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Fire and Ice Threatened Early Colonists in Florida

Articles: Sarasota History

Author: Ann Shank, former Sarasota County Historian
Source: Sarasota County Historical Resources
Photo Credit: Sarasota County Historical Resources
Credit: Sarasota County Historical Resources

Sarasota History - Fire and Ice Threatened Early Colonists in Florida photo

During a Florida winter, weather professionals remind us that the cooler, drier air brings an increased chance of wildfire and occasional frost.

For the colonists from Scotland who came to settle the new town of Sarasota in December 1885, the cooler air brought snow and the drier air brought fire. It was not an auspicious beginning for starting life anew in this semi-tropical paradise.

Alex Browning, an older teen when his family came to Sarasota as part of the colony, later wrote his memories of the snow that fell within a few weeks of their arrival.

“We were told by the older settlers here, that it never got cold, just chilly enough, when it blew a norther (sic), to wear a coat. After blowing from the S.W. for a few days, it suddenly went around to the N.W. and rained heavily, turning much colder. The next day the wind died down, and snow began to fall, greatly to the surprise of the natives who thought at first the woods were afire, and ashes being carried by the wind from the fire.

“It snowed quite a bit, enough to make snow balls where it drifted in places. All work being stopped, the men huddled around the stumps being burned out on the main street, trying to keep warm; even the mules and oxen were too cold to work. It was said that it was the first snow the oldest folks had ever seen in Sarasota. Of course, we all suffered, living in tents and shacks, cooking on camp fires.”

Before leaving their homes in Scotland, the colonists had purchased a town lot and 40 acres out of town that they expected to be able to farm.

In the company office, the settlers drew for their lots. The Browning family’s lots were in the area of the later Friendship Baptist Church. That was fortunate, in that their land was adjacent to the partly cleared road to Pine Level (now in DeSoto County), the county seat. Thus the walk or ride through the woods from town to farm was somewhat eased. Such was not the luck of the draw for another colonist, Dan McKinlay.

McKinlay came to Sarasota without a family. He kept a diary, and the harshness of his life here is described in the excerpts that the Sarasota Sunday Tribune printed in 1937.

The first entry was dated December 29, 1885: “Picture us alone in the woods in our little log hut. (The hut was temporary housing adjacent to his 40 acres in the Bee Ridge area). It’s a queer experience, and I can’t describe it. I am going to light my pipe for I feel very sad.”

For January 11, 1886, he recorded the snow: “The night was awfully cold. We kept a large fire on in the hut all night but could not keep out the cold…morning temperature nine degrees below freezing point and today snow fell for the first time in 30 years.”

On January 22nd, McKinlay moved all his goods into a ten on his new property. Less than two weeks later, he noted, “Prairie on fire all around us… fires miles in extent burning up everything in their way.”

Four days later, “Prairie again on fire and close to us… the wind shifts and threatens to burn us out. In order to save our tent and all, have to fire a line straight across our front. In the middle of burning prairie stands a little tent and one solitary being with a spade in hand… flames leaping up in sheets, and the crackling of palmettos make the scene awful… night is dark beyond circle of fire as the fire reaches the bay head it ends with a roar like thunder… the dry wood burns like powder and flames leap higher that the trees… all night the fire burns around us... in the morning prairie for miles around is one black mass of ashes.”

McKinlay survived the experience, but by the end of March, he recorded that he was leaving for New York in search of prospects better than those he found in Florida.

The threat of fire was ever present for early settlers, and many kept the land around their homes clear of any vegetation (as pictured at the Hebb house on Main Street in 1903). Landscaping as we know it became feasible only when communities organized and equipped fire departments.