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Vintage St. Pete: The Evening Independent’s Sunshine Offer

Bill DeYoung

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Postcard, circa 1940s. Unless indicated, all images are from the St. Petersburg Museum of History.

Somewhere around 5 or 5:30 in the afternoon, six days a week, the Evening Independent landed on lawns and driveways across St. Petersburg. If skies were clear, the newspaper was bound with a rubber band. It was bagged when rain was forecast, or already falling.

Rainy days played a major role in the Evening Independent saga. Between 1910 and 1986, when the Indy ceased publication, St. Pete’s afternoon paper was distributed free of charge on days when the sun did not make an appearance by mid-afternoon, when the day’s edition was “put to bed” (if there was no measurable sun on Sundays, the Indy’s day off, the Monday paper would be free).

Every newspaper box in town was left unlocked on those days. Calculations were made so that subscribers also reaped the benefits of the “Sunshine Offer.” On streetcorners, newsboys simply handed them out.

Lew B. Brown.

This became perhaps the most famous act of boosterism in the city’s history. The bold pledge of Lew B. Brown, the enigmatic, egocentric Kentuckian who’d purchased the fledgling Independent – at that time, the city’s only daily paper – it told the rest of the country that St. Petersburg was second to none in terms of reliably pleasant weather. It was an open invitation for tourists.

“The offer was brilliant, because we – the city – were trying to market ourselves as this warm, sunny winter playground,” says Rui Farias, director of the St. Petersburg Museum of History. “No one would believe that the sun shined here 362 days of the year. ‘When you’re freezing your butt off in Buffalo, you just need to come down here.’

“When you think about it now – so what, you’re saving 10 cents for the paper? – it was such a big deal then because it was this guy’s livelihood. It was like someone giving away hamburgers.”

Llewellyn Buford Brown grew up in Arkansas and Missouri. His father, a Civil War veteran, published a small newspaper. After the senior Brown died, his family ended up in Louisville, Kentucky. There, young Lew learned the ropes at several local papers, working his way up the ladder to writer, then editor, then owner. He also earned a law degree and was elected county prosecutor.

Around the turn of the century, Brown owned the Harrodsburg Democrat and was named president of the Kentucky Press Association.

It was 1908 when Brown and his second wife, Molly, bought a winter home in St. Petersburg, Florida, to be closer to his mother. The plan was not to live year-round in the city; just a few days after their arrival, however, he wandered into the downtown office of the Evening Independent, and struck up an immediate friendship with owner Willis B. Powell.

Brown spontaneously bought the business from Powell, for $10,000. Soon he, Molly and their children were fulltime St. Pete residents. And Lew B. Brown was running the afternoon paper. His only competition was William Straub’s St. Petersburg Times, a bi-weekly publication.

 

The Sunshine City

The first mention of the Sunshine Offer: Sept. 20, 1910.

One September afternoon in 1909, an Independent underling came to Brown with the news that the day’s edition was short a column of copy. Unperturbed, Brown filled the space with a poem he had recently composed while sitting on the Pass-a-Grille sand – an homage to his new home, called “Where All the Time is Summer.” After considering the somewhat rangy title, he changed it to “The Sunshine City.”

The poem, sometimes just a verse or line at a time, would re-appear in subsequent editions, as would others from Brown’s florid pen. Soon, however, its catchy new name would be printed in every edition: In the “ears,” the small boxes that bookended the paper’s name on Page 1, THE SUNSHINE PAPER was printed on the left, and on the right, THE SUNSHINE CITY.

Brown tried, and failed, to get the latter phrase copyrighted.

But no matter. The nickname stuck, and spread, and soon the Chamber of Commerce, civic boosters and vacation marketeers were referring to St. Petersburg as the Sunshine City.

In her 1960 biography of Brown, The Beneficent Blaze, his granddaughter Marion Zaiser described a history-making, lightbulb moment. It was the autumn of 1910; P.T. Barnum was in town with his circus and sideshow, and an Independent reporter had been sent out to interview the great showman (and advertising genius). While proofreading the story, Brown kept coming back to one of Barnum’s quotes:

“Any man who should connect his advertising with the weather would make a ten-strike!”

Zaiser imagined the scene and put words in his mouth:

“Sun,” said Lew. “This is the Sunshine City. I’m willing to wager there are more days of sunshine on this Pinellas peninsula than anywhere else in the world – excepting, maybe, a few arid regions. There must be mighty few days in a year that the sun doesn’t show its face in St. Petersburg. ‘Connect advertising with the weather.’”

Brown then proposes an idea:

“Phil, what would happen if I made an offer to give away – free – every single copy of the Evening Independent on every day the sun doesn’t shine before press time?”

 Phil’s jaw dropped. “What would happen? You’d lose your shirt, Boss! And I’d lose my job.”

Lew ran a finger under his stiff collar. “You may be right,” he said slowly, more to himself than to the foreman. “But – ‘connect your advertising with the weather.’ It’d be advertising on a scale that’s never been attempted.  It’d bring world-wide publicity to the Sunshine City!”

 “And bankruptcy to you,” said Phil.

The effect was instantaneous. The New York Times and other national newspapers wrote about the Sunshine Offer, and visitors came down in droves to see for themselves. Farias: “It was almost like, the gall of those people in St. Petersburg … it was so simple, yet it was so effective.”

P.T. Barnum, as usual, was right on the money. A ten-strike indeed.

History remembers Lew B. Brown not only for the Sunshine Offer, but for his tireless campaigning on behalf of his adopted city. He was an early advocate for the creation of Pinellas County (until 1912, the Pinellas peninsula was part of Hillsborough County). He raised money to rebuild the Municipal Pier after it was destroyed in the hurricane of 1921, and the for the construction of the so-called Million Dollar Pier in 1926. He helped ratify changes in the City Charter and managed the local Road Board. He invested in the Benoit airboat line, the first commercial airplane service across Tampa Bay, and co-founded the first city hospital.

The governor appointed Brown Captain of the Home Guard for Pinellas County during World War I, and he was awarded the rank of Major.

Dec. 16, 1927. Brown (standing) and his Sunshine Parade.

On Dec. 16, 1927 the Chamber of Commerce honored Brown with a parade and an evening’s worth of speechifying at Williams Park. The city’s “Sunshine Celebration” commemorated the first full year in which Brown did not give away a single free paper. Miss Letita Cassel was named “Queen of the Sunshine Beaches” over runner-up Miss Lillian de Luc.

Presided over by Mayor Al Lang, the event was to culminate with the presentation, to the Independent owner, publisher and editor, of the “H.B. Smitz Award” for outstanding community service. Brown was to receive a pair of platinum cuff links, with diamonds set in a sun ray pattern.

On doctor’s orders, Brown did not attend the afternoon ceremony. Instead he sent a letter, which was read from the Williams Park stage: “To me this is of more heart value than any achievement of wealth or political honor,” it read in part, “because I have long felt that to be a good and useful citizen is really the finest accomplishment of a man.”

He praised the city’s “thoughtful generosity” for the prize. “I shall wear with daily renewed pride the handsome cuff-buttons presented, so that whenever my hand is put forth to do good they will flash their approval and encouragement; and should that hand ever be extended for evil they will shine forth to recall me to civic duty and righteousness.”

The very next day, the skies opened up, and Brown had to give the Independent away again.

The Sunshine Offer died with the Evening Independent, which had been purchased by the mighty St. Petersburg Times in 1962. Under Times ownership, Lew Brown’s pledge was honored right up until the day – Nov. 7, 1986 – the afternoon paper was shuttered for good.

The final tally: Over 76 years, the Evening Independent had been given away free a total of 296 times.

This original Evening Independent vending box, with a “No Sun” card, is part of the St. Petersburg Museum of History collection. The final edition of the paper, from 1986, is displayed inside.

Particularly during its years as a Times-owned product, the Indy focused on community news and features, rather than the hard-hitting investigative journalism, and national news, with which its sister paper flourished. Although there were separate staffs, they shared the same floor, in the same office building, downtown.

There were benefits to publishing later in the day. Independent reporters and photographers were the first on the scene the morning of May 9, 1980, when a freighter rammed the Sunshine Skyway Bridge, resulting in the deaths of 35 people. Their exclusive was on the streets just hours after it happened.

“Everybody needs that kind of community resource,” says Farias. “It was well written, and it was well liked.”

Circa 1960s: The Independent is handed out for free in front of the newspaper office on 1st Avenue S. Image: Florida Memory.

No statue for Lew

Historian Raymond Arsenault’s 1988 book St. Petersburg and the Florida Dream 1888-1950 exposed some raw truths about Lew Brown, who died in 1944 at the age of 85.

Brown, who as a newspaperman had the ear of the city, vocally supported the “Good Government League” and its “white primaries,” which suggested that African Americans’ votes were “purchasable,” and therefore commissioners should be elected solely by white residents. “Dr. Bradshaw, like W.E. Allison, said he wanted to go into office as the choice of the white voters of the city and would rather not have the office than to rely on the negroes to win.” (Evening Independent, June 23, 1913.)

Following the 1914 lynching of John Evans, a Black man, Brown editorialized: “It should be remembered that John Evans was not a St. Petersburg negro; he came here only a few weeks ago from Dunnellon. It is usually the negroes who stray in here from the outside and stay only a short time who commit crimes. The bulk of the St. Petersburg negroes are honest, straight-walking people who are industrious and well-behaved.”

In the late 1990s, group of volunteers began raising money for a statue of Brown – as an historic city father – to be erected in front of the Museum of History. Controversy erupted in 2000 when Arsenault’s reporting came to the attention of the mayor and the city council. They withdrew their public support for the “private” project.

“I thought it (the statue) was a terrible idea,” writer Arsenault told the Times. “Brown was the most vocal white supremacist in the city.”

The committee then commissioned noted artist J. Seward Johnson to sculpt a different statue – a newsboy, hawking a “free” Independent in front of one of the city’s iconic green benches (the benches, of course, had been for whites only, but that apparently went over the heads of committee members).

The statue was unveiled Sept. 9, 2000. “I think it was a good idea to honor the Sunshine Offer,” Arsenault said. Lew Brown was mentioned only in passing on the accompanying plaque.

Defaced by time, weather and vandals, the newsboy is due to be repainted, and will be re-installed in a different location (made necessary the museum’s upcoming, long-awaited expansion). The green bench was removed several years ago.

J. Seward Johnson’s sculpture, before it was installed outside the Museum of History.

In the 1970s, middle school student Rui Farias hawked the Independent outside the open-air post office on 1st Avenue North, and the nearby Maas Brothers department store (he later graduated to a bicycle route).

On free days, he recalls, “You’d run out of papers fast. When I was on the bicycle, holy cow, I’d get yelled at by people if I was late.

“My parents owned a small retirement hotel downtown, and I remember the retirees would be looking if the sun wasn’t shining, and they were all happy they were getting free papers that afternoon. Or the following afternoon.

“Even then, it was such a big deal.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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2 Comments

2 Comments

  1. Avatar

    Scott Simmons

    November 30, 2023at2:22 am

    When I was growing up we got both the “Times” and the “Evening Independent.” In the late 60s I made the “Independent” twice. That was a big deal for a teenager going to SPJC. In the early 80s I was an Entertainment Correspondent for the “Independent.” Writing about James Taylor and Donovan, among others, coming to town was another big deal – and I was paid $75 per article. I was sad to see the “Independent” go. Thank you for the memories Bill. Even though I live full time in Mexico I still get the “Times.” What really struck me about this article was the 1914 lynching. I was the White Cochair Person for the Community Alliance in the mid80s while Charles Felton was the Black Cochair. During the Black Lives Matter protests I made a 16-minute documentary “Racism in America, Why Black Lives Matter.” It starts with my friend Tonio K’s “You Will Go Free” and ends with “Strange Fruit.” Because it features lynchings and burnings, viewers have to sign into YouTube to prove you are 18 in order to watch. I have done a lot of community work and many hours of research, but never knew there was a lynching in my home town. How tragic!!

  2. Avatar

    S. Rose Smith-Hayes

    November 26, 2023at7:58 pm

    Thanks for posting this memory. I can remember that ,as a child, this paper came to our house . News for the Black neighborhood was in this paper so my Mom subscribed.

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