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Sarasota Thursday, Jul. 1, 2021 5 months ago

Sarasota County Centennial: Start of county was contentious

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A dispute over (you guessed it) roads set up the official establishment of Sarasota County on July 1, 1921.
by: Brynn Mechem Staff Writer

More 100 years ago today, Sarasota residents faced issues that would seem pretty common to 21st century residents:

  • Some landowners wanted to keep the area rural while others wanted to develop a bustling city.
  • Business operators were trying to find ways to attract new customers.
  • Many taxpayers complained their dollars were being collected without any benefits. Of course, the taxes then were sent to Manatee County since there was no Sarasota County. 

It was that frustration with their neighbors to the north that drove community leaders of the era — John Hamilton Gillespie, Bertha Palmer, Owen Burns and Charles and John Ringling, to name a few — to take matters into their own hands. 

It was their dream to spin off from Manatee County and become their own county. And on July 1, 1921, it happened, largely over another issue familiar to modern-day residents. 

Roads. 

The Ringling Causeway used to be a flat bridge. Photo courtesy Sarasota County Libraries & Historical Resources.

“The issue, I think, can be called existential in the sense that if your community is not on a main road, which itself connects to other main roads, then you will wither on the vine and die economically,”  said Historian Frank Cassell, who wrote the book “Creating Sarasota County." 

As the automobile took hold, and roads became a means of attracting commerce, state and Manatee leaders began planning early routes, such as what is now U.S. 41 and Interstate 75. Often, those routes took a hard turn into Bradenton instead of continuing south, effectively cutting off economic business from Sarasota.

READ MORE CENTENNIAL COVERAGE: Famous figures help the new county come to fruition

In fact, during a mass meeting in favor of the separation, Joseph Halton in 1920 said the county must split to get a “square deal.”

“The purpose of this meeting, as I understand it, is to band together to accomplish a purpose for the benefit of the individual, the city, the county and the state,” Halton said. “To a cause of progression that we feel is being found and fettered by the negligence of our section by other parts of this county to our most crying need — good roads.”

St. Armands Circle in its earliest stages of development. Photo courtesy Sarasota County Libraries & Historical Resources.

Spurred on, Sarasota residents began hosting more meetings to determine how to become their own county, resulting in snowballing public opinion. A committee, chaired by attorney John Burket, was formed in 1920 to propose how a separation could be accomplished, eventually petitioning the Legislature.

In May 1921, both Florida houses approved legislation to create Sarasota County. Then-Gov. Cary Hardee signed it the next day, setting up a referendum for June 15.

Committee members began rallying residents to vote. At the same time, Rose Phillips Wilson, the publisher of The Sarasota Times and a suffragette, held meetings to push women to express that right in a June 1921 ballot.

Six precincts were involved in the vote: Sarasota, Osprey, Venice Englewood, Miakka and Manasota. The proposal was ratified with 518 in favor and 154 against.

On July 1, 1921, the Florida government officially recognized Sarasota as its own county. 

Infrastructure had to be built, including buildings, railroads and roads, none of which would have been possible without the contributions of Black residents, said Rob Bendus, the manager of the county’s Historical Resources Department.

This 1937 image shows Southside Elementary School surrounded by farmland and a few houses. Photo courtesy Sarasota County Libraries & Historical Resources.

“One thing that gets overlooked all the time is the contribution of Black Americans,” Bendus said. “We don’t often think about how Sarasota got built. How did the roads and railroads get built? Where did the timber come from? How did the farming get done? That was all done on the backs of Black Americans, and they never get enough credit for that.”

The new county also had to elect leaders, which it did a year later in 1922. That government then had to not only navigate running a new government but also deal with a Manatee County that was surely feeling sour.

Cassell said there were reports of Manatee not releasing information that was due to the new county. The Manatee County judge wouldn’t release court filings, and the Manatee tax collector wouldn’t release taxes that were due to Sarasota.

A.B. Edwards, the city of Sarasota's first mayor, poses on top of a fire engine. Photo courtesy Sarasota County Libraries & Historical Resources.

“I don’t know what they were seeking to do, but they certainly made themselves as obnoxious as possible,” he said.

Although there were hardships, the county prospered, which Cassell said wouldn’t have been possible without a civic-minded elite. 

Through architecture, arts, ecological and economic ventures, Bendus said visitors have always been attracted to the area — something he doesn’t anticipate will end anytime soon.

“People have been coming to Sarasota for 14,000 years,” Bendus said. “People have been attracted to Sarasota for a really long time. I think people come here because it’s a great place to live, the quality of life is superior, and we have such a rich history.”

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