Florida Today 18
Florida Frontiers “The Peter Demens Story”
Peter Demens lived in Florida for only eight years, but his time here is memorable.
While living in Longwood, just north of Orlando, Demens constructed buildings on the campus of the state’s oldest private college, established a railway connecting Central Florida to the Gulf Coast, and gave the city of St. Petersburg its name.
Peter Demens was born Pytor A. Dementyev. Although he was an orphan by age 4, Demens was well provided for by his wealthy family in Russia. Demens was raised by his maternal uncle, a nobleman named Anastassy Alexandrovich Kaliteevsky. He grew up with a full staff of servants living on two inherited estates, one near Moscow and one near St. Petersburg. By age 17 he was managing his family estates.
In 1867, Demens entered military service under Alexander II as a lieutenant. Four years later he retired as a captain and returned to controlling his family’s business interests.
When Czar Alexander II was murdered and the more authoritarian Alexander III came to power, Demens became outspoken about his liberal, anti-czarist political views. He was exiled from Russia and came to the United States in 1880.
Demens claimed that he was “forced to flee Russia” before the military raided his estate, but some historians have concluded that his departure from his homeland was more likely prompted by his participation in a scandal involving the embezzlement of funds from the government.
Whatever the reason for Demens leaving Russia, he set sail for New York in May 1881, with $3,000 in his pocket. During the voyage Demens learned English from a textbook. By the time he arrived in New York, Pytor A. Dementyev had become Peter Demens.
Demens spent only one day in New York before boarding a train bound for Jacksonville. He wanted to start an orange grove there, but thought the land was too expensive. Demens continued south to less developed, and less expensive territory in Central Florida.
Peter Demens settled in Longwood. He bought an eighty acre orange grove and one-third interest in a sawmill. Within two years, Demens bought out his partners in the sawmill and acquired a contract to build the station houses for the South Florida Railroad.
Demens was also hired to construct buildings on the campus of Rollins College in Winter Park. Established in 1885, Rollins College is the oldest private college in Florida. (DeLand University was established two years earlier, but became Stetson University in 1889.) While photographs from the 1880s show the buildings at Rollins to be attractive, college administrators deemed them to be “quite deficient” upon their completion.
While living in Longwood, Demens also received a contract to make railroad ties for the Orange Belt Railway. The track would run from the south side of Lake Apopka and continue to the Tampa Bay area. After many financial setbacks, the track was completed and Demens was given the railroad charter instead of payment.
With control of the railway, Demens decided to name the new town at the end the line after one of his childhood homes in Russia, St. Petersburg.
Today, Peter Demens is remembered with a monument and historical marker in Demens Landing Park, site of the first railroad pier in St. Petersburg. Remembered as a founding father of the city, Demens also built the first hotel there, the Detroit.
Building the railroad left Demens in debt, and he sold it in 1889. He left Longwood for North Carolina and later moved to California. Beginning in 1904, Demens helped hundreds of Russians immigrate to California. Many of those immigrants were members of the Molokan Church, a Protestant denomination that split from the Russian Orthodox Church.
Peter Demens died in California in 1919, but he played an integral role in the growth of Florida in the 1880s.
Dr. Ben Brotemarkle is executive director of the Florida Historical Society and host of the radio program “Florida Frontiers.” The show can also be heard online at myfloridahistory.org.