Learn about Palmer’s extraordinary agricultural innovations, her commitment to horticultural science and livestock-raising methods, and her savvy business acumen as foundational to the development of the Sarasota we know today
When the millionaire matron of Chicago high society, Bertha Palmer, arrived in Sarasota in 1910, she encountered a mosquito-infested, boggy marshland that most assumed was uninhabitable. What the savvy businesswoman saw, however, was a tropical paradise with potential to become lucrative land for farming, ranching and leisure.
Palmer immediately purchased 140,000 acres of swampland comprising one-quarter of what would eventually become Sarasota County. The extent to which Palmer transformed that land in the years before her death in 1918, and her lasting influence on Sarasota’s development and Florida agriculture, is remarkable.
Who Was Bertha Palmer?
At a glance, most wouldn’t peg this sumptuously-attired high society woman as the person who would tame a rugged swampland and reform the livestock industry of an entire state.
Bertha Palmer the philanthropist helped host the Chicago World’s Fair in 1893, and is often recognized for her connections to European royalty — such as her personal friend and the son of Queen Victoria, Great Britain’s King Edward VII. Her wealth was immense: Palmer decorated her Chicago mansion with artwork by Monet, Renoir and Picasso, which she scooped up on shopping sprees in Paris, and was known for wearing jewelry totaling tens of thousands of dollars in one sitting.
As unexpected as it may be, Palmer’s late-in-life desire to master the best techniques for Florida agriculture was extraordinary. She consulted with top scientists from Florida land grant colleges, and she pored over papers produced by the USDA on topics such as cattle raising and experimental farming. She experimented with year-round growing techniques, such as planting vegetable crops between rows of slower-growing citrus trees.
Palmer’s success using the the best agricultural science of her time is especially notable at Bee Ridge, where she developed a farming community; at Osprey, where she made her winter home at Historic Spanish Point, and on the land that now encompasses Myakka River State Park, where she introduced ranching techniques that would revolutionize Florida’s cattle and hog industries.
Developing Profitable Farmland from Mucky Swampland
The agricultural subdivision Palmer created at Bee Ridge was one of the earliest of its kind in the United States. She transformed the 10,000 acre region by building a canal system to drain its marshes, and on the newly-drained land, she created ten and 20-acre farms which were honeycombed by smaller canals. Each farm was equipped with an artesian well and road access for a connected community.
Palmer advertised this new farmland to “gentleman farmers” from the north — upper and middle class folk looking to escape big cities in exchange for a more pastoral existence during the “Back-to-the-land” movement that emerged in the early 20th century. To aid these city-slicker amateur farmers, Palmer offered space at her Bee Ridge Hotel, where the farmers could hold community meetings and network with more experienced agriculture professionals. She was also instrumental in the creation of the region’s first farmer’s market, which stimulated the local farm economy.
She transformed the 10,000 acre region by building a canal system to drain its marshes.
Bertha Palmer is also responsible for the development of approximately 5,000 acres of farmland at Osprey and the acquisition of the land today known as Palmer Farms, which her sons, Honoré and Potter II, would develop after her death.
Among the greatest adversaries cattle ranchers faced in turn-of-the-century Florida was the Texas Tick, which drained the cows belonging to Florida’s “cracker” ranchers of their health and resulted in poor market weights. Prior to Palmer’s science-based intervention, the cracker ranching style permitted cattle to roam free, leaving them susceptible to parasites that thrive in the subtropical Florida wilderness.
“The form of cattle raising that took place when Bertha Palmer arrived in Florida dated back to the Spanish occupation, and most ranchers were not well educated. The Texas tick ran loose in the jungle and sapped the cows so they didn’t have much meat on them. It was a curse throughout the American south,” says historian, Frank A. Cassell, who authored the book, Suncoast Empire: Bertha Honoré Palmer, Her Family, and the Rise of Sarasota, 1910-1982.