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Winter resort guests enjoying a picnic along Little Sarasota Pass. John Webb is in his captain's hat at the left of the picture.

In the 19th century, Florida was bug-infested, unbearably hot and humid, and sparsely populated. Not many people were brave enough to travel to this faraway place. But one family, the Webbs, made the journey and then encouraged others to come by opening a winter resort.

In 1858, John Greene Webb, his wife, Eliza Webb, and their three children decided to move from Utica, New York, to Virginia in hopes of alleviating Eliza’s asthma. But the Civil War hindered their plans of settling on a farm in Mohawk Valley, and John decided to take his family farther south, to uncharted Florida. In 1868, the family settled at what is now Historic Spanish Point.

Early life was difficult, but over the years, the Webbs were able to get the farm to flourish, growing sugar cane to make into syrup. They started inviting their extended family down from New York to help them build up the homestead, and John, known for his entrepreneurial spirit, came up with the idea to open the Webb Winter Resort.

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Picnicking was popular with resort guests. Frank Guptill (in white suspenders) and Lizzie Guptill (standing behind Frank) entertained some guests on a picnic in 1910.

“I think the Webbs recognized it was a demand, and that people would enjoy it,” says Garrett Murto, curatorial assistant at Historic Spanish Point.

John placed an advertisement in the New York newspapers in 1872, and curious Northerners started making the trek, typically sailing down the East Coast and around the tip of Florida; where the Webbs would pick them up in Manatee Village. As word spread, guests flocked from other parts of the country, including Kentucky, Ohio, Minnesota and Michigan, taking the train to Tampa and then arriving at the resort by horse and buggy.

“It was kind of the genesis of the Sarasota hotel business, which was important in the 1910s and 1920s and even to this day,” Murto says.

Guests could stay at the Webb resort for a cost of $35 a month for room, board, fuel and laundry. The family would host about 20 to 25 guests a year, but the inn reached its peak in 1900 with 30 guests. Most guests remained for three months, and during their stay were introduced to the maritime-based Florida lifestyle we enjoy today—boating to the beach for a picnic, searching for shells, fishing and exploring the wild. Guests also went hunting and searched for turtle eggs on the beach to bring back for dinner.

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The Magic, above, was a sailboat hull repurposed as a motor launch for the Webb winter resort. John Webb transported guests around Little Sarasota Bay on the Magic for picnics and shell collecting on Siesta Key. 

Several dignitaries, including the Duke and Duchess of Southerland, stayed at the inn over the years until it closed in 1910. The Webbs also hosted Smithsonian researchers interested in ornithology, paleontology and conchology, the study of mollusk shells. Norman Spang, a prominent mineral collector whose collection can be seen at the Carnegie Museum of Natural History, stayed at the inn and even bought some property there in 1903.

Mrs. B.M. Sherrill traveled to the inn in 1892 with her daughter, Mary Sherrill, in hopes of curing Mary’s tuberculosis.

Unfortunately, Mary passed away in her fifth week at the inn, but the Webbs helped Mary’s mother construct Mary’s Free Chapel in her honor. Since a lot of guests were at the inn during the winter holidays, the chapel became an important gathering place for Christmas festivities. (The charming chapel is a popular site for weddings now.)

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Frequent visitor Norman Spang built a dock, house and observation tower on Spanish Point.

Today, Historic Spanish Point celebrates the holidays with Holly Days and Mangrove Lights. The grounds are open until 8 p.m. on Thursdays and Fridays during December, the pathways and mangroves are lit with lights, and festive music plays throughout the property. The annual Holly Holiday party celebrates with food and live holiday music, and the Starlight and Fire Family party on Christmas Eve hosts bonfires, marshmallow roasting, crafts, popcorn and hot cider. Visitors can enjoy the holidays and walk the same trails the guests at the Webb Winter Resort did more than 100 years ago.

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Bertha Palmer’s pergola and sunken garden occupy the spot where the Webbs’ resort once stood. In the background is the White Cottage; below is the interior of the Guptill House, summoning up the Florida pioneer era.

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Aunt Eula's banana nut bread.

Image: Shutterstock

And, if you’d like to mark this year’s holidays with some home-cooked recipes early settlers such as the Webbs might have prepared and enjoyed, here are a few from the cookbook Historic Spanish Point: Cooking Then and Now, compiled by the Gulf Coast Heritage Association, Inc., on sale at the Historic Spanish Point gift shop.

Fried Whole Turkey

1 (12 pound) turkey
Portable gas burner
Basket-in fryer to lift turkey
Large (40 quarts) cooking pot for oil
4 gallons of peanut oil
1 large cooking syringe
2 cups seasoned oil and vinegar dressing
½ bottle of Dijon mustard
½ box (4 ounces) Tony Chacheres seasoning

(To make your own seasoning: 2 ounces salt, 1 ½ ounces of red pepper, 1 ounce garlic powder, 1 ounce chili powder, 1 ounce Accent)

Fill cooking syringe with seasoned oil and vinegar dressing and inject the turkey. Cover turkey with mustard and Tony’s seasoning. Heat oil until temperature reaches 350 degrees. Immerse turkey in pot for 3 minutes per pound. The turkey turns dark as it cooks.  Yield: 10 servings

Calamondin Pie

1 cup plus 1 tablespoon sugar, divided
2 tablespoons flour
⅛ teaspoon salt
¼ cup softened butter
½ cup water
3 eggs (reserve 1 teaspoon white)
2/3 cup thinly sliced calamondins
1 teaspoon cinnamon
2 (9-inch) pie crusts

Preheat oven to 400 degrees. Mix 1 cup of sugar with salt and flour. Beat the eggs. Add soft butter and water to the eggs. Blend the two mixtures together, adding the calamondins. Line pie plate with pie crust. Spoon in the filling. Cover with second pie crust. Seal edges and cut several vents in top crust. Brush with reserved egg white and sprinkle with sugar and cinnamon. Bake for 30-35 minutes.

Aunt Eula’s Banana Nut Bread

2 cups sugar
1 ¼ cups of oil
2 eggs (room temperature)
1 ½ teaspoons baking soda
2/3 cup buttermilk (room temperature)
3 ripe bananas
3 cups sifted flour
1 cup finely chopped nuts
1 teaspoon vanilla

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Cream oil and sugar. Add well-beaten eggs. Put the baking soda in the buttermilk. Add to the eggs, oil and sugar. Peel and mash bananas and add to creamed mixture, stirring well. Add sifted flour, nuts and vanilla. Stir until the batter is smooth. Pour into two greased and floured loaf pans or 1 tube pan. Bake for 55 minutes or until well done (press top of bread with the tip of index finger; if imprint springs back at once, bread is done). Remove from oven, cool and remove from pan. Yield: 8-10 servings.

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