By SCOTT TAYLOR HARTZELL
© St. Petersburg Times, published May 2, 2001
GULFPORT — Local beachgoers owe R.W. Caldwell Sr. waves of thanks.
In 1939, Caldwell led the drive to dredge the shore from 54th to 58th streets S. “The beach as you know it is what he created,” R.W. Caldwell Jr. said recently.
Before becoming the “father” of Gulfport’s beach, Caldwell established a real estate concern here in 1936. He served on the Town Council from 1939 to 1943, leading efforts to salvage the city’s economy. “He definitely got Gulfport (economically) strong,” said Elise McCarthy, 52, Caldwell’s granddaughter.
“He was very much involved in the activities of Gulfport,” said Colleen Camp, 72, who served on the council from 1990 to 1998.
Caldwell was born in 1888 in Belleview, Wis. At Knox College in Illinois, he “was the debating champion in the school of debating champions,” recalled his son, now 80.
Caldwell financed his education by selling stereographs and stereoscopes for Keystone View Co. of Meadville, Pa. Stereographs were photos that displayed a 3-D image when viewed through stereoscopes.
After graduating from college in 1912, Caldwell became Keystone’s Western sales manager. He married Gail Jarrell about 1913, and they had two children.
Caldwell established Keystone View of Ohio about 1930 near Cleveland. He and photographer George K. Lewis produced aerial stereographs of the 1933 Chicago World’s Fair.
In 1934, Mrs. Caldwell came to Gulfport to recover from a throat infection. Caldwell closed his Ohio location, opened a Keystone outlet near Boston and often visited his wife.
He moved here about 1935 and settled on 17th Avenue S. “Mrs. Caldwell and I have decided we want to live in Gulfport for the rest of our lives,” he wrote.
In 1936, Caldwell invested with E.A. Markham to form an insurance and real estate concern, Markham-Caldwell. “The easiest money you’ll ever make is the money your money makes,” Caldwell often said.
Within a year he established R.W. Caldwell, a similar business at the same 5433 Shore Blvd. S address. The red-haired Realtor gained notice by placing green benches bearing his name around Gulfport.
“I built some of them,” his son said. At his own cost, R.W. Jr. added, Caldwell placed signs throughout the city that boasted “You Can Really Live In Gulfport.”
After his election to the council in 1939, Caldwell proposed dredging the beach. The estimated cost was $3,000; the city pledged to pay half.
Caldwell raised $1,800, but the city reneged. “Opposite points of view have been taken by (Acting Mayor Cliff) Hadley and Caldwell,” the press reported.
Caldwell and other donors financed the project, which ultimately cost $2,700. The city later hailed the council member as the “father of its beaches.”
As the council’s finance chairman, Caldwell initiated a program that allowed the city to refinance its nearly $1.6-million debt over 10 years. “Due to Gulfport’s excellent financial record with the refunding program, our bonds today cannot be bought for less than 98 on the dollar,” Caldwell wrote.
In July 1942, Caldwell and seven others purchased the Gulfport Tribune. “Gulfport needs its own newspaper and the newspaper needs you,” Caldwell wrote, after slicing annual subscription rates from $2 to $1.
It’s uncertain how long Caldwell shared ownership of the four-page weekly. His name last appeared as acting editor on Nov. 12, 1943.
About 1950, Caldwell moved his office to 3119 Beach Blvd. S. April Caldwell Hornsleth remembers sharing sherbet with her grandfather in a green chair.
That chair is now at a Caldwell rental property, Unit 5-A at the Gulfport Holiday Inn apartments. Today, Hornsleth, 53, and her husband, Poul, run Gulfport’s oldest business, Caldwell Realtors.
In 1952, Caldwell lost his ability to speak before dying at age 64. Hornsleth, then 4, wasn’t told of her grandfather’s death until months later because of her age. “I would visit and go looking for him,” she said.
In December 1955, the council voted unanimously to honor Caldwell. About 1956, a fountain in his name was placed at the pier entrance.
“I think I even had a suit coat on” at the dedication, R.W. Caldwell Jr. recalled.