I live in South Florida, but not in “the South.” I do not hear Southern accents. I do not see grits on many menus. Iced tea is rarely “sweet tea.”
As a result, I forget that I live in a state that actively fought for the Confederacy.
It was eye-opening, then, to tour South Florida’s only antebellum mansion, Gamble Plantation Historic State Park, a house with white columns to rival Tara and the site of a dramatic Civil War event.
It’s located near Sarasota, just two miles off I-75, minutes south of the Sunshine Skyway Bridge to St. Petersburg. The Gamble mansion makes an interesting hour-long stop on a road trip. (My tour included a businessman squeezing in a visit between appointments in Sarasota and St. Pete.)
To go inside the house, you must take a guided tour, offered for $6 at 9:30 a.m. 10:30 a.m., 1, 2, 3 and 4 p.m. from Thursdays to Mondays. (The visitor center is closed and there are no tours on Tuesday and Wednesday.)
The mansion was built in 1844 and has survived wars, hurricanes and tropical humidity – but just barely. After being used to store fertilizer, it sat vacant in the 1920s, decaying away. The United Daughters of the Confederacy came to its rescue, purchasing the property and deeding it to the state.
Today, the house sits at the center of a park filled with towering live oaks cloaked in Spanish moss, near the 1895 Patten House, a pioneer farmhouse also preserved and maintained by the United Daughters of the Confederacy.
Picnic tables are situated under the trees and a small museum tells the Gamble mansion history and exhibits a few Civil War objects. (There’s no fee to visit the grounds or the museum.)
The Gamble Mansion was built shortly after the Second Seminole War ended, opening the area for settlement. Robert Gamble, a major during the war, built a sugar plantation on the Little Manatee River, starting in 1844. He was a bachelor, and yet he built a lavish 10-room two-story mansion. Its tabby walls are nearly 2 feet thick and it has wide shaded verandas wrapping around three sides of the house. The original cistern, which collected water from the mansion roof, remains.
All the labor was done by slaves, including digging 16 miles of canals, necessary to grow sugar. (One of those original canals runs along the park’s borders.) Records show that in 1847, Gamble owned 70 slaves and by 1855, that number had increased to 151. No slave quarters remain.
Gamble only lived there and operated the plantation for 12 years. Deeply in debt, Gamble was forced to sell it (including all the slaves) in 1856 after sugar prices sank.
The museum today is furnished with period items, though none are original to the house. A knowledgeable guide takes visitors through the rooms, pointing out such items as a 19th Century piano, the painted floor cloth and a tea caddy that could be locked after use to protect its valuable contents.
Judah Philip Benjamin and the Gamble Mansion
The story that makes the Gamble Mansion famous, though, is its role in 1865 just after the Confederate surrender.
The secretary of state for the Confederacy was Judah Philip Benjamin, an unusual and fascinating character. He was a prominent Jew, a New Orleans plantation owner and a trusted confidante of Confederate President Jefferson Davis.
After surrender, there was a $40,000 reward for his capture. Traveling in disguise, he made his way south, staying at homes of Confederate supporters until he reached Gamble Mansion, then the home of Archibald McNeil, a famous blockade runner. With McNeil’s help, he stole away on a boat to Bimini. After stops in Nassau, Havana and St. Thomas, he sailed to London, where he was an immediate success as a barrister. He had a long, lucrative career and was much admired by his British colleagues.
The United Daughters of the Confederacy in the Sarasota region, who saved the house, are the Judah P. Benjamin chapter and the park is designated the Judah P. Benjamin Confederate Memorial.
Gamble Plantation Historic Park
3708 Patten Ave.,
Ellenton, FL 34222
Tours are $6 for adults; $4 for children. The visitor center/museum is open Thursday through Monday, 9 a.m. – 5 p.m. but closed for lunch 11:45 a.m. to 12:45 p.m., Thursday through Monday. Visitor center is closed and tours are not available on Tuesday and Wednesday as well as the holidays of Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Year’s Day.
More for history buffs
- A writer for ghosttowns.com says intrepid history fans can seek out the ruins of the plantation’s sugar mill: “The ruins of the mill after it burned down during the Civil War are three-quarters of a mile from the house. They are not restored and call for some walking into a jungle but it is not difficult and quite interesting,” the site says.
- An ancient Native American ceremonial mound is preserved in the nearby 10-acre Madira Bickel Mount State Archaeological Site.
More things to do near Sarasota
Fort DeSoto Park: One of Florida’s best beaches and a historic fort is a half hour away.
Passe-a-Grille, an Old Florida neighborhood on St. Pete Beach is a great beach town.
Updated June 2017.