Monday, November 20, 2017

W. Luther Koon - One of Punta Gorda's Cattle Barons and Bank President

W. Luther Koon (1873-1956) was a “pony-express” rider and cowman, who became one of the area’s largest cattleman, President of the Punta Gorda State Bank and one of Punta Gorda’s most prominent citizens. 

Koon was born in Manatee County in 1873.  While still in his teens, he rode 80 miles a day in Florida’s version of the Pony Express and began acquiring cattle with all the money he could spare to invest.  In about 1895, he and his new bride, Serena Victoria, moved to Punta Gorda, where he became a merchant furnishing supplies to the phosphate and turpentine camps.

At about the turn of the century, he built a large house on Sullivan at Charlotte Avenue (1) and brought his widowed sister and her children (including Sallie Jones) to Punta Gorda from Barstow.  Meanwhile, he continued to build his holdings, and by 1909, Koon owned many residential lots in Punta Gorda, 1000 acres of land and 600 head of cattle. 

A hardworking and shrewd businessman, he recognized the opportunity in ranching and meat processing, and in 1910 he incorporated “the Big Cattle Company.”  Then in 1917 when the Punta Gorda Bank needed recapitalization, Koon made an investment entirely in Spanish gold coin (the payment received from Cuban ship captains when buying cattle at the cattle dock).  He became president of the Punta Gorda State Bank. 

His first wife passed away in 1919 and he later married Elsa Sophia Holtz.  They continued to make their home in Punta Gorda, which Koon wanted to see become one of the outstanding cities on the southwest coast.  Koon worked tirelessly for the successful development of the City and the County.  In addition to his role with the DeSoto Cattle Wharf Association, the bank, and his several enterprises, he served many years on Punta Gorda’s City Council.  


(1) His original house in Punta Gorda was located at Sullivan and Charlotte.  It was moved in 1999 to 360 West McKenzie. Photo Below:

Saturday, November 11, 2017

The First United Methodist Church of Punta Gorda is 130

You won't recognize the building that once stood near where the First United Methodist Church of Punta Gorda stands today. Now its actually part of residence on Harvey Street. But this building was the original home of the Methodist Church and the first church building (actually used by several religions) in Trabue now Punta Gorda.

On Sunday mornings on the far-flung Florida frontier of the 1800s before Isaac Trabue landed on the shores of the Peace River, there were no church buildings for people to gather for worship. Preachers typically arrived on horseback or sometimes in a wagon if roads permitted. The communities they served comprised a “circuit”, attached to a church in larger town. Most of these circuit-riding ministers were associated with the Methodist faith and it was they who brought the Methodist Church to Florida and places like Punta Gorda.

But the new settlers of Trabue expected a real town with a real church and a school and a place for the people to meet and socialize, and they began demanding just that. So, in 1886, Isaac Trabue provided the land in block 29 for a building that would serve for a time as a multi-denominational church, school and community center. It was then Judge G.W. McLane and F.M. Durrance who spearheaded the movement that led to the establishment of the First United Methodist Church of Punta Gorda in that building in 1887.

Durrance, a local preacher and customs officer for the port of Charlotte Harbor, acted as the church’s pastor until Rev. W.C. Jordan was assigned to the church that December. The first record of members being received was in July of the same year, the first official members were G.W. and Emma McLane.  Initially, the Baptists, Presbyterians and other denominations worshipped along with the Methodists in the communal sanctuary, until 1889 when the building was deeded over for sole use as the United Methodist Church (though apparently the Presbyterians continued to worship there for a time).

Construction began in 1912 of a new church, near the old one that had been badly damaged in the 1910 hurricane. Mostly built by 1914, it was used in an unfinished state until finally completed around 1920. It now stands with its beautiful stain glass window as a beacon and landmark for Punta Gorda’s historic district.  And the old building.. remnants of the sanctuary were discovered at a residence on Harvey Street where it had been moved in around 1914.

Monday, October 16, 2017

The Oyster Dock - one of Punta Gorda's many Historic Piers

There were many docks reaching into the harbor from the waterfront in the early days of Punta Gorda.  One of these, was the oyster dock, which was located between where the two bridges descend into Punta Gorda today (about where the Tikibar is). 

R.B. Smith, a dealer in oysters. clams, and fish roe was located on this wharf.  Oysters, in addition to being an important food source and product, were also used as road paving material.  Marion Avenue, in the 1890s, was surfaced with oyster shells.  Unfortunately, when a fresh batch of shells was applied to the street, swarms of flies were attracted, creating a public nuisance.

Once abundant throughout Charlotte Harbor, oyster reefs that provide a habitat for fish and shellfish, improve water quality, and can help to stabilize shorelines, declined over time to a fraction of their historic extent.

In 2015, the Nature Conservancy in collaboration with the City of Punta Gorda, Florida DEP-Charlotte Harbor Aquatic Preserves and the Charlotte Harbor National Estuary Program initiated a project to restore the oyster reefs.  A new oyster reef habitat in the shallow waters along Punta Gorda’s Trabue Harborwalk was installed. This pilot project, the first in the northern portion of the Charlotte Harbor estuary, included the creation of nine oyster reefs.  The Trabue Harborwalk project was a first step in reestablishing oyster reefs in the Charlotte Harbor Estuary. Reports indicate that the replenishment program is working.  

Friday, October 13, 2017

The Story of the Punta Gorda Airport - History of the Air Field and the Air Shows

It was in 1942 that a decision to build an air field in Punta Gorda changed the landscape of the town forever.  The United States was fully engaged in World War II, and large numnbers of fighter pilots were urgently needed. Florida's flatness and blue skies made for perfect training of the nation's airmen and women.  In those day, there was not yet a separate air force.

 Each branch of the military had its own air arm.  In October of 1942, County Attorney Earl D. Farr told the Punta Gorda Herald that an air field was to be built on 1,720 acres east of the county stockade (prison) then at the corner of Carmelita and Florida streets. Preliminary work began on the air field that October with major construction starting in 1943.  A road was built to the new field and Punta Gorda extended its water main.  Florida Power brought in electricity and the phone company installed service.

The Punta Gorda Army Airfield was officially activated on September 4, 1943, as a sub-base of the Sarsota base (It was reassigned as a sub-base of the Venice Army Air Field in March of 1944).  At activation there was a 20 foot tower and one building on site.  At the end of construction in December of that year, there were sixty-one buildings with over 150,000 square feet of floor space.  Housing including 268 hutments.  Units stationed at the base from the Third Air Force included the 502nd Fighter Bomber Squadron, the 490th Fighter Squadron and the 27th Service Group Detachment.  The base had forty Curtis Warhawk aircraft initially and later transitioned to the North American P-51 Mustang.

By December of 1943 there were 95 commissioned and 765 enlisted service men and women on the base which grew to 244, and 1097 retrospectively.  The base was designated as the 344th AAF Base Unit on April 24, 1944.  The base was inactivated in September of 1945.

After the war, the air field complex was turned over to Charlotte County by the War Assets Administration.  The first air show at the air field (still called that into the 50s) was on New Year's Day in 1950.   It featured Betty Skelton who was the US Female Aerobatic Champion from 1948 through 1950.    The Punta Gorda Airport has been home to The Florida International Air Show since 1981.

The airport saw no large airline service after the early 1980s.   Airline flights resumed in 2007 when both SkyBus and DayJet began flights at the airport. Unfortunatehy, Skybus ceased operations on April 5, 2008 and DayJet on September 19, 2008.

Airline service resumed on November 22, 2008 when low-cost carrier Direct Air began twice weekly service to 10 cities in the eastern U.S. Then on December 2, 2008 low-cost airline Allegient Air began offering flights to smaller cities. Vision Airlines also commenced flights out of PGA in 2009. Both Vision and Direct Air ceased flights out of PGA in 2012.  However, Allegiant now has flights to over 40 cities through the Punta Gorda Airport.


Punta Gorda Herald, October 1, 1942
Documents on the Air Field's  Commissioning from Records of the U.S. Army Corps.
Program of the First Air Show held New Year's Day, 1950
Punta Gorda Airport Website

Thursday, September 14, 2017

Hurricane Irma Now Part of Punta Gorda History

History evolves every day.  And now another powerful storm has impacted our area and inscribed itself on our historic records.  Although Punta Gorda was spared the damage other local communities have experienced, we did deal with the trauma of threatening winds, potential life-threatening surge and evacuations.   We witnessed our harbor roll out to sea and our downtown flood with deep water.

It's important to keep records on what has happened here -- the bad and the good.  Therefore the History Center is requesting that you help us document and preserve a record of this hurricane.  If you took pictures during the storm or of our main streets during the storm, we request that you share them with us.  We will put them on our History cloud and preserve them as part of our community memory.

See above the photo of a Hurricane that impacted Punta Gorda years ago.

Saturday, September 2, 2017

The Long Dock Enabled Transit to Havana, New Orleans and Key West

After Isaac Trabue convinced the Florida Southern Railroad directors to locate its railroad down the east side of the Peace River, track was extended along what is now the linear park in Punta Gorda to beyond the original town of Trabue.  The railroad company envisioned the town which became Punta Gorda in 1887 growing further west and actually had plans for extending the track towards yet another dock.

The Long Dock which was located near where the Isles Yacht Club is today had a telegraph office, a post office, several fish companies, stores and facilities.  The dock  extended out into the harbor where the water depth was 12 feet.  In October of 1887, the steamer Hutchinson of the Morgan Line arrived at the Long Dock, and for the next nine years, every Friday Morgan Line Steamers left the dock for New Orleans,  and every Saturday for Havana and Key West.

The Charlotte Harbor Beacon described a steamer at the end of the Long Dock in December of 1887 with passengers in their "quaint travelling suits promenading up and down the great dock" as they waited eagerly to board the boat for New Orleans.

The Long Dock made Punta Gorda a seaport and for eleven years it was the heart of the new City's commerce.  Then in 1897, Henry Plant, who had purchased the railroad, wanting to eliminate any competition for Tampa, removed the rails from the long dock and terminated his railroad near the Hotel Punta Gorda where there was only five feet of water.   The era of Punta Gorda as a seaport ended.

Sources: Vernon Peeples, Punta Gorda and the Charlotte Harbor Area.
                Lindsey Williams, Out Fascinating Past. 
                Broadside of the Florida Southern Railroad

Saturday, August 19, 2017

Municipal Trailer Camp for Tin Can Tourists Where Laishley Park is Today

The mobile homes like ones that were blown up during Hurricane Charley were the descendants of the old, jerry-built encampments of the "Tin Can Tourists" of the 1920s and 1930s, a peculiar phenomenon that helped populate Florida.   The first mobile homes were just tents attached to wooden trailers that were dragged by autos of the time. The tourists  got their "tin can"  name, not from their trailers, but from the canned goods they lived on all winter: potted meats like corned beef, Vienna sausages, baked beans -- the same sort of victuals hurricane victims live on today, during the inevitable blackouts.

The northerns frequently camped out  the winter with their children who were sent to the local schools for as little as fifty cents a week.  Because these tourists were not the kind that spent money to help the local economy, they weren't always appreciated.  Old-timers have many stories of the early snowbirds freeloading on local merchants' generosity. 

But apparently Punta Gorda government did appreciate and see the value of the annual migration. The City built an assemply  hall where recreation activities could be held, built docks for boats and most impressively situated the camp for the tourists on perhaps one of the most beautiful spots in town -- right on Charlotte Harbor Bay.   Today that spot is where Laishley Park juts into the harbor and Laishely Crab House looms over the Marina.