Wednesday, November 11, 2020

Punta Gorda celebrates the End of a war November 11, 1918

 It was November 11, 2018 and it took a train arriving from Fort Myers to bring the joyous news that the “Great War” was indeed over and an armistice was signed to Punta Gorda.  The day became the First Armistice Day now celebrated as Veteran’s Day. Major hostilities of World War I were formally ended at the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month of 1918, when the Armistice went  into effect.

The city, which had sent nearly 100 of its own off to training camps earlier that year many who ended up fighting the “Hun” in France, was ecstatic.  Flags were hung from many of the local businesses on Marion Avenue of the day:Goldstein’s Furniture Store (now Cubby’s),  the Seminole Hotel (FM Don’s), Ed Wotitzky’s store, Copper Hardware.  At 3 p.m. all businesses closed and people assembled at the Methodist Church for a service. Yes, it was a time to celebrate, but the war had had costs - two young Punta Gordan’s had been killed, Augustine Willis and John Davis.  Another seriously wounded seventeen-year-old would die in 1920 from his war wounds, Raleigh Whidden. 

At 7 in the evening a celebration was held in front of the Plaza Theatre.  Harry Goldstein played his violin, with JB Washington at the cello.  Stirring addresses were given by Mayor Trabue (the Founder’s nephew), Col. Hancock and others.  Norma Pepper, an early teacher, provided a recitation.  

Only a few years before, the Punta Gorda High School Valedictorian, John Boyle, told his classmates that they would likely have to join the war effort. many did including him. So did the town, sending  their town doctor, Dr. McQueen, one of Jones family, a Morgan, a Sikes , all local business people off to war in Europe.  The City also engaged in drives and other activities to support the fight. Now Punta Gorda could celebrate and that they did and continued to do commemorating the end of the war with parades, parties, picnics every year thereafter. 

Tuesday, September 29, 2020

The Charlotte of Charlotte Harbor - the Woman Who our Bay was Named For

Our large bay has had many names, Bay (Bahia) de Calos, Bay de Carlos,   Bay de Juan Ponce de Leon, but the one that stuck was given to it by a dutch navigator exploring for the British - Charlotte Harbor.  It was in 1775 right before the American Revolution that a British cartographer, Thomas Jeffreys, first put the name “Charlotte Harbour” on a map.  At the time King George III was on the throne and his wife, the Queen, was “Charlotte” Sophia. 

Charlotte was born on May 19, 1744. She was the youngest daughter of Duke Charles of Mecklenburg and his wife, Princess Elisabeth of Saxe-Hildburghaussen.  Mecklenburg-Strelitz was small north-German duchy that was a part of the Holy Roman Empire.   When George III became King of England’s he was 22 years old and unmarried. Needing a wife, he sought someone who could bear children and not interfere with the running of the empire.  The 17-year-old Princess Charlotte checked all the boxes partly because she had been brought up in an insignificant north German duchy, and therefore would probably have had no experience or interest in power politics or party intrigues. 

When she married George, she spoke only German,  but quickly picked up the King’s language. She bore the first of their fifteen children less than a year after their wedding. She didn’t interfere much in the politics of  Britain, but she did have influence on the King.  

Interestingly, as it has been an important element on the shores of her namesake harbor, Charlotte loved music.  A young Mozart performed at her court and she sang an aria and played the flute with him.  He named an opus for her.  She was also an amateur botanist who helped insure that species of plants brought to Britain by explorers were expanded.  The official name of the Bird of Paradise was named for her.  

After the onset of his permanent madness in 1811, George III was placed under Charlotte’s guardianship.  She could not bring herself to visit him very often, due to his erratic behavior and occasional violent reactions. While she was popular in her  early years as Queen for her patronage of education for women and care of the sick, during regency to her son, Charles, she met with growing unpopularity.  

Many other places in the U.S were named for Charlotte, including Charlottesville, Virginia  and Charlotte, North Carolina.  Statues of Queen Charlotte stand in Bloomsbury, London, and at the airport and International Trade Center in Charlotte, North Carolina.

Sunday, September 20, 2020

The Sandlin House

Referred to by the name of the man who built it, the Sandlin house is one of Punta Gorda’s most treasured historic houses located in the downtown historic district.  

The Sandlin House was built  in 1893 by early merchant, shipper and developer, and town mayor James Sandlin.  With it’s gingerbread trim and wrap-around porch, the stately house is a stunning example of an old grand Floridian house.  Situated on Retta Esplanade, the house was built near the frontage of the harbor before land had been filled to extend the depth of the parks lining the bay.  The widow’s walk at the top of the home gave Mr. Sandlin a vantage point from which he could observe vessels bringing his merchandise to a nearby dock.

Sandlin came to the area before Isaac Trabue platted the town that became Punta Gorda. He originally lived on Alligator Creek.  He and his wife, Mary Lula Seward,  had six children.  Their first, who died in infancy, was the first child born in the new city of Punta Gorda.  Another boy, their second child, Felix, died at twelve.  

In 1909, Sandlin’s daughter, 14-year-old Mary, died in a fire at the house while pressing clothes using a gasoline-powered flat iron. The gasoline spilled onto Mary, catching fire.  According to local legend,  Mary’s ghost continues to haunt the house.  

James Sandlin died in 1903.  

Wednesday, August 19, 2020

Elections in Punta Gorda 100 Years Ago

It was the year 1920, 100 years ago, and it  was an important election year for Punta Gorda.   In addition to an election that would ultimately put Warren G. Harding in the White House, Punta Gorda faced several other major decisions of its own. It would also be the last election where Punta Gordan voted directly for its mayor.  

With much controversy beforehand as was the case in many Florida cities at the time revising charters,  city residents were voting for members of a revised City Charter Board that would reframe the governance of the City to a city commission (council)/manager form of governance.  J.N Sikes who was re-elected in 1920 as mayor would be the last elected mayor of the City.  Also of note Marian McAdow, in the year woman were first given the vote,  was elected to the Charter Board. It was the first time a woman held any position of political importance in the City.  It was said had Marian been a man she would probably have been one of our mayors. 

The first commission was composed of three members who were ultimately elected in 1921 after the charter was finalized.  These were Max Price, R.K. Seward and T. C. Crosland.  The first advisory board was also established to include H.R Dreggors, J.N. Sikes, Clay Chadwick, Paul Garrett, C.L. Fries and W. M. Whitten  This board like current ones had no voting power.  Max Price was the first Mayor to be elected by the commission.  Soon thereafter, he took the position as first City Manger of Punta Gorda and resigned his place on the commission  

by Theresa Murtha


Thursday, July 2, 2020

Punta Gorda - An Important Link in the Creation of the Tamiami Trail Almost 100 Years Ago

On the morning of July 4, 1921, John Hagan was the first man to drive an automobile over Charlotte Harbor Bay.  He led a parade of vehicles over the new bridge that crossed the Harbor at Sand Point in Charlotte Harbor to Nesbitt Street in Punta Gorda.   

In 1915,  Hagan was an early promoter of a bridge over the bay and a road that would connect the towns of Southwest Florida ultimately to Miami on the east coast. Hagan was supported by Senator F. M. Cooper, J. E. Bowdoin, Attorney J. H. Hancock, Clay Chadwick, A. F. Dewer and H. R. Mauck and many other local civic leaders. That same year,  a  group of businessmen from Fort Myers initiated a concept to construct a road from Tampa along the winding Southwest coastline and then across the Everglades to Miami.

The highway met both political and financial roadblocks.  Conflicts over the exact route ensued as various cities vied to have the road pass through their locations.  There were two possible routes; one from Tampa to Arcadia, which was a hub of the state at the time, then southeast directly to Miami. The other route meandered along the scenic Gulf Coast to Naples, where it hooked to the east, cutting through the Everglades to the East Coast.  While in many ways the direct route made more sense, cutting across the state through Arcadia skirting the northern part of the Everglades, that route didn't have the backing or the businessmen eager to bring tourists and their money to the shores of Southwest Florida.   

It was still facing financial difficulties when a developer named Barron Collier contributed one million dollars of private funds.  Collier, of course, had his own motives.  He was the owner of extensive amounts of land at the tip of southwest Florida.  He was able to exert disproportionate influence over the selection of highway routes, county creation, and got the state to name a county after him. 

Punta Gorda won its place on the highway by agreeing to fund and build a connecting bridge over the Peace River. Various road-and-bridge tax districts were established for the purpose. Punta Gorda and Charlotte Harbor issued $200,000 worth of bonds. The bridge opened on July 4, 1921 to great fanfare.  Over 6,000 people attended the celebration and fish fry on the harbor and many cars crossed the harbor that day to christen the new bridge.  Much like the railroad when the town was first born, it was anticipated that the new road would bring economic prosperity to the city.     


But, despite all the efforts, construction of the trail faltered as builders tried to build a roadbed into the Everglades.  By April of 1923, many residents thought the project was doomed, until a group of 23 daring West Coast civilians with two Seminole guides decided to cross the swamps in a motorcade of one truck, seven Model T Fords, and an Elcar. These “Tamiami Trailblazers” reached Miami and affirmed the viability of finishing the trail.  The following  year the Florida State Road Department incorporated the Tamiami Trail into the Florida Highway System.  The road was officially opened in 1928.

As for the 1921 bridge over the bay, once the Tramiami Trail  was open, it became apparent that this first bridge, which was disintegrating because of the sand and sea water base of its concrete and its far too narrow width, would need to be replaced.  It was in 1931 by another bridge, the first Baron Collier Bridge.

by Theresa Murtha


Punta Gorda Herald

Lindsay Williams, Fascinating Past.

Vernon Peeoples, Research Notes

Wednesday, June 24, 2020

Jacob Wotitzky - Punta Gorda’s First Retailer

Jacob Wotitzky was one of the most important types of pioneers; a businessman who helped improve the quality of life for hardworking settlers by providing them with needed supplies and eventually some of the “finer things in life”.  His innovative use of a schooner as a floating general store enabled him to reach then-remote homes and settlements with road access.  His work was in many ways a classic American story of the immigrant who becomes more than he could have been in “the old country”.  

Mr. Wotitzky was born October 26, 1840 in Prague, a city in the former Austro-Hungarian Empire which is now the capital of the Czech Republic.  He spent his childhood in the Austrian capital of Vienna.  His family background is unknown to modern historians but may be considered relatively comfortable because after immigrating to New York City with his parents at age 15 he spent a number of years travelling throughout the country and living in a number of the larger cities. His educational background is not known but certainly included more than basic literacy and the mathematical skills needed for business.

Jacob ended the first period of his travels in 1870 when, at the age of 30 he returned to New York City and married his cousin Rosa Frank.  This was not uncommon at the time, particularly among immigrant families who came from close-knit backgrounds.  To support his family Jacob began his business career selling general household goods from a push cart in New York, a common “start-up” practice for new merchants at the time.  The difficulty of this work in both summer and winter is difficult for the modern imagination to comprehend but was not considered unusual in the post-Civil War period.  Jacob was reportedly successful in this initial business venture, until a downturn in the economy occurred.

In the 1800's the United States experienced a “boom and bust” economy which makes today's economic downturns seem mild given that there was no social “safety net” prior to the institution of Social Security and related programs.  In 1876 one of the periodic economic “panics” occurred which caused great economic and financial distress, and Jacob was one of its casualties.  He lost his savings and was forced to leave New York City in search of other opportunities.

Jacob moved his family to Savannah, Georgia initially, and opened a general store, selling household goods, food, and clothing.  The store was successful enough to provide the funds for Jacob to invest in rice farming in South Carolina, and he moved his family to the town of Walterboro, SC.  This town is still in existence and is located about 50 miles west of Charleston.  In the 1880's the area was not hospitable to outsiders of any type, but Jacob again is reported to have prospered in this venture.  Unfortunately, malaria was still a major health problem in that area and Rosa Wotitzky suffered from it several times, and experienced several miscarriages as a result of the disease.  

In 1886 Jacob heard about plans to build a new railroad to the southwest Florida coast terminating at the town of Trabue (our town, prior to its incorporation in 1887).  Information about the healthful climate determined Jacob to move his family to the area for their health.   It was usual in that period for a man to move to a new area to establish himself while his family lived with relatives until he could send for them.  Jacob followed this practice, sending Rosa and her two surviving children to live with relatives in New York City.

Jacob opened a general store in a leased two-story building at the intersection of Marion Avenue and Sullivan Street.  He lived over the store in another common practice of the day.  His was the first general store in the town of Trabue, and it made accessible food  supplies, household products, and tools which had previously been more difficult to obtain.  The store apparently did well, but Jacob was cautious about the impact of a possible move on Rosa's health and that of the children and it was not until 1889 that he went to New York to move his family south.  Family lore has it that he rented a railroad boxcar for the move.

The next step in the development of the family's business was a significant innovation in southwest Florida retail trade.  Rosa and their son Edward took over responsibility for running the general store in town.  Jacob bought a schooner (which he named the “Mollie O” after a cousin) which he fitted out as a floating store.  With this vessel he traded among isolated coastal homes and settlements down the coast and around to what is now Miami.  This service enabled him to bring goods to homes which lacked road access, and provided the basis for a trade in alligator hides, furs, bird plumes and salt fish which he sold to wholesalers.  This seagoing retail service lasted into the 1940's under the management of Jacob's son Edward.

During the latter part of his life Jacob expanded his activities into homesteading.  He began homesteading some 60 acres on Gasparilla Island.  The laws of the time required a homesteader to improve at least three acres of his claim and live on the land for at least three months a year for the first three years of his claim. Jacob fulfilled the requirement by camping on ground which became what is now Boca Grande.

The last years of Jacob's life were filled with the everyday toil, challenges, and frustrations familiar to every small businessman.  In 1903 he died from a stroke in the apartment over his store where he had lived a bachelor's life during the three years he was establishing his business and before he brought his family to live with him.  He is buried in New York.  His son Edward took over the store (which burned down in the Great Fire of 1912 which devastated the business district) and the schooner and entered politics as the Supervisor of Registration for Charlotte County.  Edward's descendants became lawyers who are well known and respected among the County legal bar.  The family's rise from the push-cart to the court room is a familiar American story of success over the generations.  The role of Jacob Wotitzky in founding the family's fortunes on the basis of providing goods and services to those who needed and wanted them.

Mark Surrusco

Thursday, June 18, 2020

The Herald Building Once on the Corner of Marion and Taylor

Herald Building Circa 1907

Fires involving wood buildings were frequent in the early 1900s throughout the United States. In Punta Gorda one of the bigger fires at that time was a 1905 fire that destroyed an entire block in the business district on West Marion Avenue.  

Rebuilding the district took several years. One of the first buildings to be constructed was the two-story stucco building at 149 W. Marion Ave. believed to have been built in 1907.  A picture of the building in Vernon Peeples book, Punta Gorda and the "Charlotte Harbor Area - A Pictorial History," shows the building in 1907.

The building was constructed to house the Punta Gorda Herald and retail stores on the first.  A dry goods store owned by the Chadwick Brothers occupied the first floor for a time.   The newspaper moved into the second story of the building, but the large presses used to print the newspaper, made such a racket that the whole building shook. The Herald then built a little building in the alley way (Herald Court area) for the presses. 

Marion and Taylor 1921 (During Hurricane)

About 1913 the Punta Gorda Herald relocated and the second floor was leased to the Inter-County Phone Company, while the first floor housed a drug store and Cooper’s Hardware Store on the corner.  According to Byron Rhodes’ book a pool room occupied part of the space around this time. 


Marion and Taylor 1930s

Various businesses occupied the space over time. In the late 1920s Fred Quednau opened a luncheonette on the first floor of the building.  Fred's Quick Lunch closed around 1938 and J.T. Lawhorn's Grocery moved in. Tosie Quednau Hindman, the daughter of Fred Quednau, worked at Lawhorn's during World War II.  She also worked next door at her Uncle Bill's Bar.

For many years the second floor of the building was vacant. In 2002 the first floor was occupied by Kountry Klub Kollectibles.   The building was badly damaged in Hurricane Charley in 2004 and torn down shortly thereafter.  Today there is a vacant lot there.

Prepared by Theresa Murtha

(From the research notes of Vernon Peeples, recollections of U.S. Cleveland as reported in an article by Ann Henderson, Herald Tribune 2002, Byron Rhode's Punta Gorda Remembered and photo collection held at the Punta Gorda History Center)