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Bovine Battle Proved to be Tough

Articles: Sarasota History

Author: Ann A. Shank, former County Historian
Photo Credit: Sarasota County History Center

Sarasota History - Bovine Battle Proved to be Tough photo

Ninety-six years ago, Sarasota ceased to be an open town - open that is, to livestock roaming through town at will.

It was a time when town leaders were trying to create a new image for their community. By the time of the 1910 federal census, the population had grown to 840. Voters had approved the first bond issue for paved streets in 1908. Following in quick succession were sea walls along Gulf Stream Avenue, water lines to the business and central residential areas, and the first sewer pipe along Main Street and several hundred feet into the bay. The custom of giving livestock a free rein within city limits, as in the above photo showing the intersection of Main Street and Palm Avenue, no longer fit the picture of a modern town.

In spite of increasing complaints, however, the issue was not easily resolved. In "The Story of Sarasota," Karl Grismer described the situation as one in which the cattlemen and their supporters for a quarter-century had been able to prevent any action detrimental to their interests. He quoted their position: "The good Lord created the grazing grounds of the Land of Sarasota - and the good Lord does not want the cattle which graze thereon to be molested. To prevent those cattle from wandering wherever they desire would be flaunting the Lord's will!"

The Town Council began to grapple with the problem by passing an ordinance in September 1911. It provided that any horse, cow, goat or other grazing animal within the town limits must be kept in a house, shed or yard that would be kept constantly clean and free of any accumulation of manure and from any offensive or unhealthy odors. Violators faced a fine not greater than $25, or prison for not more than 10 days. The exception to these rules was the milk cow, which could roam freely from sunrise to 7:30 p.m.

As is to underscore the need for enforcement of this ordinance, the Sarasota Times in November reported on two accidents caused by roaming cows. A Seaboard Air Line work train wrecked after running into some cows "just within the corporate limits." Three cars derailed, five cows died, and the flagman broke his leg and severely injured his hand. In the second accident, three well-known citizens ran over a cow near the bayfront as they left town for a day's hunting trip. The car flipped over and the men were tossed out, heavily bruised but not seriously injured.

The following spring "a would-be gardener" wrote a letter to the editor titled "The Predatory Cow." The writer argued that by letting cows run free, the town council was imposing an indirect tax on homeowners who had to fence their property to prevent damage from cows. Back yard gardens and fruit trees were threatened by animals that "are worthy descendants of the aerial dairy cow that jumped over the moon." A rejoinder opined that "some of our streets would hardly be passable if it were not (for) the cows eating off the sandspurs." Besides, it was a privilege to have a cow.

The Town Council amended the ordinance to eliminate the exemption for milk cows. Rose Wilson, publisher of the Times complimented the councilmen with a front-page item: "It is high time the cow-yard conditions of our thoroughfare be eliminated, and that property owners be privileged to plant fruit trees and shrubbery without the constant menace of annihilation." Opposition to the amendment resulted in the Council calling for a special election on August 28, 1912.

The following day, the Times carried the headline, "Cows Voted Out 2 to 1" The vote marked a major shift in political power within the town.

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