History of Odessa, Florida



1888 map showing Odessa, Florida At left: an 1888 map showing Odessa.

Some early photos of the Odessa area contributed by Willie Grant are here. A separate article on the Odessa schools is here. This page was last revised on Sept. 29, 2013.

Apparently, Odessa was named in the 1880s by the Russian immigrant Peter A. Demens, who was instrumental in financing the Orange Belt Railway, which ran from Sanford to Trilby to St. Petersburg. He also named St. Petersburg. Both are cities in Russia.

Odessa was originally situated in Pasco County, although today the town extends into northern Hillsborough County.

On May 22, 1900, a post office was established at Odessa. Peter Strand was the first postmaster.

On Oct. 19, 1903, the Ocala Evening Star reported:

R. S. Hall and Mr. Collier have begun operations at the big turpentine location that Mr. Hall purchased last month at Odessa, in Pasco county, from Hillman and Ivey. The firm name is Hall & Collier. This is an exceptionally fine location, plenty of good timber and on the railroad. Mr. Hall gave Hillman and Ivey $71,000 for the 23,440 acres. A good portion of the location is sawmill timber. The turpentine location itself is valued at $40,000.

School board minutes show that a school for white students was approved on Sept. 2, 1907. Teachers at this school included Mrs. L. D. Eiland, Miss Eleanor Kuhlman, Marguerite Branas, and Mrs. Katie Clark. On Aug. 7, 1936, the Dade City Banner reported that the school board directed the superintendent to arrange for the building of a negro school in Odessa. However, school board minutes show black teachers appointed to teach at Odessa as early as 1930. They include: Ida O’Neal, Claudia Lewis, Cecilia Taylor Tyson, Ruby Lee Mack Copeland, and Bessie Barefield. On July 6, 1948, the school board voted to close the black school. More information on the Odessa schools is here.

According to A. S. Gower, in 1912 Fivay saw mills closed down for good, the machinery was junked, and the timber rights were sold to the Gulf Pine Company, which established a mill at Odessa.

In 1917, the Dowling Lumber Mill was reported to be producing 100,000 board feet daily and the Lyon Pine Saw Mill was turning out 80,000 board feet daily. An earlier company, the Mueller and Lutz Saw Mill, operating in the first decade of the century, had gone out of business by the time the other two reached their peak. Workers were paid their $1 daily wage in tokens which were redeemable only in merchandise at the company store. [Information from The Historic Places of Pasco County]

On Jan. 12, 1917, Marvin L. Roberts was appointed the Odessa postmaster.

The 1920 census showed Odessa had a population of 700.

On Feb. 10, 1922, the Tarpon Springs Leader reported that Tom E. Chaires, postmaster at Odessa, was arrested Tuesday by Post Office Inspectors on a charge of embezzlement of $4,000 in postal funds. Miss Donna McFarland was appointed acting postmaster.

On Oct. 19, 1922, the New Port Richey Press reported that the lumber plant and stored materials of the Dowling Brothers Lumber Co. at Odessa were destroyed by fire.

On November 24, 1922, the New Port Richey Press reported that work had begun to rebuild the mills of the Dowling Brothers at Odessa.

On May 15, 1925, the New Port Richey Press reported that fire had totally destroyed the lumber mill of the Lyon Pine Company at Odessa “last Saturday night.”

According to Historic Places of Pasco County, “Some old-timers maintain that the fires were not accidental.”

On Sept. 30, 1927, the Tarpon Springs Leader reported, “The Dowling company, which recently moved its large lumber mill from Odessa to Gulf Hammock, will not leave its old mill site a scene of desolation. Buildings are being sold and removed for lumber and the ground converted into a large citrus grove.”

Street scene in Odessa, late 1920s.

Odessa Mill Burns Down; Loss $250,000 (1922)

This article appeared in the Tampa Times on Oct. 18, 1922.

Odessa, Fla., Oct. 18—Fire, which is believed to have started from a hot box in the planing mill, practically destroyed the Dowling Brothers’ lumber mill her early this mroning. The loss is estimated by officials of the company to be about $250,000, partly covered by insurance. Only the dry kiln and machine shop of the mill escaped the fire. The Dowling Bros. mill was said to have been one of the largest in the state.

The fire, which razed the mill, was discovered by the night watchman about 2:30 o’clock. He gave the alarm and between 300 and 400 men were soon busy trying to check the blaze, which spread so rapidly that within an hour and a half, only smoking ruins, the dry kiln and the machine shop were left to sh ow where the big mill stood.

The rapidity with which the fire spread throughout the mill prevented the volunteer firemen from using to any great advantage the fire fighting equipment scattered throughout the buildings. Bucket brigades and hoses were brought into play, but proved of little use. Approximately 250 men are thrown out of work by the fire. Officials of the company declared they did not know as yet whether the mill would be rebuilt or not.

Odessa Invites an Inspection of Its Charms (1924)

The following article appeared in the New Port Richey Press on Feb. 29, 1924.

We take much pleasure in inviting you to pay Odessa a visit and see one of the prettiest and growing towns in the state.

Odessa is located on the Atlantic Coat Line and Tampa and Gulf Coast railroad twenty-one miles from Tampa on the new asphalt road fifteen miles from the corner of Howard and Armenia Avenues.

Odessa is noted for its beautiful lakes and citrus groves, also vegetable farms and flower gardens, not mentioning the large acres of avocadoes and other tropical fruits.

Odessa has some of the best soil in the state for the production of vegetables such as beans, cucumbers, Irish potatoes, lettuce, peppers; in fact anything that can be grown in South Florida is being grown in and around Odessa.

Calm Lake, one of the many beautiful lakes, is used by the residents of Odessa and other towns as a bathing place during the summer months. This lake has a clear sandy bottom with a beach-like shore, making it very attractive and inviting to the public as an ideal place for picnics and camping parties. The Boy Scouts from Odessa, Tampa, and other places spend quite a few week-ends around this beautiful lake.

Mound lake, only a short distance, with its crystal like waters, is unexcelled by any lake in the country for a summer camping site. This [year] Y. M. C. A. of St. Petersburg has a summer camp on this lake with summer huts built in camp formation with streets and other attractive features. They have a commodious kitchen and dining hall, and a flag pole on top of one of the largest mounds near the camp. It looks as though nature formed this picturesque spot for just such a purpose.

Seven Springs is only a very short distance with its beautiful flowing springs and wells of different kinds of mineral waters being located on the Anclote river making it an ideal place for afternoon picnics and camping parties. Drink all the water you care for out of the different springs, then grab your rod and reel and try your luck with the finny tribe.

The Dowling Mill at Odessa, Florida The Dowling Company operates one of the most modern saw mills in the state, operating their own railroad, with a regular train order system using telephones to handle the trail orders. They employ an operator to dispatch trains just as any other railroad. Their line is some forty or fifty miles long running east from Odessa crossing the Tampa Northern near Denham. The Seaboard Air Line near Zephyrhills and the Atlantic Coast Line at Millards then to a point in Polk county where they have a large and well constructed logging camp.

The logs are cut in Polk county, loaded on regular log cars, made up in trains from ten to fifteen cars and handled to their mills in Odessa where they are unloaded by a steam machine known as the unloader and haulup. They are carried to the second story of the mill by this machine where they are cut up in the lengths to fill the orders on hand, then placed on skids in such a manner that the sawyer can drop them one at a time onto the carriage that takes them to the big band saw that cuts them into boards and other dimensions in a jiffy. The lumber then goes on roller beds to the big gang edger where it is cut in different widths and sizes, then it is carried by chains to the cut- off saw, thence on chains to the dry kiln and other parts of the mill yard, some going to the main leading skidways where it is loaded on flat cars for all parts of the world. Some goes to the timber sizer where it is made up into large building timbers and into boards used for the construction of railroad box cars. The part that goes to the dry kiln after being thoroughly dried is carried to the big planer mill where it is made up into flooring, ceiling, siding, sheathing and other kinds of building material.

They cut on an average of 80,000 feet a day or about 2,080,000 feet per month, making on an average of 150 cars per month.

They have their houses for their employees arranged in city formation furnishing them free of rents with light and water and all other city conveniences. The white residents are situated some distance from the colored. They maintain their own light and water plant, furnishing lights for the churches and schools free of charge.

They operate one of the most modern stores to be found anywhere with Ira U. Grant in charge who is one of the most progressive general merchandise men in the state. They handle anything from dress pins on up.

We have a second class post office with rural free delivery.

We have just constructed a well equipped four-room school building with a spacious auditorium, and we take great pleasure in mentioning the fact that our school won the prize at the county fair as one of the best three teacher schools in the county.

The Odessa garage has purchased a Delco lighting plant and will be installed at an early date. They will furnish light to those that are not in reach of the Dowling company’s lines. This is to be appreciated by the residents near the garage. They are thinking of making some changes in their building at an early date and will erect a modern filling station on the new highway.

It is a known fact that they will begin work in a few weeks on the new hard-surfaced road between Odessa and Elfers connecting with the Hillsborough county line and at the road to Denham connecting with the Tampa and Brooksville road, that will be us a hard surfaced road to all parts of the state.

Indications are good for an orange and vegetable packing house here this summer, most of the fruit being shipped from Cosme at present, there is quite an acreage of vegetables being planted around here this season.

1918-1919 Florida State Gazetteer and Business Directory

Saw Mill Era (1979)

The following is taken from History of Keystone, Odessa, and Citrus Park.

Researched by CHARLES R. WILSON. Compiled by PHYLLIS E. BINDER

LUMBER! That was the magic word that produced this community of ours.

In 1899, there was one sawmill and one turpentine still operating in the area, run by prisoners who were kept in a stockade across from Lake Artillery. They maintained their own railroads. At that time, Odessa was a flag station for the Atlantic Coastline, which ran parallel to Route 54.

By 1904 both had closed. Then in 1907, Gulf Pine Lumber Company bought 50,000 acres of the surrounding area, held it for two years and sold it in 1909 to the Dowling Lumber Company, which erected a sawmill on Gunn Highway about 1/2 mile south of Route 54.

At about the same time, the Lyon Lumber Company established a slightly smaller mill, further south on Gunn Highway, at the present site of the Odessa Baptist Church, calling it the Lyon Pine Mill.

The Dowling Mill employed about 200 men, 75% of whom were blacks, who worked in the woods chopping down trees. They were paid with company coins, called Babbit, aluminum coins that could be spent only at the company store or commissary. Dowling Mill issued round coins, while Lyon Mill used egg shaped coins.

Most of the laborers were paid daily in the hope that they would spend their money before the weekend, when drunkenness was quite a problem. The wage at that time was $1.00 for an eleven hour day!

The mills built frame shanties for their workers, with a fireplace for heat. A few had beds, but most men and their families slept on the dirt floor. Their water was supplied by a pump in the yard. At that time, you could sink a 20 foot well and get clear, potable, drinking water. A school was provided for the black children at a charge of 25¢ a week per family.

Many northerners, especially from Michigan, flocked to the area to work in the mills when they opened. They bought property and built homes. Many cleared their land and planted citrus.

In 1913, Odessa had one telephone, located in the Dowling Mill, and three automobiles. Mr. Dowling owned a Cadillac and a Buick. He put railroad car wheels on the Buick, which he put on the tracks once a week, to make a trip to Tampa. Mr. McGraw, the sawyer at the mill, owned a Buick.

Also, in 1913, a local resident shot and killed a chimpanzee, thinking the animal wild and dangerous. It proved to be an escaped animal from a Movie Company making jungle pictures in Sulphur Springs, and valued at $1,000.00.

Within a few years, Odessa was a bustling mill town of roughly 2,000, with the two mills the hub of activity. Within the area could be found several boarding houses, a meat market, drug store, hardware, barber shop, general store, and even a Ford Agency and a garage.

There was one doctor who served the 6½ square mile township of Odessa. Men with families paid him $1.50 monthly, single men $1.00, which entitled them to medical care and medicine as needed.

A two story school house was built between the two mills for the children of the white community, and a church next to it.

In 1917-18, Odessa was a rough town with little law and order. Moonshine and narcotics were easy to come by. There were nightly knife fights, and gun fights at least once a week. Many of the mill workers were escaped convicts from North Florida and Georgia. Eighteen men were killed in one two year period. One of these was investigated by the law. The center of all activity, including many of the fights, was the commissary.

By 1917, Dowling Mill was producing 100,000 board feet daily, while Lyon Pines output was 80,000 board feet. One board was reported to be 56” wide! Envision if you can, a tree that could produce such a board!

Trees were cut by loggers, who camped out in the woods. The cut logs were pulled to railheads by mule, where they were loaded onto log cars, that were then pulled by tram, to the mills. The logs were stored in millponds. There they were positioned on a log chain, that pulled them into the mill. Twenty to twenty-five carloads of logs were brought in daily to each mill, by way of their tram network.

There were six boilers at Dowling Mill, five at Lyon Pine, fired by sawdust and pine slabs, by-products of the lumbering operation. These boilers provided the power to run the saws and produce electricity for workers’ homes.

Many of the old homesteads in the area were built with lumber produced at these mills. The old farmhouse at the south end of Lake Pretty was built by Judah Marlow, prior to 1912, with rough sawn cypress boards produced by them. When the land surrounding the house was cleared to set out a citrus grove, later known as Handon Grove, some of the lumber produced from those trees, was used in building the Little Red Schoolhouse in Citrus Park.

During World War I, women were employed by the Dowling Mill, stacking lumber in the yards, and also working in the planing mill.

In 1923, the rural carrier, Lewis Hatton, delivered the mail three times weekly, traveling by horseback. The Postmaster at that time was Edward Roberts, father of Alice Roberts Bareford and Ruth Roberts Phillips.

It was inevitable that the supply of timber would dwindle to the point where it was no longer a profitable operation. In 1925, both mills burned down. Some oldtimers maintain that they were not accidental fires, but deliberately set to collect the insurance.

With the mills gone, most of the people involved with its operation moved on, leaving the original settlers, and a handful of others who chose to stay and make a new life for themselves in farming and citrus. By the 1930’s the population had dropped to 250 or 300 persons, the nucleus of today’s thriving community.

Odessa Post Office (1979)

The following is taken from History of Keystone, Odessa, and Citrus Park.


The Odessa Post Office started in 1900, with two others between it and Tampa, at Keystone Park and Citrus Park. These were stop-off points for travelers between Tampa and Tarpon Springs or to Elfers. As recently as 1942-1968, there were only a few hundred folks in the area but now they serve over 6,000 people from Odessa P.O. The carriers deliver partly in Pinellas County as well as Hillsborough and Pasco. The present Odessa postmaster is Charles Wilson, born in Odessa in 1925.

The new location of the Odessa Post Office is the tenth location since establishment February 7, 1900. The Post Office was recommended by Postmaster Allen D. Connell of Keystone Park, which was located near Camp Brorein on Boy Scout Rd. Peter Strand was recommended to be the first Postmaster and was appointed May 22, 1900 at the first location 60 yards to the South of the ACL Railroad near the present Old Gunn Highway. The second location was the commissary at the W.H. Dowling Mill. By 1915, it had moved to the express office at Gulf Pine, which was located on the Tampa and Gulf Coast Railroad Line. The next location was the commissary of Lyon Pine Mill about 100 yards to the south.

After the mills moved, the office moved one mile to the north at a building near the intersection of Old Gunn Highway and Church St. During this period, the office was fourth class and usually moved near where the postmaster lived or worked, as it was not a full-time job.

The next move was about 500 yards to the north to the Old General Store, located at Gunn Highway and Denham Rd. Next location was a small building 100 yards to the south on Old Gunn Highway. The office was upgraded to third class and the next move was to an office on the west side of the stores now owned by M. Fleming. The office was upgraded to second class and a new office was built on the east side of the same store where it remained until recently.

Rural delivery started in December 1925 with the first carrier being Lewis Hatton. This route was 25 miles long and served by horseback three times a week. Present rural mileage is 125 miles per day. The second rural route was added in 1967 with a third in 1974. The new building location resulted in a daily reduction of 11.2 miles of distance traveled by rural carriers.

During the period of 1900 through 1943, fifteen postmasters served, averaging about three years each. The period of 1943 to 1977 has seen three postmasters over this 34 year period averaging over ten years each. The new and permanent location is on Tarpon Springs Rd. just west of Gunn Highway.

Former Timber Town of Odessa Keeps an Eye to the Past (2002)

This article appeared in the Tampa Tribune on Dec. 14, 2002.


ODESSA – It’s hard to tell where Odessa begins and ends as motorists rush along State Road 54 in central Pasco.

The one-time rural countryside is lined with homes. But in the mid-1800s the area was a quiet farming community, and residents took pride in what sprung up when the railroad came through.

Community pride remains today, with Odessa getting its historical significance documented with a marker placed by county commissioners and the Pasco County Historical Preservation Committee. The dedication is at 11 a.m. today at Odessa Community Center on Chesapeake Avenue, south of S.R. 54.

The marker gives a brief history of the community, originally settled by W.M. Mobley and family in the mid-1800s. Later, the railroad came through, running parallel with S.R. 54.

The name “Odessa” was given by Russian Peter Demens, developer of the Orange Belt Railway, in 1888. He named Odessa and St. Petersburg, to the south, for cities in his native land.

In 1899, a sawmill and turpentine still were operated in Odessa by prisoners from a stockade just south of the Pasco County line. By 1904 the sawmill and prison closed.

Then came Gulf Pine Lumber Co. in 1907, buying 50,000 acres in the area surrounding Odessa. The company held it for two years before selling it in 1909 to Dowling Lumber Co. Dowling built a sawmill off Gunn Highway, about a half-mile south of S.R. 54.

That same year, Lyon Lumber Co. built a smaller mill about a quarter-mile south of the Dowling mill.

In 1909 there were 300 lumbermen living in Odessa, and growth was increasing steadily.

Odessa Becomes A Timber Town

Nine years later, at the height of the timber boom, there were 2,000 residents – with the mills employing about 1,200 of them.

The mill owners built wood shanties for the workers, most of whom slept on dirt floors.

The stacks from the six boilers at Dowling and five at Lyon Pines towered over the scrub oaks left in the area. The boilers were fired by sawdust and pine slabs, byproducts of the lumber industry. They provided power to run the saws, plus produce electricity for the workers’ homes.

A two-story schoolhouse was built between the mills for white youngsters, who attended the classes free. When the mills hired hundreds of black workers, a second school was built to comply with Florida law requiring segregated schools. The black children were charged 25 cents per family to attend.

Mill workers were paid in tokens made of Babbitt metal, a soft alloy used in bearings. Dowling issued round coins, and Lyon Pine Mill used egg-shaped tokens. Babbitt coins could be spent only at the company store or commissary. At the end of the week, the Babbitts could be exchanged for U.S. currency.

The Babbitt was devised by foremen who saw high absentee rates when real currency was used. When paid in cash, many workers went to town and spent their wages on whiskey, then didn’t show up for work the next day.

Getting paid daily was also thought to be a deterrent to off-duty carousing, with the theory that if workers spent their wages each day, they wouldn’t have money left for weekend drinking binges.

The average wage was $1 for an 11-hour day.

The mills employed a doctor and charged $1.50 monthly for men with families and $1 for single men. That entitled them to medical care and medicine.

Growth, Trouble Come To Town

With the growth of the mills came the growth of the town around them. There was a drugstore, grocery, hardware and general stores, barbershop, boarding house and train depot.

In 1913 there was only one telephone in Odessa – at the Dowling Mill. The mill owner also owned two of the three automobiles in town, a Cadillac and Buick. He put railroad car wheels on the Buick and once a week put it on the tracks to travel to Tampa for supplies. A mill worker owned the other car, also a Buick.

The trees were cut by loggers who camped in the woods. The fallen trees were pulled by mules to railheads where they were loaded onto railroad cars and pulled by trams to the mills.

The logs were stored in millponds. From there they were positioned on log chains and pulled into the mills. Between 20 and 25 carloads of logs were brought in daily to each mill.

By 1917, Dowling Mill was producing 100,000 board feet daily. Lyon Pines turned out 80,000 board feet per day.

Also by that year, Odessa had gained a reputation as a rough and tumble town. One altercation came in 1915 with a gunfight on the streets.

It was early that summer when Will Hyatt got drunk and started blasting away, shooting a mule and a couple of other animals, said local historian Bill Dayton. Wyatt continued his shooting spree at the lumber mill and turpentine operation.

By the time Sheriff B.D. “Bart” Sturkie arrived with Deputy H.E. Whitfiel, Dayton said, Hyatt had staggered back into the streets. He fired three shots at the officers, who returned fire, killing Hyatt.

It was said Sturkie never carried a gun again, Dayton said.

The shooting happened early in Sturkie’s two-term career as Pasco County sheriff.

“He was the kind of person who could stop a fight just by walking in a room,” Dayton said. “He was a big man.”

Even after the shootout, knife fights still happened nightly and gunfights usually at least once a week in Odessa. The commissary was the hub of activity. Many mill workers were escaped convicts from North Florida and Georgia. Between 1917 and 1918, 18 men were killed, with only one case investigated by authorities.

The sawmills thrived until the 1920s. But then the timber resources were depleted and, in 1925, both mills burned. The cause of the fires was never determined but speculation was they were intentional to collect insurance money.

However, the insurance companies wouldn’t pay cash settlements, instead agreeing to rebuild the mills. After being rebuilt, though, both mills were disassembled and moved out of Pasco.

With the mills closing, Odessa’s population plunged to about 250. Most who stayed were original settlers’ kin and a handful of newcomers who had planted citrus.

In 1926, a club was formed to promote interest in the community. That year, members donated $5,000 for an advertising campaign. Ads were published in The Tampa Tribune and other newspapers. Billboards were erected to lure travelers. The club remained active for 10 years, disbanding in 1936 during the Depression.

The club was revived later and promoted the area through Yukon Day, which started in 1981 and featured outhouse races. The festival went into hiatus in the early 1990s when it grew too large for organizers to handle, but community leaders revived it in 1999.

Yukon Day also spawned perhaps the area’s biggest draw, the Odessa Rodeo and Festival, which in April celebrated its 13th anniversary.

In recent years, mainly because of freezes, citrus production has given way to light industry and residential developments in Odessa.

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