Article courtesy of Jeff LaHurd
A.B. Edwards was so instrumental in this area’s growth and success that by the time he died in 1969 he had earned the nickname “Mr. Sarasota.”
Edwards was born on Oct. 2, 1874, in a log cabin on what today would be the northern county line dividing Sarasota from Manatee near the airport. His parents died when he was 14, leaving him with three younger siblings to care for in what was still a harsh wilderness, inhabited by hearty pioneers, and awaiting the Scot colony’s arrival in 1885.
Of that seminal event, Edwards recalled that he and his father were hunting in the woods of today’s downtown when they came upon the surveying crew hired to plat the town of Sarasota for the colony. Upon seeing father and son, the head of the crew announced, as the survey stake was driven into the ground in the center of Five Points: “We will lay out the town of Sarasota from this hub.”
He said of the colonists who had been duped into believing that they were arriving in a “Little Scotland” that they were the finest of people, “cultured, highly educated, sturdy type of genial Scotch folk, mostly from cities.” What they found, he recalled, was “a tropical wilderness among the thistles, Spanish bayonets, briars, and thorn trees, no one to welcome them in a strange land, no friend, no homes, no shelter but the blue canopy of heaven.”
The concept of the town of Sarasota was saved by the arrival of John Hamilton Gillespie, sent by the Florida Mortgage and Investment Company to revive the effort. And when news that a railroad was coming, the citizens voted to incorporate into a town in 1902 with Gillespie as first mayor.
With growth seemingly imminent, Edwards, who was self-educated, opened up the first real estate office in Sarasota in 1903. To drum up customers, he had train companies throughout the nation send him the names of those who expressed interest in Florida. The response was great and Edwards wrote a letter to each prospective buyer extolling Sarasota’s assets — its beauty, climate, fishing, hunting and farming potential.
A real estate boom
In 1910, Edwards teamed with local landowner and developer J.H. Lord to induce wealthy Chicago socialite Bertha Palmer to come to Sarasota. Edwards escorted her around in his horse and buggy and sold her thousands of acres. Palmer’s pronouncements about Sarasota garnered much publicity in the major newspapers and put the small community on the map. Edwards called the arrival of the Palmer family “the most notable important, outstanding and far reaching achievement for Sarasota and the whole Sarasota Bay area.”
Edwards, who served in the Quartermasters Corps during the Spanish American War, was appointed the town’s first tax assessor from 1907 through 1913. When the town became a city, he took office as the first mayor on Jan. 1, 1914. He was re-elected in 1918 and served until 1920.
He forged a reputation for his honest and above-board dealings, saying his father left him with this advice shortly before he died: “Always be in good company; be honest and truthful; work hard and save your money; also retain your self-respect and others will respect you.” That philosophy kept him at the forefront of Sarasota’s leadership throughout his life.
Of those freewheeling 1920s years, Edwards reckoned that it would have “taken 100 years for the average American city to acquire the same amount of public and private improvements as did Sarasota in that two-and-a-half year boom period.”
Saw it all
Edwards married Fannie Lowe and the couple had four daughters. Their 1926 Siesta Key home was designed by Dwight James Baum, who had done Ca d’Zan, the Courthouse, and the El Vernona Hotel, among others. It was described in the Herald as “Palatial in Appearances.” The couple were married for 63 years.
After the real estate market collapsed, Edwards recalled that the high-pressure salesmen who had been making money hand over fist fell on hard times.
Edwards was active through the Depression, helping to obtain Works Progress Administration money for projects that included the Post Office Building, the Municipal Auditorium and the Lido Casino.
He played a major role in the creation of Myakka River State Park, for which he was awarded the American Legion’s Community Service medal. His name is listed on a monument there as one of those who established the park.
His nonstop activities included being president of the Sarasota Citrus Growers Association; a member of the Sarasota County Fish and Game Association, the State Fresh Water and Game Conservation Commission and the Florida Board of Forestry and Parks; and chairman of the advisory Council of the Myakka River State Park. He was also a member of the Sarasota County Historical Commission.
Always an advocate of education, Edwards helped to Establish New College, serving as chairman of the New College Site Committee.
A.B., as he was called, died at his home on Nov. 14, 1969. He was 95, and if he did not see it all, he saw most of it.
Sources: Jeff LaHurd, Sarasota County Historical Resources.