‘Rise Early, Get to Work’: The Extraordinary Activism of Katherine Bell Tippetts

Katherine Bell Tippetts was certainly one of the most remarkable woman leaders St. Petersburg has produced. She grew up in Somerset County, Maryland. She married an international newspaper correspondent and newspaper owner, Col. William H. Tippetts, and arrived in St. Petersburg with her husband in 1902. She lived here until her death in 1950.

Following the death of her husband in 1909, Tippetts took control of her husband’s business interests, including the Belmont Hotel, located at 575 Central Avenue. Financially successful, she sent two sons to Princeton, a third son to the Georgia Institute of Technology, and a daughter to Florida State College for Women. She was a talented writer, fluent in five languages, who published scores of essays, short stories, and novels under the pen name Jerome Cable. But her greatest love was conservation, and in particular the preservation of birdlife. She once witnessed a boy shoot a cardinal. When she approached him she discovered four other birds beheaded and skinned. “Five beautiful songbirds killed in one short afternoon and no means of redress,” she later reflected. “It was at this crisis I resolved to organize the Audubon Society…”

Katherine Bell Tippetts in 1922. Courstey of the State Library and Archives of Florida

She helped found the St. Petersburg Audubon Society in 1909 and served as president for 33 years. Early in her tenure as president she led a campaign to protect robins. The Florida Audubon Society developed a bill outlawing the killing or capture of robins, and the St. Petersburg Chapter sent the state legislature a petition with supporting signatures some 70 feet long. The robin protection bill was duly approved in 1913. The sponsoring senator later stated, “That robin protection was given the whole state of Florida for sake of the good work in St. Petersburg.” It also came to Tippetts’ attention that young boys were being solicited by a major national publication to purchase air rifles that were frequently used to kill robins and other birdlife. It just so happened that the owner of the publication wintered in St. Petersburg, and after hearing the Audubon Society’s appeal, he agreed to pull the ads.  

  During its first decade the St. Petersburg Chapter made annual excursions to Bird Key, now known as Indian Key, to promote public support for bird sanctuaries and protection. Indian Key, located just south of Maximo Park, was designated a federal bird sanctuary by Theordore Roosevelt in 1906 at the request of Roy S. Hannah, Sr., a St. Petersburg conservationist who was also instrumental in founding the St. Petersburg Audubon Club. Designation of Indian Key as a federal sanctuary was not in itself sufficient for the protection of birds as hunting and poaching continued. Again, the Audubon Society under Tippetts’ leadership did much to provide the protection needed through the provision of game wardens and other measures. Roosevelt also designated nearby Passage Key a bird sanctuary in 1905. Passage Key is today a low-lying sandbar between Egmont Key and Anna Maria Island.

This 70-foot-long petition sent by the St. Petersburg Audubon Society to the Florida Legislature helped pass a law prohibiting killing of robins in 1913. Tippetts is third from left. Courtesy of the St. Petersburg Audubon Society

In the late 19th and early 20th centuries birds were often killed for their feathers and used to decorate women’s hats. Hat feathers became so popular that vast rookeries of birds were decimated to obtain them. At one point a snowy egret’s fluffy mating feathers fetched 32 dollars an ounce. In 1917 the local Audubon Society sponsored a hat show where not a single lady’s hat had a feather. Proceeds were donated to the Red Cross. A year later the federal Migratory Bird Treaty Act was passed making it illegal to kill many bird species. By 1920 because of the work of Tippetts and the Audubon Society, 11 cities in Pinellas County were declared bird sanctuaries.

The St. Petersburg Club sponsored a bird house contest in 1919 as a way of calling attention to the importance of protecting birdlife and promoting appreciation of birds, especially among young people. Some 129 entries were received from boys attending the Manual Training School (which still stands as a city landmark adjacent to City Hall). All the bird houses were put on display at the Harrison Hardware Company. Prizes ranging from a gold watch to a “Yankee screwdriver” were awarded for most practical, best workmanship, most natural, and most ornamental. Additionally, there was a prize for the first bird house to be occupied by a nesting bird. “The birds will judge this themselves, and each boy putting up his bird house in the parks or elsewhere, will please watch the same and report its occupancy at once to Mrs. Tippetts at the Belmont.”

Tippetts came to St. Petersburg with her husband Col. William H. Tippetts, a noted journalist, in 1902. They operated the Belmont Hotel on Central Avenue. Courtesy of the St. Petersburg Museum of History

In addition to continuing as president of the St. Petersburg Chapter of Audubon, Tippetts became state Audubon President in 1924, fighting successfully for the establishment of bird sanctuaries and animal protection legislation. She persuaded the legislature to require bird study in public education and to name the mockingbird the state bird and the orange blossom the state flower. Tippets wrote of the mockingbird’s “matchless melody not only by day but in the moonlight, along the very edge of silence.” Tippetts seemed to have a great gift for persuasion and was even instrumental in establishing the wild rose as the national flower in her role as an American Flower Commissioner. 

  By the 1920s Tippetts was nationally known as an environmentalist and had a vigorous life of activism and leadership. At one time or another, in addition to serving as president of the state’s Audubon Society, she was vice president of the American Forestry Association; a founding member of the Florida Legislative Council, which advocated for legislation in support of women’s interests; a member of the Florida State [Water] Reclamation Board; a trustee of the National Park Association; board director of the National Camp Fire Girls; chairman of education for the Florida Chamber of Commerce; a member of the state Board of Illiteracy and the National Board of Finances of the YWCA; and national chair of the General Federation of Women’s Clubs Committee on Nature Study and Wild Life Refuges. She played an instrumental role in establishment of what is now the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission and in the enactment of a law to protect certain endangered wild plants, shrubs, and flowers. 

In 1923, Tippetts ran unsuccessfully for a seat in the state legislature ­– one of the first two women in Florida to do so. While she ran far ahead of two of her rivals, a third candidate narrowly beat her. But Tippetts was undeterred. 

Tippetts was instrumental in having the mockingbird named the state bird of Florida and the orange blossom the state flower, image circa 1930. Courtesy of the St. Petersburg Museum of History

In addition to her work with the Audubon Society in St. Petersburg, locally she was a member of the influential Woman’s Town Improvement Association; chaired the city War Savings Stamp Drive; volunteered for the local Chamber of Commerce; served on the St. Petersburg Parks Board; took a lead role in the founding of what is today Johns Hopkins All Children’s Hospital; was a member of the Woman’s Club; served as president of the League of Women Voters; served as treasurer of the Pinellas County Board of Trade; was a charter member of what is today the St. Petersburg Museum of History; and helped organize the city’s first Boy Scout troop in 1919. As a member of the Park Board, she changed the name of Reservoir Lake to Mirror Lake in 1915. She amazed and thoroughly exhausted nearly everyone who encountered her.

Perhaps her only recorded failure was her effort to get the city to establish an ordinance requiring the licensing and tagging of cats. Cats without tags were to be done away with, on the grounds they killed birds and were disease carriers. This idea was a little too advanced for 1915. All sorts of fun was poked at the new ordinance and many residents rose up against it, and consequently it was tabled by the city council.

In 1928, as a principal of the General Federation of Women’s Clubs, she and other Club directors were invited to the White House where she then invited the President and Mrs. Calvin Coolidge to visit St. Petersburg. It was not until after Coolidge left the White House that he famously visited St. Pete, staying at the Vinoy Hotel. (He preferred to eat simple meals in the kitchen rather than the formal dining room.) However, there is no record that he or his wife met with Tippetts during that visit. Tippetts also lobbied President Warren Harding on behalf of conservation needs in Florida as well.

Tippetts built her home in Pinellas Point near Tampa Bay, an area brimming with wildlife at the time.

All this was accomplished while actively running the Belmont Hotel. Tippetts said her secret in doing so was to “rise early, get to work, have a system.” She also stated, “My children come first, my business second, and my club work is my recreation.”

The accomplishments of Katherine Bell Tippets were extraordinary – but what was she like as a person? In 1999 historian Scott Taylor Hartzell interviewed Tippetts’ grandchildren, Emma Jo Culbertson and William B. Tippetts, Jr. They remembered cardinals and owls gathering outside the window of her home at 14th Street South at Pinellas Point. “I don’t know why,” William said. “Maybe they sensed her love.” He also noted that when “Danma,” as she was called by her grandchildren, talked you “knew she meant business, and everyone listened. She liked having people around and doing things for them. She also had a large garden which she loved. ‘A garden to those who love it, is a never-failing source of happiness’ she is quoted as saying.” Not without a sense of humor, later in life Tippetts had a patent answer when asked what she wanted for Christmas. Her reply: “I would like new knees.”

A waterfront park at Pinellas Point, not far from her home, was named for Katherine Bell Tippetts in 2009

Tippetts liked to spread seed on the concrete walk leading to her garage. Quails, squirrels, and blue jays flocked in numbers, and she watched them feast and frolic with pleasure. As her grandson William said, “Everything she did was her way of being good to animals and the world.” Katherine Bell Tippetts passed away at home in 1950 at the age of 85. Appropriately a waterfront city park was named in her honor in 2009 at the end of 14th Street South at Pinellas Point, not far from her home. 

Historian Leslie Kemp Poole reflected on the life of Katherine Bell Tippetts: “In many ways, Tippetts planted the seeds for the late-twentieth-century environmental agenda that included concerns about Florida birds and plants, but with a new and more far-reaching threat – habitat loss caused by rampant development.”

Will Michaels is a former trustee and executive director of the St. Petersburg Museum of History. He is the author of The Making of St. Petersburg and the Hidden History of St. Petersburg. Reach him at 727-420-9195 or wmichaels2222@gmail.com.