The Pioneer Hotelier

By staff March 1, 2004

For most Sarasota residents and visitors, "Higel" means no more than the name of a street that runs along Siesta Key-Higel Avenue. But during the era just before the Florida land boom of the '20s accelerated our growth, Harry L. Higel, the man for whom the street was named, was a progressive dynamo, pushing the community toward its future. He managed to envision a backwoods, difficult-to-reach frontier settlement as a resort destination for wealthy snowbirds.

The Higel family first moved to Venice from Philadelphia in 1884. Harry came to Sarasota a few years later. An attempt at a Scottish colony here had already failed, and Higel purchased the dock they had built at the foot of lower Main Street and a general store from the Florida Mortgage and Investment Company. He also sold real estate for the Scots' agent, J. Hamilton Gillespie.

As the community inched slowly forward, Higel became involved in politics and fought hard for Sarasota to incorporate into a town. In short order, he became involved in the steamship industry, Sarasota's only regular link with the outside world, as an agent for a rich Tampa fish dealer named John Savarese, and later owned his own steamer, the Vandalia.

Then the focus of Higel's attention shifted to Sarasota Key, known to us today as Siesta. It was on the north end of the key that he developed Siesta on the Gulf, and advertised it as, "A Place to Rest-Have Peace and Comfort."

In those days Siesta was truly a remote tropical island, reachable only by boat. But it was so beautiful with its sugar sand beaches and vivid Gulf that Higel was certain if he could get the word out and offer a place to stay it could become a popular winter resort. As he put it, Siesta "was being largely developed along lines that appeal to the 'well-to-do,' who wish to leave the snows.and get down here for five or six months of continuous good weather."

Higel first platted Siesta in 1907, and in a massive dredge-and-fill operation dug out canals and formed Bayou Louise and Bayou Nettie. In 1913 he opened bath houses for the day trippers who came to Siesta by boat for swimming, picnics and fishing, offering refreshments and promising that "life lines, safety guards and all preventives of accident will be provided."

Concurrent with his development of Siesta, Higel was elected mayor three times and served four terms on the city commission. He was also Sarasota's first gas and kerosene dealer and a founder of the Sarasota Yacht Club.

But one of his proudest achievements was the Higelhurst Hotel. It stood on Big Pass, perfect for bay and Gulf views and a spectacular spot for fishermen.

The Higelhurst was two stories tall, with columns all around and a large screened porch on the second floor. It opened in 1915, with Higel ferrying 200 celebratory guests to and from the mainland on one of his boats.

The Sarasota Times said the ex-mayor was all smiles as he greeted his guests and offered them refreshments, dancing and card games. The Times added, " It proved his progressive spirit which dominates Sarasota's former mayor. Mr. Higel was preaching optimism and he backed up his faith in the future by planning a hotel."

Rooms rented for $2.50 per night and offered hot and cold running water, large baths, and gas and electric lights. A grand fireplace accentuated the ground floor, which featured large sitting rooms and a dining room that could comfortably sit 150 people. Upstairs, 11 bedrooms were "splendidly furnished."

Higel hoped to appeal to sportsmen. Pictures of the hotel showcased fishermen displaying the day's catch. One showed seven tarpon and a 500-pound shark brought in by one of the hotel's guests in four hours. Another displayed 500 pounds of kingfish caught in three hours by three guests. For swimmers the hotel was also perfect, sitting less than 50 feet from the beach.

The Higelhurst was the hallmark of Higel's dreams for Siesta. But within two years, just before the Siesta bridge was officially opened, the hotel burned to the ground. Higel's son recalled, "I remember the morning it burned, he went out and I went with him, and he had me by the hand and we went to the seawall [on Gulfstream Avenue]. There was a dream that he had accomplished and here all of a sudden-it's gone. And I can see him now-I looked up at him and tears were just coming down his cheeks. I was nine years old."

Although Higel promised he would rebuild, he never did. But he continued to work hard for Sarasota and his beloved Siesta Key.

With the bridge nearing completion, Higel took out a large advertisement in the Sarasota Times: "SIESTA ON THE KEY BOOOMING!" He recalled his earlier prediction about the key, "In 1907 I.predicted Siesta was destined to be the best, high-class location in Florida.MY PREDICTION HAS COME TRUE."

Higel did not live long enough to enjoy fully the fruits of his labors. On Jan. 7, 1921, his body was discovered in the middle of the road, his head and face so badly battered that he was not recognizable. He was driven to Dr. Halton's office on the mainland, barely alive. As there was no hospital in Sarasota, Dr. Halton cleaned his wounds and stabilized him as best he could and had him taken to Bradentown. But Higel never recovered.

Rube Allyn, a former editor of The Sarasota Sun and publisher of the Florida Fisherman, was arrested on circumstantial evidence and jailed in Bradentown for his safety. (Historian Karl Grismer wrote that he might have been lynched otherwise.) The grand jury decided there was not enough evidence to hold him for trial, and he was released 61 days later. A $1,000 reward was offered, but no one else was ever arrested.

Sarasotans showed their appreciation for Higel's service to the community by turning out in force for his burial at Rosemary Cemetery. The Sarasota Times reminded that Higel was "a firm believer in Sarasota; and much of its early development as well as that of later years was due to his untiring activity in its behalf."

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