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.