History of Sarasota

Important Events in Sarasota History

1842 - While sailing in the Sarasota Bay William Whitake settles in Sarasota and decides to build his home here.

1885 - The Florida Mortgage and Investment Company plots Sara Sota and promotes the area in Great Britain.

1885 - A colony of Scottish settlers arrive in Sarasota with the promise of a thriving town only to find a wilderness area awaiting them. They leave Sarasota after a few months.

1887 - John Hamilton Gillespie arrives in Sarasota to revive the town. He begins a building program and built the De Soto hotel in downtown.

1899 - C.S. Wilson and his wife open the Sarasota Times newspaper.

1902 - Citizens of Sarasota vote to incorporate Sarasota. John Hamilton Gillespie is the first mayor. The town motto is "May Sarasota Prosper."

1903 - The Seaboard Airline Railroad builds tracks to Sarasota making it more accessible.

1907 - Harry Higel, Captain Louis Roberts, and E.M. Arbogast begin to develop the north end of Siesta Key

1910 - Bertha Honore Palmer, a wealthy socialite and philanthropist from Chicago visits Sarasota. She invests in the area and promotes it to her circle of friends.

1910 - Owen Burns comes to Sarasota and buys the remaining holdings of the Florida Mortgage and Investment Company. He also purchased 75% of Sarasota's city limits for $35,000. He is Sarasota's first major developer with an effort to promote the area to northerners as a winter getaway.

1912 - John Ringling buys his first home near Shell beach on Siesta Key. Ringling becomes a major player in Sarasota eventually developing St. Armands Circle, Lido and Longboat Keys.

1917 - Siesta Key bridge opened which is the first bridge from Sarasota to one of the barrier islands.

1921 - Sarasota breaks away from Manatee county to form Sarasota county.

1922 - Mira Mar Hotel broker ground. Sarasota now has suitable accomodations for wealthy snowbirds.

1923 - Sarasota's first airport opens on Oriente Avenue which now located on north Beneva Road.

1924 - The New York Giants comes to Sarasota for Spring Training. The Atlantic Coastline Railway comes to the area.

1925 - The Hotel Sarasota opens on Main Street and Palm Avenue to become Sarasota's first skyscraper. The town is undergoing an economic boom.

1926 - The John Ringling Causeway opens as well as Edwards Theatre (today's Sarasota Opera). The economic boom in Florida is coming to an end.

1927 - John Ringling moves the winter headquarters of the Ringling Brothers and Barnum and Bailey Circus to Sarasota. Bobby Jones golf course opens as well as Sarasota County Courthhouse and Sarasota High School.

1931 - The John and Mable Ringling Junior College and School of Arts opens.

1937 - The Sarasota Municipal Auditorium opens

1940 -Lido Casino opens on Lido Beach. A popular destination spot for beach goers. It was demolished in 1969.

1941 - Sarasota/Bradenton Airport opens. Longboat Key becomes a site for bombing practice.

1959 - Arvida announces big development plans for Bird Key and Longboat Key.

1970 - Van Wezel Performing Arts Hall opens with Fiddler on the Purple Roof.

1975 - Marie Selby Botanical Gardens opens to the public.



Before the New World was discovered, the Indian discovered Sarasota. Timucuans, Caloosas and Seminoles were traced back to the shores of Sarasota.

The early explorers may have conquered people but they were no match for the land. The land itself was the invaders greatest adversary. Hernando de Soto, the most famous gold seeker on the west coast of Florida, died in his search for riches.

Bill Whitaker

Florida also drew the attention of other men who had greater vision. One of these was the young Bill Whitaker. Only fourteen years old, William H. Whitaker set out from his Savannah, Georgia home in 1835. He traveled around Florida visiting cities like Key West and Tallahassee eventually spending four years in the Seminole War until he was twenty one. Whitaker convinced his half brother that he needed vacation. Like today's snowbirds they went in search of a vacation home site. The two men traveled by boat and eventually the mainland of Sarasota caught their eye. They dropped anchor and admired the view of the bay towards the protecting islands. It was 1842 and Sarasota had its first settlers.

A 145 acre parcel of land was granted by the U.S. Government in 1851 to Bill Whitaker and was named Whitaker Bayou. A year later he purchased and adjacent 49 acres for the going price of $1.25 an acre. Today this area is located just north of downtown Sarasota and has streets like Whitakers Lane, Tocobago Lane, Alameda Avenue, Palmetto Lane, Tahiti Parkway and Sylvan Drive.

John Webb owned a profitable drug store and dairy farm in Utica, New York. Mrs. Webb had asthma and at the advice of her doctor decided to move to a water climate. John Webb recalled a Federal soldier telling him about a year-round paradise on Sarasota Bay. In 1867, by boat, the Webbs searched for a year and a half for the precise site so captivating described to them by the soldier as "a little bay somewhere south along the coast, marked by a high Indian mound." Bill Whitaker helped the Webbs find it. It was Osprey, so named by John Webb after he built his house.

The next ten years were significant for the Sarasota area. More than one hundred families moved to the region. They grew vegetables, plant groves, graze cattle and primarily to fish the water of the Gulf of Mexico and Sarasota Bay.

Isaac Redd worked for Bill Whitaker. He returned from the Confederate army to settle the Bee Ridge area. He named it this because of the number bees in the area. John. L. Edwards opened a fish ranch on the bayfront just north of Indian Beach. Jesse Bennetts, who was seeking a better life for his tubercular son, settled in the McClellan Park area. Charles Reaves was the first settler for the Fruitville area and he used his own funds to build a school and road into the community.

Charles Abbe chose to settle in the land between Hudson Bayou and Phillippi Creek who within two years became the largest owner of land with nearly 400 acres. He opened a general store and eventually petitioned the government for a post office. The request was approved in 1878 and the Sarasota area now had a postmark. It was named "Sara Sota". Abbe was the postmaster.

Life was bountiful in the Sarasota area as pioneers spent their days fishing for mullet in the bay and hunting the woods and swamps for turkeys, deers, squirrels, coons, ducks, quail, egrets and hogs. Mosquitos made the outdoors unbearable during the rainy months of the summer with settlers suffering from the chills and fever, namely malaria. There were no roads or bridges to speak of clothing was hand made. However, the families were friendly and trusting until 1883.

In 1883 almost every acre in Sarasota were transferred to land speculators. Many settlers came to the area under the Homestead Act of 1862, under which the government gave 160 acres of federal land to settlers provided that they built a home and tilled the soil for five years. In 1881 Florida politicians found a way to circumvent the Homestead Act and succeeded in designating 22 million acres as "swamp land" which ultimately gave the land to the state of Florida. The state turned around and sold much of this acreage to land speculators. It was a disaster for early settlers and the Sarasota region because immigration of colonizers came to an abrupt halt.

This led to the formation of the Sara Sota Vigilance Committee in 1884. It was a secret organization for the purpose of killing or harming anyone who was the least objectionable to any one of its members. This group of roughly 20 men planned retaliation against the land speculators trying to force them off the land.

Harrison "Rip" Riley of the Bee Ridge Community was the first victim of the Sara Sota Vigilance Committee. On the last day of June in 1884 he was shot and his throat cut as he road his horse to the post office. Two days after Christmas in 1884 Charles Abbe was the Vigilance Committee's second victim as he walked near the bay. The murderers took his body by boat into the Gulf of Mexico and dumped it overboard.

Florida Mortgage and Investment Company

In the tax rolls of 1888 reveal that roughly 700,000 acres of Manatee county (Sarasota county was formed later) sold to land speculators by the state ended up in the hands of eight corporations. Three of them were Florida railroad firms. Another company was the Florida Mortgage and Investment Company which ultimately found the town of Sarasota.

In August of 1885 a story in a Scottish newspaper was told about the Florida Mortgage and Investment Company seeking colonists for a "wonderful new town of Sarasota, on Sarasota Bay, in the richest and most beautiful section of the entire state of Florida." The town is small but very modern where a man does not have to work hard for a living. The story enticed a group of Scots to move to Sarasota.

As promised by the company, the colonists were given title to a 40 acre estate and town lot in exchange for 100 pounds sterling before departure. 23 families totaling 68 people met in Glasgow for the ocean crossing. They referred to themselves as the Ormiston Colony, after the home of Sir John Gillespie. He was the president of the Florida Mortgage and Investment Co and was a large estate owner near Edinburgh, Scotland.

On December 28, 1885 Alex Browning, one of the young passengers who traveled to Sarasota wrote:

"There was much discontent; we were in a wild country without houses to live in, tired and hungry. Families grouped around their mothers while their fathers were trying to find out where they were going to live. The company store was the only building in sight; a dirt road could be seen leading through the pine and palmetto shrub. The shoreline along the bay to the south was stopped by Hudson Bayou, with Cedar Point (now Golden Gate Point) and a swamp to the north. By the kindness of natives, some of the colonists were located in their homes. Everybody was busy gathering their luggage and getting things separated. The colonists were separated from one another, not knowing where the different families were located - strangers in a strange land."

Sarasota was misrepresented to the colonists. It was nothing more than an idea. The allotment of the 40 acre estates made the colonists even more unhappy. Many of the estates were size to eight miles away back in the woods. Many of the colonists could not even find their parcels of land, let alone get to it. Eventually, most of the colonists headed back to Scotland. Only the Browning family and a few other individuals remained in Sarasota.

Despite the setback Florida Mortgage and Investment Company was determined to develop what it still believed was one of Florida's most beautiful areas. The company instructed the local manager, A.C. Acton, to start building the town. He constructed a wharf where the city pier is now located. A two story boarding house was build at Five Points (now the location of Plaza at Five Point condos) with 20 beds which was named Sarasota House. Main street was designated and cleared from the boarding house to the wharf. Acton built himself a home at Link and Morrill Streets which is now in the heart of downtown Sarasota. Dr. Tomas Wallace built a home on the north side of town near Main and Palm Avenue. He stocked one room with drugs and the other with cots and began operating a clinic. More and more was built and by the Fall of 1886 downtown Sarasota was thriving and resembled a business district.

John Hamilton Gillespie

The arrival of John Hamilton Gillespie, son of Sir Gillespie, added fuel to the fire of the economic boom in Sarasota, Florida. Gillespie was convinced that the "boom" was artificial in Sarasota because as soon as construction workers finished their jobs on the few stores and offices in what is now downtown they would leave and the good times would eventually collapse. Gillespie was determined to establish a firm path to economic growth. He went to work opening up streets and building a hotel for people of influence and wealth. The hotel was built on the waterfront at Main and Gulf Stream. Gillespie called the hotel the De Soto.

The town continued to grow and eventually a 2 hole golf course was built in 1886. Gillespie was a fan of the sport and missed playing it back in the old country. He cleared out the woods to put in a practice course. By 1905 the course had blossomed into a 9 hole course on a 110 acre parcel with a clubhouse.

On February 25, 1887 Gillespie's De Soto Hotel opened with a grand party. It was the very first social event in the now thriving town and the biggest celebration ever held as it lasted for over 2 days. More than two hundred people attended the party. The guest list recorded people from Myakka, Fruitville, Perico Island, Manatee, Palmasola and Bradentown.

In April 1887 Manatee county was split in two, creating De Soto County. This created the need for a new county seat. Sarasota, Bradentown, Manatee and Palmetto were competing for the seat. Sarasota offered to build a courthouse and jail. Unfortunately for Sarasota it was not enough to sway the voters and the seat was awarded to Bradentown. This ultimately took the wind out of the economic sails of Sarasota. Gillespie's concern about an artificial boom was real and a recession ensued.

Weeds started growing in the streets. Carpenters and laborers left town which left the Sarasota House empty. The Florida Mortgage and Investment Co. advertised acres in Sarasota for $10 but that was not enough to help. Boats from Tampa quit coming to the Sarasota wharf because there was not enough business.

In an effort to get Sarasota out of it's doldrums Gillespie decided to build a railroad. In 1892 he had tracks down and the first run under way. The railroad was a bust and after two years of running between Bradentown and Sarasota it was retired and the cars were left to rust.

More bad luck for Gillespie came as he and the couple running the De Soto Hotel, Alfred and Annie Jones, began feuding. Backed by several wealthy guests the Joneses acquired property near Indian Beach and built their own grand hotel - The Tarpon Club. This ruined the De Soto Hotel and it eventually closed.

Gillespie ultimately left town and moved to Bradentown and then back to Scotland. With Gillespie gone the town of Sarasota remained lethargic. The bitter winters of 1894 and 1895 damaged the citrus crop. The fishing industry was left untouched and in 1895 most people referred to Sarasota as just a "fishing village."

The U.S. Government helped Sarasota out by dredging into Sarasota Bay by cutting channels through Palma Sola Pass and the Longboat Key inlet. Now steamers from Tampa could get to Sarasota's wharf and transport people, fish and goods. The steamers restored life into Sarasota's economic engine. With dependable transportation to Tampa fruit and produce could be sold in the Tampa markets.

The steamer named Mistletoe became one of Sarasota's first scheduled means of transportation in 1895 John Savarese, a Tampa fish dealer, began making trips three times a week to the Sarasota bay area. The Mistletoe carried passengers, fish and other food from Tampa to Sarasota.

The Spanish-American War broke out which placed nearly forty thousand troops at the embarkation port of Tampa. This was a boom for fishermen in Sarasota. They never made so much money. Cattle ranchers in the plains of Myakka also benefited from the stationed troops. Cattle was driven by the thousands to slaughterhouses in Tampa to feed the soldiers.

Sarasota Times

C. V. S. Wilson, a Bradentown publisher, moved his press to Sarasota because he was convinced that Sarasota would grow larger than Bradentown. His first issue was a four page tabloid which carried ample advertising space. Wilson also sold Sarasota real estate on the side. He announced in his newspaper that he had five acre bayfront lots for sale at rock bottom prices: "These all together will be a splendid site for a summer or winter hotel, having 400 feet frontage on Sarasota Bay and being 170 feet deep, giving a view of Sarasota for six miles north and three miles west to the Gulf of Mexico. The land is scrub oak hammock, the best soil for growing oranges and pineapples, and is now covered with dense native growth. Price for whole 400 by 170 feet, $1,000. Or can be divided into lots of 80 by 170 feet for $200 each, cash." These lots were a quarter of a mile south of Main Street, probably in what is now know as Harbor Acres and Cherokee Park neighborhoods.

Today 400 feet on the Sarasota Bay would cost several million dollars. What a difference about a 100 years makes in price. Quite a difference from the $1,000 they were asking for bay front properties back in 1899.

In 1899 a phone rang in Sarasota. Actually, two of them rang. One in the post office, then at Main street and Pineapple in downtown and the other was in Harry Higel's real estate office on the wharf. Sarasota was on its way to becoming one of the country's most famous and cultural cities.


In October of 1902 a group of citizens sat in Harry Higel's office at the wharf and voted to incorporate Sarasota, Florida. The 1903 Legislature validated the incorporation and Sarasota began its official history. The chosen motto for the town was, "To Grow and Prosper." Colonel John Hamilton Gillespie was elected the first mayor.

Bertha Honore Palmer (1849-1918)


This socialite from Chicago made a tremendous impact in the creation and history of Sarasota. In February of 1910 she came to the area for the first time. At the time Sarasota was a bit difficult to reach and practically unknown. There was a population of roughly 840 people. Livestock still wandered the street, sewage washed into the Sarasota Bay and only fishing and agriculture were the town's economic backbone.

Palmer's visit was an important event for Sarasota. She was one of the most famous women of her time and was known as "Queen of Chicago." The international spotlight was cast upon the region. Palmer was a business women, philanthropist and socialite so she traveled in large circles. Other residents from Chicago followed her down to explore the area that she found to be paradise. "Her heart is in tropical Sarasota Bay," wrote a Chicago newspaper reporter after interviewing Mrs. Potter Palmer upon her return visit from the area. The wife of a wealthy Chicago financier and developer, Bertha Palmer was enticed to Sarasota by a real estate listed in a Chicago newspaper ad by A.D. Edwards. The advertisement spoke of rich land to be purchased at low prices. She described Sarasota Bay as more beautiful than the Bay of Naples. A. D. Edwards and Palmer 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.

During one visit to Sarasota and in the company of her father Henry Honore, and her two sons and broker, the Palmers bought more than 80,000 acres. Included in their purchase was a home near Osprey on Little Sarasota Bay. Even back then living on the water was a huge draw to residents of Sarasota. The home was called "The Oaks" and became her winter residence. Today, The Oaks neighborhood remains one of Sarasota's premier locations to live. A large and popular planned development in Sarasota called Palmer Ranch was named after Bertha Palmer.

Bertha Palmer was one of the largest land owners in the early 1900's. She owned a large tract of land that now is Myakka State Parkthat she operated as a ranch. Palmer refined many practices that enabled the raising of cattle. At her Meadowsweet Farms in Myakka she pioneered farming and dairy in the area and made it possible for food to be shipped in markets in other parts of the United States.

In 1918, only eight years after coming to Florida Bertha Palmer passed away in Osprey, Florida. Take a drive around the Sarasota area and it is hard not to notice her influence on the area. Palmer Ranch, Historic Spanish Point and a number of street names like Honore Avenue are evidence of her contributions to Sarasota, Florida. Her decision to come to Sarasota, promote the area heavily among her friends and finance developments here is considered to be one of the most significant forward steps in Sarasota's history.

Owen Burns (1869-1937)


Burns Court (Burns Court Villas) and the very popular Owen's Fish Camp restaurant was named after one of Sarasota's most influential residents. Owen Burns arrived to Sarasota shortly after Bertha Palmer. Originally he came her to go fishing but was so enamored with the area that he remained for the rest of his life. Burns purchased the holdings of Florida Mortgage and Investment Company. He and other pillars of the community saw that Sarasota's future lay in its potential to attract northerners, or what we call "snowbirds," wanting to escape the harsh winters of the northern United States.

Burns became the cities largest land owner. He formed several companies including Burns Realty Company, Burns Dock and Commercial Company, Burns Transportation Company and Burns Supply Company. Burns also help founded Citizens Bank of Sarasota, built bridges, mansions and several Sarasota landmarks. He dredged parts of the Sarasota bay and around St. Armands Key, Lido Key , and Longboat Key. He also created new bay front points with reclaimed soils, enlarging Cedar Point to Golden Gate Point.

With the goal of growing the community he developed Burns Court and other commercial establishments like Belle Haven which was originally named El Vernona Hotel, naming it after his wife. Today this building is empty and part of the now defunct Quay development project. Burns was also instrumental in the the founding of the Sarasota Woman's Club, which now houses the Florida Studio Theatre, and, along with other community leaders encouraged the 1921 creation of Sarasota county by separation from Manatee county.

Burns was also the builder of Cà d'Zan, the residence of John and Mable Ringling. He and Ringling entered into a partnership to develop lands that Burns owned on the barrier islands, a decision that eventually bankrupted him.

John Ringling (1866-1936)


Known for the Ringling Brothers Circus, he was the most significant figure in Sarasota history. Ringling and his wife started wintering in Sarasota in 1909. He and his wife Mable purchased the Charles N. Thompson & Mary Louise home in 1912. This home was located on Shell Beach which is near today's developments Solymar and Bayou Louise. The Ringlings lived here until the completion of Cà d'Zan in 1926. Owen Burns built Cà d'Zan, "The House of John" in Venetian dialect, which was a 30-room mansion inspired by the Venetian Gothic palaces.

In the 1920's John Ringling was one of the world's 25 wealthiest people. He had assets of $180 million dollars which was comprised of his circus, extensive real estate holdings on Longboat Key, Bird Key, Siesta Key, St. Armands Circle, Lido Key as well as other real estate in Sarasota. Ringling was an avid admirer of art so he constructed the John and Mable Ringling Museum of Art in 1931.

The early 1920's were busy for Sarasota but by 1926 the boom was cooling. A devastating hurricane came through Miami in September which slowed down the rate of visitors to Florida to next year. The smooth talking salesmen with their promises of tremendous wealth to be made in Sarasota real estate left town.

At the end of 1927, John Ringling decided to move the winter headquarters of the Ringling Brothers and Barnum and Bailey Circus to Sarasota from Bridgeport, Connecticut. It gave a much needed morale boost to Sarasota, Florida. It became one of the most popular attractions which drew thousands to the area every year. As the circus travelled around the country it promoted the beauty of Sarasota, Florida.

In 1928 Sarasota had been glowing with the prospects of transforming itself from a fishing village to a luxurious destination for the rich and famous. Unfortunately, Sarasota came to the conclusion that the bubble had burst. It was the start of the Great Depression. Store fronts were empty, weeds grew in the streets, housing development were left unfinished. Building permits were $4.5 million in 1925 but had plummeted to only $83,596 in 1929.

The wealthy John Ringling was not even immune to Great Depression. Ultimately, he lost virtually his entire fortune. He was voted out of control of the Circus business in 1932 by its board of directors. At his death in 1936 Ringling willed his Sarasota mansion, the John and Mable Ringling Museum of Art, his entire art collection and Cà d'Zan to the state of Florida.

Ringling's influences are seen all around Sarasota, Florida. Most notably is John and Mable Ringling Museum of Art, Cà d'Zan the Ringling College of Art and Design which is a private, four-year accredited college.