May 13, 1850 - January 21, 1919
Peter Demens (born Pyotr Alexeyevitch Dementyev) was a railway magnate, public figure, who supported Russian immigrants and one of the founders of the U.S. city of St. Petersburg, Florida.
Peter Demens was born to a wealthy aristocratic family, with close blood relations to the Tsar family, in the Tver Oblast, Russia.
Both of his parents died before he turned four, leaving him with estates in Tver, near Moscow and St. Petersburg, a decent yearly income, at least 30 personal servants, and a dedicated guardian – his uncle Anastassy Kaliteevsky, marshal of the local nobility.
Thanks to his guardian’s efforts, Peter received an excellent education in one of the best of the capital’s schools, and later entered military service, becoming a lieutenant of the Imperial Guard, at one time even commanding guard posts of the Winter Palace.
In the 1870s, Pyotr Dementyev left the military service to return to his estates, where he started an ambitious program of modernizing the countryside and converting the wide expanses of forests he owned to arable land, and married Raisa Borisenko, also an orphan brought up by relatives.
Soon Dementyev was elected by the local gentry as county marshal of nobility, but he became an outspoken supporter of the contemporary populist leaders and a critic of the Czarist regime, especially after radical terrorist groups murdered Alexander II and his son abandoned his father's reforms.
After a keen interest from the secret political police to his person and a very unpleasant embezzlement scandal – though no charges were ever brought against him - he was forced to leave for America in 1881 (in the process Americanizing his real name), first to New York and then to Florida. There, he invested in a dense forest land, a lumber mill, and a short railroad for transporting lumber to the coast. Very soon, acquiring a small railroad company, Demens extended his line to link Kissimmee with Jacksonville and Tampa Bay.
On June 8, 1888 the first train of Demens’ company pulled into a terminus in southern Pinellas County, with just one passenger aboard, an employee of the company.
Although the area had no name and could boast of not a single real street, Demens saw great prospect in it, and, symbolically, named it St. Petersburg, Florida, after the Russian capital of the time.
In 1898 Demens read about the plight of thousands of Doukhobor religious migrants from Russia to Canada, and began to personally help the numerous religious sects from Russia to immigrate to the more suitable – in his opinion - California, mainly to Los Angeles: Pryguny, Maksimisty, Molokani, Subbotniki, New Israelites, etc. To the poor, he gave loans, provided affordable dwelling and education, and helped establish farms.
To improve the image of immigrants in the eyes of the authorities, he undertook a clever wide-scale PR campaign, successfully rebranding them as the Molokan - White Protestant, literate, teetotal, hard-working, ideal citizens.
In 1912 Demens retired to Alta Loma, California, to the family citrus ranch which later would become known as Demens-Tolstoy Estate (one of his descendants became engaged to a member of the famous writer Leo Tolstoy’s family),
He died peacefully seven years later in the circle of his family.
Full Steam Ahead! The Story of Peter Demens. Founder of St. Petersburg, Florida. Albert Parry. Great Outdoors Publishing Company. 1987.
Google Books. Florida's Past: People and Events That Shaped the State. Gene Burnett. Pineapple Press. August 1998.
Peter Demens. My Life in America