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Sarasota Jungle Gardens

Articles: Sarasota History

Author: Lorrie Muldowney
Photo Credit: Sarasota County History Center

Sarasota History - Sarasota Jungle Gardens photo

With a little imagination, visitors to Sarasota Jungle Gardens can be transformed to a Florida of bygone days. Located in Sarasota's Indian Beach neighborhood, on the Sarasota bayfront, the area has been used by people since prehistoric times. According to research conducted by the Sarasota County Historical Commission for the Indian Beach Historical Marker, the area has been used by people for at least 5,000 years.

Archaeological resources at Indian Beach are part of a large complex of Amerindian sites which spanned hundreds of acres of land along Sarasota Bay from today's Tenth Street to north of Jungle Gardens. After the Spanish exploration period and the demise of the native Amerindian populations, Seminole Indians worked at the ranchos, or fish camps, established by Spanish and Cuban fishermen between Tampa Bay and Charlotte Harbor during the late 1700s and early 1800s. One such rancho is known to have been located just north of today's Whitaker Bayou.

William Whitaker settled along Sarasota Bay in 1842 to fish and later to raise cattle and farm. But it was not until after the Civil War that many other American settlers started to make their homes along the shores of Sarasota Bay.

Indian Beach was platted in 1891, by Dr. Frederick K. Williams, of Bristol Connecticut. Dr. Williams stated in a letter to the editor of the Sarasota Sun that "when...it was given to me to name the north shore of Sarasota, recognizing the nature of the shell heaps, I named it Indian Beach."

Dr. Williams represented a syndicate of twenty New Englanders formed to purchase a desirable waterfront tract in Sarasota. Members of the syndicate were deeded choice waterfront lots and a number of Connecticut people built homes, establishing a winter colony along the Bay.

Jungle Gardens was developed by David B. Lindsay, Pearson Conrad and H.R. Taylor and opened on New Year's Eve 1939. According to Karl Grismer in "The Story of Sarasota," the developers added thousands of plants to those already found growing in their natural state. At first called "The Sarasota Jungle," the attraction opened early due to public demand. The December 31, 1939 Sarasota Herald Tribune reported that "The garden, containing more than 3,000 varieties of plants from all parts of the world is being thrown open today only because of man requests from people who would like for their holiday guests to see Sarasota's newest and most beautiful attraction." On the following day, the Herald reported in a follow-up story that "hundreds of visitors thronged at the Sarasota Jungle, luxuriant garden spot on the Indian Beach Road at Myrtle Avenue yesterday to view Sarasota's newest attraction."

Since its much publicized opening, Jungle Gardens has played host to a number of events garnering State and National attention. In the early 1960s the Gardens hosted several Miss Florida Pageants providing a suitably tropical backdrop for this statewide competition. During this same period of time, "Jungle Jim," the talking Mynah Bird from Sarasota Jungle Gardens, spent 25 months at New York's Rockefeller Plaza for the Florida Development Commission's Florida Showcase. According to the Sarasota Journal, during his time in New York, Jungle Jim appeared on the Today Show four times and stole scenes from veteran TV personality, Hugh Downs. Jungle Jim captivated the audience by explaining clearly "Birds Don't Talk!" after which he would tell his name and invited people to visit Sarasota.

Today Sarasota Jungle Gardens boasts more than 100 birds and animals, and features bird and reptile shows four times daily as well as a Tiki Garden, Shell Museum, Gift Shop and Café. Promotional literature boasts that it is the only Florida attraction which allows its Flamingo's to roam freely. Sarasota's Indian Beach neighborhood, with its featured attraction, Sarasota Jungle Gardens, has been a pleasant place to visit since prehistoric times, and remains so today.