HOW SARASOTA BECAME "AMERICA’S BEST SMALL CITY"
It happened because persons of enterprise and vision saw the potential of the land and became involved in its development. Thumbnail bios of three of Sarasota's most influential visionaries follow.
William H. Whitaker:
He netted, dried and sold mullet to Cuban sailors who paid the equivalent of one cent per fish in Spanish Doubloons. Bill fell in love with 5 foot tall, 80 pound, Mary Jane Wyatt in 1851, married her and they had eleven children. While riding herd one day Bill found Jeffrey Bolding, an emaciated runaway slave and brought him home. Mary helped him regain his health and rather than return him to a cruel existence, Bill bought him for $1,000 from his master. Although slavery ended in 1863, Jeffrey chose to stay with the Whitaker family until his death in 1904.
Whitaker was ever a supporter of the oppressed and in 1865 at the conclusion of the Civil War he arranged the escape of Judah P. Benjamin, Attorney General and Secretary of War under Jefferson Davis.
Bill brought the first herd of cattle to the area and by 1858 the Whitakers owned 1,400 head. He planted the first commercial grove in Sarasota using seeds from oranges obtained from Cuba.
John Hamilton Gillespie:
Gillespie hired laborers at $1.25/hr to clear the streets and carpenters at $2/hr to build a hotel that he named The De Soto. The grand opening was on Friday night, February 25, 1887; more than 200 people came and some attendees didn’t get home for days.
Gillespie introduced golf to Florida in May of 1886. He laid out a 2-hole course on what is now Main Street. It consisted of a long fairway with a green and a tee at each end. The name GOLF was originally an acronym for ‘Gentlemen Only, Ladies Forbidden’.
The weather improved and money became available. There were plenty of jobs; homes and businesses were being built. Gillespie paid for the lumber used in constructing the first school, a one room building. When construction ended, so did the jobs; times were bad for Sarasota and for Gillespie. His wife of many years began to imbibe and often created embarrassing scenes. On one occasion Mrs. G. crashed into a waiter at a dinner for an Episcopalian Bishop. The entire contents of a soup tureen ended up on the Bishop who arose, left the dining room and Sarasota. Soon after, John and his wife travelled to Scotland and when John returned to Sarasota in 1905 he was alone. Sarasota was incorporated as a town in October 1902 and Gillespie became its first mayor through 1907. He became known as “the Father of Sarasota”.
He returned in 1923, and employed three huge dredges to make solid land of mangrove islands he bought creating St. Armand’s, Lido and the southern end of Longboat Key. Sewer and water lines were installed; canals were dredged and roads were built. A causeway that cost $750,000 was built to connect the island with Sarasota's main land. The day that the causeway opened, February 7, 1926, Ringling Estates reported real estate sales exceeding one million dollars. Ringling presented the causeway to the city as a gift on June 13, 1927. in 1925 John completed construction of Ca’d-Zan ("House of John" in Venetian dialect) for he and his wife, a Venetian Gothic, Italian themed stained glass and marble palace, reported to have cost $2.5 million. The pipe organ cost $50,000.
To help Sarasota weather the storm, Ringling announced on March 23, 1927 that he would move the winter quarters of the circus from Bridgeport, Connecticut to Sarasota Florida. The presence of the circus meant employment of mechanics in building and repairing of circus wagons, railroad cars and other equipment. This required spending at least $500,000 just for the buildings. During the first week in November, 100 railroad cars arrived in Sarasota with elephants, lions, gorillas - (Gargantua and Mlle. M’Toto) and more. Dozens of performers and their families came too. The circus grounds were opened to the public on Christmas Day 1927. This attraction helped make Sarasota what it is today, a world class tourist destination.
The above bios are just a few of the hundreds who have helped make Sarasota “America’s Best Small City” – and the procession continues.
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