Editor’s note: While Harold Bubil takes some time off, we’ll reprise some of his popular columns. This column originally ran on Oct. 23, 2011.
Scotsman John Hamilton Gillespie came to Sarasota 125 years ago. What he did here is the subject of a celebration this week
A year ago, Sarasota celebrated the 100th anniversary of the arrival of boomtime developer Owen Burns, who came here and created a city out of what was then a sleepy fishing town.
But 24 years before that, another outsider arrived, and what he did was create a sleepy fishing village, and then turn it into a town.
In 1886, John Hamilton Gillespie was sent by his father, Sir John Gillespie, of Scotland, to resuscitate the "Ormiston Colony," which was established a few months earlier by 60 intrepid families that essentially were deceived by promises of paradise. For them, Sarasota turned out to be an inhospitable and unforgiving wilderness.
It didn't help that the syndicate that put together this scheme made a tremendous profit on land they bought on the cheap and sold to the colonists. As Sir John Gillespie was one of the most prominent leaders of the Florida Mortgage and Investment Company, which sold the families on the idea of becoming "gentlemen farmers" in a fertile land of warmth and plenty, he felt compelled to send his son to make good on those promises -- and make something of the FMIC's investment.
It was not easy, but J.H. Gillespie succeeded in creating a functional village that in 1902 became the Town of Sarasota. The younger Gillespie served as its first mayor, built a small golf course around where the Sarasota County Administration Center is today, and put the town on the map.
Without him, Bertha Palmer and Owen Burns might have ended up in St. Petersburg or some other Florida coastal town when they came to fulfill their sunny dreams in 1910. Instead, they -- especially Burns -- came and nurtured what Gillespie had planted.
It is suggested that J.H. Gillespie was Sarasota's first real estate developer, as he built a hotel and several buildings on Lower Main Street, platted the city with current-day Five Points as its hub, and was its first real estate broker.
"I prefer to call him 'The Scot who saved Sarasota,'" said author and historian Jeff LaHurd at his office in the Sarasota County History Center.
That might be because LaHurd, in time for Celebrating John Hamilton Gillespie Week, has just published a small book titled "John Hamilton Gillespie: The Scot Who Saved Sarasota."
Gillespie also was the "Father of Sarasota," said Deborah Dart, chair of the Owen Burns Celebration Committee, which is organizing the Gillespie celebration.
The week of events will include a golf tournament, a tour of historic buildings at Pioneer Park, a trolley tour of Sarasota's historic district, and a book signing and reception.
Of the buildings that will be seen, only the Crocker Church and the Bidwell-Wood House were standing when Gillespie lived here, and he didn't build those. He did pave the way for the development of Sarasota, and the construction of many buildings, still standing, that were built before his death in 1923.
"Of the four major settlers — Gillespie, Burns, Palmer and the Ringlings — Gillespie and Burns were by far the leaders who did the most in the civic arena and brought us amenities that are still here today," said Dart.
"The most important aspect is his contribution of golf" to the community, said Dart. "Yes, he was a premier civic leader, but golf was something that relaxed people and gave them something to do after some incredibly long days of building this community. He brought a new form of recreation to Sarasota and the state of Florida."
Gillespie was in Australia when he got the call from his father to go to Sarasota. Perhaps it was a telegram or a letter, but the message could not have been encouraging. The 34-year-old was to clean up a mess.
"The colony came in December 1885," said LaHurd, "and shortly thereafter started falling apart because they were expecting Little Scotland and got Big Wilderness."
After a two-month journey, the Scots trudged ashore in a "Sara Sota" that had barely any streets, and the few pioneering families scattered around the area had to put them up in their own homes to shelter the Scots from an historically cold winter.
By the time Gillespie arrived to revive the effort, many of the colonists, their dreams of being gentleman farmers dashed by the sandy soil, had given up and gone back to Scotland.
"He was here in March 1886 when one of the other colonists left," said LaHurd. "Gillespie was on hand to bid him farewell." Not a pleasant farewell, perhaps. Many of the colonists blamed a Florida Mortgage and Investment Company front man, Selvin Tait, for deceiving them about Sarasota's infrastructure, or lack thereof. "They were looking for him with shotguns," said LaHurd.
But Gillespie, a gentleman by all accounts, partnered with remaining Scots and locals to start on the business of town-building.
Gillespie took control of FMIC's vast holdings, and gave land "to build churches and schools all the right things a community needs," said Dart.
First off, Gillespie built the DeSoto Hotel on Main Street and Palm Avenue. Around the same time, he built a two-hole golf course, believed to be the first in Florida and among the first in America. Sarasota's tourism industry was born.
When a Scottish colonist told Gillespie that he did not play golf, Gillespie responded, "Mon, yer missin' half yer life."
For 25 years, Gillespie spent the other half of his life leading the community as a multi-term mayor, being a good husband to his beloved second wife, Blanche, and founding the Church of the Redeemer, where he was a lay reader.
In 1910, Gillespie sold all his holdings -- 75 percent of the city -- to Owen Burns for $35,000. As Burns took the town to the next level (it incorporated as a city in 1913), the Gillespies returned to Scotland to contribute to the cause during World War I.
After the war, he came back to Sarasota an elder statesman, witnessing the beginnings of the Florida real estate boom and seeing his co-creation, Sarasota, come into its own.