Thursday, December 1, 2011

A glimpse into Manatee County history



Hamilton Disston
In 1881, wealthy Philadelphian Hamilton Disston made a remarkable Florida land deal that kick-started the state's sluggish economy. To help bail out the state's foundering Internal Improvement Fund, he bought four million acres for 25 cents an acre. By the end of the year, he sold half of it to a wealthy British politician who had railroad interests in Florida.

Disston brought in friends from Philadelphia and elsewhere as partners and set up various companies to develop the remaining land. All this activity spurred development throughout the state, and Manatee County was no exception. A remarkable Township Abstract Book from Manatee County is in the collection of rare and unusual items at Lighthouse Books, ABAA.

The large leatherbound book contains the handwritten records of real estate transactions from about 1882 to 1887 in Manatee County, which was originally much larger than it is today. Here is a treasure trove of entries with the names of many of the region's early pioneers, as well as other players in the development of Florida at the time.

Disston himself is listed, as are his wife and the land buying British politician, Sir Edward James Reed, an accomplished maritime architect for the Royal Navy well before he began investing in Florida's railroads. Reed, along with some Dutch and English investors, bought several small railroads and merged them into a larger transportation company. Within five years, though, Reed had gotten out of the railroad business.

Here, too, are entries for land purchases by some local pioneer luminaries, such as Ziba King, Robert C. Hendry and John W. Whidden.

Ziba King
King was a self-made cattle baron. He came to Tampa from Georgia after fighting as a private in the Georgia Infantry. He opened a dry goods store at Fort Ogden and prospered. He bought land and cattle, and became a banker, and a leading citizen. King was elected Justice of the Peace and served on the school board. Stetson Kennedy used to tell the story that King came to the rescue when Manatee County didn't have enough cash to pay its schoolteachers. King distributed enough gold to pay their salaries for six months.

Robert C. Hendry was another early pioneer in Manatee County. He and his wife Zilla Ann moved to Florida from Thomasville, Georgia. Their son, John Wright Hendry would become a Baptist preacher and cattleman. A relative, Francis A. Hendry, who had been a major in the Confederate States Army, also became a cattleman and helped establish beef markets in Cuba for Florida cattle. The county was named after Francis.

John C. Whidden fought as a mounted volunteer in the Third Seminole War. After the war, he became sheriff of Manatee county, and later tax collector. He also served as a lieutenant in the Confederate army. After the Civil War, Whidden returned to Manatee county and started growing his herd. He was active in the Baptist church and in state politics, serving in the State House and the Senate. Senator Whidden sponsored the bill to create DeSoto County from the larger Manatee County in 1887.

This volume offers peeks into other aspects of the region's history, including transactions in Arcadia, which became the county seat after the government was moved from Pine Level. H.E. Carlton, then-tax collector for the relatively new DeSoto County, is recorded several times selling property for unpaid taxes. Here, too, are references to the Kissimmee Land Company, one of Disston's many companies, and the Jacksonville, Tampa and Key West Railroad, a rail and steamboat network that eventually became part of the Plant System.

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