Journals of Yesteryear

Little Left of Luke Wood Park

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

Although now it is split by U.S. 41, Luke Wood Park before 1931 was part of 70 acres that Luke Wood purchased in 1896 as a 30th wedding anniversary present for his wife, Annie.

The Woods had spent several winters in the area, searching for a permanent winter home. Annie Wood's deteriorating health had prompted them to seek a milder climate and a lifestyle easier than that of their farm in Rhode Island.

Luke, Annie and their daughter, Ethel, moved into their new home (on the site of McDonald's Restaurant and Sarasota Ford today) during the winter of 1896-97, and returned here every winter thereafter. They summered in Onset, Massachusetts, on Cape Cod. Once settled in Sarasota, they became part of the winter resident community and involved themselves in Sarasota affairs and organizations.

In 1931, Luke Wood transferred 12 acres of land in front of his house to the City of Sarasota. Bordered by a now-closed section of Wood Street, Osprey Avenue, what is now Brother Geenen Way and South Washington Boulevard, the acreage became Luke Wood Park. The southeast corner of the park included part of a ravine that was a special place for the Wood family. In a short history of the Wood house, written for the Sarasota County Historical Society in 1978, Janet Synder Matthews portrays the ravine as a unique refuge and picnic site for family and friends. The family's connection to that spot is reflected in a photo that shows Ethel, as an older woman, sitting on a large tree trunk that had fallen across a bed of ferns in the ravine. She looks very much "at home" there.

In the 1930s, there was little public money available to develop the park. The Sarasota Garden Club sought and received permission to turn the area into an arboretum, which is an area planted with many types of trees for study, display and preservation. In the years before World War II, club members planted more than 1,000 trees and shrubs, built a lagoon and reflecting pool, created a bird sanctuary and installed a 500 foot well for irrigation. The Founders Circle installed a fountain in memory of their first president, Mable Ringling. John Ringling donated two marble lions, the work of an Italian sculptor, which were placed on each side of the fountain.

During World War II, vandalism and neglect took their toll on the park, as both the city and garden club turned their energies and financial resources to the war effort. By 1953, there was talk of rerouting the Tamiami Trail around a filled-in bayfront and through the park to join U.S. 301 at Wood Street. Local efforts to retain the park in one piece failed. Two remnants of the earlier park remain. One is a slight mound with brick risers on the north side of U.S. 41, where the fountain and marble lions used to be. The fountain has been filled in with soil and grass. The lions now flank the flags near the Veteran's Memorial in the refurbished Bayfront Park at the foot of Main Street. A small portion of the ravine that had been Ethel Wood's garden showcase also remains. A pedestrian strolling along its edge and under the trees can try to shut out the present traffic noise and imagine the earlier lush vegetation and quieter sounds of birds and the animals that made this spot a favorite retreat.

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