Monday, November 4, 2019

Punta Gorda's First Church Service and the Beginnings of the Bethel AME Church

Shortly after the first passenger train arrived in Trabue in July of 1886, Dan Smith, a black man, organized the first religious service in the town. He, with the help of other African Americans in the survey crew, including Sam Kenedy, and men named Graham, Fuller and Ransom,  hired by Albert W. Gilchrist, then a young engineer, erected a palmetto thatched roof shelter for the service.  It was attended by the crew as well as other African Americans and their families already living in Trabue including Isaac Howard, A.G. Reese, S.P. Andrews, Lynn and Rhoda Jackson and Henry Simmons.  Several white families also attended said to have included Isaac and Virginia Trabue, Jacob Wotitzky, Ephraim Goldstein, James Sandlin and their wives. This event led to the establishment of the Bethel AME Church. 

The African American religious community continued to meet informally under the arbor until Isaac Trabue bequeathed some land for the newly organized African Methodist Episcopal Church in 1888. Witness to the transaction was M.T.B. Thomas, the first pastor; Dan Smith, the trustee for the church; and James Sandlin.  Lumber was paid for by Jacob Wotitzky, and Smith and other congregation members built the first sanctuary at Helen Avenue and Milus.  Robert Meacham, postmaster in Punta Gorda, who had organized the African Methodist Episcopal Church in the State of Florida, served as Pastor of the Bethel Church from 1890 to 1892. 

In 1897, a new church was built at Olympia and Wood Streets, unfortunately, destroyed by Hurricane Donna.  A later church structure was severely damaged in Hurricane Charley. Then, in 2006, the current church edifice was dedicated at 260 E. Olympia.   The current pastor is Rev. Frankie S. Fayson III. 

Friday, October 11, 2019

The Man Who Helped Create Charlotte County - Senator F.M.Cooper

Senator F. M. Cooper was one of Punta Gorda’s most prominent citizens who owned several businesses, organized a major bank, and became a Florida State Senator. Senator Cooper was one of the leaders who drove the division of  DeSoto County to create Charlotte County.  Unfortunately, he died in 1921 shortly before Charlotte County officially came into existence and never saw his vision become a reality.  

Also known locally as Captain Cooper,  Frank Marion Cooper  was born in Fernandina, Florida on March 19, 1853 to James Gignilliat Cooper and Pharaba Jane Vaughn Cooper. As a young man he operated a freight-carrying business, running schooners between points on the gulf coast from Cedar Key to Key West.   An imposing six feet, four and a half inches tall, Frank Cooper was widely known for his self-confidence, courage, nerve and marksmanship.  As a leader of a citizens’ posse in 1883, Cooper effected the capture of the chief of the murder clique known as the Sarasota Vigilantes. 

In 1898, he came to Punta Gorda, purchased 60 acres of land for a farm two miles south of the then town, and became a farmer and businessman.   His businesses included a hardware store on Marion Avenue depicted in many of the old street scene photographs of the time. 

He became tax accessor for DeSoto County, a position he held for a decade, and then in 1915 he was elected to the Florida State Senate and served for two terms.  He was the first to suggest the construction of a coastal road from Tampa to Miami, making him the father of the idea for the Tamiami Trail.  Always a proponent of dividing DeSoto County to form a new county with Punta Gorda at its core, he was later re-elected to the state senate and became instrumental in the movement which created Charlotte County.  

The Punta Gorda History Center will induct Senator Cooper into the Punta Gorda History Hall of Honor this December 7 at the annual Southern Supper.  

Thursday, August 22, 2019

Ice - The Early History of Punta Gorda's Ice Factories

Consolidated Ice and Fertilizer Plant on Berry and Olympia 

In the early 18th century, Spanish-Cuban fishermen discovered Charlotte Harbor to be a rich source of a variety of fish.  But the distance from the Harbor to Cuba presented a problem.  Spoilage.   The original solution was to soak the fish in saltwater, then dry and press it.  The Cuban fisherman continued to fish the waters of Charlotte Harbor off and on (somewhat disrupted by wars, the British takeover of Florida in the latter part of the 1700s, and then by the United States acquisition of Florida in 1821).  

By the later part of the 1700s they were packing their catch in salt for transport back to Havana.   By this time, they had established permanent or semi-permanent camps or “ranchos” in the Harbor.  But the nascent fishing industry was disrupted again when tensions between the U.S. and the Cubans over control of the fisheries in Charlotte Harbor led to the murder of a customs official at Useppa Island in the 1830s and ultimately to the abandonment of the fish camps.  While according to a survey by Goode after the Civil War, some camps had been re-established, it wasn’t until Isaac Trabue founded his town that fishing reemerged as a major industry  -- and the difference this time was ice.

Trabue opened his first ice factory in 1891, the only product was ice for the mullet season.  The factory located near Berry and Olympia turned out over 15 tons a day to support the early industry and was powered by steam.  But by 1895 a competitor emerged, a group of Punta Gorda business men including L.T. Blockson, James Sandlin, Charles Davis, John Farrington and Albert Dewey established the Punta Gorda Ice and Power Company.  The plant located at the corner of Tamiami Trail and Virginia turned out 25 tons daily. A sideline was the sale of electricity for homes and businesses near the factory.  It was able to produce ice cheaper than Trabue’s factory which was forced to close in 1897 once Plant removed railroad tracks west of King Street (Tamiami Trail).  Undeterred, Trabue connected with a consortium of Philadelphia investors to establish the Consolidated Manufacturing Refrigerating and Fish Company and erected in 1903 what was touted as the largest ice and freezing plant in the world.  This plant which turned out ice cubes weighing 6,000 pounds only operated for only a short while.  
Punta Gorda Ice and Power Company

The Punta Gorda Ice and Power Company used ammonia as the refrigerant. After first being compressed in a large cylinder, the expanding ammonia gas supercooled in an adjacent tank of brine. Then, when a series of steel buckets, suspended from the ceiling, each containing about 30 gallons of water were immersed in the supercooled brine, the freshwater inside the buckets would freeze into blocks of ice.

A system of ice stations was developed for collecting iced fish from the ice stations, scattered throughout Charlotte Harbor.  Then the traditional salt fisheries were abandoned. Instead, run boats would carry ice to the stations and deliver fish back to the fish houses in Punta Gorda.   Fish would be packed in bins on boxcars with alternating layers of ice for train shipment north.  (In one month during World War II when meat was rationed, the Punta Gorda Fish Company shipped almost 2 million pounds of fish north.)

In 1913 the Ice and Power Company structure was expanded.  Perry McAdow who owned the controlling interest at the time sold the company to Southern Utilities.  Ultimately it was purchased by Florida Power and Light.  


Van Itallie, Theodoric B. Triumph of Ice over Salt - the Changing Face of Commercial Fishing in Charlotte Harbor

Punta Gorda Herald, 1895, 1913 various articles

Williams, Lindsey, Our Fascinating Past, the Early Years

Peeples, Vernon, Punta Gorda and the Charlotte Harbor Area.. A Pictorial History

Saturday, August 3, 2019

The First Local Punta Gorda Bank Born 120 Years Ago Evolved into Bank of America in Punta Gorda

From Vernon Peeples Photograph Collection

The Punta Gorda Bank, Punta Gorda’s first true local bank was chartered 120 years ago in 1899, an outgrowth of an earlier branch bank of the State Bank of Fort Meade, opened in 1894 (see sketch  below of building destroyed in 1905 fire).  Actually, Punta Gorda had another branch bank even earlier in 1889, a branch of the Polk City Bank managed by S.P. Hinckley (the Hinckley-Harvey house still stands on Retta Esplanade).

From Vernon Peeples, Punta Gorda and Charlotte Harbor Area.

The 1899 bank opened its doors at the northwest corner of Marion and Cross Street (now 41 south).   Perry W. McAdow, a wealthy owner of goldmines in Montana, had just relocated in Punta Gorda and needed a bank.  He constructed the one-story building and helped recapitalize the original Fort Meade branch bank, becoming the first President of the Punta Gorda local bank.  The building housed the bank on the corner with Earnest Dry Goods, the Punta Gorda Trading Company and a community social hall comprising the rest of the space.   A Charlotte County Historical Marker noting where the bank was located can be seen on 41 South before reaching Marion Avenue on the west side of the street.

In 1917 the bank’s assets were turned over to form the Punta Gorda State Bank with the wealthy cattleman, W. Luther Koon, as its first President. Originally operating in a leased building at Olympia and Nesbitt, it moved to a new building on the southwest corner of Marion and what is now North 41 in 1921.

Punta Gorda State Bank in 1931 during Barron Collier Bridge Opening Celebration. From V. Peeples Collection.

The stock market crash of 1929 hit the banking business in Punta Gorda hard.  The Punta Gorda State Bank was the only one to survive it, according to legend, by a suitcase full of cash brought to the bank by Barron Collier. 

The bank continued to grow through acquisition, and  then in 1960 was reorganized as First National Bank of Punta Gorda1.  At that time a one-story building was built on the corner of Olympia and Nesbitt to house the growing business.  In 1975, the building was remodeled and a four- story building was added, to become the tallest business building in the City. It reorganized and was renamed several times after that (First Florida Bank, Barnett Bank, Nations Bank) until in 1999 when it was merged into and began operations as Bank of American in Punta Gorda. 

1 The original First National Bank of Punta Gorda was the name of the Merchants Bank after it was federalized in 1914.  That bank went under during the Depression.  Its building though still stands on Marion Avenue and in write-ups recording it is often referred to as the “Old” First National Bank of Punta Gorda to distinguish it from the renamed Punta Gorda State Bank. 
2 The long winding history of this bank is very confusing especially given the reuse of names.  While we believe what is presented to be the accurate course of this business based on extensive research, we welcome corrections.

Sources include:

Peeples, Vernon, Punta Gorda and Charlotte Harbor Area, 1986.
                                Punta Gorda in the Beginning, 1965-1900, 2012.
Williams, Lindsey, Our Fascinating Past, 1996.
Rhode, Byron, Punta Gorda Remembered, 1988. 
Punta Gorda Herald, articles 1890-1900 in Vernon Peeples Collection.
Fort Myers Newspress, Jan. 1, 1981.
Historical Market Charlotte County, Punta Gorda Bank.
Sanborn Map, Punta Gorda, 1914.

Thursday, July 18, 2019

From St John’s to Charlotte County - Tracing the Evolution of the Charlotte Harbor Area Through Maps

Maps tell an intriguing story of how the land that is now Charlotte County evolved from the period of its being a territory of the United States into statehood and beyond.
Carey and Lea Atlas, 1822, Philadelphia. 
The map above from 1822 gives a perspective on Florida counties in early U.S. history.  In 1821, when Spain ceded Florida to the United States according to the terms of the Adams-Onis Treaty, two counties were established.  St. John’s, at the start of the Florida Territorial period, corresponded roughly with the former colonial province of East Florida. (Escambia was the other county consisting of a large section of what was the colonial province of West Florida.)  What is now Charlotte County would have been part of St. John’s until this very large county was subdivided. 

From 1833 Tanner Map of Florida 

When the 1833 Tanner map above was created, what is now Charlotte County was a part of Monroe, Alachua and Indian Reserved Territories.  An act of the Territorial Legislature established Monroe County as the 6th county in the Florida territory. The county’s boundaries then were the southern portion of Florida extended north to the south shore of Charlotte Harbor.   Alachua County was created by the Florida territorial legislature. This  county originally stretched from the border of Georgia south (later from the Suwannee River) to the north shore of Charlotte Harbor.

From 1839 Map of Florida with Counties 

By 1834, the southern part of Alachua had become Hillsborough County, and at that time, the Charlotte Harbor area was then divided between Hillsborough and Monroe Counties with Mosquito County (for a brief time Leigh Read) to the east.  

From 1849 Map of Florida 

By the time of statehood, in 1845, all of the Charlotte Harbor area (which is now Charlotte County was in Hillsborough County.  At statehood, the population of the entire county of Hillsborough was only 836, not including soldiers or Native Americans.

In 1855, Manatee County was created out of Hillsborough and the Charlotte Harbor area became and stayed part of that county until DeSoto county was created in 1887.  At the time of Punta Gorda’s birth, the city was part of Manatee County, and very soon thereafter was included in DeSoto County, until Charlotte County was established in 1921.   Before it was subdivided into five separate counties, DeSoto had over 24,000 in population and contained over 3200 square miles, whereas the new Charlotte County had only 832 square miles and was less than 4,000 people in population. 

Map of DeSoto County 1890

Compiled by Theresa Murtha from the Maps and Research of Vernon Peeples and the Exploring Florida website.  

Wednesday, July 10, 2019

Luna the White Owl had twin in Punta Gorda 100 years ago.

Luna the leucistic screech owl courtesy Peace River  Wildlife Center

Luna, the leucistic screech owl ambassador for the Peace River Wildlife Center, isn’t the first white owl to be seen in Punta Gorda. As reported in the April 2, 1914 edition of the Punta Gorda Herald a white owl was found in the store yesterday.”  It was placed in a wire basket covered by an old coat to keep the light out during the day. Many people stopped by the store to view this odd looking owl.

“Yesterday” happened to be the first of April and some who were skeptical did not take advantage of the opportunity to view the peculiar exhibit, expecting it to be an April Fool’s Day prank.

The white owl was released from the cage at night-fall despite the fact that someone had suggested having Mr. Kinsel, the taxidermist, fix it up for a place in a local museum. 

We can now imagine Luna as part of a 105 year long line of Punta Gorda leucistic owls.

By Marge Hall, PGHC Researcher and Docent 

Thursday, July 4, 2019

Florida during the Revolution

After two centuries of Spanish rule, the British took control of Florida in 1763.  Spain lost Florida to the English in exchange for Havana and Manila, which had been occupied by the British.

The British separated the territory called Florida into two colonies, East Florida, with its capital in St. Augustine, and West Florida, with its capital in Pensacola. East Florida consisted of what is the modern boundary of the state, east of the Apalachicola River. West Florida included the modern Panhandle of Florida, as well as parts of what are now Louisiana, Mississippi, and Alabama.

In an attempt to bring settlers to East Florida, the British offered land grants to settlers who would come to farm and also defend the new British territory.  Many British brought enslaved Africans  with them to work the farms.

At the time of the American revolution the British had 33 entities in the Americas they considered colonies, including the 13 that were part of the rebellion.  Most of them were in the Caribbean and approximately sixty percent of their military were stationed there to protect their sugar interests extremely important in the global economy of the time.

Florida was fiercely defended by the British during the Revolution as a stronghold against the perceived sedition of the colonies north and concern of rebellion spreading into the Caribbean.  The East Florida colonists who had only recently been given lands were very loyal to the Crown when the  war broke out.  They also invited loyalists from the northern colonists to relocate in East Florida.

George Washington was well aware of Florida’s  strategic significance.  He authorized five separate invasions of East Florida between 1776 and 1780.  During a series of battles from 1779 to 1781, Spain was able to recapture West Florida from the British.  When the American Revolution ended in 1783, England losing interest in the colony returned East Florida to the Spanish to keep control of Gibraltar.
 Charlotte Harbour indicated on 1775 Map. 

It is said that Charlotte Harbor got its name from the British, renaming what was Carlos Baie to Charlotte Harbour for the wife of King George the 3rd.

Florida became a United States Territory in 1821, and was named a state in 1845.

Roger Smith, Doctoral Dissertation, University of Florida
Exploring Florida, Short History of Florida