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.


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)

Tuesday, June 9, 2020

Tosie Quednau Hindman - Growing up in the Quednau House

Henryetta "Tosie" Quednau Hindman was born in Punta Gorda on October 8, 1923 to Fred and Isabelle (McBean) Quednau, in the same house her father where her father was born (we believe near Berry on Marion Avenue). She later moved with her family and lived her life in the house her father Arthur Fred Quednau built on Goldstein Street (the house in the History Park today).  

Tosie spent her early pre-school days sailing with her parents on her father’s boat. She got her nickname because she she loved toast.  Tosie graduated from Charlotte High School and attended the Florida State University. She married Jack Hindman in 1942, with whom, she had two sons. While her children were young, Tosie worked with Lois Peeples at the IGA and Lawhorn's Grocery. She  drove a Charlotte County school bus for many years. 

She then became interested in politics and was elected as the Supervisor of Elections, serving from 1966 till her retirement in 1988.  She was famous for reading the results of elections from the courthouse steps, and conducting elaborate funeral services for the losers with tombstones.  She died in 2009 at 85.

Punta Gorda Beach and the Incredible Story of the Chadwicks of Punta Gorda and Lemon Bay

There was once a Punta Gorda Beach on the gulf. In the 1930s the Charlotte County chamber was looking for ways to draw more tourists to the area. An investor in the then Chadwick Beach now Englewood Beach wanted to sell and rent cottages on that beach to more affluent Punta Gordans. Punta Gorda Beach was born and for more that twenty years became the go-to-the-beach experience for local Punta Gordans. Day trips, group picnics and shore vacations were regularly announced in the local paper much like Facebook posts of today. Many prominent families owned cottages there.

Chadwick Beach was originally developed by the Chadwick Brothers who had substantial business interests in Punta Gorda.  In l898 Steve Chadwick came to the Lemon Bay area with his brothers, Clay and Hubbard, to buy the Dishong fish camp. Fishing in Lemon Bay was outstanding. The brothers caught more fish than they could process. So in l90l they started the Chadwick Fish Company at Punta Gorda where there was a railroad connection from which fish could be carried north.  The brothers had two large schooners, the "J.W. Booth" and the " America," and two smaller sharpies, the "Ray" and first the “Mystery” then the "Iris." The Iris built in 1919 to replace the Mystery was a 60 feet power- engine vessel with a 13 foot beam and capable of carrying 40,000 pounds. It ran fish catch from Stump Pass to their packing house in Punta Gorda, located on the city's railroad dock at the foot of King Street (now Tamiami Trail, U.S. 41 north.)

When the demands of the fish packing operation became overwhelming for his brothers, Steve (SJ) Chadwick moved to Punta Gorda to help with the packing house business.The brothers also owned a boat shed at what is now Laishley Park and a dry goods store on Marion Ave. Both Steve and Clay Chadwick became very prominent citizens of Punta Gorda Clay,  was a city councilman, and both brothers were directors of the Punta Gorda National Bank. One of Steve’s investments was the construction of the building that now houses the Celtic Ray.

 But back to Punta Gorda Beach, the Chadwick’s, in 1926, moved back to Lemon Bay and started developing the beach.  The Chadwicks built a "pavilion" on the beach which offered groceries, gasoline, dressing rooms and showers. A fee of 10-25 cents was charged for use of the dressing rooms and a wire basket in which to check street clothes. A large, open-sides second floor was a popular spot for Saturday night dances. A third flour was added later but not used.

The Chadwick’s timing was bad and the development was failing. In the 1930s and a man named Lou Woods bought the Chadwick beach plat to develop.  (He converted the pavillion to a casino. A large, open-sides second floor was added and became a popular spot for Saturday night dances. It was largely lost to a fire in 1945 and from the remnants in 1958 a restaurant was built which is now (back to its original name) the White Elephant.)

Woods tried to sell land and cottages at the beach but was failing.  He then worked the deal with Charlotte County to help sell the land if it were renamed “Punta Gorda Beach.” Other renditions say it was leased to the County. Whatever the reason, this enabled the county seat in Punta Gorda to advertise at the 1933 Chicago World Fair that it had a beach on the Gulf of Mexico. The fact that the city and beach were 27 miles apart was not mentioned.

For years Punta Gordans made daytrips to their beach on the gulf.  They partied at the pavillion, held barbecues on the beach, swam, boated, and fished.  Many families owned or rented bungalows for a week or month or more.  

By the 50s the Englewood area was growing and residents wanted the adjacent beach renamed to reflect its location and their community.  At the same time attempts were being made to incorporate Englewood and combine the Charlotte County and Sarasota sections. While the incorporation didn’t happen, it was agreed to change the name to what it is today Englewood Beach.  Punta Gordans agreed that a beach twenty plus miles away from its namesake didn’t make much sense. Punta Gorda Beach faded into history.  

Wednesday, June 3, 2020

The Transition of the Punta Gorda Waterfront into a Beautiful Park

Prior to 1914, the Punta Gorda shoreline of Charlotte Harbor ran in its natural state to within a few hundred feet of Retta Esplanade. Refuse washed ashore. Flooding was an issue, as was erosion. It wasn’t always pretty.

Beginning in 1912, a group of citizens led by Dr. George Stone ( a Punta Gorda Mayor) came up with the idea to build a concrete seawall along the waterfront from Taylor Street to Berry Street, fill in behind it, and create a waterfront park filled with rare and beautiful tropical plants. To finance the project, they would create and sell waterfront lots, so they promised the new park project wouldn’t cost the city taxpayers a cent.

Many laughed at the idea and told Stone it was crazy idea and couldn’t be accomplished. Undaunted, he developed a plan and presented it to the City Council, who agreed with the project, and it went forward.

The construction project was a big success. Unfortunately for the developers, neither Dr. Stone and his partners nor the city had considered Isaac Trabue’s original instructions in platting the Town of Trabue, which was to become Punta Gorda. The deed specifies that all the waterfront be designated as public parks. Title to the newly created property could not be conveyed to the interested buyers, who were intended to pay for the entire project.

After 10 years of litigation between the bank that financed the project, Dr. Stone and his fellow property investors, and the City of Punta Gorda, a settlement was reached. The City would pay the cost of building the seawall and filling the land, and thereby own it free of all encumbrances. All parties were satisfied.

Today, we all owe a debt of gratitude, both to Isaac Trabue for his thoughtfulness in creating the town of Trabue required the waterfront would be protected for use by all its citizens, and to Dr. Stone for his efforts to create a beautiful waterfront, which didn’t work out quite as he originally planned, but which resulted in our beautiful Harborwalk parks. I have to believe that both would be pleased with the result.  (J. Dodez)

Wednesday, May 20, 2020

Punta Gorda’s Zoo - Everglades Wildlife Park

From its earliest days as a destination, Florida promoters employed the myths and legends of Florida, such as the Fountain of Youth, to lure visitors to the state and its attractions.  After World War II this exploded with roadside attractions throughout the state.  Many of these involved wild animals – alligators, snakes, and other creatures.  Punta Gorda had its own such attraction – Everglades Wildlife Park which opened right outside the city limits (near where the Dunkin Donuts is today).

Owned by John R. Jack (who was also a county commissioner) and his wife Edna, the park was an immediate hit.   One of its major draws was a tank with manatees, one 1200 pound, 10 feet long.  Another was a deadly, bright red coral snack.  There was also a panther that pointed like a bird dog that Seminole Indian friends of Jack’s captured for the zoo. 

Elephants Little Sheba and Lulu outside the park 

 Controversies about the park arose when Jack, a former circus manager himself,  began to bring wintering circus animals to the park.  Swede Johnson, a famous animal circus trainer of the day who resided in Punta Gorda during the winter kept several of his animals at the zoo during the winter including elephants, lions and bears.  The park had been incorporated into the city by that time and an ordinance forbad such residence.  John Jack and later Edna ended up in jail for continuing to house them.  It was finally resolved after John Jack’s death.

( Photos from the Vernon Peeples collection are  a postcard from the park and newspaper clippings from the Fort Myers News-Press)