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Articles: Sarasota History

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

Sarasota History - Fire photo

In the absence of an organized fire department, one of the most common threats to early area residents was fire.

Lighting your way into a stable with a candle? Found by the Town Marshall to have an unsafe stovepipe or chimney in your house? The first set of ordinances for such behaviors you were liable for a $50 fine or doing time in the calaboose.

Sometimes the fire was wild and came through the woods. Dan McKinlay, one of the 1885 colonists from Scotland, wrote in his diary as he stood outside his tent in the Fruitville-Bee Ridge area, "Prairie on fire all around us...fires miles in extent burning up everything in their way...almost as soon as it is done the wind shifts and threatens to burn us out..."

Alex Browning later recalled that unexpected snow fell soon after the colonists' arrival, "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."

In "Buckets and Brawn," Wayne Welsh notes that construction materials and style made the early buildings "built to burn." Pine lumber and roofing shingles were used in most buildings. The balloon construction left empty spaces in walls and floors, which allowed the swift spread of fire.

Built on piers to lift the structure out of standing water during the rainy season, structures had a crawl space underneath them, which offered easy access to floor joists for flames and radiant heat from nearby burning buildings.

A well-maintained yard contained no lawn or shrubbery hugging the house. Rather, it was well-raked sand, to remove potential fire fuel from the area. Detached kitchens were common, to reduce the threat from the cooking fire. The Town Marshall was required to check chimneys, stove pipes, and open flame lamps to ensure they were not a fire hazard. The owner was given twelve hours to correct any identified problem.

In the winter of 1910, two fires on Sarasota's Main Street resulted in several buildings burned (Bay View Hotel pictured) and others saved only by the arduous work of citizen "bucket brigades" wetting down nearby roofs and walls. The next year the town acquired its first fire-fighting equipment, a hook and ladder wagon that the newly organized volunteers pulled through the sandy streets to help fight fires.

In April 1911, the Sarasota Times noted that the new fire department had come through its first test with flying colors. The men had prevented a wind-spread trash fire from turning three nearby businesses into ashes.

Although the Town Council passed an ordinance that required new construction within certain "fire limits" to be of non-flammable materials, it took a while before effective changes were made. The 1912 Tonnelier Building on the corner of Main Street and North Pineapple Avenue sported a brick veneer, thought to make it fire safe, but the hotel, theater, café, doctor's office, bakery, pharmacy, and barbershop that occupied the structure burned to the ground in 1915.

Only gradually, with the combination of a larger and better-equipped fire department and the use of fire resistant building materials, did fire become a less immediate threat to the growing communities of Sarasota County.

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