Frank Pulver: St. Pete’s Most Eccentric Mayor

In the early to mid 1920s, the heyday of the Golden Age of St. Pete, the city elected a character as mayor that to this day has no equal in eccentricity, notoriety, publicity, or stylish panache. We could be talking about none other than Frank Fortune Pulver, a self-made millionaire bachelor who truly loved this city, led its affairs from 1922 until his slightly predictable and inevitable recall in 1924 and eventually passed away at the age of 81 in St. Pete.

Chew On This

A Pulver Vending Machine

Before we get into the mayor stuff, putting the pen to how he got here in the first place is worth a paragraph or two. Pulver wasn’t born wealthy, and like many scrappy kids in the late 1800s he got a quick education in salesmanship hawking newspapers in his hometown of Rochester, New York to help his family make ends meet. A few years later and into early adulthood Pulver took on various apprenticeships and moved around the country as he sought employment. By the late 1890s, when Pulver was around 26, he took a risk and bought a chewing gum formula from an inventor in Elgin, IL where he was working at the time. He immediately returned to Rochester and started a small gum-making venture in his kitchen. Sales were slow at first, so Pulver came up with a novel idea, one that he would repeat in one way or another throughout his lifetime of relentless promotion. He started giving out gum to children on the street, and then, with the help of a local reporter, had himself arrested on the charge of giving chew to minors. This created a buzz, and Pulver became successful enough to patent and manufacture gum machines that sold individual sticks for a penny. For a while things went well, and the company he founded was on good footing. But eventually his company – which not only made items like the vending machines but also signs, buttons, banners, and of course chewing gum – started to fail. In 1905, the company was put into receivership and sold to a competitor. That said, Pulver held on to his self-owned gum recipe, and in 1913 with perhaps a stroke of luck or genius (or both!) he sold his chewing gum recipe to none other that William Wrigley Jr. for a cool $1 million. That was a literal fortune at the time.

Look Out St. Pete!

Pulver had first visited St. Pete in 1911. He ultimately decided to make the city his home in 1917 which was just before the end of World War I, at the dawn of the era that would usher tourism into St. Pete. Not one to rest on his laurels, Pulver started making acquisitions with his significant cash pile, the first of them being the infamous Detroit Hotel located at 2nd Street and Central Avenue in downtown St. Pete. He later purchased the McAdoo toll bridge which was the only bridge connecting the mainland to the lower Pinellas keys. Along with other business interests, Pulver quickly became a notable citizen of the fledgling city.

Here Comes the Spice – Politics, Promotion, and Public Fights

The mayor elected in 1920 was Noel Mitchell. In brief (or read my lengthy article on Mitch here) Mayor Mitchell, who was a champion of the common man and minorities, was recalled in 1921 due to some… notable indiscretions. Mitchell of course believed he was set up, or so he said, and believed the plot was set in motion by Pulver’s circle of more business-centric friends. While at times the two were polite and seemed to have a veneer of civility, Mitchell and Pulver were what we could only call “frenemies” today. Well-acquainted with one another, they were frighteningly similar and polar opposites at the same time. Interestingly, Mitchell had made his fortune selling salt water taffy at the same time Pulver made his selling chewing gum. Let’s face it, that’s a recipe for some fireworks right there. But both were hustlers, promoters, and involved in many money-making endeavors.

The knives came out after Mitchell’s recall. Pulver decided to run in the recall election that would replace Mitchell. Mitchell, convinced he could win his own recall (yep, he ran in his own recall election) squared off against Pulver. The mudslinging started when Pulver offered Mitchell a “cash gift.” Pulver said the offer was to help Mitchell get by with his paltry income as Mayor, which was probably infuriating to Mitchell who had been successful in his own business interests. Mitchell asserted that Pulver was trying to pay him to drop out of the recall election. The story was big news throughout the campaign.

Pulver, the consummate showman, declared his immense love for the city. He published a manifesto of his beliefs about St. Pete, and also used the press in publishing stories and articles that could only be equated with the best (er, worst?) reality TV today. In one very lengthy article “How it feels to run for Mayor” (St Pete Times, Nov 1921), Pulver aired the laundry and essentially pointed out, person by person, who tried to sway him in one direction or another for special interests or political gain. A small bit of that article mentioning Mayor Mitchell notes: “I returned to the Hotel Detroit and Mayor Mitchell was sitting on the front porch right out where everybody could see him, which put me in wrong with another friend, who came in and told me that unless I kept Mitchell away from the hotel the people would think there was a combination between Mitchell and myself. I tried to convince him that this was impossible, because I was in a business catering to the public, and the law governing hotels states that you must have some other cause for throwing a man off your property than the mere fact that he was mayor of your city, and I always honored Noel Mitchell as such.

A Selection from Pulver’s “What it’s like to run for Mayor” Article

A bit more of this very funny and tongue-in-cheek article mentions Al Lang, another notable and influential former mayor of St. Pete. Pulver points out, in his folksy style that he himself is pure and innocent, that Lang and Mitchell both have agendas, and humorously notes that he’d like to own Al Lang’s dog Gyp. One more tidbit – this is the first place I’ve ever seen St. Pete referred to as “The Burg.” This is also a fairly fun look at the casual nature of the relationships.

Anyway, Pulver’s direct and friendly writing and speech-making style, coupled with a healthy dose of mudslinging and hyperbole kept up for the duration of the recall saw Pulver coast to an easy victory, defeating Mitchell who had lost support from much of his base.

First Day as Mayor

Pulver wasn’t done with the mudslinging or hyperbole just because he got himself elected. Just after winning the recall election against Mitchell, he published another lengthy piece in the newspaper recounting his first day in office. Let it suffice to say that if a politician wrote this today… well, there might be trouble.

In the article he recounts dodging job seekers, getting rid of a couple people who wanted his help in resolving personal issues, smoking cigars, having lunch, driving around in his car, and how there was no furniture in his office so he sent out the police chief to find some soap boxes to sit on. Regarding that, he says of Chief was a poor finder of “soap box clues.” And of course, he threw some shade on Mitchell who was there to clean out his office. Pulver was finally in his element and he was not afraid to go big.

The Purity League and Selling St. Pete

In early St. Pete, being a booster – basically doing anything you are capable of to promote the city – was a steadfast measure of one’s worth in the community. It is mentioned constantly, and one’s reach and success in bringing tourists to St. Pete to spend money was all-important. It worked, too – St. Pete in the early to mid 1920s became a leading resort city in the US because of the relentless work done by promoters of the Sunshine City. Pulver was determined to be the biggest booster of all, and there is no doubt that he absolutely loved St. Pete.

With the changing attitudes and more liberal policies of the post-war 1920s, Pulver along with city marketing guru John Lodwick came up with a ludicrous, envelope-pushing and wildly successful marketing gimmick / campaign that would get the nation talking.

Keep in mind flappers, short dresses, and bobbed hair for women were coming into vogue. Along with that, bathing suits were getting less modest and scorned by many traditionalists who saw the arm and kneecap bearing swimsuits as immoral and indecent. Pulver and Lodwick came up with a brilliant marketing campaign capitalizing on the controversy. Together, they invented a sham organization called “The St. Petersburg Purity League.” The Purity League started writing letters to the mayor demanding action. Of course these made up letters were immediately published in the newspaper, demanding that Pulver take action against this indecency. The letters called for bathing suit inspectors to be placed at every beach to protect the poor married men from “Sea Vamps” who wanted to steal them away from their wives.

The Mayor’s official response to the request was designed with with wit and tongue-in-cheek humor designed to cause a buzz. Although countless men offered their selfless services, Pulver noted he wasn’t sure that he could “hire” an official to go to the beach so he would take on the task personally. As he notes: “I will make frequent inspections myself to learn first hand as to whether the protest is well founded.” This really got readers, and the marketing campaign rolling. In a short time the story, in feature format, was being promoted all over the country through lengthy fabricated stories and more brief ads, er, informational pictorials like the one below.

The White Suit

Pulver’s hallmark outfit was a snow-white suit with white straw hat. He wore the outfit daily, and did so to create a buzz around himself but also to help in his promotion of the city. It brought him notoriety, and was a differentiator that set him apart from other mayors and the city apart from others in Florida or in the nation for that matter. He was always pictured in the suit, as noted below in one of the iconic bathing suit inspections that he carried out. This photo was from a New York newspaper. Pulver was even able to create a “White Suit Day” for a year or two, encouraging residents and business people of the city to all dress this way one day of the year.

Sometimes You Get Caught

Pulver was a popular mayor, but he also made some enemies as anyone in politics does. Pulver was re-elected after finishing the recalled Mayor Mitchell’s term, but then was ironically recalled himself for suspicion of a host of no-nos, including bootlegging, graft, and tax evasion. To his credit, it did take three recall attempts to finally oust him. But thing was, “Uncle Frank” (his own term) still loved St. Pete. He famously went to Europe and met with royalty to promote the city. He walked down Broadway in New York City parade-style with 50 bathing beauties in his white suit promoting St. Pete. He did everything he could, in the grandest fashion, to promote the city. Much like his predecessor Noel Mitchell, and maybe more so, Frank Pulver was committed to boosterism, St. Pete, and having a rollicking time in the process of helping promote the Sunshine City in the most gradiose way possible.

Lived a Long Life In St. Pete

After settling down a bit and retiring from political aspirations, Pulver remained in the city and continued various business ventures. Notably he started his own newspaper which was a trove of personal mudslinging and grievance airing, and then owned laundry businesses. His political and business dealings were driven and carefully executed, but it must be said that Pulver was a very charitable and generous man who gave generously to the needy, and treated his employees well. Uncle Frank had his dust-ups, but was viewed very favorably by many. Even his political enemies when asked later noted that Pulver had done much for the city. Uncle Frank passed away in St. Pete in 1955, at the age of 84.

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