Just Like Old Times

The Pace of Life is Languid Along the Manatee River

And that's just how residents like it.

By Ilene Denton January 2, 2020 Published in the January 2020 issue of Sarasota Magazine

To old-timers like me who remember bumping down University Parkway when it was a dirt road, our region’s explosive eastward growth can be overwhelming.

When it seems like I don’t recognize our old hometown anymore, I have the perfect antidote: a ride down Riverview Boulevard. With its canopy of moss-laden oaks and stately old homes flanked by royal palms, Riverview Boulevard, as it meanders east along the mile-wide Manatee River from Shaw’s Point to downtown Bradenton and beyond, feels like it’s frozen in time. 

It isn’t really, of course. The Manatee River region, as Martha Marlar, a Premier Sotheby’s International Realty broker-associate who’s been selling the area for 27 years, calls “our quiet but booming area,” is in high demand. Homes are selling, and newcomers—an influx from high-tax regions like the Northeast, as well as Anna Maria islanders tired of the terrible beach traffic and spooked by ever stronger tropical storms—continue to buy.

Marlar ticks off the reasons: “It’s a very good way of life and a good value compared to surrounding areas,” she says. “And it’s just beautiful, laid-back, with privacy, bigger lots, no traffic problems, surrounded by parks and preserves and water. It’s not going to appeal to the urban dweller. It’s the opposite of that.”

Bradenton native Todd McClure didn’t grow up on the Manatee River, but he spent lots of time at his grandmother’s grand Georgian-style home on Riverview Boulevard, wave running and kneeboarding with friends in nearby Warner’s Bayou. “We called it the Big House,” he says fondly. Built on more than three riverfront acres in 1934 by E.E. Bishop, patriarch of one of Bradenton’s most prominent and philanthropic families, his grandmother’s home of 50 years is now on the market, ready to be turned over to a new generation.

Friends gather at the riverside McClure residence

Image: Jenny Acheson

When it came time four years ago to set down roots for their young family, McClure and his wife, Sally, say “the call of the river” was too strong to resist. Instead of building a new home in a nearby neighborhood, they bought another grand old Riverview Boulevard home a dozen houses east of his grandmother’s. It’s the old Harrison estate, a classic French-style home of red brick with tall twin chimneys, built in 1967 on 1.3 riverfront acres—the exact copy of the cover home in the Spring/Fall 1958 issue of the House & Garden Book of Buildings. (The McClures have an age-worn copy of the magazine.) In the Manatee River region, where it seems like everybody knows everybody else, patriarch George Harrison had been best man at Todd’s grandfather’s wedding. 

The McClures make the most of living on the river. They play on the narrow beach that’s exposed at low tide and on swings that hang from a riverside chestnut tree. A towering pine tree in the back yard is the tallest tree in sight, and they delight in seeing ospreys and bald eagles using it as a launching pad to fish for mullet. The family often spots dolphins, manatees, horseshoe crabs and sting rays, too.

Todd McClure built an 826-foot dock, the longest on the river—so long that they use a golf cart to get out to their Grady White offshore boat and their little Beavertail skiff, made by a Bradenton boat building company for shallow coastal fishing. The dock is made of ThruFlow panels that allow light to pass through to the sea grasses underneath. The family regularly takes a boat out to Egmont Key or Beans Point at the north end of Anna Maria, or to eat at area waterfront restaurants.

And the children are growing tomatoes in an EarthBox on the back porch, fitting since Todd McClure is a fifth-generation tomato farmer, heavily involved in the management of his family’s statewide farm operations.

“We realize there’s only a handful of houses on the river here. To have boats in the back yard, be able to go fishing off the dock, see manatees swimming under the dock, we’re incredibly blessed,” says McClure.

Sally’s parents, Tennesseans, have bought the adjacent property and will soon start building their own home so they can be closer to their growing grandchildren.

A River with a Past

For all its placid nature, the Manatee River has an interesting past.

Shaw’s Point, a spit of land at the mouth of the river, is said to be the spot where Spanish explorer Hernando de Soto and his 600 conquistadors first set foot in North America in 1539. (De Soto and his men, of course, then pillaged their way across the southeast United States, spreading death and disease among the Native Americans they encountered.) For decades, Manatee County high schoolers, my husband in the late 1960s included, re-created his landing as part of the De Soto Heritage Festival, playing either Indian or conquistador.

While many historians now believe de Soto came ashore instead a hundred miles south in Charlotte Harbor, the De Soto National Memorial was established by the National Park Service on a 25-acre site along the Manatee River in 1939, the 400th anniversary of his arrival in the New World. The Memorial has a lovely shoreline nature trail, with interpretative signage that sheds light on its history. Ranger-led guided walks and kayak tours are offered; and from December through April visitors can explore Camp Uzita, a living history camp where volunteers dressed in period attire share a glimpse of what life was like for conquistadors and indigenous peoples alike during the de Soto expedition.

The Bishop Museum of Science and Nature (formerly known as the South Florida Museum) has devoted an exhibit room to many of the pioneers who settled the area—people like Josiah Gates, who, in 1841, sailed up the Manatee River to become the first citizen of the settlement of Manatee; and the Fogarty family, who built the Fogarty Boat Works in 1866 on 35 riverfront acres from what is now 26th Street to 37th Street. And places like Mitchelsville, settled by 72 families in the late 1800s near the site of today’s Rye Bridge; Fort Hamer, a Seminole war-era fort established in 1849 to guard the settlements along the river; and the Florida Volunteer Coast Guard station on Shaw’s Point, which monitored ships up and down Tampa Bay during the Civil War.

Judah P. Benjamin, Secretary of State of the Confederacy, was believed to have taken refuge at the Gamble plantation on the Manatee River’s north shore after the Civil War ended; he used the river as the start of his escape route to the Bahamas and eventually to England. Today, the site is known as the Judah P. Benjamin Confederate Memorial at Gamble Plantation Historic State Park. 

Decades earlier, between 1812 and 1821, as many as 750 escaped slaves built a settlement they called Angola along the Manatee River in what is now east Bradenton. Remnants of the settlement were discovered in 2009 during an archaeological dig at the Manatee Mineral Spring Historic Site.    

Todd McClure fishes with his son.

Image: Jenny Acheson

Nature Calls

You don’t have to live on the Manatee River to enjoy its tranquil pleasures. These three public parks offer plenty of access.

Robinson Preserve is a popular county park with 682 acres of coastal wetland habitat at the mouth of the river on its south shore. Biking and kayaking are popular pursuits here—there’s even kayak storage onsite—and a nifty elevated treehouse, the Mosaic NEST (Nature, Exploration, Science and Technology), houses classrooms for a variety of educational programs.

At the western end of Palmetto’s Snead Island, at the mouth of the river on the north shore, Emerson Point Preserve has walking and bicycling trails, canoe and kayak launch, a waterfront boardwalk, picnic pavilion and observation tower from which to catch great views of Tampa Bay and Terra Ceia Bay.   

And out east of the interstate in Parrish, 145-acre Rye Preserve is a quiet retreat on the upper Manatee River that offers fishing, picnicking, hiking (the Red trail is wheelchair accessible), horseback riding on designated trails, a canoe and kayak launch, and, on the weekends, tent camping, too. Because it’s so countrified, Rye Preserve is a nice place for wildlife spotting, especially at sunrise and sunset, when white-tailed deer, bobcats and gray foxes have been seen. 

The Riverwalk

Image: Jenny Acheson

The Riverwalk and More

Follow the Manatee River eastward past the leafy old neighborhood of Point Pleasant and you’ll arrive at a growing and changing downtown

Lively pubs inhabit the historic brick buildings that line Old Main Street down to the Manatee River. Realize Bradenton, the nonprofit redevelopment organization, hosts a plethora of public events, including a Saturday morning farmers market, an annual Art Slam and a speed-boat regatta that thousands attend.

The heart of downtown Bradenton is the Riverwalk, a 1.5-mile public linear park along the Manatee River that offers free fun for everyone: a family fun zone and splash pad, fishing pier, beach volleyball courts, skate park, tidal discovery zone that encourages interaction with the riverfront’s ecosystem, and an amphitheater that’s home to the annual Bradenton Blues Festival, always a sellout. An eastward extension is being planned that will take the Riverwalk along Riverside Drive East.

Outdoor dining at Pier 22.

Image: Jenny Acheson

A Meal With a View

Pier 22, 1200 First Ave. W. On the historic Memorial Pier jutting into the Manatee River, this restaurant is a longtime downtown Bradenton institution, offering casual fine dining for lunch and dinner. pier22dining.com/home

Mattison’s Riverwalk Grille, 101 Riverfront Blvd., #120. Part of Chef Paul Mattison’s family of restaurants, the open-air restaurant on the Riverwalk in downtown Bradenton serves lunch, dinner and weekend brunch. mattisons.com

Riverhouse Waterfront Restaurant, 995 Riverside Drive, Palmetto. Seafood-driven menus for lunch, dinner and Sunday brunch; a nice spot for sunsets. riverhousefl.com

Riverside Café, 995 Riverside Drive, Palmetto. Breakfast, lunch and dinner inside or on the outdoor patio overlooking the river. facebook.com/Riverside-Waterfront-Deck

Woody’s River Roo, 5717 18th St. E., Ellenton. Where the river meets I-75 on the north shore, this casual restaurant boasts a tiki bar and live music nightly. woodysriverroo.com

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