A few years ago, New York University professor and Guggenheim fellow Greg Grandin documented the history of Fordlandia: The Rise and Fall of Henry Ford’s Forgotten Jungle City, and his work was a finalist for the prestigious National Book Award.
And the community in the Amazon forest wasn’t the only city Henry Ford created. There was Alberta in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, his proposal for Muscle Shoals in Tennessee, and of course, River Rouge, the manufacturing hub in Michigan where raw materials arrived at one end and completed cars rolled out the other.
But Henry Ford wasn’t the only American automotive pioneer who established a city, and unlike Ford’s settlement in the Amazon, Ransom E. Olds’ town in Florida has flourished, in many ways exceeding even his expectations.
That town is Oldsmar, which plans a year-long centennial celebration in 2016 but concentrated on the week of March 28-April 3 with an auto show, parade, concert and other activities.
If you’ve never heard of Oldsmar, you’re not alone. Like so many people who needed to escape Midwestern winters or who had relatives who retired to the Sunshine State, I’ve been an almost annual visitor to Florida’s Gulf Coast for decades. But I had never heard of Oldsmar until recently; I was trying to find information about an annual Oldsmobile car show in Michigan when I stumbled across mention of the Oldsmar centennial.
It was on April 12, 1916, that R. E. Olds paid $400,000 to purchase 37,541 acres of land on the north shore of Tampa Bay. At the time, there were no bridges between Tampa and St. Petersburg, so those going from one city to the other by car would have to travel through Olds’ town, which he figured would prosper as a result.
Olds’ vision for what originally was called Olds-On-The-Bay was a town of 10,000 people living in a community that fanned out from the bay shore. He even hired city planner Wayne Stiles to plat a spoke-and-wheel-style road system much like that in Washington, D.C., with the hub of the spokes at the shoreline.
Olds saw the town’s future in agriculture and founded the Reolds Farms Company. He also bought a local tractor manufacturer and converted it to engine production.
Olds started construction in 1918 with a bank building that still stands and now houses the local historical museum and Chamber of Commerce offices. Also still standing, now the Women’s Club, is a structure Olds built as housing for the workers brought in to build his town.
Among their projects was construction of a pier that was wide enough for two cars to pass and that pushed 1,000 feet out into the bay. The idea was that the boats would dock with patrons headed to the pavilion-style casino Olds had built near the base of the pier with a dance floor, gambling and booze — after all, at the time Oldsmar was out in the boondocks, and Prohibition didn’t begin until 1920.
In 1921, a hurricane brought a 14-foot storm surge that devastated much of the town. Three years later, the completion of the Gandy Bridge provided a shortcut across the bay between St. Pete and Tampa.
Nonetheless, Olds was among the investors who built what was known as the West Coast Jockey Club in Oldsmar. In 2016, that horse track, later to be known as Sunshine Park and then Tampa Bay Downs, celebrates its own 90th anniversary.
But the hurricane and new bridge had done their damage, and the Depression was looming. People were leaving. By the mid-1920s, even Olds was selling out, at a loss estimated to be as much as $3 million.
Today, Oldsmar is a neat and clean, suburban-style town of 14,000 people. Some 30 percent of the land is devoted to parks and preserves. Nielsen has 2,000 employees in town, tracking consumers and what they watch and buy. Lockheed Martin is another major employer in a community recently rated very highly for its support of new, start-up small businesses.
The town also hopes to have Olympic ties before long after the recent completion of only the fourth BMX SuperCross bicycle-racing facility in the United States.
Through its century of existence, Oldsmar has not forgotten its founder, who not only started two car companies but created the automotive assembly line. The new library was modeled on the proposed hotel R.E. Olds planned to build, and inside the library are all sorts of artwork paying homage to the town’s founder.
There’s a replica 1901 Curved Dash Olds in the lobby of City Hall, and the Curved Dash also is on all official city signage. The city also owns a 1994 Oldsmobile Cutlass convertible it uses for parades and has one of the last 500 Oldsmobiles — a 2004 Alero — to come off an assembly line before General Motors eliminated the heralded brand.