Peter Demens (13 May [O.S. 1 May] 1850 – January 21, 1919) born Pyotr Alexeyevitch Dementyev (Russian: Пётр Алексеевич Дементьев) was a Russian immigrant to the United States who became a railway owner and one of the founders of the U.S. city of St. Petersburg, Florida.
Pyotr A. Dementyev was born to a wealthy family in Vesjegonsk district, Tver Oblast, Russia. Demens was a liberal minded, well educated aristocrat, a first cousin of Prince Petroff and a captain in the Imperial Guard. "Demens' father had left him two estates, one near the czar's capital of St. Petersburg and another close to Moscow." "His father died when he was an infant [and when] he was 4, his mother died." He reportedly "grew up in a huge stone house with never fewer than 30 servants" and "was the master of his family estate" at 17. He received training as a forester managing his large family estates, which would serve him well in the future.
Demens was raised by his maternal uncle Anastassy Alexandrovich Kaliteevsky, marshal of the Vesyegonsk district nobility, who became the boy's tutor and guardian of his land estates. When he was 10, Demens "was sent to St. Petersburg to study [at] Gymnasium No. 3 (today it is School No. 181 in Solyanoi Pereulok), [which] was one of the best in the city." Demens did well enough to eventually transfer "to the newly founded First Technical School in St. Petersburg."
In 1867, "he entered the military service of Alexander II as a lieutenant in the czar's infantry guard." "He rose to command the sentries at the czar's Winter Palace and the home of Crown Prince Alexander III," but "after four years of military duty, he was old enough to own his family estates [and so] "he resigned his commission as a captain and lived as a country squire." He married Raisa Borisenko, who, reportedly, was "also an orphan brought up by relatives." "He spent the 1870s selling off the trees of the estates' dense woodland and converting his land to agriculture." "Elected by gentry peers as county marshal of nobility, he became an outspoken writer and active in his rural government." "Never adopting Marxist or radical notions, Demens sympathized with populist leaders."
He became outspoken about the Czarist regime when "radical terrorist groups murdered Alexander II [and] his son tightened his political pressure on radicals and abandoned his father's reforms." He thus left Russia following the assassination of Czar Alexander II in 1881. Reportedly, many of the accounts of Demens being forced to flee Russia are "based on Demens' attempts to romanticize his departure from Russia by implying he escaped just before a military raid on his estate" despite never being "more than 'on the fringe' of peaceful populist organizations." According to the biographer Albert Parry, Demens' departure was "more likely [due to] his troubles with an embezzlement scandal that engulfed Demens and others in government posts" ("trials brought only one conviction for a minor government official and acquittals for Demens and 15 others"). In 1880 he was exiled from Russia, and he anglicized his name to Peter Demens.
Life in the United States
In May 1881, "leaving his family behind, [Demens] sailed for New York, hoping for American promise of mobility and opportunity. He reportedly "spent his sea voyage studying an English language textbook." "Arriving in New York with $3,000 to start a new life, Demens embarked for Florida" ("spending one day in New York before boarding a train bound for his cousin's Jacksonville orange grove"). Because land in Jacksonville was expensive for him at the time, Demens took "a steamer to the back country, where he expected to get more for his money."
He decided to enter the lumber business ("investing in a sawmill and a construction company in Longwood, Fla.") and in 1885 Demens was supplying railroad ties to the Orange Belt Railway when he took over their charter because they couldn't pay him. Becoming the owner of the Orange Belt Railroad, Demens "[extended] its lines to link Kissimmee with Jacksonville and Tampa Bay" (with the help of Hamilton Disston).
On June 8, 1888 the first train pulled into the terminus in southern Pinellas County (the end of the line) with one passenger. The area had no official name and no real streets or sidewalks. Demens named the location of his terminus St. Petersburg, Florida, after Saint Petersburg, Russia, where he had spent half his youth.
By 1895 he moved his young family to Southern California where he bought a citrus farm in Alta Loma. In 1898 he read about the plight of thousands of Doukhobors migrating to Canada, their resettlement problems and hoped they would come to booming California. They did not. Starting in 1900, Demens began to personally help Spiritual Christians (sectarians) from Russia immigrate to California. They were mixed nationalities, faiths and cultures from Russia who dissented from the Russian Orthodox church, like Protestants. After failing to guide Spiritual Christian Doukhobors in large numbers from Canada, he focused on the next wave of non-Doukhobor Spiritual Christians — mostly varieties of Pryguny (Jumpers), Maksimisty, Molokane (Milk-drinkers), Subbotniki (Subbotniks), New Israel, etc. — who tried to follow Doukhobors from the Southern Caucasus to Canada. Demens successfully diverted them all initially to Los Angeles where they could work in his lumber yard or laundry, learn a city trade, or form an agricultural colony. Some he chaperoned personally from Ellis Island. For the poor, he gave loans, or arranged discount fares. In Los Angeles, other established educated Russian immigrants helped via the settlement houses managed by the Rev. Dr. Dana Bartlett, the Bethlehem Institutions. They organized Russian language classes, a cooperative store, and guided those who wanted to form farm communes. In 1905 Demens scouted Hawaii and made arrangement with the territorial government for homesteads to accommodate thousands to follow, but only 110 were in the first group and all fled Hawaii within 6 months, by August 1906. A parallel effort begun in 1905 by Demens' Russian associate de Blumenthal to settle Pryguny in Guadalupe, Baja California, Mexico, was partially successful. Between 1904 and 1912, about 3000 Spiritual Christians from South Russia immigrated to California and Mexico. His most noted legacy, regarding immigrants from Russia, was to collectively rebrand all the Spiritual Christians from Russia in the U.S.A. and Mexico with the single, easy-to-pronounce short word: "Molokan" (though most were not Molokans), to simply present them all as White Protestant, temperant, hard-working, ideal citizens. After Hawaii failed, most Molokane resettled in San Francisco (most on Potrero Hill) and Northern California; and varieties of Pryguny with other zealous faiths stayed in Boyle Heights district, Los Angeles, and Southern California. In the booming Progressive cities, most of the descendants of Demens' peasant country-men quickly adapted to their urban ethnic enclaves.
Death and legacy
Demens eventually retired to Alta Loma, California to the family ranch (what later became known as Demens-Tolstoy Estate). Reportedly, "the descendants of Peter Demens now live in California and British Columbia, [including] a grandson, Peter Demens Tolstoy ("writer Leo Tolstoy, who wrote Anna Karenina and The Death of Ivan Ilych, is his great-grand uncle"), a great-grandson, Greg Demens, and a great-great-grandson, Greg Demens." Demens Landing in St. Petersburg, FL is named in his honor.
- Full Steam Ahead! The Story of Peter Demens. Founder of St. Petersburg, Florida. Albert Parry. p. 4 & p. 47 Great Outdoors Publishing Company. 1987. ISBN 0-8200-1034-0
- When Florida Boom Went Bust, Russian Nobleman Turned To Writing. Jim Robison. Orlando Sentinel (Florida). OSCEOLA; Pg. K6. March 23, 2003.
- St. Petersburg: Through The Centuries. On the map of the world: Where are our namesakes? Olga Bobrova. www.300.years.spb.ru
- Raise a toast to Demens (de-MENS). William H. Parsons. St. Petersburg Times (Florida). NEIGHBORHOOD TIMES; GUEST COLUMN; Pg. 2. May 24, 2000.
- One-Time Officer In Czar's Guard Became A Railroad Czar In America. Jim Robison. Orlando Sentinel (Florida). SEMINOLE; Pg. K15. October 31, 1993.
- A founding grandfather lives in lore. MONICA DAVEY. St. Petersburg Times (Florida). LARGO-SEMINOLE TIMES; Pg. 6. May 23, 1994.
- Historical Marker Database
- Google Books. Florida's Past: People and Events That Shaped the State. Gene Burnett. Pineapple Press. August 1998. History - 280 pages. ISBN 1-56164-115-4
- Grismer, Karl H. The Story of St. Petersburg. St. Petersburg, FL: P.K. Smith, 1948.
- Peter Demens. My Life in America.
- Mohoff, George & Jack Valov. "A Stroll Through Russiantown" 1996. Chapter 13, pp. 83–88 "Captain Peter A. Demens"
- Demens and Tolstoy family connection through Vera Demens
- Interview with Vera Demens Tolstoy
- The Historical Marker Database Demens' Marker in St. Petersburg, Florida