The Curious Case of St. Pete’s First Mayor

Way back in the 1890’s the young village that would become St. Petersburg only had a few hundred people, but yet there were quite a few opinions on how things should be run. You may know that JC Williams, considered the founding father of St. Petersburg, had in the years previous purchased a couple thousand acres over a period of a couple years. His idea was initially to foster and grow the existing agrarian community, building on the small village that was at the time known as Wardsville.

After Williams convinced Peter Demens to bring the Orange Belt railway to St. Pete in 1888, the village started to grow. But interestingly, and you may not have thought of this… it would still be four years before St. Pete officially became a town. Because many people didn’t want to pay taxes or be subject to any laws or ordinances, there was a majority that didn’t want to incorporate in those early days. So there were many meetings and votes in those early years, and finally in 1892 the majority shifted to incorporate because there was a need for things like sidewalks, schools, and other infrastructure that is provided by government. One other very real problem and a driver for incorporation was that there was also no jail, and the town was suffering from a rash of drunkenness as there were two saloons and no laws. People wanted an orderly little village! That is all interesting in itself, but the real story of the election is perhaps even more juicy.

A photo of David Moffett and his wife Janie
The Moffetts are buried right here in St. Pete.

After the vote succeeded to incorporate, a mayor and council were needed. It was decided that the mayor and council members would serve one-year terms.

Two people ran in that first election, one being JC Williams, the very “father” of the town, and David Moffett, a farmer who owned some citrus groves in the village. Moffett ran on the platform of making the village “dry” and getting rid of the saloons altogether, while Williams supported keeping the saloons in the town but perhaps cleaning things up a bit. The election became a case of “wets” vs. “drys.” That first election saw 31 people vote, and it was a wipeout! Moffett won the vote 21 to 10. That was quite the stick in the eye for Williams, who not only ran on the wrong platform, but in truth many people in the village thought he was a bit pushy and not altogether pleasant. Ever hear of “General” JC Williams? Well, let me point out that he wasn’t ever in the military. They called him that because of his personality! Yikes!

So in the aftermath of the first election, where Moffett was elected mayor, the drama didn’t quite end. JC Williams son, JC Jr., ran for the council in the same election opposing his father’s platform and actually won. One can imagine the awkward conversation at the dinner table. Was wine served? Hm, we may never know.

Only two months after the election in which Moffett became mayor JC Williams died. Who can say for sure why, but perhaps some of the bitterness over the election had something to do with it. In his last will and testament, Williams disinherited all of his children and left his fortune to his second wife, who was not their mother. It touched off a great legal battle in the new state of Florida which we’ll need to investigate in the future!

As for Moffett, he went on to sit on the council, run the schools, and do other things to serve the public through the rest of his days. He passed on many years later in 1921. And as for the “dry” village, well, the public flip-flopped the very next year, and for a while St. Pete stayed “wet.” Then came Prohibition!

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