OSPREY, FL — There never were any Spaniards at Spanish Point.
But archaeological evidence at Spanish Point shows there were plenty of prehistoric people who lived here in relative prosperity, well fed on the bounty of the Gulf of Mexico, as long as 5,000 years ago.
And you can actually see that evidence.
Between 1959 and 1962, scientists started digging around Spanish Point, excavating burial mounds and shell middens, a landfill of sorts for domestic discards.
There are shell middens all over Florida, but this is the only one that was cut in half, enclosed in glass and put on public display.
This “Window To The Past” is enclosed within the walls of a small museum where ancient history is exposed in words and pictures. And then you look through the glass and imagine what life was like thousands of years ago.
The excavation is a cutaway of life. Amid the pile of shells, you’ll find remnants of prehistoric pottery and tools the Indians used in their daily life.
Although some of the more significant archaeological finds have been removed for display and study at the Smithsonian and the University of Florida’s Museum of Natural History, displays at “Window to The Past” effectively tell the story of these early residents based on those studies.
The Palmers and the Webbs – It’s all in the name
The Palmer name is ubiquitous in Sarasota County. Everywhere you look, there are streets, parks and subdivisions named after the wealthy Chicago family who came here in 1910 to develop this lush subtropical paradise on the Gulf Coast into housing, ranches and citrus groves.
The matriarch of the Palmer clan, socialite Bertha Honore Palmer, was the widow of Potter Palmer, a prominent Chicago real estate developer and cofounder of Marshall Field and Company.
Eight years after her husband’s death, Bertha Palmer purchased more than 80,000 acres of land around Sarasota, including 30 acres belonging to Florida pioneers John and Eliza Webb, who established a farm on the site in 1867 and named it Spanish Point.
The name was derived not from Spanish explorers, as you might expect, but rather after a Spanish trader the Webbs had met in Key West while looking for a homestead to settle in Florida. The trader told them of an idyllic coastal location that rose high above what is now Little Sarasota Bay.
The Webb family farmed the land for more than 40 years before it was purchased by Bertha Palmer in 1910.
Bertha Palmer’s winter estate
Bertha Palmer selected the Webb farm as the anchor of her 350-acre winter estate, where she could live while overseeing the development of her other lands in Sarasota County.
She left largely intact the shell middens and burial mounds on the property, as well as the Webb homestead, outbuildings buildings and chapel, while building her own home and gardens on a ridge above the bay.
Palmer developed the gardens in keeping with the layout of the original homestead, incorporating the farms buildings into a tropical landscape punctuated with pergolas, classic Greek columns, lawns and flower gardens.
An early aqueduct that transported water for the Webb homestead and farmlands can still be seen among the rich foliage and flowers that Palmer added to the property, which she called Osprey Point.
Meadow Sweet Ranch
A few miles from Osprey Point, Palmer carved out a 15,000-acre cattle ranch along the Myakka River called Meadow Sweet Pastures. Mrs. Palmer’s intent was to make the ranch a laboratory for improving cattle production.
Under her tutelage, the Meadow Sweet was responsible for numerous innovations in cattle ranching, including large concrete vats where cows were “dipped” in medicines and insect repellents.
Meadow Sweet Pastures was aquired by the State of Florida and is now a substantial part of Myakka River State Park.
If you visit the park’s Canopy Walk and climb the wooden tower, you overlook a broad area of the ranch, including open grasslands within Myakka’s forests that were once cattle pastures. You can access these old pastures via undeveloped park roads that are open to hikers and bicyclists.
Much of the area north of Myakka River State Park remains in agricultural hands, and the innovative spirit of today’s ranchers and farmers is still alive.
On a recent visit to the weekly farmers market at the Crowley Museum and Nature Center outside of the North Gate of the state park, I discovered experimental vineyards that are actually producing wine and a fervent organic culture promoting unpasteurized dairy products, including goat cheeses that were fabulous.
Back to Spanish Point
The descendants of Potter and Bertha Palmer recognized the historic importance of Spanish Point and allowed the 1959 archaeological excavation of the site, as well as encouraging its designation to the National Register of Historic Places, eventually turning over the 30-acre core of the property to Gulf Coast Heritage Association, which is largely responsible for its restoration and preservation.
Their hard work comes to life when you visit the property, which you’d almost miss driving past on nearby Tamiami Trail unless you know it is there.
It’s worth a stop, not just for its historical significance but for the aesthetics of the many gardens, hiking paths and boardwalks that take you through multiple ecosystems — pine flatwoods, tropical hardwood hammocks and live oak, mangrove swamps, tidal marshes and coastal beaches throughout the property.
Not to be ignored are the carefully nurtured gardens, including the Mrs. Palmer’s private Sunken Garden and the Butterfly Garden, often rented for private parties and weddings, as well as the old Osprey School (now the visitor center) and Mary’s Chapel. Private tours are also available, although reservations are required months in advance.
Annual Events at Historic Spanish Point
Holly Days and Mangrove Lights – end of November through December — Homestead buildings and gardens are decorated in holiday lights. Hours extended on Thursdays and Fridays and costumed performers on weekends.
Visiting Historic Spanish Point
Visit Historic Spanish Point seven days a week, from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. on Monday through Saturday, noon to 5 p.m on Sunday.
You can find more information on the Historic Spanish Point web site
337 North Tamiami Trail
Osprey, FL (about halfway between Venice and Sarasota)
General admission is $12 for adults and $5 for children 12 and under.
Oscar Scherer State Park is only a few miles north of Venice on U.S. 41 in Osprey. We love this state park with its shaded sites, river and intracoastal access and network of off-road and on-road bicycle trails. There is also a swimming lake just a short walk from the campground, which has 104 sites suitable for RVs and tents with water and electric. The 15-mile-long Legacy Trail, a pave rail trail, runs through the park providing two-wheel access to both Venice on the south and Sarasota on the north.
Myakka River State Park is one of Florida’s oldest and largest state parks and features three campgrounds with 90 sites. Each site has electric, water, a fire ring and a picnic table with a shared dump station. The park is paradise for cyclists and paddlers. There are seven miles of paved park roads and back-country dirt roads that wind through a variety of habitats. Canoe or kayak on a large lake or down the wild and scenic Myakka River.
Bentley’s Boutique Hotel. Contemporary hotel with upgrades from its former life as a roadside motel. Rooms open up on pool area surrounded by decks, tiki bar and beach sand. Steak house on premises. Rates vary by season. 1660 South Tamiami Trail, Osprey, FL 34229. For more information, call 941-966-2121
The Horse & Chaise Inn. Quaint bed and breakfast in historic Venice neighborhood. This 1926 Mediterranean-revival inn features nine rooms and suites. 317 Ponce de Leon, Venice. For more information, call 941-488-2702.
There are many motels, B&Bs and inns in the Venice, Osprey and Sarasota areas convenient to Historic Spanish Point. You can browse these lodgings and book a room on Hotels.com.
Roessler’s. Venerable family-owned restaurant on U.S. 41, at 2033 Varmo Way, a mile or so north of Historic Spanish Point. Fine dining with excellent service. Continental menu, seafood specialties and excellent wine list. Expensive. (Watch for specials off-season and weekdays.) Reservations recommended in season. 941-966-5688.
Spanish Pointe Restaurant and Tiki Bar. Classic waterfront crab shack and tiki bar off Tamiami Trail about a mile or so south of Historic Spanish Point and north of Oscar Scherer State Park. Limited pub-style menu and musical entertainment on weekends. 135 Bayview Drive, Osprey, FL 34229.
Near Historic Spanish Point
- Beaches of Venice: The sands of time
- Legacy Trail and Venetian Waterway Park
- Gamble Manson: Civil War plantation near Sarasota
Disclosure: We’d like to thank the Sarasota Convention and Visitors Bureau for sponsoring our visits to some of the locations in this article.