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'Paradise' Eluded the Early Settlers

Articles: Sarasota History

Author: Ann A. Shank, former County Historian
Photo Credit: Sarasota County History Center

Sarasota History - 'Paradise' Eluded the Early Settlers photo

They arrived at the end of December, weeks later than planned, on a cramped steamboat. They disembarked via a temporary plank dock. They saw only one building and a trail through the woods. About two weeks later, it snowed! Thus did the colonists from Scotland confront the reality of the tropical paradise to which they had come.

Alex Browning, a teen-ager when he arrived, later wrote in his memoirs, and these provide a valuable description of the colonists' early days in Sarasota. They sailed from Glasgow on November 25, 1885, on the Furnessia and arrived in New York two weeks later. After a few days, they took a steamer to Fernandina on the northeast coast of Florida, a train across the peninsula to Cedar Key, and, after a delay, a small steamer to Sarasota Bay.

The "natives for miles around" gave the colonists a warm welcome and invited many to stay at their homes until more permanent quarters could be built. These earlier settlers in Fruitville, Bee Ridge, Sara Sota, and Osprey also helped the colonists find and make the food they had been accustomed to purchasing. Without their assistance, that winter would have been bleak, indeed, for the colonists.

As soon as lumber and construction crews arrived work began on a boarding house, some cottages, a pier and a hotel. Browning earned $2 a day, a good wage for the time, working on the pier and described being in water from knee to shoulder deep while setting the pine pilings. He recalled that construction of the new village came to a halt when cold rain turned to snow and everyone huddled for warmth around campfires and stumps being burned out on Main Street.

Before leaving home, the colonists each had purchased 40 acres for farming in addition to a lot in town for a residence. To the dismay of many, this acreage frequently was far from town and difficult to reach, let alone farm. The Browning family "farm" was about six miles from their in-town lot, and near present Friendship Baptist Church in Fruitville.

Dan McKinlay, another colonist, noted in his diary that it was easy to become lost while searching for a tent or log hut in the road-less thick palmetto or high sawgrass. After living in a tent on land he learned was worthless for farming, feeling very lonely on his isolated acreage and watching a prairie fire for three days burn miles of land around him, McKinlay left for Tampa and points north in early March.

McKinlay was not the only one to leave. For many of the colonists, the harsh frontier lifestyle overwhelmed any vision of a tropical paradise. Within months, only the Brownings and a few others remained of those who had sailed from Glasgow. Alex Browing noted that the mosquitoes, sand fleas, red bugs and "other annoyances" also contributed to the exodus.

With other newcomers, the new town took shape. Between the boarding house at Five Points and the DeSoto Hotel at the foot of Main Street, soon there were Dr. Wallace's drug store, Charlie and Furman Whitaker's general store, Ham Whitaker's meat market (open the one day a week he slaughtered a steer) and livery stable, and some houses. With these developments, Browning recalled, the colony was a "thing of the past." Those who remained soon had friends enough for there to be dances, and "we all had our boy and girlfriends by this time."

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