horse about the neighborhood costumed as the Headless Horseman. A number of persons in the Pinellas Point area at that time maintained personal horses and had their own stables.
Horseback riding in St. Pete is now largely reduced to parades. In 2009, the city established a mounted patrol that operates in the downtown on weekends. It is composed of two Percheron-Thoroughbred mixed-breed horses names Brooklyn and Jacob. The horses were the gift of the Boston Police. The nearest thing we have comparable to the Blocker Livery and Transfer Co. is St. Petersburg Carriages which maintains five carriages – including a Cinderella fairytale carriage – near the History Museum. The carriages are driven about the downtown as an attraction. The horses include a Clydesdale, a Belgian Cross, and two Percherons. Today many riding programs and boarding stables are still available, but one must go to the vicinity of Pinellas Park to find them.
Sources used for this article include: Mattie Lou Cherbonneaux, Mamaw’s Memoirs (1979); City of St. Petersburg, “Staff Report, Bishop Hotel (HPC 13-90300002)”; Rita Slaght Gould, Pioneer St. Petersburg Life In And Around 1888 “Out Near the Back of Beyond,” (1987); St. Petersburg Times, Feb. 23, 1983; Jay B. Starkey, Sr., Things I Remember, Southwest Florida Management District (1980); David A. Watt, Diary.