Noel Mitchell is without question one of the most colorful personalities to have left a mark and perhaps a couple small blemishes on the Sunshine City. Not a person to rest on his laurels or shy away from conflict, Mitchell was one of the larger-than-life characters who gave a lot of history to early 20th century St. Pete. In his time here, he operated as a real estate huckster, auctioneer, Mayor of St. Pete (who was rather amusingly recalled), property developer, and why not… a private investigator with a couple bloodhounds. Oh, and one more thing — those benches everyone still talks about also started with this guy. Mitchell was an opportunist who saw endless opportunity and tried, often unsuccessfully, to grab the elusive brass ring every time it passed.
Successful Northern Taffy Salesman
Originally from Rhode Island, Mitchell made a substantial fortune in the late 1800s developing his own taffy brand, Atlantic City Taffy. A natural marketer, Mitchell sold his taffy via mail order which was a new concept at the time. It opened his market to the entire United States, and orders flowed in. Mitchell made a fortune, and that fortune allowed him to set his restless sights on other interesting endeavors.
Look Out St Pete
Mitchell visited St. Petersburg for a vacation in 1904, and he smelled something in the air. Whether it was opportunity or the salt water of Tampa Bay is difficult to say, but he was impressed. Within three years Mitchell had returned and purchased the entire block at 4th & and Central, placing his own real estate office on the corner which immediately became known as “Mitchell’s Corner.” Mitchell sold any property he could get listed, but perhaps more than anything he sold himself. Calling himself “The Sand Man, The Agent That Never Sleeps” Mitchell was unabashed when letting everyone know that there was no other real estate shill that could possibly work on the same level. It clearly didn’t matter what property you bought, as long as you made the wise decision to buy it from Noel Mitchell.
But more than just typical ads and real estate stuff, he also started the “Mitchell Cup” which was an annual fishing contest. He had tarpon weighed outside his office. He sponsored random drawings. He promoted. And he fought openly. Mitchell recognized that there was no bad press and whether running for office, becoming legally entangled, spouting his gregarious opinions or promoting some new gimmick to help people hand him cash, it was all in a day’s work.
Green, er, Orange Benches
The ubiquitous promoter was irritated to some degree that in the early days many people who visited his office just wanted to sit down and relax for a little while, not buy real estate. Mitchell quickly turned the weariness into advertising recognizing the need to rest for weary St. Pete pedestrians. In a stroke of promotional brilliance, he ordered 50 bright orange benches, put them outside his office, and voila, Mitchell created the St. Pete bench craze. Of course Mitchell started advertising his business on them, one sample ad reading “The Honest Real Estate Dealer – Noel Mitchell. He Never Sleeps.” The benches were filled with even more people waiting for a spot on what immediately became St. Pete’s busiest corner.
Soon every business in town followed suit with random, unsightly benches of every hue, size, and quality. We’ll need to wait a few years for Al Lang to come along and class things up and paint them all green.
Elected Mayor, Then Un-Elected Mayor
Mitchell had aspirations to run for higher office, and did so repeatedly. He ran for mayor in a number of St. Pete elections and kept coming up short. It’s interesting to think about, because he was wealthy, well-known, and did some good works for the city. He was one of the first “Chamber of Commerce” presidents, and helped with town contracts for building and dredging. So why not Mitchell for Mayor? I would suggest that it is possible that the evidence points to Mitchell being just a bit too self-promoting, perhaps to the point of being abrasive. Conflict followed him everywhere, and perhaps the fault didn’t lie with his associates. Take a look at the “contest” / poll he was running here in 1912. He lost by the way. But is this a guess or a mandate? The big text knows.
Finally and interestingly Mitchell became Mayor in 1919. The votes that pushed him over the edge came from women who had just gained the right to vote through the 19th Amendment. Wow! He ran on a platform of keeping St. Pete “Dry” and fighting illegal bootlegging, incidentally established with the 18th Amendment establishing Prohibition in 1919. Finally, this “friend of the plain people” was elected. But it didn’t last long. In truth, regardless of how he got elected, Mitchell was a well known party-er even during these prohibition era times, and he loved to paint the town red. Uh-oh. As a history book describes it, he “was recalled November 15, 1921, following a wild liquor party, in the Mayor’s office, which happened to be next door to the police department.”
So recall notwithstanding, he actually had the gusto to run for mayor, again, in his own recall race. You read that right. And he lost because he had offended the base that swept him into office. But he did tell one heckler at a recall election campaign rally: “‘My friend, no matter how dark my past may have been, my future is as white as snow.’”
A Fighter for the Common Man
Mitchell’s biggest problem was that he was not supported by the city’s elite. I know many readers believe St. Pete was a pleasant little town with little strife, but the 1920s version of the city was different. Mitchell ran supporting women, minorities, and the oppressed. He courted those voters, and had views that did not jibe with those of the elite that sat on the council and that pulled strings behind the scenes, explaining to some extent his trouble getting elected and subsequent recall. The people that supported Mitchell were those that were the most oppressed, and this, in the reality of post WWI St. Pete was not popular. Here is something alluding to his many interests (you know, becoming a lawyer) and who he wished to help. Mitchell, as abrasive and pushy as he was, believed in the plight of the common man. Unfortunately, that group didn’t wield the supporting power that Mitchell needed to win his frequent battles.
Pulver, Not a Chum
Mitchell was swept out of office in the recall, but blamed his successor, the equally gregarious and more politically savvy Frank Pulver. We’ll save Pulver for his own article, but the two were diametrically opposed and the animosity was on full public display. Mitchell, the Taffy Man, was usurped by Pulver, who made a fortune in the North very similarly but with chewing gum. Wow! These guys must have really, and I mean really, hated each other.
In this recall election, Pulver was accused by Mitchell of offering him a bribe to drop from the election, which Pulver flatly denied. Pulver placed several spicy articles in the paper refuting the fact, and then went on to say that Mitchell needed help paying his bills. This had to irk Mitchell, who had been incredibly successful, to no end. Take a look at Pulver’s ad, and Mitchell’s response in an ad of his own. This is some 90 Day Fiancee level drama. “Pulver must sleep well, he lies so easy.” Great copy writing, Mr. Mayor.
So who is to say where the truth lies? I am guessing it is in a teeny-tiny space somewhere outside either of these articles. But either way, Pulver triumphed and sank Mitchell’s hopes for political greatness. We will look at Pulver, my very favorite gregarious mayor, in an upcoming article.
Mitchell faded to some extent after the election debacle, and by that time he was approaching a real retirement age. He tried starting a somewhat ludicrous investigation agency which didn’t seem to take off. He ran for Sheriff (because, why not?) but wasn’t elected. He tried developing his own real estate division at what we know as Madeira Beach, (known as Mitchell Beach at the time). The Florida land crash ended those dreams. So while he had many successes, he didn’t always succeed.
Mitchell was a true Florida Man, a talented political mudslinger, and opportunist. He eventually retired in the old Pasadena neighborhood, an often overlooked but majestic neighborhood of St. Pete where this writer is lucky enough to reside. There is a lot that remains to be said about Noel Mitchell, and some of it is even good. But more than anything, Mitchell pushed, sold, fell, and got back up time and again. And perhaps more than anything, he left a mark on St. Pete that should never be forgotten.
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