Sunday, December 1, 2019

Albert Gilchrist - a Punta Gordan who became Florida’s Governor

Florida's 20th governor and one of the most famous residents of Punta Gorda  was born in Greenwood, SC.  His then-wealthy family traced descent from Presidents Washington and Madison.  His life story was a real-life version of the classic 19th century fictional story of “Horatio Alger”, a boy who rose from poverty to wealth through a combination of hard work, self improvement, and determination.  His varied career included work as a store clerk, railroad surveyor and civil engineer, military service, land development and citrus growing.

Mr. Gilchrist's parents owned large properties primarily in Quincy, FL (Gadsden County) at the time of his birth in 1858.  His father's early death in 1860 from pneumonia coupled with the devastation of the Civil War and his family's poor management reduced Albert Gilchrist to relative poverty.  He was forced to make his way from an early age, selling firewood at age nine and working as a store clerk for $15.00 per month.

His early education in local schools was followed by the Carolina Military Institute (Charlotte, NC) from which he graduated in 1877.  In 1878 he won an appointment to the West Point Military Academy through a competitive exam.  He attended West Point for three years but was “retired” from the school due to academic deficiencies.  His primary difficulty was noted as being in “experimental philosopy”, a field of study not directly related to military science but then considered part of a rounded education. 

Mr. Gilchrist returned to Florida and began his business career working as a civil engineer and surveyor in Gadsden County.  He subsequently was employed by the Florida Southern Railroad as both a surveyor and civil engineer on their lines. Through this  job he first came to Punta Gorda in 1885-1886.  He saw a future in the rapidly growing town, left the railroad, and settled in the town.  He began work on his own as a surveyor, land investor, and developer.  His real estate business was profitable enough to become his full-time occupation and provided the funds for both additional land investments and eventually the addition of citrus growing to his activities.  

He was also active in politics almost from the time he settled in Punta Gorda.  Mr. Gilchrist was one of the voters who incorporated the town and then ran for mayor during the first election.  He fell only two votes short of winning but remained determined to run for office again.  He was first elected to the state legislature in 1893 and over the next 12 years was successful in rising to Speaker, the highest legislative position in the state.  In all his races Mr. Gilchrist ran as a Democrat, which was almost a requirement for a successful political career in the South in the decades after the Civil War.  However his legislative career was marked by his willingess and ability to work with opposition politicians to achieve mutual goals and by a personal warmth and openness which resulted in his having political opponents but no personal enemies, a remarkable achievement in any period.  

In addition to his work in business and in politics Albert Gilchrist had a strong interest in military affairs, dating from his time at both Carolina Military Institute and the West Point Military Academy.  He was active in the state militia, ultimately being appointed Brigadier General and Inspector General.  In addition he was a member of the Board of Visitors at West Point and had the satisfaction of returning to West Point wearing a general's stars and being saluted by many of the professors who had participated in his “retirement” from the school.  Despite his senior rank in the militia he enlisted as a private for the Spanish American War in 1898 and in 18 months of service (but no combat) achieved the rank of Captain.  

He left the service in 1899, returned to business and in 1902 again ran for and was elected to the state legislature.  In 1903 he ran for Speaker of the state legislature and was defeated, receiving only 2 votes, including his own.  He remained determined not to give up and developed a reputation for efficiency, moderation, and successful compromise which resulted in his unanimous election as Speaker in 1905.  

Mr. Gilchrist was by then a successful businessman, military veteran, and respected legislator.  He ran for governor in 1908 and was easily elected.  His campaign adopted the motto “Hear no evil, see no evil, speak no evil” to symbolize his refusal to run down his opponents and his willingness to work with all parties.   His administration  focused on developing public health and infrastructure projects designed to benefit all Floridians.  

The governor's human side was marked by having his mother serve as “First Lady” during his term in part because of his affection for her and in part because he never married.  Punta Gorda's children benefit to this day from another of his projects, which involved a bequest which created a trust which provides free ice cream to children at Gilchrist Park in town each Halloween.  Numerous charities benefitted from his decision to leave his remaining, considerable estate to them. 

Albert Gilchrist is remembered by historians as one of Florida's most effective governors.  Because of his personal modesty and moderate approach to politics his reputation has been somewhat overshadowed by more flamboyant predecessors and successors.  Governor Gilchrist died in New York City in 1926 following an operation.  His body was returned to Punta Gorda for interment in Indian Springs Cemetery.  He is memorialized by the southbound Route 41 bridge over the Peace River and by the creation of Florida's last county, which was named after him.  

By Mark Surresco
Punta Gorda History Center 

Wednesday, November 20, 2019

Birth of Team Punta Gorda - Fifteen Years Ago This Month

From Florida Weekly archive June 1, 2005
In November 2004, it started as an idea by local business people and civic-minded citizens wanting to help rebuild their city.   At a time when city and county officials were overwhelmed, struggling to provide normal services, they jumped in to form a citizen-based organization to help plan the recovery and eventual renaissance of a City that many had adopted as their new home town or had families who had lived here for generations.  

TEAM Punta Gorda under the early leadership of Roger Kress (pictured (center left) above being presented a check from Vernon Peeples (center right) of the Charlotte Community Foundation at the time), a local businessman, quickly grew to 1400 members and raised $25,000 within a few months.  With a matching grant from the Charlotte Community Foundation, a world-renowned urban planner, Jaime Corea, was hired to design a new Punta Gorda.  After many public planning sessions organized by TEAM, a vision emerged documented in the Citizens Master Plan which has been used over the past fifteen years to guide the resurgence of the City.  

Today, while the mission has changed from recovery to community development, TEAM Punta Gorda's tradition of community involvement and collaboration is still at its core.  Included in its many achievements, TEAM can be credited for initiating the founding of the Punta Gorda History Center.

TEAM will be honored this December 7 at the PGHC's Southern Supper.

Monday, November 18, 2019

Fred Quednau Boat Captain Restauranteur Mayor and Sheriff -- All Around Punta Gordan

Born and raised in Punta Gorda by pioneer parents, German immigrants Fritz and Minnie Quednau, who set up shop as cigar makers, Fred Quednau was an all-around man who started his career as a boat captain.

As young as 12, he was out on the seas on his own boat hauling cargo from Punta Gorda to the 10,000 islands and back. During his sea journeys he met Belle McBean, who he married in 1921.  The second couple to be married in the new Charlotte County, Belle and  Fred often went together on  trips on the RW Powell which steamed in and out of Charlotte Harbor on a regular basis.  Later after daughter Tosie was born, she also traveled with Fred on his boat.

In his late twenties , with Tosie now in school, Fred knew it was time to give up the sea life. He  opened a restaurant “Fred’s Quick Lunch” on Marion Avenue (on south side near Taylor) right next to his brother's bar 'Bill's Bar".  When the first Collier bridge was opened in 1931, Fred was the main cook at the huge fish fry celebrating the event.

Popular with the townspeople, Quednau was elected to city council and became mayor of Punta Gorda in the 1930s.  Later he served as Charlotte County Sheriff from 1941 to 1957. 

Quednau was the son of German immigrants, Fritz and Minnie Quednau, who came to Punta Gorda in 1888 and ran a cigar-making business. 

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.  

By Theresa Murtha


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

Tuesday, July 2, 2019

Early Punta Gorda Swimming Pools

Giant swimming pools are not a novel lure to this area of Florida. The earliest one was built by Punta Gorda’s founder at the early dawn of the town –  between the late 1880s, early 1890s. Punta Gorda's first swimming pool was constructed by Isaac H. Trabue at 30 feet X 60 feet and 5 feet deep. It was located in a 1. 5 acre park located in block number 49, which was between Olympia and Virginia and Chasteen and Berry.

Filled with sulphur water, the pool was advertised as a fountain of youth by the company selling land here. The Florida Commercial Company, the real estate arm of the Florida Southern Railway, called it “the most delightful bath in the world.”

The bathers in the photo are from left to right:

William Ogden

Frank Q. Brown of the Florida Southern Railroad

Frank Cooper (State Senator)

Col. Isaac H. Trabue

Albert W. Gilchrist

S. F. J. Trabue, (first County Judge of Charlotte County and nephew of founder)

From Burgettt Brothers Collection 
Another huge swimming pool was constructed in the 1920s. After Barron Collier bought the Hotel Punta Gorda (renaming it the Hotel Charlotte Harbor).  He extended the property by dredging a yacht basin on the Charlotte Harbor side of the hotel. On the reclaimed land, he constructed a swimming pool along with his tennis courts and a beach front. Late at night and in the off-season local Punta Gorda kids would go swimming in the hotel pool.

Thursday, June 13, 2019

Punta Gorda a Pineapple Capital before Hawaii

It may surprise most living here today that pineapples were once grown in and nationally marketed from Punta Gorda long before they were a major crop in Hawaii.  The earliest settlers to southern Florida found the fruit under cultivation and reported on it as early as 1881 (Barthoff and Boggess brochure), and used the potential of earnings from pineapple growing to lure settlers to the Charlotte Harbor area.  It was possibly one of the draws for Isaac Trabue’s purchase of 30 acres of land he’d never seen south of Charlotte Harbor Bay.  Trabue also ended up setting aside a block in the town he created to grow the fruit and fund an annual chess tournament. 

Many of Punta Gorda’s early residents also invested in pineapples including Albert Gilchrist, Kelly B. Harvey, and Perry McAdow.  Sometime in the late 1890s a company was established for pineries east of town in Solona.  Its annual report in 1904 listed Perry McAdow as President and Charles Davis as General Manager. A new breed of pineapple, the Cayenne, a very large variety with smooth skin, was introduced there.     Over 2200 crates of pineapples had been shipped the previous year from the Pineapple Center.   A 1896 newspaper article indicated that “the finest pineapples were grown here at great profits.” 

There were ten families living and working the pineapple farms at the Solona-based center.  In addition, the company offered planting and cultivation of pineapples for investment to non-residents.  Some of these were locals like Ed Wotitzky, who owned a retail and shipping business and John Jack.  Others were northerners.  One William Whitten, who became a Charlotte County Commissioner and built the first bridge over Charlotte Harbor,  moved to his Solona Pinery in Punta Gorda in 1902.

In 1914 a new corporation was found to seek financial investors. T.C. Crosland, founder of the West Coast Fish Company,  was the President.  B.A. Wachob and C.G. Brown, major pineapple growers, were among the Board Members.  The corporation offered stock to fund the growing of the plant, which took two years to bear fruit. 

At its peak, Punta Gorda’s pineapple production was the largest in the nation and the industry was second to commercial fishing as Punta Gorda’s principal business.  But in 1917 a disastrous freeze hit the area and wiped out the pineries, and by then it was cheaper to grow the plant in Cuba. Also, unfortunately for Punta Gorda’s industry, around the same time, James Drummond Dole had established the Hawaiian Pineapple Company.  He bought the entire island of Lanai and made it into the largest pineapple plantation in the world. 

The era of the Punta Gorda pineapple was over. 

...Theresa Murtha

Sources: Lindsey Williams, Our Fascinating Past; Tampa Tribune, Sept 17, 1988; Clippings and Source Documents Vernon Peeples Collection, PGHC; Tampa Tribute, August 24, 1904. 

Thursday, June 6, 2019

A Former Punta Gorda Mayor was part of Normandy Invasion

Seventy-five years ago Dana Burke, a 28-year old Princeton teacher of military history, entered the Army and then joined thousands of other American soldiers as part of the Normandy Invasion.   Later at 52, after a career as a sales manager in Canada, he came to Punta Gorda and immediately became civically engaged leading to a position on City Council from 1982 to 1986 as well as a term as the City’s mayor.  He also was President of the Punta Gorda Isles Civic Association, member of the School Board, and a volunteer tutor at local schools.

Burke, a Princeton graduate, was among those, who after serving their country and  having successful careers, came to Punta Gorda and shared their skills to help grow and improve the City. 

Thursday, May 30, 2019

The Travelers Hotel

The Travelers Hotel in the photo above from about 1914 was originally the Ingram Hotel for Negros. Located close to the railroad, on then King Street now US41 North near Marion Avenue.  From the 1910s as the Travelers,  it became a popular choice of “drummers” (salesmen) when they came by train to Punta Gorda.

Early records show that the hotel was managed in its early years by a Nettie Johns.  Later Mr. and Mrs T.J. Foye purchased the hotel and took over management.  It was known as the Travelers Hotel until 1930s. A  Sanborn Map of 1932 refers  to it as the Punta Gorda Hotel.

From unpublished research by Scott Shively.

Thursday, May 23, 2019

Norma Pepper and Punta Gorda's Early Schools

Norma Pepper and an unidentified student 

Early records indicate that the first school in Punta Gorda was started in 1888  in a community building provided by Isaac Trabue that served as a multi-denominational church and school.  The school apparently was unsatisfactory and several private schools were initiated including one by Miss Norma Pepper at Olympia and King St. (now US 41 North) sometime after she arrived here in 1896 with her father, John Charles Pepper, and her sisters.

Her school building, described in 1897 as a small graded school, was destroyed in the 1910 hurricane. She then provided classes at her home on Retta Esplanade and Cross St. (41 South). In around 1890 a “Punta Gorda High School” that included all grades was built on Goldstein Street as a one story building, with a second story added later. There is no record of Miss Pepper teaching there,
though it did include an elementary school as well as a junior-senior high school.

Goldstein Street School 

In 1909, Miss Pepper was appointed President of the Woman’s School Improvement Association which was charged with building a new school. Indications were from newspaper articles of the time that there was dissatisfaction with the existing building on Goldstein Street school. By 1908, the combined school was very overcrowded. The then Principal, Professor U.S. Whittaker, drew up plans for a new school.
Taylor Street School 

Governor Gilchrist provided the land for the new school at Charlotte and Taylor Street, which was finished in 1911. Miss Pepper became its primary teacher (first grade).  The Taylor served the community as a high school until Charlotte High School was opened in 1927, it continued to operate as a grade school well into the 1950s, until it was largely replaced by Sallie Jones Elementary and destroyed in a fire in 1958.

Thursday, April 18, 2019

The Hotel Punta Gorda Made Trabue (Punta Gorda) a Reality

In October of 1885, Isaac Trabue wrote to his cousin about his negotiations with the owners of Florida Southern Railroad of Boston to bring their new road to his town of Trabue on the peninsular land of Punta Gorda.  In the missive, he spoke of how if his town became the terminus of the road “the Yankees will build grand hotels and Trabue will become a city in reality.”  And that is exactly what happened.

In July of 1886, the railroad pulled into Trabue for the first time carrying over 200 workers who would build not only a grand hotel, but a 1200 foot railroad dock extending out across Charlotte Harbor Bay adjacent to the new hotel.  Completed in a little over six months, the hotel first opened on February 20, 1887 and welcomed its first guests in time for the following winter season.   

The Hotel Punta Gorda, luxurious for the time, was a three-storied structure with a central tower that extended higher.  Advertisements for the resort proclaimed that the hotel had gas, electric bells, steam heat and open fire places.  They noted that it was supplied with “pure water, perfect drainage and fire protection.” News articles touted the magnificent grounds and fishing and sailing from the dock. They also noted the ease of arrival from the railroad terminal right at the hotel's entrance.

Situated on the harbor, the hotel had a large promenade, verandas with yellow roses climbing the railings, and 135 rooms, each with views of the bay.  Palm trees adorned the grounds to provide a tropical ambiance.  Tourists could bath from the hotel’s beach on the bay, take boat rides from the dock, go fishing or shooting.  Promotions to attract seasonal visitors were placed in many of the major magazines of the day.  Appealing to the wealthy, some of the early guests included W.K. Vanderbilt, John Wanamaker, Thomas Edison and Andrew Mellon.

The hotel enabled visitors like Perry McAdow to stay in Punta Gorda and discover its charm and to make decisions to invest in the nacent town.  It was these and the other early arrivals with the railroad including Albert W. Gilchrist,that helped as Isaac put it make Trabue and ultimately Punta Gorda a reality.

Unfortunately, the hotel didn't fair as well.  Only open to visitors during the winter months, the hotel fell in to disuse and disrepair and ceased to open for the season many years.   In the late 1920s, the hotel was totally refurbished and reopened as the Hotel Charlotte Harbor which also met with distressing times as the depression hit.  After several attempts were made at reviving the grand lady that adorned the Punta Gorda's  harbor, the hotel was destroyed it a fire in a few hours in August of 1959.

Thursday, April 11, 2019

The Princess Hotel Story - Destroyed in 1975

It was Sunday, February 9, 1975 and the rubble from the hotel that had burned down the night before still smoldered.  Already the police had jailed a young suspect for setting the building that had stood for 50-years on the corner of Taylor and Marion Avenue ablaze.

The Princess Hotel, which in 1975 was nothing but a storage facility for its owner, started life in 1925 as the Charlotte Bay Hotel. At that time and for years later it was a favorite place for tourists, business men, conventioneers, and even a sports team – the Baltimore Orioles stayed when they did spring training in Punta Gorda. The hotel was touted for its location on the Tamiami Trail and Dixie Highway, elegant furnishings, bath in every room, and water from its own artesian well. In the 1930s the owner of the Princess Hotel in Atlantic City, New Jersey purchased the hotel and began advertising it as a winter getaway alternative.

The Princess saw her last years as a hotel under a man named Paul Riddle who bought it in 1955. It had no restaurant, just rooms. A few shops were located on the ground floor. Local organizations held some of their meetings there, and there were some large parties thrown within its walls as well in the 1950s and 60s. Mr. Riddle then sold the building twice, once to a man who wanted to renovate only to have to foreclose on him shortly after the purchase, and then to a man who wanted to turn it into a senior-living facility. When that didn’t work, Riddle got it back again and ended up using it for storage.

The site of the Princess Hotel, which is now the home of the Sunloft Building with FM Don’s Restaurant on the corner, was the location of one of Punta Gorda’s first hotel’s, the Dade built in 1887, which was later named the New Southland, then the Seminole Hotel. Teddy Roosevelt stayed at this hotel when he visited in 1917. Then when plans were made to replace the old Seminole with the Charlotte Bay aka Princess in 1925, that structure was moved one block west to Marion and Sullivan, only to lose its life in a fire as well soon after the move.

Theresa Murtha

Thursday, April 4, 2019

The Maud Street Dock

What we now know as Fishermen’s Village is located on the site of the former Maud Street Dock. The Maud Street City Dock was built in 1928 to replace the King Street Pier, home to the Punta Gorda fishing industry. The old pier had been removed to make way for the new Barron Collier bridge and to relocate the fishing businesses away from Collier’s newly renovated Hotel Charlotte Harbor.

At one time there were as many as seven companies that operated the fish packing houses on the Maud Street Dock, but by the mid-1930s, this had shrunk to two, the Punta Gorda Fish Company and the West Coast Fish Company. The pier was also occupied by the Gulf Oil Company. Across from this was Matt Week’s Boat Shop, which had adjoining shore space for boat sheds and marine services.

In 1939, a fire destroyed the two large packing plants. John Willis, houseman for the Punta Gorda Fish Company, his wife and their three-year-old son perished in the fire. The West Coast Fish Company folded, but the Punta Gorda Fish Company continued to operate on a much smaller scale. 
In the mid-1940s, as the fishing industry declined further, a small crab packing plant was built on the pier. Later this plant expanded to include shrimp. 

Over time the dock and remaining buildings fell into disrepair, and in 1977, the city council moved to permit its reuse as a shopping and dining attraction. In February of 1980, Fishermen’s Village opened on the original Maud Street Dock.

Sunday, March 17, 2019

A Little History of the Celtic Ray Building

The Building which now is home to the Celtic Ray was built in 1924 by the Chadwick Brothers. It was originally constructed as an office and storage facility with a gas station on its perimeter corner. Earl Farr was an early tenant as was D. S. Smoak, who became one of Punta Gorda’s mayors.

Later on the building was converted to restaurant/bar space and was the Trailer Bar for a long time through 1950s into the 1970s. For a time it was also the Sandbar Sandwich Cove and prior to Kevin Doyle’s purchase in 1997 the Parrothead Cafe.

Doyle purchased the rundown establishment and converted it to an Irish pub, first just the one building that had been the Trailer Bar and filling station, and later after Hurricane Charley, the larger building styling it like a Dublin pub with alcove. After some bumpy periods especially during the housing crisis when Doyle lost the place for awhile, the Ray was back and Doyle has been expanding ever since now to include a large outdoor beer garden.

Friday, March 8, 2019

170th Anniversary of Robert E. Lee's Visit to Charlotte Harbor

By Graham Segger, Guest Blogger

February 2019 marked the 170th anniversary of a little known visit to Charlotte Harbor by a US Army Board of Engineers as part of an inspection of the coast of Florida.  Captain & Brevet Colonel Robert E. Lee was a member of the four officer Board and was the Recording Secretary for that Board. The other three members of the Board of Engineers were Lt. Col. R.E. DeRussy, Major R. Delafield and Bt. Col. J.H.F. Mansfield.

 The Board departed from Mobile on January 30, 1849 sailing on the schooner Phenix. Their task was to investigate the Florida coast from just east of Pensacola Bay to Amelia Island with a view to military defense and installations. The final reports of the Board, which were handwritten by Bt. Col. R.E. Lee in March 1849, have fortunately been preserved by the National Archives, as have the instructions to the Board. These documents provide a fascinating snapshot of the state of affairs around the Florida coast between the Second and Third Seminole Wars and well before the start of the Civil War. This article will focus on the Board’s observations with respect to Charlotte Harbor and San Carlos Bay (mouth of the Caloosahatchee).

The March 12, 1849 Report is sub-titled “A list of lands on the coast of Florida recommended to be reserved from sale for the purpose of defense by the Board of Engineers”. The March 14, 1849 Report is a more detailed document providing observations on each of the harbors visited and includes a copy of the initial instructions to the Board dated September 8, 1848.

The observations relating to Charlotte Harbor focus primarily on the various barrier islands and passes which connect the harbor to the gulf and the depths and navigational features of each. The islands and the harbor are described by Bt. Col. R.E. Lee as follows:
The islands that protect the mouth of the harbour from the sea are low, narrow and sparsely covered by trees of stunted growth. There are besides many others of similar character in the interior of the bay. Several streams empty into this bay and take their rise in Indian Country, and are fed from the overflow of the swamps and lakes. This harbour bordering on the Indian Country has no trade beyond that relating to the Indians and a few fishermen. It would therefore scarcely ever be thought, except by coasters, as a port of refuge.” 

The section relating to San Carlos Bay mentions San Ybel Island and Captive Island. The report states that:
“The Caloosa Hatchee river which takes its rise in the swamps around Lake Okee Chobee, discharges its waters into the head of San Carlos Bay. It is navigable for 10 miles from its mouth in boats drawing 4 or 5 feet of water. Punta Rassa, the south point of the Caloosa hatchee is low and sandy and apparently subject to be inundated during severe storms.”

Punta Rassa had in fact been completely swamped in the major hurricanes of both 1841 and 1848.
The conclusions from the Board as summarized in the March 12 & 14, 1849 Reports were that both Charlotte Harbor and San Carlos Bay were of tertiary importance to the defense of the coast but that certain islands should be reserved from sale and development for potential military defense:
“At Charlotte Harbour - 1. Gasparilla Island 2. Boca Grande Island (Cayo Costa) 3. the small islands east of said islands that lie within the distance of one mile.”

Fort Casey was built on Useppa Island in January 1850, not because of the recommendation of the Board of Engineers, but rather on the recommendation of an earlier Board of Officers led by Captain Charles C. Casey who visited the harbor in November 1848 after the destructive hurricane of September which damaged the Kennedy & Darling Trading House (the eventual Burnt Store). Capt. Casey drew the map of the harbor displayed below in January 1849. As an interesting aside, Casey and Lee were classmates at West Point in 1829. In the class of 46 officer candidates, Lee graduated 2nd and Casey was 11th.

In addition to the formal military correspondence cited above, Robert E. Lee also carried on an active domestic correspondence with his wife Mary Anna Randolph (Custiss) Lee during his assignment to Florida. He sent her five letters between January 28, 1849 and March 8, 1849, all of which have been preserved by the Virginia Historical Society.

It is interesting to speculate on how the Board of Engineer’s findings about the coast of Florida might have benefited General Robert E. Lee twelve years later when he was commanding the Confederate forces which were trying to circumvent the Federal Anaconda Plan blockade of the South.

Guest blogger Graham Segger is the author of Where Do We Live? Research by a Seasonal Resident of Burnt Store Road (aka the Burnt Store Road Book). His book is available at local book stores and also online at with all proceeds to charity. The material for this blog was first identified while writing that book and was further developed for a February 28, 2019 lecture about Charlotte Harbor Pre-1865 at Florida Gulf Coast University’s Renaissance Academy in Punta Gorda. A copy of the Reports of the Board of Engineers has been provided to the Punta Gorda History Center by Mr. Segger and the map above is from the Vernon Peeples collection preserved at PGHC.

Monday, February 11, 2019

Baptists Celebrate 130th Anniversary

The Baptists celebrating their 130th anniversary this month were the second religious group to organize as a congregation in Punta Gorda. Initially, the townspeople worshipped together at inter-denominational services held at the community center that Isaac Trabue had built as a combined school and church. But by 1888, the Baptists began organizing their group as a separate church worshipping at rented quarters above a livery stable. Baptisms were conducted in the harbor near Sullivan Street.

The original congregation consisted of nine members. Among them were James L. and Mary Sandlin, James M. and Martha Sandlin Morgan, and Mrs. Nancy Linquish. Sandlin and Morgan donated to the Baptist congregation, two lots for a church to be built on the northwest corner of Cross and Olympia streets. The lumber for the new church was supplied by Morgan who operated a sawmill on Taylor Road near Alligator Creek. By 1893 the first issue of the Punta Gorda Herald noted that there was a Baptist Church Building. It was also noted in the Herald of that year that Rev. T. J. Sparkman, pastor, conducted services every first and third Sundays.

Over the years the Baptists added Sunday School rooms, a kitchen and dining room. Still the original church building proved too small for the growing congregration. In 1962, a larger sanctuary and attendant facilities was built at its present site on Gill St. The Crosland Chapel and Sunday school
were dedicated January 28, 1962. The old pastorium was moved to the present site, but later torn down. With completion of the Crosland Chapel, the Cross Street and Retta Esplanade properties were sold to the Golden Rule Rebekah Lodge 60.  It later became a bridal shop and was ultimately lost to Hurricane Charley.

Friday, February 8, 2019

This Week in Punta Gorda History - One of the Most Farmous Tennis Players of all time Visits in February 1931

William Tatem Tilden II , called  "Big Bill", was born on February 10, 1893 - over 125 years ago this coming week. Considered one of the best tennis players of all time, he was the world's number one  player for six years from 1920 through 1925 winning 15 Major singles titles including ten Grand Slam events.

In 1920, Tilden became the first American to win Wimbledon.  He also won a record seven U.S. Championships titles, and dominated the world of international tennis in the first half of the 1920s, and during his 18-year amateur period of 1912–29, winning 138 of 192 tournaments. In 1929, Tilden became the first player to reach 10 finals at a single Grand Slam event, which remained a record until Roger Federer reached his eleventh in 2017.

In 1931, Tilden needing money turned pro, and was snared for a tournament in Punta Gorda by Barron Collier.  Collier was the largest land owner in Southwest Florida. He had  invested millions of dollars to transform and in development of  the wilderness, including drainage of the Everglades and construction of the Tamiami Trail.  In 1924 he purchased and later remodeled the old Hotel Punta Gorda and reopened it as a grand renaissance-style Floridan hotel to which he hoped to draw famous sports legends of the time to garner prestige for  the area. As part of his development of south Florida, he planned to make Charlotte County the sports center of the south during the winter season.  He had had new tennis courts constructed at the hotel which cost him $15,000 (almost $250,000 in today's dollars).

Tilden played his first professional tennis match in Punta Gorda on February 2, 1931 beating Francis T. Hunter 6-3, 6-4.3-6, 7-5.  Later in the exhibition event, he went on to defeat Emmett Pare to win the prize money.  The court area had seating for over 600 people and buses brought people from Palm Beach, Tampa and Miami to watch the games.

Theresa  Murtha

(Photo courtest Burgett Brothers Photography Collection, Hillsborough Public Library)

Monday, January 21, 2019

Coming to Punta Gorda -- The Railroad Arrives

The coming of the Florida Southern Railroad whose last track into Trabue (the original name for Punta Gorda) was laid in July of 1886 marked the beginning of the development of the town.  For it was then with more direct and comfortable transport into the town and the building of the first hotel to attract passengers that people from the north with money to invest arrived in Punta Gorda.

Isaac Trabue convinced the railroad owners to come to his new town rather than the other choice, Charlotte Harbor, on the north side of the Peace River.  The Hotel Punta Gorda which was built on land dedicated to the railroad by Isaac Trabue first opened as best we can tell on February 20, 1886 - widely advertised in northern newspapers of the time.  It's first true season, however, occurred starting in December of 1886 shortly before Trabue was incorporated as Punta Gorda.

The railroad built two wharves to support passengers and freight and also steamboat passage to and from New Orleans and Key West and later to Fort Myers.  The first was immediately adjacent to the hotel, so railroad passengers could disembark there.  The second was located further west (starting on land where the Isles Yacht Club is today). That wharf was referred to as the long dock.

Albert W. Gilchrist who was the main surveyor laying out the route from Bartow to Trabue became one of the new town's prominent landowners and citizens and later a Governor of Florida