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The father of Sunshine City: how a Russian nobleman founded Saint Petersburg in America

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The father of Sunshine City: how a Russian nobleman founded Saint Petersburg in America

11.06.2019

Yulia Goryacheva

In the days of the latest anniversary of Saint Petersburg, the Russian émigré community respectfully remembers another significant yet unfairly forgotten Russian name. It is the name of Pyotr Alexeyevitch Dementyev, who was born on May 1, 1849 in Saint Petersburg on the Neva River and founded another St. Petersburg (or St. Pete, as it is called shortly) on the shores of the Gulf of Mexico in Florida.

Unfortunate Landlord

Here is what the modern American historian Karl Grismer writes about him: “Peter A. Demens, who was born in Russia, should undoubtedly be considered the father of the people of St. Petersburg in Florida. Demens was a congenital entrepreneur by nature. He was notable for his great organizational skills. He knew how to make friends, and friends trusted him. He had the ability to implement seemingly impossible projects. He proved it.”

Pyotr Dementyev was born into a noble family and spent his childhood in an old estate in the Tver Governorate. Then he went to a school in St. Petersburg and spent three-year at the military service as an officer in the Guards Jager Regiment. Having achieved the rank of a staff captain acting as the battalion commander, Dementyev unexpectedly retired and left the capital city for his Tver estate near Vesyegonsk, where he went into farming. Soon he became regional activist; and in 1879 the landlord was elected as the marshal of the nobility of Vesyegonsk district.

Pyotr Dementyev with his wife, Raisa Borisenko

The researchers note that Dementyev was kind of mediocre landlord: in attempt to boost agricultural production, he cut down and sold woods at a very cheap price. As a result, he got into debt and was on the verge of rack and ruin by the age of 30. In addition, an inexperienced marshal of the nobility was lured into a financial reckless scheme initiated Vesyegonsk officials. And although Dementyev was fully acquitted, the case really exhausted him as it had lasted for 16 years.

It is known that in those years, Dementyev was in opposition to the authorities and, perhaps, even came into contact with the local Narodnaya Volya (lit. Free Will) Movement. On March 1, 1881, the bomb of Grinevitsky from Narodnaya Volya claimed the life of Alexander II and enthroned Alexander III, the former commander of the retired staff captain. It really disturbed Dementyev, who feared to be persecuted for his views. Taking into account all these circumstances, in the summer of 1881 he decides to go to America. My plan was to become an ordinary farmer, cultivate the land by myself and thus, through hard physical work, achieve the revival of my nature, which was in a deep spiritual decline, he recalled later.


Immigration to America

The day after arriving to New York, Dementyev went to southern Florida, to his distant relative, the owner of an orange grove. He described his first impressions of a new exotic country as follows:

I decided to go to the back of beyond. I arrived to Jacksonville by train and boarded a steamship. The only passenger except me was the owner of the ship. He sat down next to me, and we began a conversation. I learned from him that there was no farming or cattle breeding in South Florida, that the only plant that grows there was an orange tree. By the way, he mentioned that in South Florida there was a very profitable occupation - a sawmill business that did not require any special knowledge or considerable capital and gave a good income, especially to those who were persistent.

There was only a tiny shack on my first Florida farm. It was built of young pines, with shields instead of windows, and had two small rooms with a roof instead of a ceiling. I lived in that very shack with my wife and four children for a whole year.

Dementyev got into heavy timber cutting works. He worked to the utter exhaustion in a small settlement of Longwood - both at his farm and at a nearby sawmill. And it totally transformed a Russian nobleman:

"I used to fiddle around with my nerves in Russia; and I even went to St. Petersburg several times to consult with the big names in science. But here it felt like I had never had any of them before, as if nerves had just been pulled out of my body... When my ten acres were cleaned, and a young orange garden was planted, I was able to get over my fears – now I knew that I could work and that I would not die of starvation.

At first, Dementyev (who took the surname of Demens after moving to the USA) worked as a labourer at a sawmill for a dollar and a quarter a day. After a while he became a co-owner of the sawmill and later - its sole owner. Then he got engaged into construction contracts and earned a lot of money. Three years after his arrival to the US, he already had about a hundred workers. Dementyev built a comfortable new home for himself and bought a grand piano ... Having ensured a comfortable life, he afforded to send his older daughters to Jacksonville to study at a French monastery. And the town of Longwood was actually rebuilt by Dementyev himself. A talented Russian entrepreneur became so popular that he was elected as the first mayor of the town.

P. A. Dementyev in America. Photo credit: wikipedia.org

Soon Dementyev realized that the reason for the extremely slow development of central and western Florida was the absence of a road. And he got a plan to build a railway from Sanford to Tampa Bay, to establish a large international port there, to build a city on the seashore and name it after his native St. Petersburg.


Sunshine City

The plan was finalized after reading the report by Dr. Washington Pew van Bibber, who had explored coast line of the Gulf of Mexico for many years and came to conclusion that climate and landscape conditions of the Pinellas peninsula make it perfect for establishing here a world health city.

In order to implement this project, in 1885 the pioneer entrepreneur acquired shares of Orange Belt Railroad Co. and engaged two local wealthy people (one of whom was a Swede) and one Canadian of English origin in the project. At the same time, the money was little - they had to buy old equipment written off by other companies and hire workers who were not the most qualified ones. When the railroad from Longwood reached Auckland, Dementyev shifted his main construction apartment there. The road was in the process of building and the population of Auckland grew. At Dementyev’s time, besides a Russian-style railway station, a large hotel and a civic theater were built in this city.

American researchers report that the railway construction was beset of incredible difficulties. The Notes of the Russian Academic Group in the USA, which describe the Pyotr Dementyevs history, state: They had to bring materials and products from afar, clear the terrain, build bridges, overcome jungle patches with alligators, poisonous snakes and hordes of mosquitoes. In the midst of such conditions, especially during the tropical downpour season, workers used to catch tropical yellow fever. And finally, there came financial difficulties: there was not enough money to repay debts to creditors and salaries of workers. There was a critical moment when an angry mob of workers wanted to lynch Dementyev… Dementyevs partners offered him to stop works and abandon the project of railway construction to Tampa Bay altogether.

Orange Belt Railway

Despite all the difficulties, Dementyev made his dream come true by bringing the construction to the end: on July 8, 1888, the first train travelled by new 150 miles long railway from Sanford to St. Petersburg! At that time, St. Petersburg, built by Pyotr Dementyev from scratch, was a settlement for forty inhabitants. Today it is the most modern and well-arranged city with a quarter-million population. It is called the Sunshine City: St. Petersburg has good weather about 360 days a year. This is the reason it is popular among tourists, especially from states with cold northern climate.

The first railway station in St. Petersburg built by a Russian entrepreneur in 1888

Despite the great distance between St. Petersburg and Russia, ideals of Russian culture are still alive in the city. The temple in the name of the holy martyr Andrew Stratelates is a jewel of the city and its center of spiritual life. The Orthodox community in St. Petersburg was founded in 1948. The permanent temple was consecrated on April 12, 1953. There is a parochial school and a sisterhood. Now St. Andrew's Parish is the largest Russian Orthodox parish in the southern United States.

The history behind the citys name is extremely interesting. John Williams, the entrepreneurs partner, a millionaire and merchant, who owned 1,600 acres on the coast of Tampa Bay, claimed to name the city Detroit - after his hometown. However, Dementyev's partners in railway construction and local Pinellas Point postmaster, who believed that having built the railway, Pyotr A. Dementyev had every reason and merit to call the city at his will - St. Petersburg, sent the respective petition to Washington. Getting an affirmative answer was Peter Dementyev's hour of triumph: he perpetuated his native citys name on the North American continent.

Modern St. Peterburg. Photo credit: votpusk.ru

Honestly speaking, until 1976 the name of St. Petersburg was attributed to the above mentioned Williams. A. Sokolsky, a resident of the city, a professor at the University of South Florida in Tampa, and a member of the St. Petersburg Historical Society, conducted detailed studies in the citys archive and library. It was confirmed that Dementyev was the official founder of the St. Petersburg in Florida. And in December 1977, after five years of A. Sokolskys struggle for the sake of historical justice, the city council (in response to the appeal of the West Florida Department of the Congress of Russian Americans) unanimously recognized P.A. Dementyev to be the founder of the city. Moreover, on the initiative of Sokolsky and the Russian Club in Florida, the local government decided to name the waterside park known as Demens Landing Park after the Russian entrepreneur. Subsequently, an article respectfully telling of Demens as the founder of the American St. Petersburg was posted on the English-language website of the Historical Society of Florid.

Monument to P. Dementyev (Demens) in the park named after him (St. Petersburg)

Life in Los Angeles

Well, having ensured good standing of his family and children, Pyotr Dementyev engaged in literary work and journalism, collaborating with The Los Angeles Times, the authoritative American newspaper and (under the pseudonym Pyotr Tverskoy) with such Russian editions as Slovo and Nedelya, as well as Bulletin of Europe, the prestigious Russian magazine. Even Vladimir Lenin was among the Tverskoys readers. In his Regarding the so-called market issue, written in 1893, Lenin quotes the article Ten years in America, in which the author talks about organization of manufacturing of carriage wheels.

According to experts, his Essays on the North American United States, published in St. Petersburg in 1895, is of particular importance in the legacy of Dementyev the publicist. A young, dynamically developing and still poorly known country sparked great interest among the Russian reading public, which ensured success of Tverskoys Essays. The book is written in a very lively and entertaining manner honoring the best traditions of Russian travel and ethnographic essays. In his literary works, the entrepreneur journalist enthusiastically described the history of large American cities in various states: in addition to Florida and California, he became acquainted with North Carolina, Kansas, Nebraska, Arizona, Minnesota, Wisconsin, North Dakota and Michigan. Demens talked about the countrys population, industry, transportation, and natural wealth, as well as gold mines of California.

In the spring of 1889, Dementyev became ill. Doctors strongly advised to change the climate, and the entrepreneur, having sold his property in Longwood, Oakland and St. Petersburg, settled in Los Angeles, California.

His first Californian business was a steam powered mechanical laundry. Having mastered the new equipment right away, Dementyev, according to the memoirs of contemporaries, did not avoid any work (although he never stood at the counter his aristocrats pride did not allow him). Then he bought a share in a concern selling agricultural products, acquired shares of two local banks and the state railway, and became a co-owner of an enterprise manufacturing soap powder for shaving. After a while, he again got engaged into sawmill business, soon becoming president of the union of all sawmills from Canada to Mexico.

The entrepreneurs daughter, Countess Vera Tolstaya, described the attitude of Americans to her father in the following way: When he retired, the owners of all sawmills presented him an ebony cane with a gold knob and a commemorative inscription. Each owner of sawmills also presented him with a gavel with a special inscription on a silver plate.


Russian patriot and writer

Open mindedness of this man of amazing integrity is illustrated by the library he collected. It comprises of one thousand five hundred books in Russian, English, French, German and other languages. Together with Anna Chenny, an American poetess, he translated into English almost all works of Mikhail Lermontov, his favorite poet. Another interesting fact: Dementyev gave a lecture on Pushkin in the American Womens Club. Later he described it in the article "Pushkin's celebration in California for Bulletin of Europe magazine.

In the 1890s, the famous Russian American got into an indirect dispute with Leo Tolstoy because of Russian Dukhobors (lit. Spirit Wrestlers): American and British Quakers who were close to the Dukhobors in their pacifist views organized mass emigration for them to western Canada. A great moral and material support was provided by Leo Tolstoy, who donated his entire fee from Resurrection in their favor.

Having become acquainted with the extreme conditions of Dukhobors life in Canada, Dementyev decided to relocate them to his blessed California, to help them acquire land and turn them into prosperous farmers. His generous aspiration faced stubborn resistance from the Dukhobors leaders and Leo Tolstoy, who urged the sectarians to defy promises of the entrepreneur, because, in his opinion, they will find God's grace only in tough living conditions and withdrawal from the sinful world. Nonetheless, several Dukhobors came in California, but it turned out that Dementyevs plans were impracticable: Having demonstrated boundless anarchism, the Dukhobors did not fit into civilized American life and returned to Canada.

In 1905, the entrepreneur traveled to Russia, where he founded Strana, a liberal-constitutional printed media outlet in St. Petersburg. The content of the newspaper was pervaded with the idea expressed by him as early as in 1897: "The czars demise in Russia is only a matter of time."

During World War I, Dementyev tried to assist Russia. In particular, according to some data, in 1916 he offered his services to the Russian government procurement commission in New York. The Los Angeles Times regularly published his articles on military successes and failures of the Russian army and the Entente army.

P. Dementyevs house in Alta Loma

Pyotr Alekseevich Dementyev died on January 21, 1919 in his estate of Alta Loma (California). The following day, the Los Angeles Times published the obituary stating: Captain Pyotr A. Demens, a famous Russian patriot and writer, as well as a financier and railroad builder who became famous in the United States, died yesterday in his estate in Alma Loma. Captain Demens was widely known, and was revered as the Democrat of the aristocracy. He was an expert in both Russian and American affairs. He communicated with hundreds of people associated with the financial world of the United States. Moreover, he was interested in the cultural life of his homeland and took an active part in it. His talents and brilliant abilities drew hundreds of people to him.

Both the United States and Russia rightly consider Pyotr Dementyev (Demens) their citizen. In 1979, a monument to Dementyev was opened in St. Petersburg, Florida. The inscription on the monument reads: In honor of Peter Demens (Dementieff), the founder of St. Petersburg in 1888. Erected by Congress of Russian Americans, 1979. In 1988, Albert Parry, an American journalist, published a book dedicated to our talented compatriot and pioneer. Russia also knows and remembers Pyotr Dementyev. Several years ago, an exhibition dedicated to Dementyev/Demens was organized in the Peter-and-Paul Fortress in cooperation with the Museum of the History of St. Petersburg. Archival documents and photographs related to his life, as well as his printed works are stored in the Tver United Museum.

A book by Albert Parry dedicated to P. Dementyev

As to Pyotr Alexeyevitch Dementyev, he honored his belonging to the Russian nation. I love a Frenchman, I respect an Englishman and I am very much fascinated with a real American, but my heart beats faster ... only in a conversation with a real Russian person ... Only pure Russians possess indiscriminate forgiveness, and an amazing ability to forget themselves, and give their whole being for the sake of theirneighbour," he stated.


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