Well before Dr. Stephen P. Leatherman named Siesta Key’s beach No. 1 in the nation, “This magical island has helped to put Sarasota on the map,” John F. McCarthy, interim executive director of community services for Sarasota County, told the approximately 150 people attending the Siesta Key Association’s annual meeting March 10.
The earliest maps of the area, drawn by Spanish explorers, McCarthy said, show Big Pass, at the northern end of the Key, with the name “Boca Sarasota.”
In the 1700s, the most prominent landmark on mariners’ maps of the Southwest Florida coast was labeled “Rocky Point,” which, McCarthy noted, referred to “our very own Point of Rocks.”
He also had found a historical reference, he said, to “the crescent of sand in between (the pass and Rocky Point).” One mariner had written that, from a ship in the Gulf of Mexico, the sand looked “like the dunes on a desert — a brilliant glow off of the shoreline.”
The earliest known name for the Key, McCarthy said, was Clam Island. Maps drawn in the 1800s alternated between calling the island Sarasota Key and Big Sarasota Key, he said.
Then, in 1907, three early developers — including Harry Higel, for whom Higel Avenue is named — platted a subdivision on the northern end of the island and called it “Siesta, a place to rest and relax.”
McCarthy added, “That was the first residential subdivision on a barrier island anywhere in this area … Slowly, people began using that name, Siesta, to describe the entire island.”
In the 1920s, developers began promoting what is now the Siesta Public Beach as the main beach, McCarthy said. That led prominent Sarasota families to begin building beach houses on the shores of the Gulf, he said, though no one made those houses their permanent residences, given worries about potential damage from storms.
Around 1955, a Sarasota resident named George Olmstead, who had collected 900 samples of sand from all over the world, proclaimed Siesta’s sand even whiter than the white sands of New Mexico, McCarthy said.
With that as the background, he continued, a Travel Channel visit to Siesta Key several years ago marked the final climb of the public beach to its No. 1 ranking. The Travel Channel named Siesta the No. 2 beach in Florida, thanks to that quartz sand. No. 1, he said, was Miami Beach, for its nightlife.
Subsequently, McCarthy said, the Siesta Public Beach won a certificate in 2003 that put it on the list of the nation’s healthy beaches. That helped earn it a spot on Leatherman’s Top 40 beach list for the world, McCarthy said.
In 2007, Siesta earned the No. 10 spot on Leatherman’s annual list for the United States, McCarthy said. “We had nowhere else to go but up,” he added, drawing laughter from the audience. In 2008, Siesta made it to No. 3. Then, in 2009, it was No. 2.
“The next year, drum roll, we’re No. 2 again,” McCarthy said, drawing more laughter. “We’re holding ground.”
In the meantime, McCarthy said, various county government departments and the Sarasota Audubon chapter began working on a number of initiatives, including banning smoking on the public beach and enlisting volunteers to protect the endangered snowy plovers that nest on the beach each spring and summer.
“And then, finally, Memorial Day (weekend) last year,” McCarthy said, “Dr. Beach comes down and says, ‘Bam! This is it. You’re No. 1.’”
He added, “It took everybody in this room” to make that ranking possible. “It’s just totally awesome!”
SKA officers recognized
Siesta Key Association President Catherine Luckner presented plaques to two of her board members Saturday, as they stepped down from their positions.
During the SKA’s annual breakfast meeting in the St. Boniface Episcopal Church Community Center, Luckner thanked Bob Tripp for serving as the organization’s treasurer and Joyce Kouba for serving as secretary, both for seven years. Kouba will stay on the board of directors.
“The last thing I’m going to do (as treasurer),” Tripp told the approximately 150 people present, “is write a check for this breakfast.”
SKA board member Helen Clifford is taking over Tripp’s duties, while board member Beverly Arias is the new secretary.
Board member Bob Waechter told the audience that Luckner had been re-elected president, and Peter van Roekens had been re-elected vice president of the organization.
The other directors for 2012 are Ron Flynn, Deet Jonker, Michael Shay and Joe Volpe.
Leatherman honored for environmental contributions
During their annual meeting March 10, members of the Siesta Key Association recognized Dr. Stephen P. Leatherman, aka Dr. Beach, director of Florida International University’s Laboratory for Coastal Research, for his long record of working to protect the environment and endangered species.
Not only has he become known for his research on beaches, SKA President Catherine Luckner pointed out, but he also has dealt with water-supply issues relative to hurricane damage and species protection.
For example, she said, he had worked with Alabama officials to protect the Alabama beach mice, which are critical to the health of beach vegetation in areas of that state.
“He cares about even the little things,” Luckner added.