A Walking Tour of Sarasota, Florida
by Doug Gelbert
There is no better way to see America than on foot. And there is no better way to appreciate what you are looking at than with a walking tour. Whether you are preparing for a road trip or just out to look at your own town in a new way, a downloadable walking tour is ready to explore when you are.
Each walking tour describes historical and architectural landmarks and provides pictures to help out when those pesky street addresses are missing. Every tour also includes a quick primer on identifying architectural styles seen on American streets.
In the early 1880s a Scottish investment group led by Sir John Gillespie purchased 60,000 acres from the Florida Land and Improvement Company, sight unseen. That must have been some sales brochure. Gillespie recruited sixty colonists, known as the Ormiston Colonists after his Scottish estate, to sail to the west coast of Florida. They arrived on Christmas Eve, 1885. What they found was land but no improvement; what Gillespie's had purchased boasted one building and a trail. The Scots did not come unprepared, however. In their party was an architect, Alex Browning, to direct any construction necessary. The Scots platted out a street grid and named all the north-south streets running parallel to the water after fruits. Then they put the land up for sale.
That winter was a cold one, so cold it snowed. Most of the colonists left, they could get that back home.
When no land sold in 1886 and only eight lots in 1887, the directors of the Florida Mortgage and Investment Company ordered a voluntary liquidation of their holdings. Gillespie's son, J. Hamilton, remained in Sarasota to see what could be made from his personal holdings. It was slow going. By the end of the century the families in Sarasota numbered about 15, fisherman mostly, and the streets were used primarily by cattle and swine. "Fleas," it was noted, "outranked everything in population."
In 1902 Sarasota was incorporated as a town, and Gillespie was the first mayor. Municipal improvements included the paving of four miles of streets with two miles of cement sidewalks. By 1913 Sarasota was incorporated as a city as the population inched over 1,000. About that time Bertha Honore Palmer, widow of Chicago department store pioneer Potter Palmer, was lured to the area by an advertisement placed in a newspaper by A.B. Edwards, the first mayor after Sarasota became a city. Palmer declared Sarasota Bay every bit the equal of the Bay of Naples in southern Italy for beauty and raved about the sport fishing. Her comments were played up in the press and triggered the development of Sarasota as a resort destination. She purchased 90,000 acres in the area and with her sons developed an innovative cattle ranch.
Another pioneering resident was Alfred Ringling, one of the five Wisconsin brothers who established the famous Ringling Brothers Circus. The families of siblings Charles and John followed and not only were the Ringlings major players in the physical development of the city but they carried the Sarasota name around the world when they established the circus winter quarters here in 1919.
Our walking tour of Sarasota will begin in the historic center of town where just over 100 years ago John Hamilton Gillespie stood watching the cows and pigs and wondered if anyone was ever going to come...
- Doug Gelbert, July 2011
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