This Week in History, Nov. 15, 1921: Block Island’s only mayor, and some “taffy” politics

Thu, 11/15/2012 - 5:26pm

This week in history 91 years ago, on Nov. 15, 1921, Noel A. Mitchell — the only mayor to be born and bred on Block Island — was thrown out of office by a recall vote in his newly adopted hometown of St. Petersburg, Florida.

Born on Block Island in 1874, Noel made himself famous during in the 1890s and early 1900s by selling a new invention called Salt Water Taffy, at his Old Harbor shop on Water Street, as well as at other northern resorts such as New Jersey’s Atlantic City. As his taffy purported to be, the handsome entrepreneur really was a mixture of easy-flowing sweetness and the salty Atlantic Ocean. And by putting his face prominently in the middle of thousands of his candy boxes, and offering to mail the taffy anywhere in the United States for 40 cents, he spread his name and image to all parts of the country.

Noel A. Mitchell arrived in Florida in 1904 to enter the real estate game. Florida boomed for the next quarter century and he was “one of the best civic promoters St. Petersburg ever had.” To promote the sport fishing industry of the Gulf of Mexico, for instance, he hung 150-pound tarpon in front of his office at Fourth and Central avenues, a corner lot he owned.

And Noel originated the city’s comfortable Green Benches, buying 50 of them to scatter about the downtown, with his advertising on the back. Other businessmen followed the lead and by the time he died in October 1936, thousands of benches existed in the city, winning the thanks of visitors, and their repeated trips back, for such hospitality.

With such a self-promoting ego, you’d think Noel would be perfect running for politics. He thought so too — and did run, becoming mayor of St. Petersburg in 1920.

Noel A. Mitchell is the only Block Islander to ever be a mayor — and that can be easily said because the head of the local island government, although serving much of the same function, holds a different title: “First Warden,” a term in use since the town government was formed in 1672.

As Block Island’s only mayor, everything Noel Mitchell did in that capacity set a record. It can be said, for instance, that he was the most likable mayor Block Island ever produced.

And also the most party-going mayor, because down there in St. Pete — and maybe along the whole 1,500 mile coast of the Atlantic starting at his taffy tent on Water Street — Noel painted the town red at night, period.

He thus became the only Block Island mayor to get caught drinking in the mayor’s official office suite; and, the only Block Island mayor to be thrown out of office.

As a history book of that Florida city describes it, he “was recalled November 15, 1921, following a wild liquor party, in the Mayor’s office, which happened to be next door to the police department.”

This was a year after the Prohibition laws had been instituted throughout the country — so, technically speaking, drinking wasn’t supposed to be occurring anywhere, anymore.

Now don’t get Noel Mitchell’s character wrong. He was known as “Mitch” by his friends, “which included almost everybody.” They obviously liked his gusto — and he had it, because after getting thrown out of office, he did what almost no one would do: he promptly ran again, to succeed himself. Even the brilliantly affable former-Mayor Cianci of Rhode Island’s capitol, Providence, waited a few years before having the gumption to attempt the same.

In the “wild and lurid” crusading down in St. Petersburg during that election, Mitchell was “making a traffic-stopping re-election speech one night from the bed of a truck parked in front of his building.” As he kept trying to make a point, a heckler would bellow out “Mitch, tell us about that likker party in the mayor’s office.” The crowd roared “every time the heckler shouted” and soon Mitch “lost his audience.”

So, this is what Noel Mitchell did:

“Finally in desperation he stepped forward, teetered on the very edge of the truck tailgate and raised his hand impressively for silence — he was dressed in a cutaway, long tailed coat and a tall, hard silk hat — and when he got it, said with impressive dignity:

“‘My friend, no matter how dark my past may have been, my future is as white as snow.’”

That particular audience was won back. But Noel was defeated in the election by a two-to-one margin.

Before he died, Noel Mitchell was also a candidate for the Democratic nomination for Governor of Florida. He didn’t make it, but if he had? Well, what position follows for a lucky few after a governorship? President. The closest a Block Islander has probably ever come.

Mitchell was selected first in the nation in one regard, though: as the country’s No. 1 airline patron. That aspect of Noel’s life began back in 1914 when he made the second chartered flight from St. Petersburg, flying across the bay to Tampa. The airline route was the first established in the country. To understand the size of the plane, you need only to know there was room for one passenger seat, and that was located next to the pilot — telling you a little more about Noel’s adventuresome spirit.

Noel’s love of flying, rustic though the beginning was, undoubtedly had been nurtured by thoughts of his January 1907 automobile trip between the same two cities, which necessitated motoring around Tampa Bay, a body of water now spanned by a lengthy series of modern bridges. Automobiles were still a novelty back then. Noel and his party made one detour around a small broken-down bridge, and another to get out of a forest fire. They ended up clear over in Clearwater, a city they then discovered didn’t even sell gasoline. Five hours were spent waiting for a supply to be sent from another town. The trip which now takes half an hour by car, took Mitchell three and a half days. A long time for a man in a hurry, but it was probably well spent dreaming up new schemes.

His death in 1936, at the age of 62, was caused by pneumonia, succumbing shortly after he returned to St. Petersburg from a visit with his daughter and two brothers on windy Block Island.