Then and Now — 1926 & 2023 — 519 Oleander Way So (was Boca Ciega Way)
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From a 1949 Sales Ad: “Florida Elegance – 6 lovely bedrooms, 4 ½ baths, hollow tile construction. Garage apartment, Lot 100 X 300 – sprinkler system, fruit trees & beautiful landscaping.”
This house was built in 1922 for Alexander and Fredericka Willson (no relation to the Chase-Willson Department Store family in St. Pete).
Alexander Willson was born on a cold winter day, January 14, 1868, in Rostraver, Pa. just 19 days after his father’s death on December 26th. Alex’s mother was left to raise her four children by herself. They were Pennsylvania farmers, and as the children grew, they each did their part in running the farm. It was a tough life for the kids, but it gave Alex and his siblings a strong work ethic.
Alex attended West Newton High School, and after graduating at age 17, was accepted into the Rochester (NY) Business University where he was a member of the 1888 graduating class. After graduation he moved to Philadelphia where he took a bookkeeping job with George Watson & Sons Contractors. This position didn’t suit him, so he was soon off to Kansas where he signed on with the Union Mortgage & Trust Co. of Marion, where he worked as a lands examiner for three years.
From 1892 to 1895, Alex held the position of office manager for the Ash Grove White Lime Association in Kansas City. Not having found his niche yet, Alex moved to Pittsburgh and took a job alongside his brother Frank, at E.V. Babcock Lumber Co. The brothers showed a talent for the lumber business and on January 1, 1898, they opened the Willson Bros. Lumber Co. where Frank served as president and Alex, Secretary/Treasurer. By the end of their first year, they had shipped over 400 rail cars of lumber totaling over $100,000 in 1899 (that’s about 3.6 million in today’s money).
Willson Bros. Lumber Company kept expanding and before long was one of the largest in Pennsylvania. Alex and Frank began purchasing several lumber Mills around the country to support their business.
Alex met Ms. Elinore Hamilton in Pittsburgh and the couple fell in love and were married on June 6, 1905. Elinore was soon pregnant and in 1906 gave birth to a baby girl they maned Mary. Life must have seemed idyllic to Alex, having a successful business, a new wife and daughter, a living in the elite section of the city. But it wasn’t to last. Elinore suddenly became ill and died on September 29, 1906, leaving Alex with an infant at home.
Alex moved in with his sister and brother-in-law, who helped with the care of baby Mary while Alex was working hard at the lumber company. He and Mary had lived there for about five years, when Alex met Ms. Fredericka M. Roberston. They were married on January 28, 1912, and moved into their own home. Fredericka and Alex’s first child, a son, was born on March 12, 1915, but being premature didn’t survive. Their second child, Frances, was born in 1917, and their third, Alex Jr., in 1918.
In 1920, the family came to St. Pete for the winter and fell in love with the city. In 1922, they contracted with Schooley – Murphy to build this featured home, which was completed in time for their arrival just before the new year. When they moved in the children were ages 16, 5 and 4 respectively. The house with its six bedrooms and enough space for everyone to have their own room.
While the family was in town for the winter, they kept active in social affairs and many card parties and gala events were put on in the house. Fredericka was active in the Pasadena Woman’s Club and many other activities in the area, sponsoring many gatherings at the Mockingbird Tea room at Central and Park Street. Young Alex was one of the first 6th grade graduates from Pasadena Elementary School in 1928. He and Frances attended local schools here and were graduates of SPHS.
Alex Sr. was not in the best of health in 1935, and on March 22nd was heading home on Central avenue from downtown when he had a sever onset of chest pain. He quickly pulled over at a garage at Central and 24th Street and collapsed. An ambulance was called, and Alex was transported to the hospital, but the heart attack was fatal. Alex died March 22, 1935, at 1PM, he was 67.
Services were performed by First Presbyterian Church, where he and his family were members, then his body was sent north to be buried at Homewood Cemetery in Pittsburgh.
After Alex’s death, Fredericka remained in the house with her daughter Frances, who in 1946 married David H. Russell. Fredericka passed away on June 8, 1950, and is buried next to Alex. Frances and David stayed in the house, where they raised their three children, until about 1966 when they sold it. In all the house was in the family for over 40 years.
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