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The Scotch Colony Comes to Sarasota

Articles: Sarasota History

Author: Nellie Lawrie
Photo Credit: Sarasota County History Center
Credit: Sarasota County Historical Resources

Sarasota History - The Scotch Colony Comes to Sarasota photo

(This account of the early history of Sarasota was written by Miss Nellie Lawrie, one of the first settlers who came to Sarasota Bay from Scotland in 1885; however there are some inaccuracies in her recollections. Nevertheless, it represents a remarkable chronicle of early Sarasota).

Owing to the Great Depression in Scotland in 1885, a number of the people decided they would like to try a new country. On November 25, 1885, one hundred Scottish people started on a specially chartered ship called the “Furnesia” for Sarasota Bay, Florida.

Many articles had appeared in the newspapers about Sarasota Bay – giving glowing accounts of Florida, telling how easy it was to grow oranges there. (Grapefruit was not known then). With very little work you could grow two crops of vegetables a year, and Sarasota was said to be beyond the frost line. This was vouched for by Mr. Selvin Tate, the nephew of the Archbishop of Canterbury and some other well-known men. It turned out afterwards that they, being busy with their own affairs, had not looked into the situation but had taken their nephew’s word for it.

All people interested in going were told to communicate with the office in Edinburgh. Father and Mother went up there, met other people, and after numerous visits and discussions of plans they decided to join the colon and go to Sarasota Bay, Florida. A great many more Scottish families said that they would come as soon as they received word from the colonists that it was easy to make a good living there.

It was a terrible, dark and rainy night when the people left Scotland. A large crowd gathered to see them start for America. As they gathered together on Greenock Pier, waiting for the tender (a sort of large, open ferry boat to take them to the Furnesia) many felt very sad and worried. Such a long journey in those days to a new country was quite an undertaking.

Someone in the crowd feeling that emotion was getting too much for the people, started that old Scottish song;

            “Will ye no come back again?
             Better loved ye ne’er will be.”

As the tender slowly pulled away, the colonists and the people on the pier started to sing together as they never sang before;

            “Should auld acquaintance be forgot
             And never brought to mind;

Few of the crowd could sing the last verse,
            “We’ll meet again soon ither night
             For the days of Auld Lang Syne.”
for there were tears in their eyes and a sob in their throats.

The last sound heard from the colonists as the captain gave the signal to start for America, was that beloved old hymn; “My faith looks up to Thee.”

It took about twelve days to reach New York. We drifted with a broken cylinder for about three days, and had stormy weather.

Rooms had been engaged for us at different hotels. It was the custom in Scotland at that time, when you were in a hotel, to put your shoes outside your bedroom door to be cleaned by the bellboy. Father did this, putting all of our shoes there in a neat row - ten pairs, from his man-sized ones down to the shoes of the twins who were only four years old. In the morning my mother heard some quiet laughing as people passed the door, and she wondered what they were laughing at. It turned out to be the picture of those ten pairs of shoes. When my father complained to the manager about the shoes not being cleaned, the manager told him it was a wonder that there were any shoes there in the morning. An American friend explained things and they all had a good laugh over the affair.

A boat, “The City of Texas” had been chartered by the company and it took us to Fernandina, Florida. It was the first time that the Scotch people had seen colored waiters and they were interesting curiosities to them. The captain christened the twins, “King David” and the “Apostle James.” Jim wanted to be called a king also and cried until the captain told him his name was more important as it was the name of one of the apostles in the Bible. For the rest of the voyage the twins would answer to no other name.

We stayed one night in Fernandina. From there we went, by a single rail line spoken of as two streaks of dust, to Cedar Keys – stopping one night at Gainesville en route. The trip was terrible; no comforts on the train, no water to drink, dust, heat, sand and mosquitoes. When there was no more wood in the firebox to make the engine go, the conductor and trainman stopped the train, got out and found some wood, then off went the train again.

As the sun went down, numerous frogs in the swamp began to croak. The colonists would not get off the train when it stopped; for the story went round that the noises heard were made by rattlesnakes. Whenever the train stopped at any small village, the people there turned out to welcome us to Florida, word having gone ahead that we were going to start a town on Sarasota Bay. At a place called Starke, all the ladies joined together and cooked a lunch for us, setting it on long wooden planks on trestles under the trees as their welcome to us to Florida.

At Cedar Keys a number of us stayed at the Suwannee Hotel, a rambling coquina building with verandas on each side, up and downstairs. We had all recovered from seasickness and had splendid appetites. One of the colored waiters was heard to say that we were a bunch of “hungry devils.” Some person gave the children a large pail of oranges. We thought that was a lovely present, never having had so many oranges given to us at one time before. The people of Cedar Keys invited the colonists to a dance, and later the colonists returned the compliment.

We had to stay at Cedar Keys for two weeks, word having come from Sarasota Bay that the Florida Land and Investment Company, who had charge of the colonists, were not ready for us. The lumber for the pier, houses, etc. had not even left the sawmill at Cedar Keys.

When the two weeks were up, the colonists grew impatient at the delay and expense for hotel bills, etc. They had also heard numerous tales of Florida land and the growing of oranges which worried them very much, and they decided to go on, regardless. They started for Sarasota Bay on the “Governor Sanford,” a new boat. The journey took, I think, all night and part of the day. Before they reached the Bay, Mother seeing how worried everyone was becoming, opened a large chest of black tea (100 pounds) which she had brought with her, asked the captain for boiling water, and with some of the other ladies served tea – as much as anyone wanted. It helped cheer the crow.

We landed on the shore of Sarasota Bay where the cement pier now stands. At that time it was only two planks of wood going out a few feet into the water. We walked through sand up to the ankles as far as the company store which was across from where the Orange Blossom Hotel now stands. Portable houses supposed to be up and ready for the colonists had not arrived.

A lunch was served in the company building. Being too small to hold everyone the children had to wait. One of them noticed a large box of gingersnaps just outside the door where the grownups were eating and grabbed a handful. Each child did the same and before anyone had notice, they had just about emptied the box.

Someone had advised Father to bring a large canvas tent, and a few others had brought similar ones. The large tent was erected und the trees which used to stand on the corner of the old Belle Haven Inn, now the Orange Blossom Hotel. The baggage was put into it, and some of the younger men had to sleep there that night on boxes or in the sand. Until a building was erected they held church services, meetings and even a concert (on New Year’s night) beside the tent. Thus the little village of Sarasota, on Sarasota Bay, was born – in July 1885.

Some of the natives (like the Whitakers, etc.) who did not live too many miles away, very kindly took care of some of the colonists, giving them shelter until lumber arrived and small wooden houses could be built. Although there were no streets, houses or stores, there was an old fram building called a cooperage near the water at the south end of what is now McClellan Park. For awhile, two brothers had used the cooperage for making cedar buckets. It was just a big sort of wooden loft with steps going to the upper floor, but the two largest families – the Lawries and the Brertons and a few others – were sent there. The ladies and children slept upstairs on cots provided by the land company, and the men and boys occupied the downstairs.

When the children were asleep, Mother and Mrs. Brerton used to go around the place killing numerous large cockroaches with a piece of wood. Part of the cooking and washing of clothes was done on an open fire outside, and part of an old wood burning stove in a one-room shanty about a quarter mile further down this open sandy place like a street.

The mail for this part of the country was called for at Mr. Abbe’s – a tiny place south, on the road that now goes to Venice, not far from the bridge. A few articles of food could be bought there, like flour, coffee, grits and hominy, perhaps some can syrup. No butter or fresh milk was to be had anywhere. One day there was no flour to be bought to make the Scotch scones which had to be used in place of bread. None of the colonists knew how to make bread even if they had been able to yeast. Father and my oldest brother waited for hours at the dock until the small boat arrived with provisions for the colonists. In the meantime, there was nothing for the children to eat but grits, tea and cane syrup. When the men came back carrying sacks of flour, Mother and Mrs. Brerton hurriedly made scones on top of the old wood stove, and everyone had their fill.

There was no one in this part of Florida, at that time, to make laws or see that they were carried out. A small party of men called the Vigilantes started out to enforce justice, but soon became discredited and were forced to leave.

On New Year’s Day, 1886, Mother and Mrs. Brerton decided that though there was not very much to eat except the usual flour, grits, hominy, a few glass jars of fruit given her by a cousin in New York, they would make the rough wooden planks on tressels which were used as a table look as nice as possible. They unpacked their lovely damask linen table covers, china and silver and set the table. All who came our way were invited to join us. Just before dinner, Mother saw Tom Burges and Dan McKinlay coming through the woods; Tom carrying a good sized package. “What have you got there?” asked Mother. “A nice English plum pudding my sister made for me before I left,” he answered. “She did not think they would have any in Sarasota at Christmas time and said it would make me remember those at home. If you can use it, Mrs. Lawrie, you’re welcome to it.” Mother took that one plum pudding, cut it in thin slices, and each person had a piece with a little of the fruit. That was our New Year’s dinner dessert in Sarasota 1886.

My two brothers went swimming in the bay that day but did not stay. Sharks were too numerous. Later someone brought us some clams. Knowing nothing about clams, Mrs. Brerton just put them in a pot and cooked them. In about an hour she tasted one to see if it was tender, but found it tough. She cooked them another half-hour, had Mother try them who said they were still tough and that it would be better to cook them again in the afternoon and have them for dinner. Alas, they found that the longer they cooked them the more the clams resembled pieces of tough Indian leather!

New Year’s night some of the colonists with musical talent gave a concert in Father’s tent.

One had to have a minimum amount of money before joining the Scotch colony, so the members were used to having a comfortable home and some of the niceties of life. One man brought a great many books; another family a nice cottage organ; another, a splendid Scotch collie; some had hunting clothes and rifles. One Sunday, at the church services which were held beside Father’s tent, Mr. Tate (the promoter who conducted the services – using Mother’s churching Bibles) read from Isaiah. When he came to the verse which reads; “All we like sheep have gone astray,” there was an audible groan from the audience, for by this time everyone had come to know that this part of Florida was not what it had been represented to be in Scotland.

The colonists had paid $14 an acre for the land, much of it before leaving Scotland. Each family was to have a lot on the bat front, and 40 acres farther inland. This arrangement was to leave a large square in the middle where the homes and schoolhouse and church were to be built. Nothing worked out the way it was supposed to. A “cracker” came along one day and Mother asked him how things were in the section and what success he had had in raising vegetables and oranges. He replied; “Tolable well, what the ants don’t eat, the sand flies do, and what they leave the mosquitoes git.”

The worst freeze in 30 years occurred that winter early in January, 1886. All orange trees were badly damaged. One night no one could sleep because of the cold. We had no fire or stoves to warm the draughty loft, but someone got up toward morning and built a large fire of cedar wood near the door. Light snow fell. Some of the crackers had never seen snow and thought the woods were afire and the light flakes of snow were bits of white ashes driven by the wind.

Mother and Father were the first colonists to decide that Florida was not the place for them to bring up a family. They left Sarasota and gradually others followed – some returning to Scotland, others settling in other parts of America. Others stayed and learned to hunt for wild game (deer, opossum, turkey, and other wild fowl), and to fish in the Bay. These colonists, along with some of the families living in homes scattered out towards what is now Bee Ridge (the Whitakers, Edwards, Redds, etc.) developed Sarasota.

Much of the land bought by the colonists at $14 an acre had been previously sold to Hamiltion Diston, a wealthy sawmill man, for 25 cents an acre by Governor Bloxman of Florida. This land was later bought from the colonists by the Palmer estate.

Sarasota Bay was called Boca de Zota on the oldest map in existence (1774). Then for years it was known as Sara-Zota, from which the present name was derived.

The plat of the town of Sarasota was recorded at the county court house, July 27, 1886. My father was one of the first councilmen when he colonists first decided that there would be a town. All records of the first meetings held in Sarasota were lost by fire. They were housed in a wooden building which stood where Johnny’s Coffee Shop now stands (near Pineapple and Main).

On the wall of the room where the Masons of Sarasota hold their meetings is a framed letter, from the Past Grand Bible Bearer of the Grand Lodge of Scotland, introducing my father, Mr. John Lawrie, as a Mason to the Grand Lodge of Florida, 1885. Probably the first Masonic letter in this part of Florida.

The first school and boarding house was erect in 1886 by some of the Scotch colonists with the help of the men who came with lumber in boats from Lakeland, and other places. The school was near where the 10 cent store now stands – upper Main Street. The boarding house, called the DeSoto Hotel, was located on the present site of the Orange Blossom Hotel. The Misses Anna and Sue Whitcomb gave their services at the school free until a teacher could be found. This first teacher was Mary Dean. The boarding house was used for the occasional dances given for the young people, when many people from the surrounding woods came in and John Long played the fiddle for the dancing. The first social event of the time was given soon after the hotel was finished, in 1886, and it was a great treat. The dance was given on the first anniversary of the landing of the colonists.

A small wooden church was built about the same time, and stood near the present Five Points. It had homemade, hardwood benches. There being no minister, it was only once in awhile that Preacher Redd came in from Tatum Ridge to talk to the people.

Early that same year (1886) trees and stumps were cleared off the Main Street, from the pier to Five Points, making the first sandy street. It was not until 1909 that Main Street was paved and sidewalks laid in the principal streets. It was then also that a hard surfaced road was first made between Sarasota and Braidentown (Bradenton).

Water for everyone was drawn from open wells, by bucket, at Five Points at the corner of Main and Palm.

The young people used to go bathing in a sandy bottom pool at Hudson Bayou. They could walk there, while they couldn’t reach the beaches on the Gulf without a rowboat or sailboat. Also the sharks, porpoises and alligators were quite numerous in the water and among the marshes. Beautiful shells, angel wings, Scotch bonnets and others were plentiful along the beaches then. Red fish, blue fish and angel fish were plentiful.

A house on the corner of what is now Golf and Link streets, built in 1886 and still standing, was built by plans drawn from one of the colonists.

Sunset Point used to be a swamp called Cedar Point. It was later filled in and planted with Australian pine trees.

The first bridge built across Hudson Bayou was let by contract by the Manatee County Commissioners, and my uncle John Browning and his two sons. When working there they would often see coons feeding on the oysters and marsh hens among the salt grass. Also, many beautiful birds and some fine big alligators. The pink curlew was numerous. On the keys roamed deer.

The New Pass had lately been opened during a storm, and was only 60 feet wide.

The first death was Tom Booth, one of the original colonists. There was no undertaker and no cemetery, so my uncle and another carpenter made the rough wooden coffin out of wide planks of wood narrowed at feet and head. They put two wooden handles on it, covered it with black cloth, and quickly buried Tom in a grave dug in the sand of a plot of land on Mango Avenue (now Central Avenue). This plot was later called Rosemary Cemetery and was thereafter used as a burial ground.

When the yellow fever scare started, Sarasota had a one-room shanty (wooden) with one cot in it for a hospital. Dr. Wallace, one of the colonists, was the only doctor. The small village was quarantined, but in spite of the lack of wire screens to keep out mosquitoes, which meant that chills and fever were common occurrences, treated with coffee and quinine, there was never a case of yellow fever in the village.

There was no paper money in circulation. It was rare to see even a one-cent piece or a nickel; everything sold two for a quarter. Doubloon and gold ingots were the only gold here. Their value was $16. These came in payment for cattle shipped to Cuba, for cattle was raised in this part of Florida at that time. Often cowboys would get together, gallop down Main Street yelling and shooting as they ran. Cows and hogs roamed the streets until 1909.

It took three hours to drive to Bradenton with the mail hack. In 1893 there was a short railroad built between Bradenton and Sarasota. The train would start from there when the steamer from Tampa arrives. An hour or two late made no difference. The engine was a wood-burning affair with a cow catcher in front, and a Mr. Walker ran the train to suit his own convenience. Once his dinner pail fell off and he backed the train a mile or more until he found the pail in a ditch at the side of the rails. The two cars on the train were sort of flat cars with props of wood at the side. The roof was a piece of canvas. One time when my cousin was on it a spark came through a hole and set her parasol on fire. The fare $2 each, and it was a rough, rocky ride. This railroad only remained a short time, then the Seaboard Airline resurveyed the old right of way and built new tracks. It leased the right of way on Lemon Avenue for 99 years.

For years Sarasota was a very dead village; no work was to be had, no fresh milk, no electricity, no library, no entertainment. In 1902, there were barely 50 voters here. Business lots along Main Street sold for $3 and $5 before 1900. (During the war, Joseph Downey paid $30,000 for the present Downey Building on Main Street). The population grew from 840 souls in 1910 to 2,105 in 1915 to 12,000 in 1938.

Places of entertainment and education gradually appeared. There used to be a three room house with a porch, about halfway down the wooden pier where you could get oysters, cooked or raw and a glass of corn beer thrown in extra. This beer was made with corn, hops, molasses and hot water. When cool some yeas would be added. One time it got so strong it blew off the whole top of the barrel. Old man Bacon, who ran the place, was quite a character. It was he who sprinkled shiny brass filings along the sand when the old well at Five Points was made. Found by villagers, the fillings were sent to Tampa to be assayed and there was hope of gold for awhile.

Near Point of Rocks, there is said to be buried millions of gold ingots representing he Louisiana Purchase money. Others say that Spanish pirates buried a large treasure chest there. Over a thousand dollars was spent by a company in 1934 or 1936 trying to locate this chest from a rough drawn map which had been found among some papers belonging to an old sea captain. A five headed palm with some queer markings on the trunk grew near there; I saw it many times.

A Spanish bayonet and a few coins were found not far from McClellan Park. The hull of an old wooden boat put together differently from those made in the last century was found buried in the sand not form from Siesta Bridge. The only thing found in it was an ancient gold ring.

The first movie came to Sarasota in 1910. It was shown in a large tent on the bay front near Main. It was shown once a week all throughout the winter and following summer. Then the odl Tonnelier building near Five Points was used until it was destroyed by fire.

A woman’s club was organized in April, 1913, the firs meetings were held in a storeroom. Present building built and dedicated in 1915.

After the war when the Sarasota boys came back, a memorial was put up at Five Points where the old artesian well used to be., and he Woman’s Club planted a number of oak trees along Main Street which was then to have a new name (Victory Avenue). However, no one seemed to remember that name for any length of time and we soon went back to the old name of Main Street.

The first cocoanut palms to be planted in Sarasota were on Gulf Stream Avenue along the waterfront. These were planted by the Woman’ Club in April, 1914. The oldest trees in Sarasota are still standing on Pineapple Avenue.

Sarasota’s present waterfront owes its present appearance to a hurricane which struck in 1921. One year before that, a waterspout crossed the bay, came up Main Street, moved an old house on the bay front 10 feet, and destroyed or damaged all of the boats near the wharf, as well as some wooden shanties there.

What is now Caples Park was filled in about the time of the Florida boom.

Badgers was the first business block.

The first newspaper was very small and was called the “Sarasotian.” It was edited and published by Rube Allyn, in a small wooden shack on Gulf Stream Avenue. Later, but sometime before 1912 a Mr. and Mrs. Wilson had a newspaper.

The first meeting of tourists was held, I think, somewhere on Main Street near the wooden pier. It consisted mostly of people from Ohio.

Siesta Key was originally called Sarasota Key.

Longboat Key was used for grazing cattle. The cows were protected there from the bears, wildcats, snakes, etc. which were numerous on the mainland.

Midnight Pass was named by Mr. Higel and a few companions long ago when, during a fishing trip a storm came up and marooned the men nearby. Mr. Higel happened to ask what time I was. He was told that it was one minute to midnight, and just then they heard a great rush of water and a new opening to the Gulf was made. So they christened if Midnight Pass.

Venice used to be called Horse and Shay because it looked like that from the water.

There used to be a small meat market where the Watrous Hotel now stands. A steer would be killed once a week and everybody had to go to the market to get their piece. The meat had to be taken home and cooked immediately as there was no ice to preserve it. The market was run by Ham Whitaker who later built a livery stable where the Sarasota Hotel now stands.

Dr. Wallace had a small drug store in a wooden house about the middle of Main Street.

Near the corner of Central Avenue and 7th Street there was a house built in 1886 which was occupied by the uncle of James Whitcomb Riley, he poet.

The colored people used to be baptized in the water just back of where the Ringling Hotel now stands.

The first manager of the company which arranged affairs for the colonists was Mr. Acton; Mr. Gillespie was manager later, arriving after the first Scotch colonists. The last manager was Mr. Coachman.