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"The Winter People"

Articles: Sarasota History

Author: Daughter of Dr. James H. Bissell
Source: Sarasota County Historical Resources
Photo Credit: Sarasota County Historical Resources
Credit: Sarasota County Historical Resources

Sarasota History -

My father, Dr. James H. Bissell, and his first wife evidently started going down to Sarasota to spend winters in the middle of the 1880s. His brother-in-law, Norman Spang, interested my father in the idea of getting out of the Minneapolis winters and coming down to Osprey and enjoying the warm climate and the wonderful fishing, etc. Since Dad was a practicing physician at the time, I never did hear how he managed the time to go fishing in Florida! But, he fell in love with the whole area, and after spending several winters at Webb’s boarding house (pictured) on the point at Osprey; he either built or bought a house on the land side of the bay north of Osprey about opposite the pass. I wonder if that would be what is today called Midnight Pass.

There was evidently at that time a very interesting group of “Winter People,” who came down from different places in the north to get away from the severe winters. Through the years they all became very good friends, and along with the natives, and year-round residents from Sarasota and Osprey, had many good times together. For some reason I used to hear of Spang’s Point, which could have been where Webb’s house was but perhaps it could have been somewhere else near Osprey. However, my Uncle Norman Spang, who was married to my father’s sister, Mary, always stayed at Webb’s when they spent time at Osprey. In the early 1900s the Spangs separated although never divorced. Mr. Spang went to live in Paris and died there some years later. Then in 1895, my father’s first wife died and for some years following, my Dad continued to spend winters at his house on the bay – enjoying the good friends and fine fishing, etc.

In 1902 he married my mother, Edythe Mitchell of Minneapolis, and I was born two years later. My father was twenty-five years older than my mother and all during my early childhood I used to hear him tell about those very early days in Florida and this explanation helps to explain why I knew so much about those times but am only sixty-nine years old! When my mother first spent her first winter in Florida as a bride she was just horrified at the rather primitive way of life, and all the things that crept and crawled such as cockroaches, snakes, redbugs, etc. She was not an outdoor enthusiast, but soon became very delighted with both the country and the lovely people. Evidently they all accepted the second Mrs. Bissell with great friendliness and affection. My folks had many of their northern friend and relatives come to visit and that added much to the pleasure of living down here.

Then I came along in 1904 and spoiled the next winter as Mom had to stay in Minneapolis. Then for the next few years, I went along with my parents and began to do the things I remember. My Dad and I were great pals and he took me everywhere with him, and also my brother who is three years younger than I am. I can recall so well the boat trips up to Sarasota to get supplies, or going down to Osprey to the little store there. I remember some of the good times everyone had such as picnics over on the key and picking up shells on the Gulf beach (I still have a box of them). Seems as if there was always some dinner, or party of some sort at one house or another, or an oyster stew dinner or a fish fry. It was really a very social time. We went often to Osprey to visit the Cocks and Auntie Cock and Uncle Dan were especially lovely to my brother and me. I think they were special friends of my folks. I remember also going to church in the little chapel at Osprey. Of course we heard a lot about Mrs. Potter Palmer and one Sunday afternoon we all got very dressed up and went to a tea party at her home. It was very extra special and I remember a very lovely lady, with beautiful while hair and a lot of charm. I had been told to behave and be a perfect little lady, but I recall being so in awe of the beautiful Mrs. Potter Palmer that I did nothing but gaze at her.

Of the people my parents seemed closest to were the Cocks, the Matheneys, Uncle Ben Stickney, Dr. Whittaker of Bradenton (called Bradentown in those days), the E.R. Marshes, our closest neighbors on the north. The Thompsons, the L.J.Selliezs, the Guptills and the Griffiths. These are the folks I seem to remember the most. Right here would be a good spot to write the names as they appear in my father’s diary and whom he called the “Winter People.” Those that came to spend the winter months at Sarasota and Osprey:

E.R. Marsh and wife, Samantha Marsh, Finn Marsh and son
George Matheney, and Mrs. Matheney, and Woodburn Matheney
Mr. and Mrs. L.J. Selliez
The Kelloggs
Mr. and Mrs. McIntyre
Mr. and Mrs. Montague and two daughters – May and Alma
Mr. and Mrs. Norman Spang and two children – Sara and Fred (Dad’s sister and family)
Mr. and Mrs. William Dutton
Dr. and Mrs. Whittaker and daughter, Grace
Old Mr. White and Mr. and Mrs. White
Daniel and Lucy Cock
Dr. and Mrs. Welton
Mr. and Mrs. Varney and son, Chester
Mr. and Mrs. Thompson and two sons – they used to tease me, and I hated them!
Dr. Thompson
Don Speer
Mr. and Mrs. Murray Warner, and her mother
Dr. Woodward and two daughters from Philadelphia
Mrs. York
Mrs. Reid
Mr. and Mrs. Boles
Mr. and Mrs. Stewart from Philadelphia
Mr. and Mrs. Conrad
Mr. and Mrs. Lawrence Jones
Some English people named Drake who lived over on the key
Also, he has listed what he calls the Osprey residents and natives:
Mr. and Mrs. John G. Webb; Virginia and Lizzie
Mr. and Mrs. William Webb; Charles and Mable
Mrs. Silas Webb; Edward Webb – evidently called “Uncle Ed;” and Mrs. Edward Webb
Mr. and Mrs. Frank Guptill
Mr. and Mrs. Griffith and Walter and Rosa
Mrs. Crocker and Fannie Crocker
Fannie Lowe
Henry Surgenier – who used to help Dad on his place
Peyton Skinner; Randell Skinner
Perry Brown
Uncle Ben Stickney – I used to love to go over on the key to visit him, and he called me his “best girl.” I just adored him. I wonder if the Stickney Corner that John D. MacDonald has mentioned in his stories could have been named for him.
Harley Rimes

I expect these early day people and their descendants around the bay prospered greatly when things started to boom in Florida; especially if they hung onto their bay front land. Surely since you have lived in Sarasota since 1925 you know many of these folks. Probably in that book you mentioned, “The Story of Sarasota,” many of these people are mentioned. Also it no doubt tells of the early-day winter visitors and society, etc. I certainly would like to read it sometime.

What I remember about the town of Sarasota was just one main street, which went from the depot down to the bay front and the dock. When we came down from the north or were returning in the spring, we always stayed at the old Belle Haven Inn. When arriving, Pop would be buying supplies, etc. and when all was ready we would hire a buckboard and a colored man to drive the mules and start out down the eight miles through the pines and palmettos on a narrow sandy road. It seemed to a kid like an endless trip with all sorts of panthers, and wild things ready to spring out at us. After Pop got the launch in the water though, all travel was by boat. Our mail came down from town twice a week on the “Bessie Roberts,” owned and operated by a Mr. Blackburn of Osprey. We had a little platform out some distance in the bay and would have to row out to get the mail bag. I always thought it was such fun to go out and hear the Bessie Roberts come chugging along. We also had our own oyster bar out in the bay in front of our dock and Oh, such oysters! We had quite an extensive grove of oranges, tangerines, and grapefruit. Dad used to ship the fruit north as X-mas gifts for his snowbound friends. Such fish; I wonder if the fishing is still as good, with such a large variety to catch? Perhaps through the years the changes that have taken place make these early times I’m writing about a way of life that is long gone forever.

In 1911 my father became interested in Medford, Oregon and raising pears. We stayed there for three years and then came back to spend our last winter at the house on the bay. Then Father sold the property and we moved to upstate New York and had to stay put so that we kids could get an education. But I know my father always missed Florida after that and I wonder what he would think of it now if her were here to see all the changes. Sometimes I wonder if I should ever come back and spoil the memories of those early years.

One thing I must mention about Medford, as it is sort of a coincidence. We discovered when asking about who owned the orchards around us that the property on our south boundary was owned by Mrs. Potter Palmer of Chicago! So there we were property owners in Osprey and way out in Medford, Oregon.
I will end this by saying that my father died here in Atascadero at the age of 93. He had wonderful health and was so active right up to the last, with that great blessing – a clear sharp mind. Then he fell and broke his hip and developed fluid pneumonia and died in a few days. But I’m sure that would have been his choice – active right up to the last. My mother lived to be a few months short of 90 and also did the very same thing; broke her hip and died the same way. They were both wonderful people and lived long, very happy lives.