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Rev. John B. Ley Recalls Early Tampa

Edited by Spessard Stone from the Tampa Daily Times of July 20, 1912



Introduction: John B. Ley, born ca. 1855, was a Methodist minister and the son of Rev. John C. Ley, a pioneer circuit riding Methodist minister. The Rev. Ley served for three years as pastor of the First Methodist Church of Tampa and in 1912 was pastor of the First Methodist Church of Ocala.


The Rev. Ley wrote of his father and himself to the Tampa Daily Times:

“Editor of the Times:

“I note Tampa has just celebrated the twenty-fifth anniversary of her birth as a city, also that the first town incorporation took place in the winter of 1855. As it was about the same date of the same year the writer began his earthy pilgrimage it recalls vividly two or three other events in the life of the city.

“It was prior to December 1, 1855 by nine year and a half that a young Methodist preacher, riding an Indian pony and carrying his entire wardrobe and library in a pair of saddlebags, which constituted his earthly possessions, rode into Tampa.

“This was a government fort, where half a dozen families, numbering perhaps twenty-five persons, outside of the “garrison” had settled, enjoying thereby the protection from Indian atrocities.

“But recently what is known as the “armed occupation act” had been passed by congress. This provided that any man who would settle south of a given line, keep a gun, ammunition, build a house “fit for habitation of man,” cultivate five acres and live there for five years would be granted a title (or patent) to 160 acres of land.

“This young Methodist preacher, as we learn from a carefully preserved diary, had just traveled the length of the peninsula, stopping with the settlers at such points as a preaching service could be held.

“To give a pen picture of one such ‘home’ in the language of his diary. The ‘houses’generally were built by driving four forked poles into the ground, some kind of poles used for plates and rafters which were tied together with vines. Palmetto leaves were used for thatch and weather boarding. This in the meaning of the law was completed a house ‘fit for habitation of man.’

“The farm was on a similarly elaborate scale and the furniture in keeping with the surroundings. The young missionary ate, prayed and slept with the family (one man) and the next day preached to him and his neighbors.

“Reading further: ‘July 26, 1846, Today I reached Tampa, opened the doors of the church, organized a society, the first organized in this place. Appointed a class leader.’ (This was Dr. J. Roberts.) Then follows a prayer: ‘O that the little vine may continue to spread and fill all these lands.’

“Rev. John C. Ley, the sainted father of the writer of this article, who gave sixty years of active service to the church in Florida, has often spoken of his first trip in Florida, of the almost superhuman difficulties overcome in making the journey, and of his feeling of rest and quiet.

“When asked why he consented to brave the hardships of the wilderness where so few people could be found, and when the matter of ‘compensation’ was negligible, he was wont to answer in the language of a pioneer preacher’s motto, ‘Wherever man can go for money, we can go for the love of Christ and souls.’

“The writer’s first visit to Tampa was made in November, 1877. The first conference held here was held at that time. Bishop Geo. F. Pierce presided.

“We had to drive across from Enterprise or go by boat to Jacksonville, rail to Cedar Keys, thence steamer to Tampa. Too feeble from a long spell of fever to cross the state in an open buggy we took the steamer at Enterprise and landed in Jacksonville just in time to take passage on a lumber train that was backing out to Baldwin. We rode on the cow-catcher of the engine.

“We had no restrictions, proscriptions, etc., not even a railroad commission in those days. So if a fellow was in a hurry he could ride anywhere and anyhow that wheels turned in the direction he wanted to go, and if he was pretty decent, could get a ride, ticket or no ticket.

“At the dock at Tampa, as we recollect there was only one, two local carriages and a wagon met the boat, the Liddis Henderson. There were about thirty-five preachers on board.

“Of course we walked. One main street, about three blocks long, with a white sand bed in the middle and a broken board walk on one side, led up to little old wooden church situated, as I remember, on Lafayette street.

“There must have been a dozen or more stores scattered around and about among rank saw palmetto patches. A few streets were ‘laid off,’ and residences conformed thereto in the main.

“Even at that late day Tampa was a ‘day of small things.’ There was no ‘thunder in her index.’

“But favored by providence and directed by the wise leadership of public spirit, she has gone forward by leaps and bounds till now-Oh well, ‘Seein’s believin’. J. B. Ley”



As “Minister Recalls Early Tampa,” this was published in The Herald-Advocate (Wauchula, Fla.) of August 1, 2002, page 8C.

August 1, 2002