Sarasota is a city located in Sarasota County on the southwestern coast of the U.S. state of Florida. The area is renowned for its cultural and environmental amenities, beaches, resorts, connections to the Ringling family, and the Sarasota School of Architecture. The city is south of the Tampa Bay Area and north of Fort Myers. Its current official limits include Sarasota Bay and several barrier islands between the bay and the Gulf of Mexico. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, in 2013 Sarasota had a population of 53,326. In 1986 it became designated as a certified local government. Sarasota is a principal city of the Bradenton-Sarasota-Venice, Florida Metropolitan Statistical Area, and is the seat of Sarasota County.
It is among the communities included in a two-county federally mandated Metropolitan Planning Organization that includes all of Sarasota and Manatee counties and the chairs of the three elements of that organization belong to the eight-county regional planning organization for western central Florida.
The islands separating Sarasota Bay from the gulf near the city, known as keys, include Lido Key and Siesta Key, which are famous worldwide for the quality of their sandy beaches. The keys that are included in the boundary of Sarasota are Lido Key, St. Armands Key, Otter Key, Coon Key, Bird Key, and portions of Siesta Key. Previously, Siesta Key was named Sarasota Key. At one time, it and all of Longboat Key were considered part of Sarasota and confusing contemporaneous references may be found discussing them.
Longboat Key is the largest key separating the bay from the gulf, but it is now evenly divided by the new county line of 1921. The portion of the key that parallels the Sarasota city boundary that extends to that new county line along the bay front of the mainland was removed from the city boundaries at the request of John Ringling in the mid-1920s, who sought to avoid city taxation of his planned developments at the southern tip of the key. Although they never were completed in the quickly faltering economy, those development concessions granted by the city never were reversed and the county has retained regulation of those lands ever since.
The city limits had expanded significantly with the real estate rush of the early twentieth century, reaching almost 70 square miles. The wild speculation boom began to crash in 1926 and following that, the city limits began to contract, shrinking to less than a quarter of that area.
Fifteen thousand years ago, when humans first settled in Florida, the shoreline of the Gulf of Mexico was one hundred miles farther to the west. In this era, hunting and gathering was the primary means of subsistence. This was only possible in areas where water sources existed for hunter and prey alike. Deep springs and catchment basins, such as Warm Mineral Springs, were close enough to the Sarasota area to provide camp sites, but too far away for permanent settlements.
As the Pleistocene glaciers slowly melted, a more temperate climate began to advance northward. Sea levels began rising; they ultimately rose another , resulting in the Florida shoreline of today, which provided attractive locations for human settlements.
Archaeological research in Sarasota documents more than ten thousand years of seasonal occupation by native peoples. For five thousand years while the current sea level existed, fishing in Sarasota Bay was the primary source of protein and large mounds of discarded shells and fish bones attest to the prehistoric human settlements that existed in Sarasota and were sustained by the bounty of its bay.
Early historical records
Europeans first explored the area in the early sixteenth century. The first recorded contact was in 1513, when a Spanish expedition landed at Charlotte Harbor, just to the south. Spanish was used by the natives during some of the initial encounters, providing evidence of earlier contacts.
Having been identified on maps by the mid-eighteenth century as Zara Zote, perhaps from an indigenous name, the sheltered bay and its harbor attracted fish and marine traders. Soon there were fishing camps, called ranchos, along the bay that were established by both Americans and Cubans who traded fish and turtles with merchants in Havana. Florida changed hands between the Spanish, the English, and then the Spanish again.
After the 1819 acquisition of Florida as a territory by the United States and five years before it became a state in 1845, the army established Fort Armistead in Sarasota along the bay.
The fort is thought to have been located in the Indian Beach area, and research continues there. The army established the fort at a rancho operated by Louis Pacheco, an African slave working for his Cuban-American owner. Drawings of the fort give a clue to the location as well, showing a significant landmark point that still exists at Indian Beach. Shortly before the fort was abandoned because of severe epidemics, the chiefs of the Seminole Indians gathered to discuss their impending forced march to the Oklahoma Territory. These were Native Americans who had moved into Florida during the Spanish occupation. Most of the indigenous natives of Florida, such as the Tocobaga and the Caloosa, had perished from epidemics carried by the Spanish. They mostly had maintained permanent settlements that were used from late fall through spring, moving to settlements farther north during the summer.
Soon the remaining Seminole Indians were forced south into the Big Cypress Swamp and in 1842 the lands in Sarasota, which then were held by the federal government, were among those opened to private ownership by those of European descent via the Armed Occupation Act passed by the Congress of the United States. Even Louis Pacheco was deported with the Indians to Oklahoma.
European settlers arrived in significant numbers in the late 1840s. The area already had a Spanish name, Zara Zote, on maps dating back to the early eighteenth century, and it was retained as Sara Sota. The initial settlers were attracted by the climate and the bounty of Sarasota Bay.
Sarasota has been governed by several different American counties, depending upon the era. Not becoming a state until 1845 Florida was acquired by the United States as a territory in 1819. Hillsborough County was created from Alachua and Monroe counties in 1834 and many early land titles cite it as the county governing Sarasota. Hillsborough was divided in 1855, placing Sarasota under the governance of Manatee County until 1921, when three new counties were carved out of portions of Manatee. One of those new counties was called Sarasota, and the city was made its seat. The boundary of the community once extended to Bowlees Creek, but that was redrawn to an arbitrary line in order to divide the airport so its oversight could include both counties. Property records and street addresses north of that new county line and south of the creek, however, remain as "Sarasota" due to established postal designations, although they remain governed by Manatee County.
To recover from the debt the state incurred through defeat in the Civil War, the central portions of Florida were drained and offered for sale by the state during the 1880s, being sold internationally to developers in the North and abroad.
William Whitaker, born in Savannah, Georgia in 1821, was the first documented pioneer of European descent to settle permanently in what became the city of Sarasota. Before his arrival, both Cuban and American fishermen had built fish camps or ranchos along Sarasota Bay, but these were not used throughout the year. After time spent along the Manatee River at the village of Manatee, Whitaker built upon Yellow Bluffs, just north of present day Eleventh Street. He sold dried fish and roe to Cuban traders working the coast. In 1847, he began a cattle business.
In 1851, Whitaker married Mary Jane Wyatt, a member of a pioneer family who had settled the village of Manatee, that was about to the northeast along the river of the same name. They raised eleven children on Yellow Bluffs despite the hardships faced by solitary pioneers.
Those hardships included a raid that destroyed their home. The raid was made by a formerly friendly Seminole chief, Holata Micco, dubbed Billy Bowlegs, after whom Bowlees Creek may have been named. They were not injured, but the house was burnt to the ground.
The Whitakers rebuilt and prospered. Unfortunately, their homestead site has not been preserved, having been developed in the 1980s. Their family cemetery remains, however. In the 1930s the Whitaker family gave the cemetery to the Daughters of the American Revolution on the understanding that any lineal descendants of William and Mary Whitaker and their spouses could be buried there as long as space remained. According to the legal records filed for the cemetery, there are eighty-five plots in all, with thirty-nine taken to date.
In 1867, the Webb family from Utica, New York, came to Florida looking for a place to settle. After arriving in Key West, the pioneer family met a Spanish trader. He told them about a high bluff of land on Sarasota Bay that would make a good location for a homestead. When the Webbs arrived in Sarasota looking for the bluff, they described it to Bill Whitaker. He led them right to it because of the description. The site was several miles (kilometers) south of the settlement of the Whitakers. According to the nonprofit organization bearing its name and maintaining the property today, after settling, the Webbs named their homestead Spanish Point, in honor of the trader.
The Webbs had to travel quite a distance for their mail for nearly twenty years. In 1884, John Webb finally petitioned for a separate postal address for Spanish Point. They chose Osprey as their postal address, since federal regulations required the use of only one word for the new address. A separate town eventually grew around that postal address. Although there is no similar documentation regarding the name of Sarasota, that federal one-word rule for postal designations may be the reason that Zara Zota or Sara Sota became Sarasota.
Browning and Gillespie
In 1885 a Scots colony was established in Sarasota which was portrayed as a tropical paradise that had been built into a thriving town. A town had been platted and surveyed before the parcels were sold by the Florida Mortgage and Investment Company. When the astonished investors in the "Ormiston Colony" arrived by ship in December they had to wade ashore, only to find that their primitive settlement lacked the homes, stores, and streets promised. They were even more disturbed by the snowfall that occurred a few weeks later.
Only a few Scots, such as the Browning family, remained in Sarasota along with a determined member of the developer's family, John Hamilton Gillespie. He was a manager for Florida Mortgage & Investment Company, and began to develop Sarasota following the plan for the failed colony. In 1887 he built the De Sota Hotel which opened on February 25 hosting a large social event and celebration. Eventually, tourists arrived at a dock built on the bay. In May 1886 he completed a two hole golf course which is reported to be the first golf courses in America. By 1905, he had completed a nine-hole course to support his favorite pastime, golf.
Rose Phillips Wilson and her husband C. V. S. Wilson founded The Sarasota Times newspaper in 1899. It was the first newspaper published in Sarasota and Rose Wilson continued publication of the paper alone until 1923 after her husband died in 1910. She participated in the leadership of the community through many organizations and provided editorial opinions on most early issues that were published in the editions.
Well respected among her peers in journalism, the Tarpon Springs Leader ranked the Times under Rose's ownership as "the best weekly paper in the state". After the state legislature passed a bill to create Sarasota County, it was to Rose Wilson that the telegram was sent to announce it. When a referendum endorsed the split from Manatee locally, Wilson changed the name of her newspaper to The Sarasota County Times.
Rose Wilson lived through the World War I period, the 1920s boom period, the depression, World War II, and Sarasota’s second boom period in the 1950s. After her retirement from publishing in 1923, Wilson continued her community work with many local organizations, including the influential Woman’s Club in Sarasota, into the 1940s. She devoted much of her time as teacher and mentor for youth at First Presbyterian Church and lived to the age of 88 years old, when she died in 1964.
Twentieth century development
The village of Sarasota was incorporated for local government as a town under state guidelines in 1902 with John Hamilton Gillespie as mayor. It was re-platted in 1912 and its government then was incorporated as a city in 1913, with A. B. Edwards as mayor.
Owen Burns had come to Sarasota for its famed fishing and remained for the rest of his life. Not only did he become the largest landowner in the city, but he founded a bank, promoted the development of other businesses, and built its bridges, landmark buildings, and mansions. He dredged the harbor and created new bay front points with reclaimed soils. He created novel developments such as Burns Court (located in what now is referred to as Burns Square) to attract tourists and built commercial establishments to generate additional impetus to the growing community.
He also went into a business partnership with John Ringling to develop the barrier islands, a fateful decision that bankrupted him when his partner failed to live up to commitments on development agreements. In 1925 Burns built the El Vernona Hotel, naming it after his wife, Vernona Hill Freeman Burns. Shortly after the opening of the hotel, the land boom crash in Florida struck a fatal blow to his finances because of the unfulfilled partnership agreement. Ironically, it was the same former partner, John Ringling, who took advantage of the situation and purchased the hotel for a portion of its value, although several years later, with the crash of the stock market, Ringling would meet the same financial fate.
Beside the landmarks, bridges, and developments he built, Burns contributed to the attraction of many around the country to Sarasota. Among his five children, he also raised the most important historian for the community, his daughter, Lillian G. Burns.
Bertha Palmer (Bertha Honoré Palmer) was the region's largest landholder, rancher, and developer around the start of the twentieth century, where she purchased more than of property. She was attracted to Sarasota by an advertisement placed in a Chicago newspaper by A. B. Edwards. They would maintain a business relationship for the rest of her life. The Palmer National Bank, established on Main Street at Five Points, remained a strong bank led by her sons through the depression and merged with Southeast Bank in 1976.
Bertha Palmer also owned a large tract of land that now is Myakka State Park. During this period this land was operated as a ranch. She developed and promoted many innovative practices that enabled the raising of cattle to become a large-scale reality in Florida. At her "Meadowsweet Farms", Palmer also pioneered large-scale farming and dairy in the area and made significant contributions to practices that enabled the development of crops that could be shipped to markets in other parts of the country. Her experimentation was coordinated with the state department of agriculture.
As war in Europe threatened, Bertha Palmer touted the beauty of Sarasota and its advantages to replace the typical foreign destinations of her social peers. Palmer made her winter residence on the land which the Webb family had homesteaded. She built a resort that would appeal to these new visitors to the area. She quickly established Sarasota as a fashionable location for winter retreats of the wealthy and as a vacation destination for tourists, which endured beyond the war years and blossomed for the new wealth that developed more broadly in the United States during the 1920s and, after the Second World War as well.
In her early publicity, Palmer compared the beauty of Sarasota Bay to the Bay of Naples, and also touted its sports fishing. As the century advanced, the bounty of the bay continued to attract visitors, until overfishing depleted its marine life.
Palmer retained most of the original Webb Family structures and greatly expanded the settlement. The pioneer site has been listed on the National Register of Historic Places as Historic Spanish Point and is open to the public for a fee. Her tourist accommodations at The Oaks have not been preserved, however.
Also arriving in 1910, Owen Burns closely followed Bertha Palmer to Sarasota and with two purchases, he quickly became the largest landholder within what now is the city, therefore many of the huge Sarasota properties she owned are in what now is Sarasota County (which did not exist during her lifetime). Many of its roads bear the names she put on the trails she established. She did participate, however, in speculation in the city along with others, purchasing undeveloped land in great quantities, and many parcels bear her name or that of her sons among those in abstracts.
Her sons continued her enterprises and remained as investors and donors in Sarasota after the death of Bertha Palmer in 1918. Aside from drawing worldwide attention to the city as a vacation destination and a chic location for winter residences, as well as being renowned for the ranching and agricultural reforms she introduced, two state parks are located on properties she held, portions of the Oscar Scherer State Park and the enormous Myakka River State Park, that may be counted as her greatest tangible legacy to Sarasotans.
Other developments and early history
Other communities in the area were incorporated or began to grow into towns that were quite distinct from the bay front community whose plat ended at what is now Tenth Street. They have been absorbed as Sarasota grew, but some have retained their names and are recognized today as neighborhoods. Some communities, such as Overtown, Bay Haven, Indian Beach, Shell Beach, Bee Ridge, and Fruitville have all but faded from the memory of most living there now. Overtown expanded to include what now is designated as the historic Rosemary District and the boundaries of Newtown now merge with that. The Ringling College of Art and Design includes for its administration building, a hotel developed for the community of Bay Haven when Old Bradenton Road was the main thoroughfare north to the Manatee River. That route avoided having to cross the broadest portion of Bowless Creek. Tamiami Trail was developed in the mid-1920s and a bridge across the creek eliminated it as a natural barrier limiting development. Shell Beach became the location where the grand estates would be built on the highest land along the bay as well as where the Sapphire Shores and The Uplands developments are today.
Women have played a significant role in the development of Sarasota, perhaps not so contrary to many communities, but the history of Sarasota has documented their roles very publicly. Bertha Palmer was not so unusual here, Many other examples may be found by exploring the county records at the Sarasota County History Center.
An area in northern Sarasota attracted many of the Ringling brothers, who had created their wealth as circus magnates, around the start of the twentieth century. The Ringling Brothers Circus had not yet consolidated as a single entity.
Mary Louise and Charles N. Thompson platted Shell Beach in 1895. The Thompson home was the first residence on the property. It extended from what is now Sun Circle almost to Bowlees Creek. From 1911 Mable and John Ringling spent their winter stays in that house and eventually, they would purchase a large parcel of Thompson property for their permanent winter quarters in Sarasota. Along with being a land developer, Thompson was a manager with another circus. He attracted several members of the Ringling family to Sarasota as a winter retreat as well as for investments in land.
First, the Alf T. Ringling family settled in the Whitfield Estates area with extensive land holdings. The families of Charles and John Ringling followed, living farther to the south. Soon, children and members of the extended family increased the presence of the Ringling family in Sarasota. Ringling Brothers Circus established its winter home in Sarasota during 1919 following the death of Alf T., when Charles Ringling assumed many of his duties.
Charles Thompson had joined the staff of the Ringling Brothers Circus when it began to purchase smaller or failing circuses, and to operate them separately. In 1919, these holdings were consolidated into one huge circus, billed as "the greatest show on Earth". Only two of the original five founding brothers now survived, but other members of their families continued to participate in the business or serve on its board of directors. Performers and staff members began to settle in Sarasota, and established the Ringling Circus as part of the Sarasota community.
Following the end of World War I, an economic boom began in Sarasota. The city was flooded with new people seeking jobs, investment, and the chic social milieu that had been created by earlier developers.
The next large Shell Beach parcel, immediately to the north, passed between Ellen Caples, Mable and John Ringling, and a few others several times without development until 1947. It was then developed as The Uplands. Some other historic names associated with that parcel are Bertha Palmer, her son Honoré, and A. B. Edwards, whose names are featured as familiar street names in Sarasota.
The tract abutting that parcel was re-platted in 1925 as Seagate with the intention of creating an entire subdivision. This is where Gwendolyn and Powel Crosley built their winter retreat in 1929. All of these historic homes and the museum have been listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
The now-historic neighborhood of Indian Beach Sapphire Shores grew immediately to the south of the area where these grand homes were built on the bay. Sapphire Shores provided homes to the professionals and retirees who wished to be, or were, closely associated with these wealthiest residents of the community. Indian Beach, which had been a separate community at one time, contained pioneer homes that survived among the fashionable new homes built during the boom era of the 1920s.
Charles Ringling as developer
Charles Ringling invested in land, developed property, and founded a bank. He participated in Sarasota's civic life and gave advice to other entrepreneurs starting new businesses in Sarasota. From his bank, he loaned money to fledgling businesses. Encouraging its creation, he donated land to the newly formed county—upon which he also built its government offices and courthouse as a gift to the community.
Ringling Boulevard was named for Charles Ringling. It is a winding road leading east from the bay front at what now is Tamiami Trail toward the winter circus headquarters. It crosses Washington Boulevard where Charles Ringling built the Sarasota Terrace Hotel, a high-rise in the Chicago style of architecture, opposite the site which Ringling would donate for the county seat. It was readily accessible by train at the time.
Charles Ringling and his wife, Edith, began building their bay front winter retreat in the early 1920s. Charles Ringling died in 1926, just after it was completed. For decades Edith Ringling remained there and continued her role in the administration of the circus, assuming many duties of her husband, and her cultural activities in the community. Her daughter, Hester, and her sons were active in Sarasota's theatrical and musical venues. What came to be known internationally as the Edith Ringling Estate is now the center of the campus of New College of Florida.
John Ringling in partnership with Owen Burns
John Ringling invested heavily in developments on the barrier islands, known as keys, which separate the shallow bay from the Gulf of Mexico. Although he had several corporations and development projects in Sarasota, he worked in partnership with Owen Burns to develop the keys through a corporation named, Ringling Isles Estates. Burns owned all of Lido Key. To facilitate development of these holdings a bridge was built to the islands by his partner, Owen Burns. Eventually Ringling donated the bridge to the city for the government to maintain. They named that route, John Ringling Boulevard. The center of Saint Armand key contains Harding Circle and the streets surrounding it are named for other U.S. presidents. Dredge and fill by Owen Burns created even more dry land to develop, including Golden Gate Point. Winter residents, called snowbirds, flocked to purchase these seasonal homes marketed to the well-to-do.
Leading edge of the 1920s crash
The Roaring Twenties ended early for Sarasota. Florida was the first area in the United States to be affected by the financial problems that led to the Great Depression. In 1926 development speculation began to collapse with bank failures on the eastern coast of Florida, much earlier than most parts of the country. The financial difficulties spread throughout Florida. John Ringling initially profited from the economic crash. Ringling had put his partner, Owen Burns, into bankruptcy by using money from the treasury of their corporation for use on another Ringling project that was failing. He later purchased the landmark El Vernona Hotel from Burns at a fraction of its worth. John Ringling, too, however, lost most of his fortune. Shortly after the June 1929 death of his wife, Mable, his reversal began because his stock investments were affected.
Just before the market crashed, Ringling had purchased several other circuses with hopes of combining them with the existing circus and selling shares on the stock exchange. The crash ended that plan. While Ringling continued to invest in expensive artwork, he left grand projects unfinished, such as a Ritz hotel on one of the barrier islands. He abandoned plans for an art school as an adjunct to the museum. Ringling did lend his name to an art school established by others in Sarasota, however reluctantly.
The board of the circus, which included Edith Ringling and other members of the family, removed John Ringling and placed another director, Samuel Gumpertz, in charge of the corporation. By the time of his death in 1936, John Ringling was close to bankruptcy. His estate was saved only because he had willed it, together with his art collection, to the state and he died just before he would have become bankrupt. A film about the estate that is shown to museum visitors, states that his bank balance was less than four hundred dollars when he died. His nephew, John Ringling North, struggled for years to keep that legacy intact.
A new city plan
In 1925 John Nolen, a professional planner, was hired to develop a plan for the downtown of the city. He laid out the streets to follow the arch of the bay front with a grid beyond, that extended north to what is now Tenth Street and south to Mound. This followed more closely the way the city was developing at the time.
The names and numbers of the downtown streets were changed to the current ones. At that time the numbered streets began at Burns Square and Burns' triangular building separating the intersection of Orange and Pineapple Avenues, was on First Street. Nolen shifted the existing numbered streets to the north, beginning above what now is Main Street. The city hall, situated in the Hover Arcade at the foot of Main Street, was on the waterfront and the city dock extended from it. It was the hub of the new city. Vehicles and materials could pass through the arcade and railroad tracks led directly to the terminus.
The new plan accentuated that city hall on the bay front, was the nexus of the city. Broadway, the road that connected the downtown bay front with the northern parts of the city along the bay had become part of the new Tamiami Trail that was being created. The trail was a portion of U.S. 41 that connected Tampa to Miami (hence the contracted name) in 1928. United with U.S. 301 in northern Manatee County, the trail made a "dog's leg" turn toward the west at Cortez Road. In Sarasota it turned back toward the east to follow Main Street through downtown before rejoining U.S. 301 at Washington Boulevard.
In 2010, an island in Sarasota was temporarily renamed "Google Island" in an attempt to get Google Fiber for the city.
Another speculation crash
The boom of the 1950s failed to end in a crash, but almost a hundred years after the first speculation crash that affected her so badly in the mid-1920s, Sarasota became identified as an epicenter of the 2008 real estate crash. It followed financial credit problems that began with poorly financed mortgages failing because of massive real estate speculation that began in the late 1990s and escalated dramatically during the early 2000s. Once the values of the properties began to fall the mortgages purchased with consideration of "equity value" derived from the rapid increases in property values due to speculation, became problematic. The properties were no longer worth the value of the mortgages, some by great differences. The rate of foreclosures is increasing as the values remain low and governments are losing taxes to support services because of the decline in values. This became almost a nation-wide problem and occurred in other countries as well. Although not over yet, it is likely to be labeled as another boom period-crash, not in undeveloped land and not just in Florida, but this time it began with equity-based home mortgages and has led to a major financial crisis.