Shirley Moravec, left, and Joan Bates, granddaughters of Pinellas pioneer S.S. Coachman, examine a copy of the proclamation that created Pinellas County in 1912.
CLEARWATER – With its budget already stretched nearly to the breaking point, Pinellas County would be hard-pressed to throw itself an extravagant centennial party.
But sisters Shirley Moravec and Joan Bates, granddaughters of Pinellas pioneer S.S. Coachman, want all Pinellas residents to remember that this year marks our county’s 100th anniversary of independence from Hillsborough County.
When Hillsborough County was chartered, in 1834, it was much larger than it was today, and the Pinellas Peninsula was unofficially known as West Hillsborough. Almost from the start, there were West Hillsborough residents who wanted to secede from Hillsborough. After all, it was a two-day buggy ride from southern Pinellas to the county seat in Tampa. To add insult to injury, West Hillsborough residents paid a disproportionate share of county taxes but were shortchanged when it came to such county amenities as roads and schools.
“The taxes went to Tampa and never made their way back,” Bates said.
In 1906, to appease the growing number of secessionists in West Hillsborough, the county built a shell road from Tampa to Ozona, but that was of little use to the residents at the southern end of the peninsula. To appease them, the county built a bridge from mid-peninsula to the barrier islands. But that plan backfired when the flimsy bridge collapsed under the weight of a farm wagon and was never rebuilt.
The secession movement prevailed and, on May 23, 1911, Gov. Albert Gilchrist signed a proclamation allowing West Hillsborough to become Pinellas County. On Nov. 14, 1911, residents voted nearly 3-1 in favor of independence, which became official on Jan. 1, 1912.
When a new county is created, its most populous city usually becomes the county seat. In Pinellas County that would have been St. Petersburg. But because Clearwater is more centrally located, St. Petersburg allowed it to become the temporary county seat until a proper courthouse could be constructed in St. Petersburg.
But Clearwater residents figured that, if they could build a courthouse before St. Petersburg did, Clearwater would remain the county seat for at least another 20 years. They entered into a contract for a courthouse to be built in 30 days, where Peace Memorial Presbyterian Church now stands, at a cost of $3,750. S.S. Coachman and his brother, E. Horace Coachman, would supply the lumber from a site near Henry Plant’s hotel, which is now called the Belleview Biltmore.
St. Petersburg residents were furious and tried to stop the construction. They swore out an injunction and tried to have it served on S.S. Coachman, but Coachman heard that a process server was looking for him.
“He got into a rowboat and rowed out into the Gulf, out of sight and out of reach,” Moravec said.
When legal methods failed to stop the construction, St. Petersburg residents began to consider illegal actions. But when word that a drunken mob from St. Petersburg might be coming to burn down the unfinished courthouse reached Clearwater, the men of Clearwater got their hunting rifles and took turns guarding the construction site.
“They started building around the clock,” Moravec said. “The women made coffee and sandwiches for the workers, and the courthouse that was supposed to take 30 days was completed in 10 days.”
A century later, Clearwater is still the Pinellas County seat. S.S. Coachman, a successful Clearwater merchant, was elected the first chairman of the new County Commission. The five-story Coachman Building that he built in downtown Clearwater still stands and its elevator operator, Joseph Hatchett, became one of Florida’s first black lawyers and later served as a justice of the Florida Supreme Court.
The downtown land where Coachman Park is now located belonged to E. Horace Coachman, whose house, Bay Hall, stood where Clearwater’s main library now stands, and the cedar tree he planted can still be seen. He said that he couldn’t afford to donate the land to the city, but would sell it at a bargain price.
When city officials said they couldn’t afford even the bargain price, he opined that they would have a good chance of getting a loan from either the Bank of Clearwater or the First National Bank. He didn’t mention that he served on the board of directors of both banks.
In 2000, the late S.S. Coachman was honored as one of 100 influential Floridians. The circa 1850 log cabin that he and his wife, Jessie, bought from the pioneer McMullen family in 1901 can still be seen at Heritage Village, the county’s 21-acre historical museum in Largo.
Editor’s note: Information for this story came from Shirley Moravec and Joan Bates and was confirmed through different written historical accounts of Pinellas County.