Monday, October 29, 2018

Some Punta Gorda Halloween History

Halloween has long been a popular holiday in Punta Gorda.  Perhaps one Halloween tradition that most are familiar with is the Punta Gorda Masons  gift of free ice cream treats to Trick or Treaters every year in Gilchrist Park.  

This tradition started with Albert Gilchrist, a Mason in early Punta Gorda and the only Punta Gordan to become Governor of Florida, didn't have children of his own.  He loved kids though.  When he walked down Marion Avenue, he frequently gave kids pennies he kept in his pocket so they could buy ice cream or candy from the local store near his apartment above his realty business.  But he forecast a day when he wouldn't be able to give the kids this present.  So  in his will, in addition to generous bequeaths to numerous local charities, for example,  funds benefitting he local high school, funds for poor children, he specified something very special to be used on Halloween.  He set aside money to be used for ice cream.  The Masons kept the money and use the interest on it to buy ice cream for kids every Halloween.

But  Punta Gorda had many other ways to mark the night.  Some stories include pranks by youngsters - ringing church bells for instance. But for the most part it involved parades, contests and dances. For years the town had an annual Halloween parade down Marion Avenue.  There were also contests where queens and princesses were selected from the local school children followed by a Halloween dance at the Woman’s Club.  The photograph above was a parade sometime in the 1950s.

Monday, July 23, 2018

Today and Yesterday - A History of the Hotels on Charlotte Harbor Bay in Punta Gorda

Hotel Punta Gorda 
The Punta Gorda waterfront from its earliest days was seen as a draw for tourists and snowbirds. Not surprisingly,  it became the site of the original hotel.  Once the railroad was convinced to bring its trains into Isaac Trabue's new town, the Florida Southern realized it needed a hotel to draw northerns customers to use the line.  Before the first house was built on Marion Avenue, J.B. Williams of Patlatka was contracted to build the Hotel Punta Gorda. Luxurious for the time, the hotel was a three-storied structure with towers that extended higher. Advertisements for the resort proclaimed that the hotel had gas, electric bells, steam heat and open fire places.

Opened in early 1887 for the winter season, the management brought staff from resorts in Maine to operate the new hotel.  Initially a success, over the course of time the Hotel Punta Gorda had its ups and downs.  Promoting its stunning location on Charlotte Harbor, tropical ambiance, warm weather and first-class facilities, the hotel  initially appealed to wealthy yachtsmen and fishermen.  Some of its early guests included W.K. Vandervilt, John Wannamaker and Andrew Mellon.  However, over time, it lost its appeal as other newer Florida resorts competed with the Punta Gorda hotel with their beaches and more attractive amenties.

Hotel Charlotte Harbor 
In the 1920s envisioning a new automobile-drive market for hotel rooms from the Tamiami Trail he had  just bankrolled, Barron Collier with Cornelius Vanderbilt acquired control of the Hotel Punta Gorda and remodeled and enlarged the facility.  It was reopened in 1927 with  a more Italianate style with a new tower and fifth floor ballroom as the Hotel Charlotte Harbor.  Guests to the new resort included Dan Beard (Commissioner of the Boy Scouts), Jimmie Walker, Clarence Darrow and many  sports legends of the time, like Bill Tilden.  This facility also had its ups and downs and late in its life was changed to a hotel/spa called the Charlotte Harbor Spa.  Then in August of 1959, it was destroyed in a fire, suspected of being arson.

Howard Johnson's Motor Lodge
In the 1960s as the Punta Gorda Shopping Mall was being developed on the site of the old hotel, Al Johns and Bud Cole of Punta Gorda Isles, Inc, bought the 1000 feet water property at the end of the mall from the developer, Wilbur Marvin, and built the Howard Johnson's Motor Lodge pictured below.  It opened in the summer of 1967 with 64 units.

Shortly thereafter,  Fred Babcock built a Holiday Inn  west of the Howard Johnsons.  The original property there had been the home of Perry and Marion McAdow in the late 1890s and was converted into a 12-room  Inn - The Bayview Lodge - in the 1940s. The Holiday Inn opened in the summer of 1968 had 102 rooms, a 200-seat dining room, a cocktail lounge, two banquet rooms and a coffee shop. (Photo below depicts it under construction.)

Babcock's Holiday Inn under construction

In the late 1990s, the Holiday Inn was changed to a Best Western (where the PG Waterfont Hotel and Hurricane Charley's is today) and the Holiday Inn franchise was transferred to the Howard Johnson's near the new Barron Collier bridge. (41 North).  The Best Western was badly damaged during Hurricane Charley in 2004, and soon afterwards was remodeled somewhat and became the PG Waterfront Hotel. The Holiday Inn destroyed by the Hurricane was torn down. 

Today closest to the location of the original hotel the Four Points Sheraton sits nearest the harbor with the new Springhill Suites right behind it.  

Four Points Sheraton

Springhill Suites by Marriott 

Friday, July 20, 2018

Charlotte Harbor New Home of Sunseekers Resort is the Oldest Settlement in the County

Often confused with the name of the huge bay to its South from which its own name was derived or incorrectly merged with neighboring Port Charlotte, Charlotte Harbor, the community north of the Peace River was actually the oldest settlement and town in what is now Charlotte County.   Soon through the emergence of a new development (SunSeekers’ Resort) which will comprise a major portion of Charlotte Harbor, new light will be shone on this often forgotten historic area.

Charlotte Harbor was platted in the 1860s around a point (where Live Oak Park is situated and where the two 41 bridges merge today) in an area thought to have been inhabited by indigenous peoples over 3,000 years ago.   During the Civil War, cattle were shipped to the Confederate Army from a wharf there.  After the war, the wharf continued to operate as a focus of trade with Cuba and other Caribbean islands. The old town consisted of a grid of streets developed with homes, stores, a post office, and a church.

Referred to at one point in its history as Hickory Bluff, the name Charlotte Harbor came from a post office designation – a news article from 1879 referring to the town notes “with its post office absurdly called "Charlotte Harbor.”    John Bartholf referred to the town as Hickory Bluff as late as 1882 in a pamphlet he wrote about the Charlotte Harbor area.  But for most of its history it has been known as Charlotte Harbor.  He noted in his pamphlet that the town was located amidst a ridge of pine, scrub and hammock, extending four miles along the water. At the time about twelve families lived there including the Bartholfs, the Knights, the DeCosters (Nathaniel DeCoster owned an area he called Harbor View), the Platts and the Durrances.  Many of the men in these families were Civil War veterans.  

Bartholf (said to be a great grandfather of PGI developer Al Johns) promoted Hickory Bluff (Charlotte Harbor) as a resort for invalids and pleasure seekers with gorgeous sunsets and moonlight views.  He further claimed that a residence there could not be excelled by any other point in South Florida.  Surely, what the marketers of Sunseekers' Resort might say as they draw today's  potential new residents to the location that was first announced to the world over 135 years ago.    

Wednesday, April 11, 2018

Gem of the Sea and the Charlotte Harbor Blockade during the Civil War

Typical bark vessel of the time.  Gem of the Sea was a bark.  

Florida became part of the Confederacy at the beginning of the Civil War, the third of the original seven states to secede from the Union.   Florida had a very small population at this time, nearly half of them slaves.  It only sent15,000 troops to the Confederate States Army. Its chief importance was in food-supply to the south, and support for blockade-runners, with its long coastline full of inlets that were hard to patrol.

Starting in 1863,  Union forces, attempting to suppress shipment of cattle and hogs, organized a blockade at Charlotte Harbor. One of the ships assigned to the picket was the Gem of the Sea, a wooden bark, commissioned on October 15, 1861 at the Brooklyn Navy Yard.

From December 24 to 30, 1863, Union military regulars sailing on small boats from the Gem of the Sea encountered signal fires and sporadic gun fire from local southern sympathizers. The U.S. sloop Rosalie arrived to provide cover at a shelling position 200 yards from the Myakka's east shore. On June 11, 1864, Gem of the Sea shared in the capture of the steamer Emma by tender Rosalie, for violation of blockage near Charlotte Harbor.

Gem of the Sea remained in Charlotte Harbor until February 1865 when as the Civil War came to an end, she left for the Philadelphia Navy Yard where was decommissioned and sold for $6500.

Monday, March 12, 2018

Teddy Roosevelt came to Punta Gorda to Conquer the Devil Fish

It was over one hundred years ago this month. A few days before America entered the first World War. A crowd of over a thousand people gathereed to enthusiastically welcome the former President of the United States, Theodore Roosevelt, to Punta Gorda. He had come to conquer the “devil fish”.

Roosevelt had been enticed to Punta Gorda through an article written by fishing guide, Russell Cole of Danville, Virginia, who dramatically described in a magazine the catching of a manta ray weighing three tons. Roosevelt immediately got in touch with Coles - he had to conquer this fish.

Coles arranged for Captain Jack J. McCann and crew and the launch, E.C. Knight, to take Roosevelt and himself on a fishing expedition to what was then considered the leading sports fishing area of Florida.

On their first day, Roosevelt succeeded in harpooning  two “devil fish”, one of small size and the other a huge creature  measuring over twelve feet across. The latter nearly capsized their boat. While here they also explored the surrounding waters, spending one complete day  inspecting the bird rookeries near Matlacha. Captain McCann was their guide and transported the party between Punta Gorda and the inlets and passes of this area.  

Tuesday, February 13, 2018

The Railroad Dock at King Street - Punta Gorda's Early Commercial Hub

The Railroad Dock at the foot of King Street was the hub of Punta Gorda’s commercial activity from 1897 until 1928.  In addition to being the commercial seafood center, it was the port for steamers connecting with the railroad.

The Henry Plant-controlled railroad company constructed the pier after making the decision to abandon the Long Dock which extended to twelve feet of water.  The King Street dock reached only five feet of water. The South Florida Railroad at Tampa was to be the only rail connected with deep water on Florida’s west coast.

Punta Gorda’s Railroad Wharf served the people of the community until 1928. This circa 1908 view of the wharf is from a point in front of the warehouse and shows a few fish-packing houses to the left. The Punta Gorda Hotel appears in the distance.  A fire on the dock in 1915 was a crippling blow to the fish industry. 

The Wharf was used by the fishing industry until 1928 when the construction of the Barron Collier Bridge was started and the fish wholesalers moved to the Maude Street Dock. 

Monday, January 22, 2018

The Ladies Who Built a Municipal Bath House for Punta Gorda

At a time in the Country when women were denied a political voice and an opportunity to explore topics beyond children and household chores, woman’s clubs were  formed for civic, enrichment, social and charitable purposes and became an important part of the fabric of cities and towns throughout the nation. These clubs, most of which had started out as social and literary gatherings, eventually became a source of reform for various issues in the U.S

 Punta Gorda in the late 19th and early 20th century was a new frontier whose business and civic life was dominated by men. The women of the young town used clubs to participate in an active social and intellectual life, but also formed other organizations to make an impact on the growing community. One of these groups explicity formed to address civic issues  was the Ladies Civic Improvement Association (a forerunner of the Woman's Club still active today).. Not only did these women push for changes in the community, often successfully (getting the city to stop cattle from roaming the streets, for example), they published a booklet to promote Punta Gorda in pictures and words, and raised money for community projects. One such project was the Municipal Bath House.

The Municipal Bath House was built off the City Dock of the day which extended into the harbor from Sullivan Street. The Bath House, officially opened in April of 1916, came about as a result of the Ladies’ Civic Improvement Association’s fundraising efforts. The ladies raised two thousand dollars, organized volunteer labor and acquired donated material to erect the swimming platform with a pavilion and dressing rooms. They held suppers, participated in the annual Punta Gorda Pfun Festival with booths, and organized even more bizarre fundraising projects. According to Vernon Peeples one event was a great snake fight between rattlers and black snakes.

The Ladies also ran the facility and developed and posted rules for the patrons of the house. They charged 25 cents for admission which included a suit, towel and room, for 10 cents you could use a room and a towel – no suit provided.  Water, ball and mud throwing wasn’t allowed, but ducking and rough play was allowed outside the ropes. Swearing and obscene language was prohibited, and dancing wasn’t allowed unless previous arrangements had been made. (See the complete list below).

Tuesday, January 2, 2018

Getting the Mail - A Short History of Mail Delivery and Post Offices of Early Punta Gorda

In an age when messages from friends and family are instant and constant, its hard to imagine a time here when early settlers waited weeks for communications from family and friends and home delivery of mail was non-existence.  From the town’s origin until 1955, Punta Gordans had to collect their mail at the post office, making it a core part of the community in its early years. 

In the 1870s when the first homesteaders occupied the land on this side of the Peace River, they waited weeks for mail to arrive by boat.  The Howards, early residents of Solana, near where the Elks Lodge is today, had to watch for the boat that would deliver much needed packages and awaited correspondence from northern relatives.   They didn’t know which boat (The "Alice Howard" was one that carried mail and freight as well as passengers, and shuttled between Fort Myers and Cleveland, an early now defunct town northeast of Punta Gorda) would be delivering the mail and had to wade out into the river to pick it up, or cross the Peace to get their mail from neighbors across the Bay.

It wasn’t until the late 1880s when the railroad began moving towards the new settlement that a post office was established at Cleveland.  It is said that Isaac Trabue traveled to the Cleveland post office to collect mail for his new town of Trabue, which he distributed from his land office which  essentially was the town’s first unofficial post office.

Trabue Land Office now in the History Park acted as post office in 1886
In August 12, 1886 the first official post office was established at the train depot with Nannie Scott as it’s postmaster.  The depot then was located at King Street near Charlotte Avenue.  The post office was changed from Trabue to Punta Gorda on January 14, 1888.  George McLane succeeded Nannie Scott as postmaster, then, in 1890, Isaac Trabue named Robert Meacham, a black man, to
the post.

Punta Gorda Post Office 1900

From the early 1900s the post office was next-door to the east of Blount’s grocery. Originally it was very small, then enlarged in the 1920s adding more mailboxes.   Its front was on Marion Avenue backing onto Herald Court.  The Hotel Punta Gorda, across the street, maintained a mailbox at this location.   Josh Mizell served as postmaster from 1898 until 1909 when Harry Dreggors, who owned the building where the office was located, took over the post.
Smith Arcade 1930s Courtesy Tampa Hillsborough County Public Library System

Smith Arcade Buiding 2011
In 1926 the post office moved to the Smith arcade across the street from the current location. At the time, George Rhode had become Punta Gorda postmaster. He persuaded his friend Smith to apply for the lease of a new post office for the town. Smith built the Arcade, with a central hall with stores on each side, one of the first in-door malls, leading to the post office in the back of the building.

Other early post offices were located on the Long Dock, at Villa Franca and at Acline (a railroad stop.  In 1893 when the Florida Southern Railroad was establishing a freight and passenger onnection to New Orleans and Havana, it constructed what became known as the Long Dock near where the Isles Yacht Club is today.  A post office was established there which was supported by the Punta Gorda office with Iva Bright as postmaster. It closed after the demise of the Dock in 1898. From 1910 to 1927 there was a post office at the store at Acline.  Also, east of what is now downtown Punta Gorda Villa Franca, a settlement of Cuban cigar makers, had its own post office.

 Home delivery of mail didn’t start in Punta Gorda until 1955.

Sources include:

Lindsey Williams, Our Fascinating Past, Charlotte Harbor, the Early Years.

Vernon Peeples, Punta Gorda In the Beginning, 1865-1900.

Byron Rhode, Punta Gorda Remembered.

Diaries of Jarvis Howard

Punta Gorda Herald, 1902-1918

Tampa Tribune, 1895-1900