Man drowns while fishing

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By Merab-Michal Favorite, Islander Reporter

ANNA MARIA — A 72-year-old Canadian man drowned April 3, after falling into Tampa Bay while fishing from a residential dock.

Luciano Ranieri of Ontario fell from the dock of a home on the 700 block of Key Royal Drive. His foot became wedged between two planks causing him to hang upside down, half submerged in the water, according to the police report.

Holmes Beach Police Officer Josh Fleischer was the first to respond around 4 p.m., in reference to a dropped 911 call.

When he arrived at the home, he could hear screaming at the back of the house.

Fleischer called for backup, then went to the waterfront where he saw several people trying to help Ranieri.

A woman was in the water trying to hold his head up and others had attempted to tie a rope around him to pull him up, however both attempts were unsuccessful, the report states.

“The water was really deep there, so it was difficult for them to be able to do anything because they couldn’t touch ground,” Holmes Beach Police Chief Bill Tokajer said.

Fleischer, who is more than 6 feet tall, jumped in the bay, barely touching the bottom and held the victim’s head above water until more help arrived, according Tokajer.

When West Manatee Fire Rescue and Emergency Medical Services arrived, they used the rope to release the tension from Ranieri’s foot, finally getting it free, according to the report.

He was lifted onto a neighbor’s kayak. A lifeguard, who had arrived on scene, and one of the medics, immediately started CPR while others steadied the kayak, the report stated.

Officials used a nearby boatlift to raise Ranieri on the kayak from the water, the report said.

The victim was taken to Blake Medical Center where he was pronounced dead, Tokajer said.

The home belongs to Ilona Bankuty. She said Ranieri and his wife, Eva Ranieri, were visiting that afternoon. They were all relaxing on the dock when he fell in, she said.

Bankuty, who has known the victim more than 50 years, said he often fishes from the dock when the weather is nice.

“He was a very dear friend and what happened to him was just horrific,” she told The Islander.

Eva Ranieri said she and her husband own a winter home in Bradenton and visit the Bankuty’s as much as they can when they are in town.

“We love to go over there and fish and play cards,” she said. “It’s just so nice being on the water and they are like family to us.”

Eva said she plans to hold funeral services for her husband in Ontario.

“We just want to take him home,” she said.

Eva said her husband was a wonderful man who would have done anything for his family.

“He will be missed,” she said.

Sunday Favorites: Ill-Fated Journeys

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Published Sunday, March 23, 2014 12:05 am

by Merab-Michal Favorite and Drew Winchester

he bunk house was appropriatly decorated with a hog skull Photo: Merab-Michal Favorite

he bunk house was appropriately decorated with a hog skull
Photo: Merab-Michal Favorite

ZOLPHO SPINGS — Going camping is one of my favorite pastimes.  There is nothing quite like being disconnected from the everyday rat race.

Ringing cell phones, buzzing laptops and loud business meetings are easily forgotten and replaced with more soothing resonances like babbling brooks, crackling fires and the presence of wildlife.

While the wilderness can be enjoyable, a lot can go wrong in a short amount of time. Especially if you’re ill prepared for your trip.

That was the case for us last weekend. A day trip turned into an overnight debacle due to an auto failure. Drew had to cancel his plans to bring me jumper cables in the middle of nowhere. By the time he arrived, it was almost dark and we were forced to stay the night.

I had tried to get Drew out there earlier, but work and chores prevented him from accompanying me. I’d tried to persuade him to change his mind, telling him of the beauty of the Peace River, the quaintness of the camp and boasting the fishing opportunities, but to no avail.

When darkness fell, Drew and I weren’t snuggled in our warm bed as expected. Instead, we found ourselves lying on a wooden plank in a spider-infested bunkhouse, with no sleeping bag and only a light blanket as covering on a very cold night.

In December of 1885, a group of Scottish colonists left their homeland and headed to Sarasota. Photo: Sarasota Archives

In December of 1885, a group of Scottish colonists left their homeland and headed to Sarasota.
Photo: Sarasota Archives

We were miserable; beyond miserable. Our sleepless situation was amplified by the eerie sounds of wild animals: the hooting of an owl, croaking of alligators and … was that the howl of a coyote? These sounds seemed to haunt our dreams even when we happened to doze off, if only for a short time.

We couldn’t help but think of another ill fated journey: one that occurred about 172 years ago, not far from where we slept and involved a group of Scottish immigrants who had left their homeland in the hope of finding a new one in Sarasota.

The owl hooted again right outside the window of the bunkhouse. If we were those Scottish immigrants, we might have taken it as a malicious prophecy.

One of the colonists, Dan McKinley, wrote of the owl call in a diary he kept while living in Sarasota. The Jan. 27, 1886 entry reads, “It’s really very lonely. The eerie sound of the owl, the night is pitch dark and there are other queer sounds. I‘m going to turn in, have big washing to do in the morning.”

The owl was the least of his worries. McKinley’s entries get more concerning as time goes on. On Feb. 2, 1886, he wrote of prairie fires surrounding him and his camp. Two days later he wrote he following passage:

“Prospects here are so bad, in fact as far as we can see it means starvation if we stay… again see prairie fires some distance from us…high winds blowing and some rains….the colony seems to have completely broken up.” 

The land on the Peace River is reminiscent of the conditions a century ago.  Photo: Merab-Michal Favorite

The land on the Peace River is reminiscent of the conditions a century ago.
Photo: Merab-Michal Favorite

McKinley was just one of many immigrants who left their home for a promised land that unfortunately didn’t deliver what they had anticipated.

Nellie Lawrie was just a child when she came to Sarasota with her family from Scotland in 1885. She recalled a very sad departure on a dark and stormy night.

Lawrie said the passengers were overwhelmed with emotion as they left Scotland and began singing an old Scottish song called “Will ye not come back again? Better loved ye ne’er will be.”

There was not a dry eye as the song commenced, and the crowd kept singing Scottish hymns as the captain gave the signal to begin their long, transatlantic passage.

 It was not a straight shot to Florida. The ship first landed in New York; then the colonists had to travel by train to Cedar Key. At that time the station was the southernmost stop on the railway route. From there, they chartered a yacht landing where Marina Jack’s is today.

They were greeted by most of the families already established in the area; the Whitakers, Riggins, Abbes and Tuckers. It was a cold December morning and the surrounding terrain was unhindered; there was only one building in sight and their only prospects were before them down a dirt road that meandered out of sight and got lost in the dense palmetto underbrush.

Sarasota historian Jeff LaHurd wrote of the event in his book the Hidden History of Sarasota.

“Even from the ship railing they could see they had been duped. ‘Little Scotland,’ was a wilderness with which they were unprepared to deal.”

John Hamilton Gillespie is credited with building the first golf course in Sarasota in the backyard of his home (above). Photo: Sarasota Archives

John Hamilton Gillespie is credited with building the first golf course in Sarasota in the backyard of his home (above).
Photo: Sarasota Archives

The rest of 1885, and the beginning of 1886 was filled with freezing but favorable conditions (at one point it even snowed), but as the rainy season began to present itself, more and more problems also developed. Most of the colonists were staying in palm frond guest huts offered up by pioneers until they could build more permanent accommodations.

Anton Kleinosheg, one of the first and last remaining Scottish colonists, described the situation in a letter to a friend.

“The climate in winter (though we had a cold never experienced) is very pleasant and wholesome; but the summer!—100 degrees when it’s not raining and a terrible plague of mosquitos, enough to drive us mad! …. The sky consistently sends down water masses that stand in ponds and depressions and generate millions of these beasts. They have in fact killed two of my young dogs (a horrible end).”

Kleinosheg goes on to describe the living conditions inside the hut where he was staying, which belonged to the Abbes, a pioneer family. There were no screens, and he had to sleep, read and write under a mosquito net to avoid being “eaten to death.”

Kleinosheg eventually fell victim to the menacing creatures and contracted malaria. He had to be nursed back to health by the women of the Abbe family. He would later marry the daughter, Carrie Abbe, and they would move to Austria.

Most of the other Scottish colonists departed the area on March 11, 1886, only three months after they had arrived. However one of them, John Hamilton Gillespie, would later become Sarasota’s first mayor in 1902, and be credited for building the first golf course in his back yard.

In an interview with the Sarasota Herald in 1935, historian A.B Edwards told a reporter that the “distress and humiliation and hardships they encountered can scarcely be expressed in words.”

Lying there in the dark on my hard wooden plank, I felt pity for those settlers. After all, all I needed was some jumper cables to escape the breadth of my bad experience and I had a home, bed and pets waiting for me. Those settlers had sold everything they owned, traveled thousands of miles only to find that the land they bought was useless.

It was a bad deal with false hopes, peddled to them by a Scottish investment company. As they said their goodbyes to Sarasota, they probably couldn’t help but feel they’d been duped.

And as Drew lie awake beside me on our wooden plank in the middle of the woods, he probably had the same feeling. He felt he’d been duped into bringing me jumper cables on the promise of an amazing camping getaway only to be freezing his buns off in less than favorable conditions.

Sources: Hidden History of Sarasota by Jeff LaHurd, copywrite 2009, History Press, Charleston, S.C.

HBPD thwarts murder attempt

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By Merab-Michal Favorite

A man was arrested March 14 after he allegedly stabbed a woman multiple times after learning she had an intimate relationship with their roommate, according to the Holmes Beach Police Department.



Andrew Helderman, 23, of the 300 block of Clark Drive, faces charges of attempted second-degree murder and aggravated assault with a deadly weapon after police found him covered in blood, straddling a woman in the bathtub. The victim was found with a “medium-sized pocket knife” protruding from her neck, according to a press release from Chief Bill Tokajer.

Around 11 p.m., officers arrived at Helderman’s home in response to a 911 call.  When they entered the home, they could hear a woman calling for help from the bathroom, the report said.

Officer Steve Ogline forced entry into the bathroom, allegedly finding Helderman straddling the 31-year-old woman.

The woman had suffered multiple stab wounds to her body.

Ogline ordered Helderman at gunpoint to stop and stand up. He complied and was led to the living room, where he was taken into custody, the report said.

The 39-year-old roommate, who called 911, told police the three of them reside together at the Clark Drive address.

Prior to the attack, the male roommate told police, all three of them had a discussion about the woman “hooking up” with them. He told police that everything seemed fine following their conversation, but then Helderman began attacking the woman.

The witness said he tried to intervene several times, at one point picking up the shower curtain rod from the floor and hitting Helderman in the head.

Tokajer said the male victim also told police that he videotaped the attack with his cell phone before calling 911.

All of the parties involved were treated by EMS. Both Helderman and the victim were transported to Blake Medical Center.

The female victim was in reported to be in serious but stable condition and was initially moved to an intensive care unit.

Helderman was cleared and taken to the Manatee County jail, where he is being held without bond.

The second victim suffered minor cuts from trying to stop Helderman during the attack.

Tokajer said the suspect and the victims have been the subject of numerous complaints prior to this incident.

HBPD: 2 rapes among 2013 crime statistics

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By Merab-Michal Favorite, Islander Reporter

Two cases of sexual battery were investigated in Holmes Beach in 2013 and, while no arrests have been made, the Holmes Beach Police Department is pursuing warrants for both suspects.

The incident reports were made available Feb. 20 from the HBPD, after being noted among the annual Crime in Florida report provided by the Florida Department of Law Enforcement based on data through Jan. 21, which was released Feb. 19 by Holmes Beach Chief of Police Bill Tokajer.

The first incident occurred July 5, 2013, at West Manatee Fire District Station No. 1, 6001 Marina Drive, Holmes Beach.

The second alleged rape took place Dec. 22, 2013, on the beach in the 5600 block of Gulf Drive, Holmes Beach, according to HBPD reports, which were only made public Feb. 20.

Rape by co-worker

The first of two female victims in the reports told police that while on duty overnight at the fire station, her co-worker raped her.

The victim, an EMS medic, filed a report with the Manatee County Human Resources Department Aug. 14, 2013. She said the suspect entered her bunk while she was trying to sleep and raped her while choking her.

According to the report, she and the Bradenton man were running calls until around 1 a.m., when she tried to go to sleep and was sexually battered. The two had not previously worked together.

The victim told police that throughout the day they had been joking about things of a sexual nature. The victim told police she was not offended until the man began showing her nude pictures of himself on his cellphone.

In one of the pictures, she alleged, the man held a mouthwash bottle over his genitals.

She said she tried to ignore him, but he proceeded to show another more explicit photo.

The man allegedly made several other sexual advances and the woman told him sexual behavior “was not going to happen,” the report said.

The victim said she got very uncomfortable and tried to avoid the man the rest of the evening, hanging out on the opposite side of the fire station until it was time to sleep. She was in her bunk when he reportedly got up, closed the door and climbed in bed with her. That’s when he allegedly held her so she couldn’t move, started choking and sexually assaulted her.

The victim did not immediately report the incident, telling police “it was her word against his,” the report states, but after confiding in a friend, she filed a complaint.

According to Pat Labarr of the Manatee County Human Resources Department, the suspect was dismissed in September following the incident with a stipulation that he cannot be rehired for three years.

HBPD Chief Bill Tokajer said the department has submitted evidence to the state attorney’s office and is waiting for the approval of an arrest warrant for the suspect.

 Beach rape

The second account of sexual battery Dec. 22, 2013, involved a tourist and a man who worked at the time as a waiter for the Gulf Drive Cafe in Bradenton Beach, the report stated.

According to the report, the victim alleged that the man raped her on the beach after a night of barhopping with friends.

The victim told police she was out with her brother and another brother and sister they met that night. The foursome had been to several bars including two on Bridge Street and to D.Coy Ducks Tavern in Holmes Beach, the report said.

While at the tavern, the victim’s brother and the suspect’s sister were kissing, the report said. The victim said she had been getting along with the suspect, and they walked to the beach.

According to the victim’s sworn statement to HBPD officers, “before she knew what was happening, (the suspect) was allegedly on top of her trying to (have sex) with her.” She told police he held her hands down at her sides and forcibly had sex with her, the report said.

The victim reported the incident immediately, but did not know the suspect’s last name or exact location where the rape occurred, but she remembered him saying he was a waiter at a local restaurant, the report said.

The victim gave police officers a picture she had taken of the suspect on her cellphone and HBPD tracked the picture to a server at Gulf Drive Cafe, the report stated. He was questioned by police in the manager’s office.

The suspect allegedly stated that he and the victim had “really hit it off” and were making out on a bench outside D.Coy Ducks before deciding go have sex on the beach. He said the sex was mutual and afterward he walked her to her vacation home, but not all the way, the report stated.

The man said the woman did not have a local phone number so he told her to come by where he works, hoping to see her again.

HBPD found probable cause to arrest the suspect after it obtained a text from the victim on the suspect’s phone stating she made it home OK, but that she was not OK with what had happened.

The time of the text was 4:23 a.m.

Tokajer said the department submitted evidence to the state attorney’s office and is awaiting an arrest warrant, saying the long process follows standard protocol when dealing with sexual battery charges.

– See more at:

SAO declines charges in EMS rape case

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By Merab-Michal Favorite

The 12th Judicial State Attorney’s Office has declined to file sexual battery charges against a 39-year-old EMS paramedic accused of raping his partner in December, due to a lack of evidence.

The incident allegedly occurred in Holmes Beach July 5, 2013, at the West Manatee Fire District Station, 6001 Marina Dr, where the coworkers were assigned as partners during an overnight shift.

The woman, 23, filed a formal report to the Manatee County Human Resources Department Aug. 14, 2013, alleging that the suspect had entered her bunk while she was trying to sleep and choked and raped her. The two had not previously worked together.

Courtney Hollen, the assistant state attorney assigned to the case, said she decided to take no action because she believed the state would not be able to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that the suspect had committed sexual battery. On Feb. 28, she issued an interdepartmental memorandum declining any further action.

“Even with the victim’s cooperation, there were no witnesses, no injuries, no excited utterances and no admission from the defendant. Therefore, the charge will be declined,” Hollen wrote in the memo.

Hollen also wrote that because the woman did not report the crime for over a month, there was no way to determine whether the intercourse was forced.

The man allegedly admitted to having sex with the woman, but said it was consensual. He also stated in the report that the woman became upset the next morning when he didn’t ask for her phone number.

Law enforcement officials interviewed the woman’s regular paramedic partner who had relieved her of duty so she could file the complaint Aug. 14. He stated that he believed the sex was consensual based on some of the statements the woman made, according to Hollen’s memo.

The male paramedic was dismissed from his EMS position in September with a stipulation that he could not be rehired for three years, according to the county human resources department. He had worked for the county for over five years.

He was first put on a six week unpaid suspension, then terminated on sexual harassment charges, according to officials.

The woman is still employed with Manatee County, according to Teresa Kersey, of the human resources department.

According to the police report, the woman alleged that while she and the man were on duty, he began making sexual comments to her and showing her nude pictures of himself. When she decided to go to sleep in the bunks provided for employees, he allegedly climbed into bed with her and began kissing her neck. When she pulled away, she said he choked her and forced her to have sexual intercourse with him.

After she reported the incident, law enforcement officials asked her to do a controlled phone call to the man, but she refused to participate. She later told the prosecutor she had declined the controlled phone call because she didn’t believe it would work.


The Forgotten Coast

Published Sunday, March 2, 2014 12:05 am _apalach2.jpg
A fishing boat is pulled up to the dock in downtown Apalachicola.

Arriving in Apalachicola is like stepping back in time. As part of Florida’s so-called “Forgotten Coast”, the town with a population of 2,300 still focuses on fishing, shrimping and oysters as its main source of industry, much like it has for nearly 200 years.

Of course, today the town has a nice tourist slant, one that draws people to discover a true version of the fabled “Old Florida.”

However, old Florida isn’t just a buzz word in Apalachicola, it’s not something used by realtors or a chamber of commerce to sell an era that doesn’t really exist anymore.

Apalachicola is old Florida, a quaint, southern town where, in a restaurant, you’re eating what just came off the boats as they pull in from the Apalachicola River and bay.

The town started as a trading post along the Gulf Coast called “Cottonton,” but was incorporated as West Point in 1827. Four years later, the town was named Apalachicola.

Before the advent of the railroad, Apalachicola was the third busiest port in the Gulf of Mexico, behind  New Orleans and Mobile, Ala. It thrived because of its location of course, but also because of the abundance of oysters and shrimp, an industry for which the town is still known today (In fact, 90 percent of all Florida’s oysters come from Apalachicola Bay).

But as the years ticked on, Apalachicola would find itself in the center of history in the making; one of the America’s most noted botanists, Dr. Alavan Wenthworth Chapman, settled in the town in 1847, where he practiced medicine and wrote his seminal work, “Flora of the Southern United States”, which was the first book dedicated solely to the plant life of the south. Chapman spent years researching the book in Georgia and other parts of Florida, and chose Apalachicola as the place to compile his work.
Boats of all kinds line the docks of a canal.

In 1849, another Apalachicola physician named Dr. John Gorrie created the first refrigeration process, and patented the first ice machine in 1850. At the time, Gorrie applied the technology in a medical setting, as a way to cool down patients that were experiencing extremely high fevers.

Of course, the same ideas would later be applied to modern refrigeration and air conditioning and Gorrie was an unknowing pioneer in those fields. Now, Gorrie’s work and legacy is enshrined in a state park in Apalachicola at the John Gorrie Museum, where a replica of his ice-making machine is on display along with exhibits chronicling the colorful history of Apalachicola.

Apalachicola came into the spotlight during the Civil War when the gunboat USS Sagamore and 186-foot steamer USS Mercedita captured the port, a massive victory for the union forces that were trying to gain a foothold in southern ports. Both ships were important members of the fleet, with the Sagamore sailing the Suwannee in 1864, while the Mercedita helped to capture Charleston Bay in 1863, but in 1862 both ships were crucial in helping to secure the port.

Today, Apalachiocola is a crucial hub of the so called “Forgotten Coast,” a relatively raw and undeveloped section of coastline along Highway 98, which stretches from Mexico Beach to Apalachee Bay.

Just minutes from Apalachicola, the Nature Coast continues to unfold, flowing east to St. George Island, where beach communities and state parks offer an abundance of recreational activity, and then west to Port St. Joe, where the old Florida commercial fishing industry also thrives.

Apalachicola remains the commercial hub of the western panhandle, a place where commerce and history collide.

Of course, its role in the fishing and shipping industries has changed, but in the era where history is manufactured, Apalachicola has reinvented itself by simply staying true to its roots.

Exploring Dune Lakes of the Panhandle

Published Sunday, February 23, in, 2014 12:05 am

SANTA ROSA BEACH — When I was around eight years old, we visited my cousins home in Santa Rosa Beach, a quiet beachfront town in the panhandle, near Panama City.

A walk down the shore with my brother revealed a large saltwater-fed pond produced by the Gulf tides via a saltwater stream, which meandered through the sand.

Not understanding the physics of that particular beach system, my brother and I took one look at it and like any reasonable kids, we decided the stream that ran to the gulf could be better if it was straighter.

The stream was only about five or six feet from the breaking waves; however it seemed to stretch for a long distance paralleling the shoreline before finally meeting it. My brother, Elan, and I took buckets and shovels and began digging.

It seemed to take hours, although time doesn’t mean the same when you are a child. It felt like the single greatest construction project of all time. As we finally constructed a foot-wide passage from the beginning of the stream to the shore, we hardly anticipated what would happen next.

The pressure from the lake widened our small passage instantaneously, caving in the sand and quickly tripling, then quadrupling our manmade canal.

We tried to stop the spillage, but to no avail; by then the current was too strong and we could only watch in horror as hundreds of lakefront homes lost their waterfront in a matter of minutes. Afloat boats that were tied to docks were suddenly aground and sea life that was previously underwater littered the beach.

Even my parents were horrified, telling us to get back to Aunt Barb’s before someone figured out that it was our family that had so effortlessly managed to decrease property values and destroy an entire ecosystem just because they wanted to build a small mote for their amusement.

“Don’t mention this to anyone,” they said, looking at each other with a sigh and saying simultaneously, “Only our kids could cause such destruction.”

That was over 20 years ago.

Last weekend, my boyfriend, Drew, and I revisited my Aunt Barb in Santa Rosa Beach. As we drove down Hwy 98, we passed several “dune lakes.” As we approached each one, I wondered if that had been one my brother I had drained as children.

When we got to Aunt Barb’s house I broke my decades-long silence on the topic and spilled the beans about the, well, “lake spillage.” Barbara said that the lakes naturally broke through the sand about once a year draining the lake and spilling tanic water into the azure-colored saltwater that made up the Emerald Coast.

Whew, I thought, what a relief. The event had only been weighing on my conscience for over twenty years.

I would later learn that the coastal dune lakes where I played as a child are rare. They occur in only two places in the United States: the Florida panhandle and the northern Pacific Coast. To make them even more exotic, they can be found at only three other places in the world – Madagascar, Australia and New Zealand.

According to the Walton County website, they are formed by streams, groundwater seepage and rain. However, a storm surge creates intermittent connections (the meandering streams) to the Gulf of Mexico, called outfalls. “This periodic connection empties lake water into the Gulf, and, depending on tides and weather, salt water and organisms from the Gulf flow back into the lakes,” according to the website.

People are allowed to fish, kayak, canoe and paddleboard in the lakes but motors are prohibited. Altering the natural outfalls of the lakes are also prohibited (whoops). The website also says that both freshwater and saltwater species of fish can be caught in the lake, which makes them uncommon but also an efficient asset to anglers.

When I visited this time, I didn’t feel the need to dig the sand or alter them in any way. Instead, I simply recounted the story to Drew, who jokingly said, “Well, I bet this was a nice place before you guys ruined it.”

We spent the day roaming the beach, checking out the dunes and the lakes, taking pictures and having fun. They were beautiful and again I was amazed at the geology of my home state, a place that offers just about any kind of beach you could imagine.

I look back on that day when my brother and I tried to connect the lake to the Gulf and it makes me laugh. It’s nice to know that sometimes you can revisit your past, even if it’s not quite the way you remember it.

Southwest Florida’s Last Land Grab

Published Sunday, January 26, 2014 12:05 am
The 5,770 acre tract for sale in Sarasota County is the last of its kind.

NORTH PORT – Florida has long been the promised land for speculators, as developers and real estate magnates have helped to shape the state in both good and bad ways over the years.

The urge by state leaders to populate Florida goes back even further: the Armed Occupation Act of of 1842 was responsible for populating southwest Florida, promising 160 acres for any man willing to bear arms for the state and defend their new homestead with their lives against attack from Native Americans.

Of course, things are much different now and for one to make history they simply have to have enough money – evidenced by a 5,770 acre tract of land in eastern North Port to be auctioned off Feb. 13 to the highest bidder.

The land, once eyed for a sprawling, high end subdivision called Isles of Athena, was supposed to feature thousands of homes, pools, golf courses and other amenities.

Instead, it has led a quiet, if not ideal, existence following the economic downturn, when the housing market collapsed and ruined thousands, if not millions of lives. The land looks much like it has for thousands of years; deer, wild turkey and hogs freely roam the property, which is dotted with streams, bass-stocked ponds and strands of oak hammocks.
The property will be auctioned off on Febuary 13 to the highest bidder.

According to William Bone, president of Gadsden, Alabama-based National Auction Group, the seven square mile property dubbed McCall Ranch is a rarity, a veritable “Last of the Mohicans” type of opportunity that exists nowhere else in South Florida.

It’s the largest piece of privately owned land left in the southern half of a state still grappling with unchecked urban sprawl, and in some cases, communities like North Port who are still grappling with their identity.

While other properties of this size still exist in South Florida as parks and preserves, they too may not be safe from development. The Manatee County Planning and Zoning Board set a recent precedent when they voted in favor of rezoning a 6.9 acre-property on the eastern side of Terra Ceia Island. With one vote, the land, which is owned by the Southwest Florida Water Management District (SWFWMD), went from a conservation zone to a mixed use property. The parcel is adjacent to a preserve and considered a flood zone.

Bone’s company will be overseeing the February auction, which he describes as having the potential to be “quite an event,” one that could draw as many varied interests such as developers, private investors or environmentalists.

It costs $200,000 just to register for the auction, Bone said, and the property has been listed for sale with various real estate agencies over the years. Most recently it was listed at $36 million, although appraisal information was unavailable.
The property, for the most part, remains untouched.

According to Bone, a property that size simply does not exist anymore, unless it’s in the hands of federal or state agencies.

While it’s doubtful that the land would be preserved by local legislators, Bone did say that it’s possible an environmental group could snatch the land up in order to keep it in its pristine, natural condition.

But the land will likely become what so many others across the state have turned into, like the sprawling and epic Lakewood Ranchcommunity in Manatee County, that spreads over nearly 31,000 acres and boasts 11,000 residents in 5,000 homes.

Lakewood Ranch was so successful, developers decided to create another sprawling residential development in northern Manatee County, dubbed “Lakewood Ranch Jr.” by the Bradenton Herald editorial board.

The success rate of these types of developments is spotty at best, especially in a post-housing collapse world.

Just to the south of McCall Ranch, a 17,000 acre property called Babcock Ranch spans two counties and was envisioned by developer and former professional football playerSyd Kitson as a green, futuristic community that was powered entirely with solar energy.

The development has started and stalled over the years, and even been infused with $40 million worth of public dollars. It was supposed to serve as both preserve and city, with free wireless internet that spanned the entire property, dozens of schools, light industry, manufacturing, shopping, dining, business parks and more than 8,000 homes.
The parcel is located in eastern North Port.

If a developer with deep pockets and a renewed sense of ambition thinks McCall Ranch is going to be the next great community in Southwest Florida, then it’s got some competition to both the north and the south; that is, if Kitson ever breaks ground on Babcock, which is now scheduled for 2016.

The developer would also have to contend with the glut of vacant and foreclosed homes that pepper not only North Port but all of southernSarasota County; so in addition to deep pockets, they would have a deep well of patience.

Lakewood Ranch took nearly 20 years to grow to 11,000 residents. So if McCall Ranch does one day become yet another planned community, it would likely take decades for it to flourish. Of course, as those years roll by, an entire generation of young Floridians will not have access to the land, not unless they want to buy it, and the chance to preserve these kinds of opportunities will lessen.

Is there a balance that can be found? Of course. But one way or the other history will be made on Feb. 13, as a final piece of Florida’s heritage will be handed to the highest bidder.

FHP: Keeping Roads Safe for 75 Years

Published Sunday, February 9, 2014 12:05 am

FHP train in Bradenton. Photo: Florida Memory Project

FHP train in Bradenton.
Photo: Florida Memory Project

It was 7:30 a.m. on May 9, 1980, when a blinding thunderstorm caused the MV Summit Venture freighter to strike one of the Sunshine Skyway’s concrete pilings.

The accident collapsed 1,250 feet of the southbound lanes of the bridge and caused the deaths of 35 people after seven cars and a bus plummeted to the water before traffic could be stopped.

Florida Highway Patrol traffic investigators were tasked with sorting out the details of those 35 deaths, and a final report tallied 570 pages. It was one of the many times the agency has played a part in Florida’s history. Over the years, their contributions to the state and its residents have been invaluable.

Even in 1980, as investigators pieced together the tragic end to those 35 lives, the agency was a long way from its roots. Like much of Florida, they were born out of a modern frontier-like landscape that owed more to agriculture than beaches, Mickey Mouse and vacation resorts.

In the Beginning

It was the early 1930s and the American automobile was on the rise.

People were more mobile than ever, as families started to steer away from train travel to the empowering feeling of driving their own cars. The growth of automobile travel of course coincided with the expansion of the nation’s roadways and the start of a migrating population, one that was captured by John Steinbeck’s “Grapes of Wrath.”

With this newfound mobile freedom, people were more attracted to Florida than ever, but this rise of an automobile culture also came with the increased need to patrol the roads.

Florida was overwhelmed by the sudden need to enforce the laws on roadways, especially after former Governor Doyle Carlton deemed it the responsibility of the state’s newly formed road department in 1931.

Two unidentified troopers on the side of the road circa 1941. Photo: Florida Memory Project

Two unidentified troopers on the side of the road circa 1941.
Photo: Florida Memory Project

It wasn’t until 1934 that the Florida Highway Patrol first took shape, when Governor Dave Sholtz decided that a division dealing strictly with traffic enforcement was needed after the state’s road department was overwhelmed with keeping up with infrastructure needs while dually enforcing traffic laws.

By 1936 there were 25 traffic inspectors in the new traffic enforcement divison. Outfitted with a green military color style uniform, the unit was led by a man named H. Neil Kirkman, a former Army Major who had an expertise in engineering. The state’s roads were now being policed and overseen by an agency that had the leadership they needed.

But it would all come crashing down in 1937, when Governor Fred Cone dismantled the department in what he said was a cost saving move, forcing the state legislature to create the State Department of Public Safety and its two divisions; the Florida Highway Patrol and the Division of State Motor Vehicle Drivers Licenses in 1939.

The state legislature authorized the hiring of 60 officers, and 5,000 men applied. Eventually, the first troop, consisting of 31 officers, was assembled and the first academy was taught at the Bradenton Municipal Pier, which in the present day is Pier 22. Troopers were housed at the Manavista Hotel and trained at the site of present day Bradenton City Hall. They were paid $1,500 per year; thereafter, the salary would increase $120 a year until a maximum of $2,000 a year was reached.

Portrait of Florida Highway Patrolman Bill Norris, graduate of the 1941 patrol school in Lakeland, Florida. He was said to be one of the best riders on the highway patrol and stationed in Orlando, Florida, according to the Florida Memory Project

Portrait of Florida Highway Patrolman Bill Norris, graduate of the 1941 patrol school in Lakeland, Florida. He was said to be one of the best riders on the highway patrol and stationed in Orlando, Florida, according to the Florida Memory Project

Now entering its 75th year, the Florida Highway Patrol has grown into one of the busiest agencies in the state, a longstanding tradition that began during its first year of operation when those scant 31 troopers clocked 154,829 hours of patrol time, investigated 1,000 accidents, examined 127 motorists killed, patrolled 1,938,564 miles, aided 1,132 persons injured and  arrested 4,836 motorists.

The 1940s saw the number of Troopers increased by 190, along with an added $150 a year for those eager to sign up for the busy and increasingly important line of work.

In 1952, the state was divided into sectors or different troops, designated by an alphabetic system that still exists today. The first speed sign in Florida was erected in 1953.

Many of the organization’s signatures, including the tan uniforms and their insignia that featured the state’s largest cash crop at the time, the orange, were introduced in the 1950s and remain largely unchanged.

But as the 1950s rolled on, the FHP would face one of their greatest challenges – a nationwide interstate system, which would be contracted by the federal government.

Interstates Change the Game

Simeon "Simmie" Moore holding his daughter Frances "Teenie" Moore in Madison County, Fla. circa 1937 or 1938. Moore drove an Indian motorcycle and was later Madison County sheriff (1948-1972). Photo: Florida Memory Project.

Simeon “Simmie” Moore holding his daughter Frances “Teenie” Moore in Madison County, Fla. circa 1937 or 1938. Moore drove an Indian motorcycle and was later Madison County sheriff (1948-1972).
Photo: Florida Memory Project.

President Dwight D. Eisenhower enacted the Federal Highway Act on June 29, 1956, pledging $25 billion to build 41,000 miles of the newly designed interstate highway system.

Florida was almost immediately thrust into the action, as construction of Interstate 95 started in 1957, and work on Interstate 10 began in 1958.

Work on Interstate 75 wouldn’t begin in Florida until the mid 1960s, but by then the agency was already in the swing of patrolling the new roadways, which now connected the entire nation in a way that it had never been before.

By the end of the 1950s, the agency had already instituted new tactics and technologies to make their jobs easier. This included a new teletype system which allowed the different troops to communicate effectively, according to Lt. Greg Bueno, the current public affairs officer for Fort Myers-based Troop F, which serves 10 counties including Sarasota and Manatee,

The agency celebrated its 20th Anniversary in 1959, having grown from 31 men to 461 “well trained and well equipped officers,” Bueno said. It expanded to 11 troops, which still exist to this day and patrol all corners of the state.

Other highlights include:

  • The 1960s saw the agency take to the skies, as they started using two Piper aircraft to enforce traffic laws. By the 1980s the fleet would grow to 11 planes and eventually include the use of helicopters in the 1990s. Three pilots have been killed in the line of duty.
  • 1971 saw a trooper named Joe Willie DeCoursey join the ranks, beginning a 25-year career with the agency. DeCoursey, who served as a traffic homicide investigator, would retire in 1996, making him the first African-American trooper to reach 25 years of service.
  • The 1980s saw the agency having a hand in some of the more prominent Florida events of the decade, including assisting with the processing of 125,000 Cuban refugees following the Mariel Boatlift; FHP homicide troopers investigating the 35 deaths that resulted from the collapse of the Sunshine Skyway in 1980, after a cargo ship struck the bridge’s concrete pilings; 100 troopers from across the state being sent to Liberty City, to help bring order to a community that had a crime rate spiraling out of control. During that time troopers made 58,000 arrests.

By the late 90s Florida had the fourth largest population in America, with 14.7 million residents. Four hundred and fifty people a day were moving to Florida by 1998, according to stats, and the FHP had to develop new ways to ensure law and order on the state’s roadways.

Florida Highway Patrolman Ralph Moore , Tallahassee, Fla., stands by the cab driven by murder victim Adam William "Bud" Jenkins. Photo: Florida Memory Project

Florida Highway Patrolman Ralph Moore , Tallahassee, Fla., stands by the cab driven by murder victim Adam William “Bud” Jenkins.
Photo: Florida Memory Project

According to Bueno, by the year 2000, the agency was dedicated with using the latest technologies in their vehicles, including mobile data computers, mapping software, finger print scanners and two camera systems.

The agency’s mission has stayed the same, even through the tools have changed, Bueno said, to protect both the safety of the public and the troopers, many of whom have fallen in the line of duty.

Forty-eight troopers have died while on the job since 1936; Trooper Royston E. Walker was the first to fall, when he was shot and killed on Aug. 31, 1936 by a motorist he was trying to stop for having faulty headlights. Walker had been a trooper for seven months. The most recent trooper to fall was William H. Dyer III, who died in a single vehicle crash in Leon County, after serving as a trooper for 16 years.

As the agency celebrates its 75th Anniversary, the FHP is undoubtedly looking ahead while honoring its past. For three quarters of a century, the agency has grown as the state has, answering the call while often paying for it with the ultimate sacrifice.

As more and more people will continue to be drawn to the state, the role of the FHP will continue to grow, in order to meet the demands of public safety and to meet all of the challenges ahead.

Sunday Favorites: Welcome to ‘Midget City’

Sunday Favorites: Welcome to ‘Midget City’

Published Sunday, December 1, 2013 12:05 am

A member of the Doll family rides an elephant at the Ringling Brothers and Barnum and Baily Circus. 

Photo: Florida Memory Project

In the 1950s, just three miles south of the Sarasota City limits, there were plans to build a Florida version of Munchkinland, with buildings and roads designed for people less than four feet tall. 

A female promoter, Mrs. Neal Chaplin Swalm, wanted the site developed into a small-scale city called “Midget City” with only little people living and working within the limits. 

Those residents would serve as a spectacle for tourists who would be renting rooms at a nearby “normal sized” hotel, but window-shopping in undersized storefronts and dining in restaurants run entirely by dwarves. 

Sound odd? It wasn’t the first time a group of people had been imported purely for show.

Sarasota had become a mecca of strange and outlandish tourist attractions ever since John Ringling announced that his beloved Sarasota would serve as the winter headquarters of the “Greatest Show on Earth.” The show had been based in Bridgeport Connecticut in years prior. 

The move was anticipated to provide much-needed employment opportunities for Sarasotans and an incentive for tourism after a major hurricane in Miami in 1926 contributed to the end of the Florida land boom during the 1920s. 

The world’s circus barrens had made it their mission to seek out unusual humans and show them off to the world. 

In 1929, a man by the name of Dr. Eugene Burgonier brought 12 Ubangis women from Africa to be featured in the circus. The women, who considered it a sign of beauty to stretch out their lips with ceramic disks, were paraded around the arena in front of circus goers and advertised as “the world’s most weird living humans.”

Florida Governor Fuller Warren meets with little people in Sarasota. 

Photo: Florida Memory Project

In his book, Hidden History of Sarasota, Jeff Lahurd describes how the circus theme had spread throughout Sarasota County by the 1950s. He lists a handful of attractions including Sarasota County Horn’s Cars of Yesterday, the Glass Blowers and Texas Jim’s Animal Farm to name a few. 

Lahurd writes that Swalm came up with the idea of “Midget City” while interviewing Nate Eagle, “Midget Impresario,” for a book he’d been writing about managing little people in other “midget cities” around the world. Eagle managed famous stars including Dottie Williams, who was often referred to as “the miniature Rita Hayworth,” and others like Dot Wenzel, a singing and dancing personality and Trinidad Rodriguez, who Lahurd refers to as “the smallest woman in the world.”

By the 1930s a worldwide fascination with little people and the popularity of the movie the Wizard of Oz had prompted several other theatrical performances starring little people. Small-scale villages were popping up all over the world and Swalm believed her miniature endeavor would be the perfect fit for a city already associated with humans of every shape and form.

The 40 acre tract that Swalm had plotted for her town was to be incorporated and completely run by little people; they would have their own mayor, police department and fire department.

Two little people pose in front of a circus train. 

Photo: Florida Memory Project

Swalm’s plan was to attract little people to the location by offering them free rent if they would spend their winters in the town she had created just for them. Swalm believed her residents would make money for their utilities and amenities by running the businesses that she would build onsite. And one can’t forget that the miniature people would bring miniature fruit to sell to guests when they arrived on the bus. The whole endeavor would cost an estimated $290,000. 

The biggest money making businesses, Swalm predicted, would be television publicity and a small-scale girls fashion industry where children could buy “ladies’ clothing” that resembled there mothers’ attire but fit their small stature. 

It is unknown why her plan never came to fruition. But despite the lack of development, the legends associated with Swalm’s vision have had a lasting effect on the Sarasota Community. It was believed that Ringling built small-scale houses for the Doll family, a clan of little people that toured with his circus. 

Anita Bartholomew was sure she’d purchased one in the 90s when she signed the deed for a Norman Revival style home, also known as “the midget’s house,” that was built in Indian Beach in the 1930s, then moved to the Sarasota mainland several years later.

A man poses before a show.

Photo: Florida Memory Project

In an interview with the Sarasota Herald Tribune in 2012, she describes the “circus lore” attached to the building and tells the reporter, Marsha Fottler, how her cat Murphy’s “funny reaction” to “something,” which she believed to be the ghost of a little person,  at the bottom of the staircase prompted her to hire a feng shui practitioner to neutralize the home. 

Bartholomew turned legend into fiction when she authored a book, “The Midget’s House … A Circus Story, A Love Story, A Ghost Story,” that is currently available in the gift shop at the Ringling museum. She stresses in a prologue that her book is simply fiction and lacks historical evidence to confirm her romantic tale. 

Sarasota remained the headquarters for the circus through the 1950s, and then in 1960 it moved to Venice, which is still known as “Circus City” to locals. 

While “Midget City” never materialized its impact on the Sarasota community remains active and every time one drives on U.S.41 from Sarasota to Venice, they can squint their eyes and try to imagine Swalm’s big dreams for the little city.