Main Street in Venice
John and Mable Ringling Museum of Art

The History of Sarasota and Her Islands

A look at how it all started.

How it all began ...

Sarasota first became a "modern" town in the 1880s, after it was promoted in Scotland by the Florida Mortgage and Investment Co. in 1885. It was a breath of fresh air, promising an abundance of fertile land, plentiful citrus groves, and affordable housing.

Scottish families looking for a new start boarded steamer ships and set sail for Sarasota. Unfortunately, upon their arrival they discovered that the town was little more than a frontier camp. Needless to say, most of them left. But among the hardy souls who stayed to complete their dream was John Hamilton Gillespie, a Scottish aristocrat, lawyer and member of the Queen’s Bodyguard for Scotland.

It was this man who is believed to have built America’s first golf course, right here in Sarasota. Quite the entrepreneur, Gillespie also built the upscale DeSoto Hotel on Main Street for tourists and prospective investors. For his efforts, he was later elected as Sarasota’s first mayor in 1902.

A "Paradise for the Pampered”

As early as the 1910s, Sarasota began attracting some of America’s wealthiest people, who, with their own style, helped to define the county of Sarasota.

Today’s Historic Spanish Point was once the posh waterfront winter estate and gardens of Bertha Palmer, widow of Chicago developer Potter Palmer. That’s not all—what is now Myakka River State Park was once Palmer’s 30,000-acre ranch in eastern Sarasota, called Meadowsweet Pastures.

Sarasota - the Circus Town

John Ringling, of Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus, made his mark on the community with much more flair. Not only did he and his wife Mable build a magnificent Venetian-style mansion on Sarasota Bay, named Cà d’Zan (house of John), but they went a few steps further in positioning Sarasota as "Florida’s Cultural Coast."

John and Mable needed a place to house their ever-growing collection of works by Peter Paul Reubens and other masters of 17th century Italian and Flemish art. We know that collection today as the John and Mable Ringling Museum of Art, one of America’s most famous art museums.

Ringling’s influence didn’t stop there. As a developer and dreamer, Ringling used his circus elephants to help build the first bridge from the mainland to St. Armands Key, which he developed as a commercial and residential center.

In 1927, the circus’s winter quarters were moved to Sarasota—branding the area as a "circus town.”

Historical information compiled from: “Sarasota Over My Shoulder,” by Janet Snyder Matthews and the Sarasota County Department of Historical Resources.

Venice History

Human settlements on the Gulf Coast of Florida can be traced back for more than 10,000 years, and found nearly 100 miles offshore. Over thousands of years, the aboriginal people flourished, giving rise to the expansive Calusa Indian nation. By dominating most of South Florida, this civilization thrived for many generations.

Evidence of Native American inhabitants remains in the Venice area today, including a 4,000-year-old shell midden (mound) which can be observed at Historic Spanish Point in Osprey (near Venice).

In the early 19th century, the complete lack of roadways into the area known today as Venice forced seafaring pioneers to become creative in locating access to the land. Soon, a small formation of trees resembling a horse and carriage became known as the best way to reach the area. Hence, the earliest known name for the Venice area was Horse and Chaise.

With the passing of the Homestead Act, which promised the sale of 160-acre land tracts, Horse and Chaise saw a new era of settlement. Some of the first takers were well-known families like John and Eliza Webb, the Rev. Jesse Knight, Dr. Fred Albee and Robert Roberts. Another settler, Frank Higel, brought with him fond memories of Venice, Italy, and developed his property with hints of Italian Renaissance architecture, some of which is still evident today. Higel also submitted the name Venice for the 1888 post office in what is today the Nokomis area.

In 1910, Bertha Honore Palmer purchased 140,000 acres of land, which facilitated the extension of the Seaboard Airline Railroad. By 1927, the city of Venice was incorporated, with Ned Worthington as the first mayor. In 1928, the first Tamiami Trail (then called the Velvet Highway), which connected Tampa to Miami, ran down the coast and through Venice.

The Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus began wintering in the Venice area in 1960, and by 1962 the population had reached 27,000, a significant increase from 1957’s population of 10,000.

Today, Venice is a designated Florida MainStreet City and enjoys a rich and cultured heritage, including a professional symphony, theaters, museums and close proximity to many of Florida’s most breathtaking beaches.

Excerpts of Venice history written by Marge Stolte for the Venice Area Chamber of Commerce.