Sunday Favorites: Ill-Fated Journeys

Screen shot 2014-03-27 at 12.21.15 PM

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.

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.