Eliza Webb was not the first Northerner to move to the southwest coast of Florida for her health (due to her asthma), but she and husband John were surely the first to shape a winter resort to welcome others traveling here for the same reason.
In 1867, the Webb family made an arduous journey from Utica, New York, to Key West by ship, then to Tampa and then to what was still known as Manatee County in search of a prime piece of property on which to make their home. They had been steered in the direction of today’s Osprey (and its now-named Historic Spanish Point) by a Cuban fisherman who had told them of an ideal spot along Little Sarasota Bay—one with freshwater springs, high elevation to avoid flooding, and, oh, yes, what happened to be an ancient Indian burial mound. The Webbs settled into what they called Webb’s Point and began farming crops like sugar cane, peas, corn and squash after building a log home with a roof of thatched palmetto. (Luckily, they had five children to help with those endeavors.)
But it wasn’t just as hard-working farming pioneers that the Webbs made their mark. Savvy businesspeople, they also developed a sugar mill to process their cane, a packing house to ship vegetables and citrus products North, and, eventually, a resort welcoming 20-25 guests at a time, who paid $35 a month for room, board, fuel and laundry. Before closing in 1910, the Webbs’ winter resort had established a popular tradition of snowbird visitors.
Undoubtedly, Eliza as the matriarch must have been largely responsible for the care and feeding of those early guests, who enjoyed frequent picnics and boat outings as part of their stay. The next time you find yourself complaining about too much housework, remind yourself of this letter from Eliza to her sister Nell, dated June of 1875. A few excerpts (provided by Historic Spanish Point):
“I will make no excuses for not having written before, except want of time. Lizzie has told you how we live that we are almost a self-supporting household. We make all the clothes for the men even to their hats which we braid from the Palmetto a kind of Palm which grows all around us. The only thing we don’t make for them is their shoes.
“We make our own sugar and syrup…we raise vegetables for Key West market…for three months in the summer we can get Turtle and their eggs on the Gulf beach….Then our bay is filled with most excellent fish and oisters. Game is quite plenty but it is not often that I can look out of the window and see three Deer feeding within gun shot as I did for three days in succession a few days ago.
“We shall have quite a little show of fruit on our Orange trees this year and Lemmons Limes Citrons and Guavas in abundance, also Bananas. How I wish you could come down some winter and see for yourselves all these things would be so new to you. And then our winters why do you know they seem to me to be a foretaste of that better country to which we all hope to go some time.”
Eliza herself went to that better country in 1884. She is buried in the Pioneer Cemetery at Historic Spanish Point with other family members; the historical, environmental and archaeological site is open to visitors.
And, and by the way, 30 acres of the Webbs' original land was sold to Bertha Honore Palmer in 1910, helping to initiate that prominent woman’s expansive entry into Sarasota. More on her next week.