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Thompson's Contributions to Sarasota

Articles: Sarasota History

Author: Mark Smith, former Sarasota County Archivist
Source: Sarasota County Historical Resources
Photo Credit: Sarasota County Historical Resources
Credit: Sarasota County Historical Resources

Sarasota History - Thompson's Contributions to  Sarasota photo

At the turn of the 20th century, Sarasota was a small fishing village with just a few hundred people. Even though the area was primitive, Sarasota was attracting people who saw the area’s potential. Charles N. Thompson was such a person.

Thompson was the manager of the Sells-Forepaugh Circus in the mid-1890s. Over his career, Thompson was manager of Hegenback and Wallace Circus, Sells Brothers Circus, Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show and the Ringling Brothers Circus, which he managed for six years.

Thompson had heard stories from his friend, H.C. Butler, about how wonderful Sarasota was. Butler had built a winter home in the Indian Beach area in 1891. Thompson said that he was interested and would visit the area during the circus winter season.

In the winter of 1895, Thompson and his wife traveled to Tampa. They wanted to see what their friend Butler was talking about. Thompson rented a boat and left Tampa Bay for Sarasota Bay. He docked at the Butler dock and stayed with the Butlers while looking the area over. Butler told him of a 154 acre track just north of Indian Beach, owned by Anna M. Clark, which was for sale for $1,650. Thompson bought it, and later bought 30 acres more.

The following winter Thompson and his wife came to Sarasota and began to build their winter home (pictured). Thompson would talk about his winter home throughout the circus world. Being friends with the Ringling Brothers, he would boast of his home in Sarasota.

Ralph Caples, agent for the New York Central Railroad, also owned land in Sarasota. On November 3, 1911, Caples bought the Thompson home and some additional land. Caples sold the Thompson estate less than three months later to John Ringling.

After selling his home, Thompson built a second home next to it. He sold other sections of his land to Charles Ringling in 1915. Ultimately, he sold the site of his second home to Charles Ringling so that he could build a home for his daughter, Hester Ringling Sanford.

Thompson had many interests in Sarasota and one was land development. In 1914, he began plans for a new subdivision for the African-American community called Newtown. According to Karl Grismer’s, “The Story of Sarasota,” Thompson and his son Russell “began developing the subdivision of Newtown, not to make money, but to provide the blacks with better places to live. Previously their principal living quarters had been in the Overtown district (today’s 6th Street and Lemon Avenue). The rundown buildings were, in his mind, a disgrace to Sarasota.”

The Sarasota Times reported on April 22, 1915, that “240 lots with streets have been laid out and sales are on easy cash payments. Already 132 lost have been sold and half dozen houses built. Lots have been donated for a Methodist and Baptist church and school house, the deeds to be given whenever the buildings are erected. Newtown is the name of this subdivision which is exclusively for the colored people, who intend to erect homes there as fast as their means will allow.”
Thompson continued to develop his interests in Sarasota until his death in 1918. Although not as well-known as the Ringlings and Caples today, Thompson played a pivotal role in the development of early Sarasota.