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Mrs. Bertha Palmer's Vision

People: Sarasota History

Credit: Sarasota County History Center

When Bertha Honoré Palmer arrived in Sarasota in the winter of 1910, she was preceded by her reputation as a keen businesswoman, a patron of the arts, an international socialite and the widow of Chicago multi-millionaire Potter Palmer.

In response to influence from Joseph H. Lord, and a newspaper advertisement extolling the beauty and quality of land in the Sarasota Bay district, Palmer visited Sarasota with her brother, father and son.

Her Impact on Sarasota

Based at the Halton Hotel, which was on the bayfront and had been converted from a sanitorium, the family spent more than a week touring the area. Before the year was over, they had begun purchasing the nearly 90,000 acres they would acquire in the Sarasota-Venice region of what was then Manatee County.

Palmer purchased Lawrence Jones' two-story house on Little Sarasota Bay, just north of the homestead established by John and Eliza Webb, the first settlers of Osprey. With assistance from Thomas Reed Martin, a Chicago architect who had moved to Sarasota, Palmer added rooms and columns to The Oaks and surrounded it with formal gardens, walkways, ponds and buildings for servants and work crews. A water and irrigation system and electric plant supported the estate. Mrs. Palmer was in large part responsible for transforming the sleepy town of Sarasota into a national winter residence destination for the well to do, such as Stanley and Sara Field of Chicago.

Although she had at least two architects design a new house, Palmer never built it. A Chicago journalist wrote in 1915 that Palmer was "wrapped up in (her) gardens" and would not replace her "bungalow" until the garden setting was complete.

Palmer's Sarasota Bay enormous land holdings provided a setting for her new interest - agriculture. Not only did she enjoy watching the beauty of her gardens unfold, she took on the challenge of improving the quality of livestock and crops that could be grown in southwest Florida.

To her ranch along the Myakka River, Meadowsweet Pastures, Palmer brought new cattle stock and new practices. She fenced the range, which had been open for pioneer cattlemen. To eradicate the Texas fever tick, she built concrete dipping vats and bathed her cattle in an arsenic and soda solution. Established cattlemen criticized both practices, but the Sarasota Times called the first dipping in November 1915 "more important in the history of Manatee County than any other corner-stone laying or other imposing ceremonial."

The newspaper also noted the shipment of 1,000 head of cattle that year from the Palmer Ranch. It was the largest shipment ever from Manatee County and required 31 rail cars on the Seaboard Air Line Railway. Palmer ordered a great variety of flower, fruit and vegetable plants and seeds from nurseries across the country, sometimes seeking out unusual kinds to try on her Florida properties.

From the U.S. Department of Agriculture Bureau of Plant Industry in Brooksville, she obtained two boxes of sprouted chayote's. Along with instructions for planting the squash-related vegetable that is native to Central America, she kept recipes that varied from chayote soup to chayote custard pie. Palmer placed her name on a list of those wishing to receive samples of new plants being introduced by the Agriculture Department. At times her inquiries regarding the best varieties to grow in south Florida resulted in the response, "We do not know, "so she experimented. Her experimentation was continued after her death in 1918, at age 69, by her sons Honoré and Potter II.

Although Mrs. Palmer was a very high profile person, Honoré and Potter tended to be happy to work in the background. Just north of their mother's estate, Honoré and Potter built their own winter home named "Immokalee," from the Seminole Indian word meaning "My Home."

It was after the death of their mother that Honoré and Potter began to develop the extensive land holdings. Honoré Palmer served as one of the first officials of the Sarasota-Venice Company, formed to develop the Palmer holdings. In 1922 he and Potter made the first planting in what was known as the Hyde Park Citrus Groves, today known as South Gate. The groves would eventually cover over 1,200 acres.

The next year, in 1923, Honoré and Potter Palmer aided in the formation of the Sarasota-Fruitville drainage district near Fruitville. In the development of the district, more than 8,000 acres were made available for cultivation. In this project, Honor and Potter acted as trustees of their mother's estate, and the land became known as the Palmer Farms and Experimental Station. Other portions of her land she left to her brother, Adrian Honore, became the foundation for Myakka State Park, due to the efforts of A. B. Edwards and Judge Paul Albritton.

One of their more lasting developments was the Palmer National Bank and Trust Company. Established by Honoré and Potter Palmer and Prince Michael Cantacuzene, Palmer National Bank and Trust Company organized on July 20, 1929, and took over the First Bank and Trust Company building at Five Points. The Palmer Bank survived the Great Depression and became one of the strongest banks in Sarasota. The bank remained at Five Points until it merged with Southeast Bank in 1976.

The vast holdings and business interests of the Palmer estate kept Honoré and Potter in different parts of the country. Although Honoré continued to winter every year in Sarasota, Potter began spending more time in Chicago. Among his various interests, he was president of the Chicago Art Institute and director of the First National Bank of Chicago. He also helped administrate all the Sarasota holdings, the Palmer House, and extensive holdings of real estate on Chicago's gold coast and in the loop. Potter Palmer, Jr. died in 1943 at one of his winter homes in Santa Barbara, California and Honoré Palmer died at his estate "Immokalee" in 1964 at the age of 90.