A rusted mailbox sits next to a dirt road.
The mailbox and the dirt driveway framed by sabal palms and Spanish moss are the only evidence of the property that lies at the end of the road — a property filled with bobcats, gopher tortoises and one of the largest private collections of Chinese literature in the world.
That land was once the battleground of a fight between a scholar intent on preserving thousands of books and a Sarasota County Commission bent on slowing growth.
In the ’80s, the late Elling Eide battled the county in court for nearly a decade to get 14 acres of his roughly 100-acre property west of U.S. 41 near Sarasota Square Mall zoned for commercial development.
The former University of Illinois professor wanted to sign a long-term land-lease agreement with a developer to build and maintain a library for his collection of Chinese literature.
Eide sued the county in 1986 and won $850,000, but he didn’t collect the award before the county won an appeal in the 12th Judicial Circuit Court, which required Eide to pay $21,000.
Today, Sarasota County wants to purchase 184 acres of environmentally sensitive land near targeted watersheds — including Eide’s property. The land would be eligible for funding from the Deepwater Horizon settlement and further the county’s effort to buy environmentally sensitive lands.
After his Jan. 2, 2012, death, Sarasota County Natural Resources Manager Brooke Elias said staff was unable to contact the heir to what would be called the Elling O. Eide Charitable Foundation.
Current Sarasota County commissioners think the foundation won’t be willing to sell. Harold Mitchell, Eide’s cousin and director of the trust, said the county is correct.
“He had a lot of troubles with the county because he tended to be outspoken and opinionated,” said University of Florida associate professor Cynthia Chennault, who is on the charity’s board of directors.
“Everything was always so dramatic with him,” said Florence Ashby, who, along with Eide, was voted most likely to succeed by the Sarasota High School class of 1953.
Mitchell recalled when Eide used three billboards on his property to heckle county commissioners with a pun-twisted advertisement for the Suncoast Offshore Grand Prix.
“He had a wicked sense of humor,” Mitchell said.
Eccentric and determined
The 1953 senior class at Sarasota High School included at least four future college professors, including Eide.
“He and I were in the same group: the nerds,” Ashby said.
Eide rode a unicycle in the Sailor Circus and owned a five-legged cat, which Ashby recalled him bringing to show-and-tell in the seventh grade.
“He was always unusual,” Ashby said. “He had a different way of thinking about things.”
Eide was obsessed with the history of language and was several years ahead of his classmates in the study of Spanish, Ashby said.
In particular, he was fascinated with the name for the Sarasota property his grandfather purchased in 1935, Indianola, which was inspired by Native American burial grounds on the land.
Growing up in Sarasota, Eide won awards for national speech competitions and was active in the local theater community.
But, his parents, who had been through the Great Depression, wanted Eide to pursue a career that would generate business even in bust times.
Grace Eide, who was a lawyer in addition to a physician, pushed her son to study law at Harvard University.
Around the same time Mao Zedong was planning to destroy pieces of Chinese history, Eide changed his major from law to the study of Chinese languages. He graduated from Harvard in 1957, summa cum laude.
Eide joined the Marines shortly after and rose to the rank of lieutenant.
While stationed in various posts around East Asia, Eide watched Chinese ex-patriots settle in Taiwan, where he would go on to study as a Harvard Junior Fellow.
The refugees brought with them volumes of books, scrolls and art to avoid destruction under Mao’s Cultural Revolution. Eide began his preservation of Chinese history in the 1960s, when he started collecting literature. That period sparked the dream that dominated the rest of his life — a library that would attract Chinese scholars from around the world.
A dream realized
Chinese artists and calligraphers use a red stamp with characters representing their lives to sign their work.
Characters meaning the words “book” and “house” comprised Eide’s stamp, which roughly translates to mean “library.”
Though he only published one book, “On Li Po,” in 1971, Eide owned at least 60,000, and as many as 100,000, volumes of Chinese literature.
The collection contains books from the size of a wallet to that of a drafting table, and in a rainbow of colors — mostly dark reds and greens, and black. His property, during the course of his life, became a mecca for Chinese scholars looking for particular volumes for research.
Eide, a night owl, would bounce between the buildings on his property most nights looking for a particular volume or scroll required for his or other professors’ research.
His circle of colleagues sent him letters, newspaper clippings and risqué postcards almost daily.
Xianho, a T’ang Dynasty historian, was one of many international sinologists (those who study Chinese culture) touched by Eide’s research and collection.
“Now Professor Eide has abandoned me away. My sorrow! My sorrow,” Xianhao wrote in the pamphlet for Eide’s memorial service.
“He was very magnanimous,” Chennault said. “If he thought someone had a serious interest in the field, he was very welcoming to them.”
Books fill Mitchell’s current office, Eide’s childhood home, a guesthouse, a cabin and the upstairs bedroom of a maintenance facility on the property.
His dream library would centralize the collection. Architect Guy Peterson drew up plans for the library before Eide’s death.
“He was able to sell some of the land, and that allowed him to plan a real library under one roof,” Chennault said. “I’m sorry he didn’t live long enough to see it built.”
The foundation and concrete skeleton of the three-story dream library is complete. Two buildings connect at a right angle. One will be the library, and the other will contain an exposition dedicated to the 1893 World’s Fair and living quarters for visiting researchers.
The first door at the top of the staircase in the home in which Eide spent his final days leads to a room so cramped with his various collections it’s difficult to turn around.
A clear tub filled with Edison phonograph cylinders sits in one corner, and a framed poster of Cecil B. DeMille’s “The Greatest Show On Earth” is in another nook.
Eight-foot-tall filing cabinets dominate Eide’s former office and are filled with files marked with his specific interests.
One contains a newspaper clipping from 1984 and a barely legible note in Eide’s handwriting about “dog-hair spinning.”
Eide kept a diary of every pet he owned since he was 4 years old.
When Mitchell visited Eide in the summers, the pair would often eat at Mattison’s. Eide would greet Mitchell at the door in his boxer shorts with a cigarette in hand. He would throw on a Hawaiian shirt and an old pair of Dockers to go out to eat.
“Almost every pair of pants had burn holes in them,” Mitchell recalled.
The library, which will feature Peterson’s trademark modern architecture, including a spiral staircase from the fourth floor to the rooftop, from which a library visitor can almost see the Gulf of Mexico, contrasts with the other structures on the property. The land around it will not be developed.
Though the former editor of the Harvard Lampoon won’t be around to flex his witty wordplay with colleagues, Chinese scholars from around the world can enjoy the shade from trees Eide planted throughout his life, and a facility for which he fought most of his life.
“I think it will be the ideal setting for cerebral work,” Mitchell said.
In Eide’s home, the word “done” is scrawled on green Post-it notes affixed to bookshelves and on antiques to mark that the items have been appraised or archived.
The budget of the library project has grown from original estimates, Mitchell said, but so have the number of green Post-it notes, which means the collection — and the library — is closer to an estimated fall 2014 debut.
Asked what Eide would say about the library today, Mitchell said, “I think he would say that ‘it costs too damn much.’ But, I think he would have loved it.”