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Breakfast and a Winter White House

Articles: Sarasota History

Author: Jeff La Hurd
Photo Credit: Hidden History of Sarasota
Credit: Sarasota County History Center

Sarasota History - Breakfast and a Winter White House photo

Breakfast for John Ringling, as described by his nephew Henry Ringling North in "The Circus Kings", was conducted as follows:

Then the butler, Frank Tomlinson, entered carrying an enormous dish of fruit. Uncle John devastated it. I have seen him eat twelve king oranges and five grapefruits; or two pounds of Tokay grapes. Mangoes were the most fun. Nine was a fair average for him.

After the fruit he got down to the serious business of breakfast—a king-sized sirloin steak or a heaping dish of corned-beef hash with poached eggs all over it. Then the coffeecake and coffee.

After John Ringling became involved in the frenetic real estate boom of the 1920s, he effectively campaigned to publicize Sarasota, which by extension, would enhance his own holdings here—what was good for Sarasota was good for John Ringling, and vice versa.

Everywhere the Ringling Bros. circus toured, signs boasting of Sarasota’s many virtues appeared on billboards and in circus programs. Ringling Isles was advertised in circus brochures as “The Most Beautiful Real Estate Development in the World…where the homebuilder will find the realization of his fondest dreams.”

Ringling had helped persuade John J. McGraw to bring the New York Giants to Sarasota for spring training to garner publicity for Sarasota that sports writers would send back to the major newspapers of the North.

One of Ringling’s biggest coups was to have involved Warren G. Harding, the senator from Ohio who was elected the twenty-ninth president. 

Ralph Caples, Ringling’s friend, Sarasota booster and civic leader, had been in charge of Harding’s train as the candidate whistle stopped across the country during the 1920 campaign. After Harding took office, Ringling hit upon the great notion of convincing him to use the Worcester mansion on Bird Key as the winter White House.

With that hope in mind, the streets on Ringling Estates were named to honor America’s presidents, with Harding Circle the centerpiece of the grandiose project.

At the time, the only residence on Bird Key was the Worcester Mansion, built by Thomas Worcester of Cincinnati to be the retirement home of him and his wife, Davie.

Davie had discovered the small island in 1910 while in Sarasota recuperating from an illness. Described as “a woman of great heart [who] loved intensely all that was beautiful in nature and humanity,” she had written to Thomas of the island’s breathtaking beauty, ending with a hopeful, “This is what I want for my old age…Oh! Words cannot paint the scene, imagination cannot conceive of such grandeur.”

Moved to please his wife, Worcester bought the fourteen-acre island from the state in 1911 and began fulfilling her wish. Sand from the bay bottom was dredged to increase the key’s size, and Davie began designing her dream mansion, which she named New Edzell Castle in honor of her ancestral estate in Scotland.

The Worcester mansion took nearly three years to complete. Said to have cost $100,000 dollars, it was lavishly furnished and outfitted with such luxuries as electric lighting and acetylene gas. Looking at it from the shore, it “glowed with startling radiance.” Sadly, Davie died before the New Edzell was completed, leaving a bereaved Thomas.

Ringling acquired the property in the early 1920s and offered the Worcester dream home to Harding shortly thereafter. According to Ringling, the president loved the idea and “displayed all the enthusiasm of a big boy over his contemplated vacation in Sarasota.” Ringling noted that the president’s desk was covered with pictures of the Ringling yacht Zalophus, which would be at his disposal during “his sojourn on it as a haven of rest.”

Before the plan could be carried out, President Harding, beset by the scandalous dealings of some of his cabinet members, died unexpectedly in California, and with him went Ringling’s winter White House coup.