Bertha Honore Palmer
You could write a book about this famous Chicago socialite and Florida real estate pioneer, and in fact several people have.
The wife and later widow of millionaire Potter Palmer, Bertha turned out be not only a collector of art, jewelry and high-society dinner guests but a savvy businesswoman in her own right. When she first visited the Sarasota area in 1910 (a prototype escapee from cold Midwestern winters), she ended up buying more than 80,000 acres of land here—approximately one-third of the land in what was then a massive Manatee County. And she soon became a progressive rancher and land developer, a hands-on owner who supervised every detail, whether it involved installing cattle-dipping vats to prevent tick fever or the building of her elegant Osprey home, The Oaks, where she hired Central Park designer Frederick Law Olmstead to oversee her landscaping. It’s impossible to imagine the development of Sarasota’s south county without her.
Venice is often described as one of the best-planned cities in the United States, and the credit for that goes to the man who established the principles of modern urban planning. After graduating from Wharton School of Finance and Economics and Harvard’s School of Landscape Architecture, John Nolen grew interested in planning new cities, with greenbelts and zoning that established commercial, industrial and residential areas.
In the 1920s, Nolen, by then nationally famous, was drawn to what he called “The Last Frontier”—Florida, where a real estate boom provided a blank canvas to plan burgeoning cities. In 1925, when hired to build his ideal city in Venice, he designed it as a walkable town with parks, residences for all income levels and views of the Gulf. Although the 1926 real estate crash halted development, Venice followed Nolen’s plan in the decades to come, making it the livable, charming town it is today.
Dr. Fred Albee
The name of orthopedic surgeon Albee is well known in the community, not because he was a bone grafting pioneer whose techniques were used extensively during World War I, but because he first recruited and hired planner John Nolen to develop Venice’s renowned town plan. Besides that, he also built the area’s first bank, established the Florida Medical Center here, and donated land for schools, churches and the first airport in Venice.
His wife, Louella, was no slouch herself; a millinery designer by trade, she served overseas with the Red Cross during World War I and in 1926 was the founder and first president of the Venice-Nokomis Woman’s Club, which is still in existence today. She also donated funds for the first public library and organized the first Girl Scout troop and the Camp Fire Girls in Venice. Several local streets and a park are named for this high-achieving couple.
Most people have probably heard of The Black Stallion, whether from reading the original novel (published in 1941 and followed by 20 more in the series) or from the 1979 film. But did you know that the book’s author, Walter Farley, made his home for many years in Venice?
Farley and his wife, Rosemary, and their children spent half of the year here for decades starting in 1950, with the other half lived on a farm in Pennsylvania. Farley was a prolific writer of novels and stories, not only about young Alec Ramsey and “the Black,” but about other horses as well. Farley rode dressage himself, along with sailing, racing, traveling the world and staying active in children’s reading programs. He helped found the Friends of the Venice Public library, and in 1989 a wing of the library was dedicated in his name. The wooded land on Venice Island where he penned several of his books sold recently for $1.77 million.
In January 1969, a charismatic circus star burst onto the American scene, when animal trainer Gunther Gebel-Williams performed in his new hometown of Venice, Florida. As a child in Germany, Gebel-Williams was apprenticed to a circus and began working with animals, from elephants and horses to tigers. In the ring he mesmerized his wild charges—and the audience.
Rather than dominating animals, he viewed them as his beloved children. Although he was often mauled and bitten, his bond with them was undeniable. He coaxed lions to leap onto the backs of elephants and leopards to jump through circles of fire; and his favorite panther, Kenny, would lie quietly on his shoulders, blinking his eyes and purring.
A workaholic who never missed a show, Gebel-Williams performed some 12,000 times and was the undisputed star of the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus. After retiring from the ring in 1990, he oversaw animal welfare for the circus until his death in 2001.
TIMES OF OUR LIVES
1868 - First settlers the Rev. Jesse Knight, wife Caroline and family arrived, drawn by the Homestead Act
1871 - Robert R. Roberts established residence on south side of the bay named for him
1881 - Frank Higel established citrus operation // John S. Blackburn settled in area now Nokomis
1910 - Bertha Honoré Palmer acquired 140,000 acres of Florida land (including most of what’s now Venice).
1911 - Seaboard Airline Railway extended to current Venice
1915 - Sarasota-Venice Company had a plat surveyed and filed for the town of Venice
1916 - Eagle Point Camp began operating
1917 - Dr. and Mrs. Fred Albee purchased land from Palmer family company
1925 - John Nolen designed Venice city plan for Dr. Albee // Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers purchased land from Albee and began development of Venice
1927 - City of Venice incorporated by Florida Legislature, May 9 // Train depot completed, March 27
1928 - Tamiami Trail opened from Tampa to Miami
1932 - Kentucky Military Institute (KMI) began using Venice as winter headquarters
1942 - Army Air Force Service Group Training Center established at what is now Venice Municipal Airport
1948 - Venice Little Theatre produced plays in warehouse adjacent to runways
1960 - Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus relocated winter headquarters to Venice
1970 - KMI closed Venice operations
1971 - Seaboard Airline Railway service ended
1989 - Three districts and several homes from the 1920s placed in National Register of Historic Places
1991 - Eagle Point district listed in National Register of Historic Places // Circus gave final performance at Venice winter headquarters
2003 - Train depot restoration completed
2005 - Historic Lord-Higel House acquired by City of Venice
2010 - John Nolen Plan of Venice Historic District listed in National Register
2017 - The Venice Museum & Archives presents a 90th anniversary of Venice exhibit, Feb. 6-July 31.