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The Florida West Coast

( Originally Published Mid 1930's )

At last we reach the Florida West Coast, a few miles along the Tamiami Trail northwesterly from Everglades. The little town of Naples, an ancient winter haven for a few quiet northern people, which rather resisted the boom-time efforts to modernize it, lies on the Gulf at about the southwest corner of the 4,000,000 acres of ownerless land which Hamilton Disston, the Philadelphia saw maker, bought from the state of Florida in 1880 for twenty-five cents an acre. The million dollars which Mr. Disston paid the state took Florida out of the financial slough of despond in which it had been floundering since the end of the Civil War, and started it on the road to its present prosperity. For Mr. Disston and his associates it was far from a wild speculation. It was sold in blocks of fifty thousand to half a million acres, at from 50 cents to $1 an acre, to groups and syndicates in Europe and America, who in turn colonized and sub-divided it, and to ranchers, some of whom or their heirs still hold enormous tracts of the prairie land of the Kissimmee Valley and the flat plains of the Arcadia country lying north and west of the Everglades swamps.

No railroad leads to Naples now. The Seaboard Airline extended its tracks to the little town in 1927, tore them up in 1937. The southernmost rail-head on the West Coast is Fort Myers, the charming little city where Thomas A. Edison had his winter home and where his friend Henry Ford used to come after New Year's to be neighbor to his mentor and personal hero, the Wizard of Menlo Park. Fronting on the Caloosahatchee River, western terminus of the new cross-state canal, Fort Myers is a rendezvous for yachtsmen and for fishermen. In winter its population of fishing sportsmen exceeds its permanent population of commercial fishermen. Its fertile and prosperous back country produces the usual Florida varieties of commercial truck crops and a large volume of excellent oranges and grapefruit. One of the most beautiful thoroughfares in America is the principal street in Fort Myers, along which every traveler northward or southward on the Tamiami Trail passes between two rows of towering royal palms, extending for a mile or more along the broad avenue.

The Caloosahatchee River empties into a sound protected from the Gulf by a series of long, narrow keys, on which are located some of the most famous of Florida's fishing resorts. Punta Rassa, Pine Island, Boca Grande, Gasparilla and Sanibel are names familiar to sportsmen all over the country. These keys also guard the mouth of Charlotte Harbor, the wide bay into which the Peace River drains the run-off of the west slope of Florida's central ridge. Twenty-four miles north of Fort Myers we pass through the ancient fishing village of Punta Gorda, where a magnificent new hotel provides accommodations for winter visitors who prefer their fishing and their water sports in comparatively calm and unexciting surroundings.

Fifty miles from Punta Gorda northward the Tamiami Trail brings us to Venice, one of the most attractive small communities in Florida. Venice is the only developed spot on the Florida mainland which fronts directly on the waters of the Gulf of Mexico, with no outlying keys or islands. It has the only bathing beach, therefore, which one does not have to cross a bridge to reach from the adjacent town.

Venice had its inception in the imagination of Dr. Fred H. Albee, world-famous orthopedic surgeon of New York. Shortly after the World War, Dr. Albee came to Venice with the idea in mind of building in the mild West Coast climate a modern and completely equipped hospital in which the natural advantages of longer hours of sunshine and year-'round outdoor recreation facilities would be joined with the skill of medical science in the treatment of disease. Acquiring the large tract of shore front acreage upon which Venice is now located, Dr. Albee called in the late John Nolan, famed city planner and planning engineer of the New York Port Authority, who laid out an ideal city. His comprehensive plans were followed by the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers when that organization acquired the site from Dr. Albee, and the actual building of the city began.

The collapse of the Florida land boom halted the full realization of the Brotherhood's dreams for Venice, and it fell to Dr. Albee to carry on from where the Engineers left off. Much of the city, with its modern apartments, hotels and homes in a prevailing Spanish-Mediterranean architecture had already been built according to the plans drawn by Mr. Nolan, at a cost of some $30,000,000, before the Brotherhood began the liquidation of its holdings. A number of New York men prominent in the nation's affairs became interested in Venice in 1933, and were convinced of its future. Among them were Senator Royal S. Copeland, the late F. Kingsbury Curtis, New York attorney, and Anthony Cuculo, contracting builder. These men acquired considerable holdings in Venice, and began their development.

In this year also, Dr. Albee opened the Florida Medical Center as a general hospital, acquiring the largest hotel building adjacent to the Gulf, and remodeling it according to mod ern hospital standards. Staffed by surgeons and physicians from several of the nation's leading hospitals and clinics, the Florida Medical Center today regularly draws patients from every state in the union and many foreign countries, and has won recognition as one of the ranking institutions of the country. Dr. Albee, as medical director, has continued active as its head since its founding.

Shortly after the opening of the hospital, the Kentucky Military Institute chose Venice as its winter headquarters, and to a large plant consisting of several modern buildings in the prevailing architecture near the center of the city, the school transports its entire student body and faculty for a three months term each year. One of the oldest private military schools in the country, the institute has an enrollment of some 400 cadets, who are joined in residence at Venice by many of the parents and friends of the faculty.

Since the opening of the Florida Medical Center, and the increasing yearly recognition of Venice as an important health center, the history of the city has been one of steady absorption and placing into use of buildings and homes abandoned with the ending of the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers' activity, and today the city is recognized as a thriving and growing community, with new homes and enterprises steadily being added, and civic improvements being made.

With a winter population of 1,700, the majority of the residents own their own homes, and a number of private estates here are included in the show-places of the West Coast, among them being the homes of Dr. Albee on the Nokomis bay-shore and the shore-front home of Senator Copeland. Located in the center of the West Coast's famed fishing grounds, Venice is known for its tarpon fishing, and is recognized for its annual Venice-Nokomis Tarpon Derby, which draws the sportsmen of the country each summer; and is credited with having held the first of such competitive fishing events in Florida, with yearly awards going to winning anglers. In 1937, the Federal government spent $200,000 on waterway improvements at Venice inlet. The pass to the Gulf from the bays and numerous inlets, and from the docks at Nokomis, has been jettied and dredged to a maximum depth of nine feet at mean low water, giving Venice the only jetty-protected waterway on the mainland Gulf Coast. The jetties extended 1,200 feet from the original shoreline and are built of huge steel cylinders, concrete capped and interlocked by steel plate in a new design used for the first time in Florida and for the second time in the country by the government.

North from Venice a matter of twenty miles we come to Sarasota, steadily increasing in popularity as a winter and summer vacation resort and as a place of year-'round resi dence. Sarasota is the art center of Florida, if not of the whole South, as well as the financial and commercial metropolis of a wide area extending from the Gulf many miles back through rich agricultural territory.

First settled by a group of young Scotsmen who were sent out from their native land to colonize and develop a large tract which a British syndicate had bought from the Disston asso ciates, Sarasota has long claimed the honor of being the place where the first golf course in America was laid out, by J. Hamilton Gillespie, son of Sir John Gillespie, the head of the syndicate.

Sarasota's fame is widespread largely by reason of the enthusiastic efforts of two persons to make it a great winter resort and art center. One of these was the late Mrs. Bertha Honore Palmer, widow of Potter Palmer of Chicago, and the other was the late John Ringling, proprietor of the Ringling Brothers, Barnum & Bailey Circus. The Potter Palmer estate early purchased some hundreds of thousands of acres from the Disston associates and Mrs. Palmer, for years the acknowledged leader of Chicago society, conceived the idea of making Sarasota the fashionable winter resort for Chicago people of wealth and social standing. Her vision was of a sort of West Coast Palm Beach. Hand in hand with that ambition went the investment of large slices of the Potter Palmer fortune in the development and improvement of the city and of its rich agricultural back country. The Palmer influence is still strong in civic and financial affairs of Sarasota and Sarasota County; a compilation of a social register of wealthy families who have winter homes in Sarasota would be headed, if not dominated, by names from Chicago's "Society Blue Book." The Palmer National Bank is the city's chief financial institution.

For a city of 10,000 permanent population, which doubles in winter, Sarasota's business center impresses the visitor by its extent and the signs of surprising commercial activity, even in midsummer. One reason is the wealth of the back country of which Sarasota is the commercial and shipping center. Another is the tendency, increasing yearly, to lengthen the Sarasota tourist season. One factor in this is the annual international tarpon fishing tournament, of which Sarasota is the headquarters, and which is held from May 15 to August 1st, attracting fishermen from all over the United States and many who come from Europe especially to participate in the contest.

Sarasota has miles of white sand and Gulf beaches. The city's water frontage is protected from Gulf storms by broad outlying keys, extending twenty miles or more north and south, almost entirely enclosing Sarasota Bay. On these keys, mainly because of the initiative of John Ringling, are beautifully planned residential sub-divisions, many of them built up with attractive homes, and with a system of causeways and bridges connecting each with the other and all with the mainland at Sarasota. There are few more beautiful waterfront drives than that along the Sarasota keys.

Fronting on the bay is the palatial Ringling residence, quite the most pretentious home in Florida. The architect, Dwight James Baum, used a famous Venetian palace as his model. Mr. Baum is also the architect who designed the Sarasota County Courthouse, whose beautifully proportioned tower is one of the most impressive public buildings in America. Lying northeast of the city is the winter quarters of the circus, a perennial attraction for winter visitors.

The most lasting monument which Mr. Ringling left in the city of his adoption, however, is the Ringling Museum and School of Art. The museum and its contents have been valued by art experts at from $23,000,000 to $40,000,000. It is the second largest art museum in America, ranking next to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City in size and in the artistic value of its contents. Among its art treasures is the largest individually owned collection of the paintings of the great Flemish master, Peter Paul Rubens, existing anywhere in the world.

The Ringling Art Museum is housed in a magnificent building containing twenty-two side-lighted galleries, varying in size from forty to 110 feet long. The collection of paintings, sculpture and works of art, ranging in age from the Byzantine to the early 19th century, is housed in separate period rooms. Each room was especially designed for the art treasures which it contains, and each is entered from the cloistered loggia through a doorway which is an authentic example of the particular school of art represented in the room. The gallery is built around three sides of a rectangle, enclosing a central garden in which are exhibited 88 statues, including Michaelangelo's "David." The colonnade surrounding the garden is supported by antique marble pillars dating from the 15th century and earlier, brought from Italy for this purpose. In connection with the museum is the Ringling School of Art, to which art students come from every part of the world.

Sarasota was one of the first Florida cities to solve the trailer problem by establishing a municipal trailer camp. The humorously conceived organization of roving motorists which calls itself "The Tin Can Tourists of the World," has its headquarters and its decidedly informal annual convention on the outskirts of the city. Established in the season of 1931-32, the Sarasota trailer camp had a winter population of 600 trailers and 1,500 people in its first year; in the season of 1936-37 it had increased to 2,968 cars and 7,460 people, expanding from its original 41 acres to 121 acres. The camp is virtually a community within itself during the winter season. The park is supervised by the City Commissioner of Public Works for the maintenance of sanitary conditions.

Sixteen miles east of Sarasota, on the Myakka River, there has been established Myakka River State Park, enclosing 28,000 acres of prairie and forest land, bordering a natural lake of 1,500 acres. Maintenance and protection of wild life and the provision of recreational facilities, camping grounds and woodland trails, are the major purposes of the park. The Myakka Valley is one of the principal wintering and breeding centers of many varieties of aquatic birds, as well as the haunt of large colonies of small animals including opossums, raccoons, civet cats, foxes and wildcats.

The principal agricultural development of the West Coast of Florida is the Palmer Farms, several thousand acres of muck land which the Potter Palmer Estate prepared for cul tivation by an elaborate system of drainage ditches and improved roads, and sold to settlers. The Palmer Estate maintains its own experimental farm, which has enabled many newcomers who had no previous practical agricultural experience to become successful and prosperous farmers. The pioneer celery grower of this district, for example, was a New York lawyer, the late William M. Stockbridge, who purchased a tract of land in the Palmer farms in 1927, made a profit nearly equal to his entire investment the first year, and established such a record for this region as a celery-producing district in competition with Sanford, 200 miles farther north, that now there are more than 1,500 acres in celery in Sarasota County, more than a quarter of the entire celery acreage of the state. The 38 celery farmers produce an average of 544 crates of celery to the acre, or 2,400 carloads annually, Besides celery, Sarasota County and the adjacent counties of Manatee, DeSoto and Hardee grow the usual Florida winter truck crops, tomatoes, peppers, etc., very successfully, and, of course, they raise oranges and grapefruit. It is hardly possible anywhere in Florida, certainly nowhere in the peninsula, for the traveler to get more than a mile or so away from a citrus grove.

Lying on the Manatee River, a dozen miles north of Sarasota and eight miles up this deep, broad, beautiful stream from its mouth at the Gulf of Mexico, is the charming little city of Bradenton, county seat of Manatee County. The Manatee, or sea-cow, may still be seen occasionally in the river to which it has given the name. Bradenton shares the same back country as Sarasota.

Manatee County calls itself "Florida's leading agricultural county." In the diversity of its farm products that claim may easily be justified. Certainly there are few shipping points from which more carloads of winter vegetables, strawberries and citrus go northward every year than are freighted from Bradenton and its neighbor town, Palmetto, at the northern end of the beautiful, wide concrete bridge which spans the Manatee. It is doubtful whether there is in Florida or in the whole United States a single contiguous area of land so uniformly fertile and highly productive as the island of Terra Ceia, near the mouth of the Manatee River. The highest valuation per acre of any farm land in Florida is placed, by their fortunate owners, on these few thousand acres. Their year-in and yearout record of crop production for nearly half a century has been consistently at a higher average level, not only of volume but of cash income above production cost, than is probably true anywhere else. Terra Ceia not only produces a great tonnage of beans, tomatoes, peppers, okra and other winter crops but contains hundreds of acres of the finest citrus groves.

Bradenton and its environs are much more definitely citrus country than any of the regions lying farther south on the Gulf side of Florida. It is the local tradition that it was in Bradenton that the Florida grapefruit was first grown, or at least first developed into a commercial shipping product. This claim is quite admissible, since Bradenton is one of the oldest settlements on the lower Gulf Coast. Spanish and English colonists established settlements along the Manatee River in the very early days of Florida's history, attracted by the easy water access to the rich inland country.

As on Florida's East Coast, the attention of the early planters was largely centered upon sugar, and there are ruins of old sugar mills to be seen still standing. The town got its name from one of the later sugar planters, Dr. J. Braden, who built at what is now the town of Manatee, adjoining Bradenton on the East, a great stone house which he named Braden Castle, and which served as a fort in which the neighboring settlers took refuge against Indian raids. Only the ruins of Braden Castle still stand, in the center of the Braden Tourist Camp, a privately owned club-like winter resort.

Another historic monument near Bradenton is the old Gamble mansion at Ellenton, one of the best preserved of Florida's ancient plantation homes. It was built about 1840 by Robert Gamble, a planter who owned 3,000 acres and 300 slaves. At the end of the Civil War, Judah P. Benjamin, who had been Secretary of State of the Confederacy, took refuge here from the Federal scouts who were trying to capture him and the rest of the officials of the Confederate government. He escaped from the country at night in an open boat down the Manatee River, and after many vicissitudes reached England, where he became a leader of the bar and accumulated a considerable fortune. Because of his stay at the Gamble house, the building and its grounds have been taken over by the State and made into a memorial of the Confederacy.

Bradenton has made the most of its water frontage on the river and the Gulf. From the municipal pier and yacht basin just below the bridge which carries the Tamiami Trail across the river, the winding shore of the Manatee is lined with attractive homes, equally pleasing to the eye amid their green plantings of palms and live-oak, from the river or from the highway which leads to the bridge across the upper end of Sarasota Bay to Anna Maria Key and its bathing beach.

Bradenton's tourist appeal brings winter visitors in larger numbers than the town's permanent population of 7,000. There are accommodations and recreation facilities for visitors of every social and economic status, including fine hotels and one of the most interesting of all Florida's trailer camps, at the south end of the city, operated by the local Kiwanis Club, and managed by "Bobby" Brollier, popular old-time showman.

Among the unique industries of Bradenton is its travertine quarry, the only known deposit of this beautiful building stone outside of Italy. One of the important citrus canning plants of the state is also situated here, together with jelly plants, vegetable canneries and a concern which bottles tons of Manatee County honey annually.

Before pursuing the Tamiami Trail northward the inquiring explorer will be well repaid if he makes a wide detour eastward across the prairies of Arcadia and into the Ridge Country.

Every part of Florida is cattle country, but in no part are the herds so large, and nowhere else has such intensive attention been given to the development of high-grade beef cattle from the raw range stock, as in the region lying between the Gulf Coast and Lake Okeechobee, north of the western Everglades. Practically all the range pasture in this wide region of several thousand square miles has been fenced, and the stockmen are building permanent pastures of crotalaria, carpet grass and other cover which does well under Florida conditions of sunshine, water and temperature.

With surprising rapidity Florida cattlemen have fallen into line, since the practical completion of the successful tick-eradication campaign in 1930, in the movement for the development of Florida into a great beef-producing state. Stimulus has been given to the movement by the fat stock shows held annually in Tampa and in Jacksonville under the auspices of the Chamber of Commerce. At Arcadia the tourist may encounter Florida cowboys rigged out much like the Western cowboys of the movies, and if he be fortunate he may find opportunity to witness a real round-up, either for cutting out the marketable stock from one of the great prairie herds, or for the annual calf-branding. Some of the Florida cattlemen still use the oldfashioned Spanish stock-whip, with a twenty-foot lash, such as the gauchos of the Argentine ranges wield. The cattle ranges extend over a large part of the inland counties of Hendry, Glades, DeSoto, Highlands and Osceola, all lying in the wellwatered lower central section of the peninsula. Cattle and oranges mingle throughout this region.

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