A hearty welcome to the tourists, the visitors, the weary travelers from a native Sarasotan. We year-round occupiers of paradise really feel sorry for you. There you go, running out to the beach to soak up some sun, tearing down Tamiami to oogle the Ringling digs, hopping that bridge to St. Armands for some heavy duty shopping. You haven’t even strolled through Selby Gardens, swung on the treetops trapeze in Myakka, or put your paws on a baby stingray at Mote Marine! And, oh yes, you need to look at Bertha Palmer’s pergola down at Historic Spanish Point, put in an appearance at the Opera, experience theatre at half a dozen venues and catch a show at the Van Wezel.
The what? You know, that giant purple structure on the Bayfront. The purple cow. The purple people seater. No time to take in a show? Well, you really should at least poke your head in the lobby and view the shell ensconced in an illuminated glass case. It is said that Mrs. Frank Lloyd Wright envisioned the color tones of this shell as the palette for the Van Wezel. Notice its iridescence…its shades of purple and lilac and lavender. She thought the Sarasota sun, over a period of time, would affect the building’s paint job resulting in an iridescent shell-like appearance. Well, wouldn’t you know, whenever the paint does begin to fade and take on a kind of interesting mottled tone, somebody down at City Hall says, “The Van Wezel needs paint! Right now! It’s beginning to look all streaky!” And they paint it purple. It’s our purple cow; Sarasota’s purple people seater. Our very own show boat.
There are some amazingly weird stories about Sarasota. The best ones, I think, involve the early pioneers. Of course, it also helps that those early pioneers aren’t around any more to argue the authenticity of the tale. So, prop your feet up on a crystal Siesta sand castle and allow me to tell you about our first white settler, Mr. William Whitaker.
Bill left his Savannah, Georgia home at the age of twelve having taken a distinct disliking for his new step-mother. He worked on a tramp steamer, headed down to Key West and wound up in Tallahassee where his half brother placed him in school. After graduation, he joined the US Army and served during the First Seminole War. The Army awarded him, along with other veterans, deeds to Florida property if he would live on and work the land for at least five years. Bill took the bait. At last, a home of his own.
Sailing in the Gulf down the west coast of Florida, he came upon an aquamarine bay and a dune of yellow limestone which he called Yellow Bluffs. This is where he built his first home. Yellow Bluffs is located on Sarasota bay in the area of today’s 12th Street. After building a barge, he sailed across to Longboat Key where he cut cedar trees for his house. He was a fisherman, a farmer, and later, a very successful cattleman. He also cultivated the first orange grove in this area of Florida. The orange tree seeds were obtained from Cuban fisherman in trade for Bill’s tasty smoked mullet. Cattle became his main source of income though and gave him the wherewithal to educate his eleven children.
About the time that Bill received the deed from the government for his property, he journeyed to upper Manatee County to court and wed tiny Mary Jane Wyatt. She might have been diminutive but Mary Jane evidently knew no fear. As a teenager she had hobnobbed with Billy Bowlegs (not his Seminole name!) on her father’s ranch. He was the chief of the Seminole tribes in this area. As a married lady she invited him to share a meal now and then at the Whitaker home. As tensions mounted between Federal troops and the local Seminoles, Mary Jane began to think about this friendship. She is purported to have inquired (note, I said purported since there is no way of knowing if this conversation actually took place) in her melting southern voice, “Now Billy, you wouldn’t kill me, would you?”
To which he is purported to have replied, “Yes….But I would do it quickly!”
Drive about a half block east of Tamiami Trail on 12th Street today and you will see a small, enclosed family cemetery. Here lies William Whitaker and a host of his descendants. Next door east is the 1901 Crocker Memorial Church. Adjacent is the oldest house in Sarasota, the Bidwell-Wood House of 1882. The Historical Society of Sarasota County has restored those buildings. If you see me there I’ll tell you about the 1884 murder-most-foul that was planned in Mr. Bidwell’s parlor!