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Rosemary Cemetery

Articles: Sarasota History

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

Sarasota History - Rosemary Cemetery photo

Rosemary is an aromatic herb that denotes remembrance and thus makes a fitting name for the city of Sarasota's first cemetery. It was part of the original plat the Florida Mortgage and Investment Company filed for Sarasota in 1886. Seventeen years later, John Hamilton Gillespie (the company's manager) and his wife, Mary, donated the cemetery to the newly incorporated town of Sarasota.

Keeping the cemetery "in a suitable and decent manner" as required by the deed was a matter of concern over the years. Early copies of the Sarasota Times tell of the efforts put forth by interested citizens and the Woman's Club to clean up the cemetery, plant trees and flowers, and to fence the area. Bertha Palmer donated a stone pergola. A Times writer invited community support by describing the cemetery as "located on a high location overlooking the bay; the spray from the water is constantly wafting in loving benediction over the dust of the departed ones." To prevent damage from wayward cattle or pigs to burial sites and decorative plantings, some families fenced their individual plots. Gifts of trees, fertilizer, fencing, a gate, and money helped make the cemetery a place of remembrance.

The grave markings are a variety of styles and materials. Many are concrete slabs covering the grave and some of these are built up with brick. Decoration is typically minimal, but for some shells that have been embedded in the concrete patterns. Lamb figures lie atop markers for a few of the children buried there. Names are frequently missing, but those that remain call up the early history of the area. Tom Booth's was the first burial there, in 1887. From Leeds, England, Booth was one of the colonists who had arrived from Scotland at the end of 1885. Alex Browning, another colonist, later remembered Booth as a popular man who had nearly worked himself to death and attributed Booth's death to virulent dysentery. Mrs. Green and her children were buried the same year, their death the result of the village's first murder, at the hand of her husband.

The Rev. Lewis and Irene Colson are the only African Americans buried in Rosemary Cemetery. Lewis Colson came to Sarasota Bay in 1885 with Richard Paulson's surveying crew, which laid out the town for the FMI Co. The Colsons later helped form the Bethlehem Baptist Church. Felix Pinard, Sarasota's first professional photographer, died in 1903. His photos give valuable glimpses of turn-of-the-century Sarasota. Owen Burns, a major developer and builder of the El Vernona Hotel, and his wife, Vernona, are buried with other family members at Rosemary. John Hamilton Gillespie, Sarasota's first mayor, and his wife, Blanche, are buried with other members of their extended family. Harry Higel, three-time mayor of Sarasota and developer of the northern section of Siesta Key, was murdered in 1921 and buried at Rosemary. John and Jane Browning, whose family was the only one of the Scots to stay in Sarasota, are also part of the Rosemary community.

Markers for Carrie Abbe, Sarasota's first postmaster; Henry Behrens, Sarasota's first fire chief; George Chapline, author of the Sara de Soto legend; Josephine Pearce, who operated a school on Hudson Bayou; and "Uncle" Ben Stickney, known for his hospitality on (now) Siesta Key, can also be found there. Rosemary Cemetery is away from the main traffic routes, between Central Avenue and Florida Avenue, and between 6th and 10th streets. Once found, it is a place for remembering.

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