Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Karl Grismer's St. Petersburg history



For years, copies of Karl Grismer’s 1924 History of St. Petersburg were in each of the guest rooms at the Detroit Hotel (much like the ubiquitous Gideon Bible) but eventually they disappeared, apparently taken by tourists who grew enamored with the story of the Sunshine City.

St. Petersburg columnist Archie Dunlap, who had high praise for Grismer’s work, told that tale in a column back in 1952. A copy of Grismer’s History of St. Petersburg is in the collection of rare and unusual books at Lighthouse Books, ABAA. It is required reading for any serious student of St. Petersburg history.

Karl H. Grismer was a newspaperman, magazine editor and historian who also wrote histories of Sarasota, Fort Myers, Tampa in Florida, and Akron and Kent in Ohio.

Karl Grismer, reporter, editor, historian.
He came to Florida with his wife in 1921, when he was 26 years old. He became managing editor of the Tourist News, a weekly magazine that was distributed to travelers nationwide. About a month after Grismer arrived, a hurricane struck Tarpon Springs, the first such storm to make recorded landfall in the Tampa Bay area. It became known as the Tampa Bay Hurricane.

The hurricane resulted in widespread damage but it wasn’t nearly as bad as newspaper accounts throughout the country suggested. Recovery began quickly and before long, the land boom was back in full swing. Grismer’s reports in the Tourist News helped convince tourists to return.

Apparently Grimmer grew fond of the area and began working on a history. He spent more than a year researching the files of the St. Petersburg Times and the Evening Independent. His wife, Delore, also a journalist, worked on the project. The book was published in 1924 by the Tourist News Publishing Company.

It contains numerous photos of the early days of the city and is packed with details. By all accounts, Grismer was a careful researcher who produced a highly respected account of the city's history. Grismer interviewed pioneers who were still living and even traveled to Philadelphia to learn about developer Hamilton Disston, who created Gulfport, and entrepreneur F.A. Davis, who brought electricity to St. Petersburg.

Times publisher W.L. Straub, postmaster Roy Hanna, and resident A.H. Phinney contributed photos, information or research to the project. A biography section in the back contains profiles of city leaders and others. Historian Walter Fuller called it a “mug book of citizens who had been great, were currently great, or had money and a yen to see their pictures” published.

Grismer left the Tourist News in 1928 and went back to Ohio, returning to work at the Akron Beacon Journal and writing histories. In 1945, he moved to Sarasota and produced a history of that city. By 1947, he was back in St. Petersburg, working on a second history of the city. The next year he did a history of Fort Myers. In 1950, he wrote a history of Tampa.

In the archives at the St. Petersburg Museum of History, there’s a photograph of Grismer looking gaunt and gray in a pinstriped suit and holding a cigarette between his fingers. He’d spent more than 30 years writing city histories. Work on an extensive history of Akron and Summit County was interrupted by lung surgery in Miami.

After the surgery, Grismer returned to Sarasota. He died at home on March 13, 1952 at the age of 56. His wife finished work on his book and died of a stroke about a month after it went to press.

Information from Remembering St. Petersburg, by the late Scott Taylor Hartzell, was used in this report.

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