//Sarasota History: Collective Articles
Sarasota History: Collective Articles, Our Town Sarasota News Events

Sarasota History: Collective Articles

Sarasota News Events

Sarasota Holiday History, Author: Lorrie Muldowny


Although a balmy December day in Sarasota may not trigger childhood holiday memories for all of us, Sarasotans have a long and proud tradition of holiday celebration. The following is a partial account of some notable events that occurred here at Christmas time.

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The earliest recollections of Christmas in Sarasota have one thing in common: the ingenuity of the early settlers. With few stores and a limited economy, most gifts were handmade using materials that were inexpensive and readily available. In Joan Berry Dickenman’s book “The Homesteaders, Early Settlers of Nokomis and Laurel,” Mrs. Walter D. Blackburn recounts that apples and candy were favored gifts. She also remembers that gingerbread “boys and girls” were hung from the branches of a cedar tree along with bits of colored ribbon fashioned into pretty little bows with other handmade ornaments for decoration.

In the same book, Mrs. Oleta Taylor Watson, the daughter of pioneer settlers of Vamo, tells of an unusual Christmas she had while living in Vamo about 1913. While traveling to Osprey, which had the only store in the community, she and her brother decided to take a shortcut through Mrs. Potter Palmer’s estate. Once on the path, Oleta recalls, “And here Mrs. Palmer came with that coachman driving the hack! It was drawn by horses and everything was glittery and shiny. And when she stopped I knew our time had come. But I never saw a sweeter person in my life. She asked where we lived, and we told her. She said, ‘I want you children to bring your friends, and come to the Christmas party at my house.’ So, we went. The children of her family were there, and we played hide and seek out in the orange groves with them like they were ordinary kids. They had white stockings, knickerbockers, and coats, but they were out there playing in that dirty field. We had the best time in the world.”

In 1925, Sarasota’s Christmas Eve program was held at the Mira Mar Park. Presents were distributed to all pupils of public school attending the first six classes and Christmas carols were sung by the Community Carolers Club with selections by the Sarasota Ukulele Club. Christmas Day brought John Ringling to the streets of Sarasota starring as Santa Claus in the Christmas Day Parade.

Sarasota History: Collective Articles, Our Town Sarasota News Events


The Sarasota Herald reported in its 1925 Christmas Day edition that the parade would also debut the internationally famous Czecho-Slovakian National Band. In a follow-up story titled “Real Yuletide Spirit Permeates City of Sarasota,” the Sarasota Herald reported that “What is believed to be one of the largest crowds ever congregated for any public event in Sarasota gathered in Mira Mar Park to hear the initial concert given by the internationally known Czecho-Slovakian National Band.’ During the festivities, John Ringling proclaimed that the band was at the disposal of the city for any municipal purpose.

Post World War II Sarasota experienced a period of major growth. Helen Griffith, the well-known Main Street Reporter, started a “Reindeer Contest” in 1947 that required correctly naming all eight of Santa’s reindeer to win. The contest prevailed into the 1960s as reported by Joan Griffith, Helen’s daughter.

Sunshine Springs and Garden opened late in 1955 and shortly thereafter featured the skiing Santa pictured above in a special Christmas show with a distinctly Florida flair. The article in the December 23, 1955, St. Petersburg Times, which accompanied the picture, said that although Santa left his reindeer at home he was glad to be met by two of the Springs’ Aquabelles. The photo is courtesy of Fran Nicholas, who is pictured on Santa’s right.

Sarasota County got Floridaland as a gift for Christmas in 1964. The $1,500,000 tourist attraction had 5,000 visitors on Christmas, its opening day. According to the Fort Lauderdale Daily News, opening ceremonies were christened with the cooperation of a billy goat that gave birth to twins. The News also reported that Floridaland had the distinction of being the first year-round tourist attraction in South Sarasota County.

So, if Christmas in Sarasota challenges your holiday traditions, consider the tradeoff – John Ringling starring as Santa in our very own Christmas Day Parade.


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Tale of An Early Settler

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Tale of an early settler: by Ann Shank

Alex Browning, colonist, architect and writer, left his mark on Sarasota. Browning arrived on Sarasota Bay at the end of 1885 with a group of colonists who sailed from Scotland to start a new life in Florida. He was a young man of 19 years at the time.

The Browning family had lived in Paisley, Scotland, where Alex’s father, John B. Browning, was a carpenter and operated a wagon-making shop. Persuaded by a pamphlet extolling the opportunities in Florida, they sold their properties and sailed from Scotland on the Furnessia on November 25, 1885. When they arrived at their new home, they discovered that the promised town had not yet been built. Many of the colonists who had sailed with them were unprepared for the life of a pioneer and soon left for more settled areas. The Brownings stayed, however, and quickly became some of the creators of the town. In his memoirs, Alex noted that while other family members were carpenters on the hotel and boarding house projects, he began work on the dock. For $2 a 10-hour day, he stood in water knee to shoulder deep, rocking back and forth until they hit bedrock, the pilings for a dock.

Having apprenticed for three years with an architect in Glasgow, Browning was called upon to design some of the larger houses in the new town. John Hamilton Gillespie, later Sarasota’s first mayor, had Browning design his home. Browning, who also helped build it, later described the Palm Avenue house as “the finest in the county.” It had a detached kitchen, a cistern to collect rainwater, porches on three sides, and a picket fence. The builders then added a chicken coop and cow sheds.

After construction activity slowed, Browning found that he could make good money as a crew member on the Vision a schooner that sailed from Sarasota to Key West. From Sarasota, the boat carried sweet potatoes, wild hogs, chickens and anything else that might sell at a profit. The return trip brought kerosene and groceries to be sold at home. The two-week trip could earn each crew member $40 to $60. This experience only partially equipped Browning for hiring on as an engineer for a four-month cruise of the wood-burning steamer Marguerita from Sarasota to Daytona in 1889. Browning’s memoirs describe the journey: frequent equipment breakdown requiring ingenuity for make-shift repairs; sparsely populated shoreline with a shortage of places to replenish their water supply; challenges from shallow water, clouds of mosquitoes, and rough weather; and the ever-present need for wood.

For the next few years, Browning worked as assistant to architect J.A. Wood on the construction of Henry Plant’s Tampa Bay Hotel. Browning later remembered that his 10-hour work days were divided between the drafting board and tracking and supervising the acquisition of materials. On occasion, Browning took a leave of absence to work on another project. One of these was the design of The Palms, a hotel at Indian Beach along Sarasota Bay.

After nearly 30 years away, in 1919 Browning returned with his family to Sarasota. In 1924, the Florida State Board of Architecture issued to Browning a certificate to practice architecture. Thereafter, one of the major he co-designed was the Frances-Carlton Apartments on North Palm Avenue. The building remains in use as condominiums and was listed in the National Register of Historic Places in 1984.

Shortly before his death in 1932, Browning wrote his memoirs. It is from this account that readers can gain a sense of what life was like during the formative years of the town of Sarasota.

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Sarasota History: Bay Haven Hotel, land boom, and early developers, 1912-1939

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Sarasota attracted many people who were hoping to strike it rich in the 1920s Land Boom. One such real estate developer, who came to Sarasota in 1923, was Walter V. Coleman. Coleman was originally from Detroit, leaving there in 1912. He, his wife and five children headed to Miami with little more than the clothes on their backs. After succeeding in several ventures there, Coleman and his family arrived in Sarasota just as the land boom was getting underway.

Coleman opened a real estate office and, in a short time, was buying and selling properties in Sarasota and Charlotte counties. By 1926, he had 26 agents working for him and he sold more than $1,500,000 worth of property in one day.

Although his main interest was in real estate, Coleman also was interested in the development of hotels. In early 1926, he and his partner, T.E. Ogburn, laid out the Bay Haven subdivision just two miles north up the Tamiami Trail from Main Street. Coleman’s realty company handled all the sales for the subdivision.

In early 1926, J.G. Whitfield, owner and developer of the Whitfield Estates subdivision north of the Bay Haven, came to Coleman with the intention of buying lots for the construction of a hotel. He wanted to build a three-story hotel called the Bay Haven Inn. It would contain 70 rooms and have space on the first floor for eleven stores. The Sarasota Herald reported on April 2, 1926, that “it would be of Spanish type of architecture and it is planned to be one of the prettiest and most typically Florida in the county.”Sarasota History: Collective Articles, Our Town Sarasota News Events

Whitfield purchased the land with the stipulation that Coleman would agree to take the land back, without penalty, if he was unable to finish the hotel. Coleman agreed to these terms, knowing that a hotel in his subdivision would greatly increase the value and the desirability of the subdivision.

In August 1926, Whitfield returned the land and the incomplete hotel to Coleman for the sum of one dollar. Coleman decided to complete the hotel and changed the name to the Bay Haven Hotel. Its opening was given a special section in the Sarasota Herald on October 10, 1926. The newspaper proclaimed that the “Hotel Bay Haven is one of the city’s finest. The new hotel cost $350,000 and was built by W.V. Coleman and is leased and will be managed by R. Martin Piffner. No hotel in this region presents a more attractive or homelike appearance and everything possible has been done to make both the lobby and rooms comfortable and well-equipped. Rates a the hotel are to be maintained for the entire year at $2.50 single and $3.50 double with special weekly and monthly rates.”

By late 1926 and early 1927, the Land Boom was beginning to fade. Coleman and his wife, Lena Sara, were running the hotel and the lots in the Bay Haven subdivision were not selling. In 1928, while returning from a hunting trip near Arcadia, Coleman was killed in a car wreck. Coleman’s wife took over management of the hotel and lived there with her children until 1930.

By 1930, Sarasota was in financial trouble and the banks were closing. Coleman lost her savings in one of these banks and could not keep up her insurance payments on the hotel. The insurance company put a lien on the hotel for back payments, and the Colemans moved out in 1930.
The hotel became the John and Mable Ringling Junior College and School of Art in 1931 – and eventually part of the Ringling School of Art and Design. Today it is part of the Ringling College of Art and Design. Mrs. Coleman and her family moved back to Miami where she died at the age of 90 in 1979.

Author: Ann Shank

Sarasota History: Collective Articles, Our Town Sarasota News Events