Bertha Palmer:

Q&A with historian Hope Black. Sarasota Herald Tribune, January 17, 2010.

Published: Sunday, January 17, 2010 at 1:00 a.m.
Last Modified: Friday, January 15, 2010 at 1:37 p.m.
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After a full career, Hope Black went back to school and earned a master's degree in Florida history from the University of South Florida-St. Petersburg. Her thesis was on Bertha Honore Palmer. As the Bertha Palmer 2010 Sarasota Centennial begins, Harold Bubil interviewed Black, historical advisor to the project, about the great lady.

Harold Bubil: How did you get interested in BP?

Hope Black: Actually, I was taking an undergraduate course, a program in women's studies, by Dr. June Benowitz at USF, and for an oral report, I selected the Columbian Exposition and the importance of what we call third-world countries in the 19th century. The work that they do and the fact it was highlighted at the Chicago exhibition. And I began to read that the head of the women's building, the president of the Lady Managers, as they were called, was Bertha Palmer. As I began my work in Florida studies, I realized she had come to Sarasota.

It just intrigued me that this was a woman who had played golf with the king of England, had known the king and queen of Belgium, had traveled all over the world, and met with royalty, and was the grande dame of Chicago, traveled within the Newport, R.I., set, wore diamonds and rubies, had her gowns custom-made for her in Paris – and here at this point in her life, which was nine years after her husband died and left her $8 million, she suddenly, and no one knows why, she suddenly made the decision to come down to Sarasota, Florida.

What prompted her was an ad that Joseph Lord and A.B. Edwards had put in the Chicago paper. But she must have been thinking of coming to a warm climate, or changing her lifestyle at that time. And she made such a change in her lifestyle and her way of thinking that she came down and wore simple linen garments, and boots so she could walk through the muck, and became an expert on agriculture and cattle ranching.

So it is quite amazing. Here she had gone to finishing school, where young ladies learn to speak French and play the piano and crochet, and she came down here and actually was way ahead of her time. She became an expert in the various ways of agriculture.

Q: And to think that her only connection to cattle before that was being from Chicago, the stockyard of the world.

A: Once she was into it, she did go to a hog convention in Chicago, but that was after the fact. She became head of the livestock association at one point, and understood the chemistry of the soil. She went so far as to get books and bulletins and read up on it.

From a financial point of view, she died eight years later (after her arrival in Sarasota) having brought that $8 million to $20 million.

Q: I understand she convinced the cattlemen that they needed to dip their cattle for ticks to eradicate the tick-borne diseases.

A: They told her she was crazy; that it would split the hide of the cattle. She went ahead and did it anyway. She also fenced in her cattle ranges, and that made them very, very angry. Her land was attacked by some vigilantes who resented this woman from a rich city coming in and trying to tell these good old boys how to take care of cattle.

Q: Here she is, high society, and the Florida Cracker cattlemen are a different breed completely. For her to tell them you need to dip your cattle and put up fences, this is 40 years before Florida became closed range.

A: I think cattle-dipping became mandatory in 1935, as I recall.

Q: So she was way ahead of her time.

A: She was. And it's also interesting that the people who had been interviewed … said she was very, very nice to people. She did not look down on people who were working for her. It was once mentioned that she could be very snooty to people within her socioeconomic area. People thought she could be high and mighty sometimes, but when she was talking to her working people, she was very kind, and joked with them. They weren't afraid of talking with her.

Here when they heard she was coming down, they redid the Halton Sanitarium, because the Belle Haven had fallen to wreck and ruin, and they didn't think it was fancy enough for Mrs. Palmer. So they redid an area of the Halton Sanitarium for her, and yet they realized, once she was down, that she would not have cared.

Q: She described Sarasota as “refreshingly quaint.” But here is a woman who, when she said Sarasota Bay was as beautiful as the Bay of Naples, knew what she was talking about.

A: I would think, knowing her early years, that she would have considered the east coast of Florida. At that point, the wealthy were going down there. But she did not just want the warm weather. She wanted a new way of life.

Q: Wasn't Sarasota still a backwater in 1910?

A: It had progressed certainly beyond the way it was when Gillespie first came with the Scots. But it certainly was. She even introduced electricity (to Osprey). She had a Delco generator both in her home in The Oaks and in Myakka when they camped there.

Q: Who designed her house, The Oaks?

A: Thomas Reed Martin. She brought him here. She added onto a house that had been in existence there. She was going to build from the ground up, but she decided she could reconstruct it and redo the gardens. She bought the land from Lawrence Jones, from a whiskey family.

Q: Let's talk about her role as a developer. How much land did she buy?

A: Jan Mathews said 70,000 acres. (Other sources say 80,000 in the Sarasota area and 140,000 total in Florida.) A lot of land. Fascinating, because I went to the circuit court in Manatee County (Sarasota and Osprey were part of that county until 1921), and it's interesting because not only did she buy the land, but her sons bought parcels of land, and her brother, and her father bought parcels, and they exchanged them to each other for a dollar.

Potter had urged her, for many years, that if something should happen to him (he was much older than she), that she should invest in real estate. Property, property, property – that was the key to wealth. So she followed his lead in buying property. Of course, she didn't construct developments on it as he did.

Q: So this is why we see streets that are named for members of the Palmer family?

A: Her brothers were named Lockwood (Lockwood Ridge Road) and Adrian. Her sons, Honore (Honore Avenue) and Potter Jr. (Potter Street, off Honore).

Off Palmer Boulevard is Adrian Street. And D'Orsay Street (also off Honore in Fruitville) … her mother's maiden name.

Q: Surrounded by men, how was it that she was the decision-maker in her family?

A: She had the money. She had control of the money. Prior to the marriage (of Bertha and Potter, in 1870), Henry Honore had lost a lot of his money. Speculation tells us that is why they (the Honores) encouraged the marriage of their daughter to a much wealthier man, because Henry Honore was in debt to Potter Palmer. Is this true? Who knows?

Q: What was Bertha Palmer's lasting contribution to real estate and development in the Sarasota area?

A: Myakka (River State Park) eventually was given at the behest of A.B. Edwards in the 1930s -- they gave acreage to the state for the park. The Oaks became a wonderful public museum (Historic Spanish Point), if you will.

She has been credited with putting the spotlight on Sarasota, and thus the development of Owen Burns and John Ringling coming. In fact, I've refuted that, because I believe Owen Burns came of his own volition, and she would not have been friendly with Ringling. One of the books I read on Ringling said that Palmer considered him a working man. So she would not have socialized with him or influenced him.

Owen Burns is supposed to have said, “Wow, if that place is good enough for Bertha Palmer, it's good enough for me.” In fact, that statement has been attributed to other people. I talked to Harriett Stieff, Owen Burns' youngest daughter, said she said, “Daddy never spoke about that,” and that he loved to hunt and fish and he heard the hunting and fishing was good.

She (Bertha Palmer) invited some of her Chicago friends to spend some time down here.

Q: Other than the agricultural land, did she develop other parcels?

A: No. She did invest in Hillsborough County. She bought Riverview, which is now a development, for agricultural. (She also invested in Temple Terrace.)

Q: If she had lived just a few more years, how influential could she have been during the 1920s boom?

A: It was Burns who started all the construction; he built the Ringling Causeway and Ca' d'Zan and many other things. He was building, she was buying land for cattle to graze and to grow things. If she had lived longer, she may have done more with her experimental farm, which she started, cross breeding various plants and coming up with a way to grow plants more efficiently. But she died before that took off. One of her daughters in-law, Grace, who married Honore, picked up on that, and they did advance with the experimental farm.

She learned how to cross-breed various strains of cattle to raise the best beef.

Another interesting fact is that she did not try to head up the social scene in Sarasota. The only thing she is credited with to doing was giving $1,000 to build the new women's building.

Q: I understand she was inquisitive and business-oriented.

A: Very much so. When they lived in the Palmer House (in Chicago) upstairs and she had the two small boys, he would come up upstairs at night from his workday, and he would begin to discuss with her all that he had done, not only in running the hotel, but in investments. What is so untypical of a woman of that time, she wanted to know every detail of the investments, and the math behind it, and was interested in looking at the journals.

He was a very, I won't say introverted, but quiet man. Certainly he expressed himself when it came to business, but he was content into the shadows and allow her to take the lead. She was beautiful and very striking and very charming, and very often would go to parties and he would slip away because he just wasn't interested in that. So from the very beginning, she asserted herself in different ways.

Q: Can you give me an example of that?

A: She went to the Seaboard railroad and said, “I'm not going to purchase any land or spend any money here unless you extend the railroad from Sarasota to Venice. And they did it, immediately. Everybody kept saying, how could she have done that? But they did it immediately. She had a very forceful way of doing things.

Q: What do you think the most interesting fact is about Bertha that you discovered in your research?

A: The most interesting is the big question: Why? What made her turn her life around in 1910 and change her lifestyle to some extent?

Q: Yes, the big life event was in 1902, when Potter Palmer died. Maybe she got to thinking there was more to the world than the good life in London, Paris and Chicago?

A: Possibly. Ishbel Ross, who wrote a biography (“Silhouette in Diamonds: The Life of Mrs. Potter Palmer,” Harper & Brothers, 1960) of Palmer, said that many of her friends were dying … and her guest lists were smaller, and it was Ross' speculation that it was time for a change.

Q: Can you think of a more influential or important woman in Sarasota's history than Bertha Palmer?

A: No, I don't think so. She was quite unique. Other people who have come here – there certainly have been influential women, but they were influential in a small way.

I had a conversation with someone who is influential with radical women's organizations here, who said she (Palmer) shouldn't be celebrated because she didn't do a thing for women's lib. No, she did not work with Susan B. Anthony and she was not a suffragette, but I think by example, she showed what a strong woman could be and what a strong woman could do.

But she was very strong with the Women's Christian Temperance Union because she felt if men stopped drinking, poor women wouldn't have to go out and work. She ignored the fact of … the money they were making at the bar in the Palmer House.

I think one of her greatest contributions was as an activist for the needs of poor women. She fought for better sanitary conditions for them in their work environment; their working conditions were terrible. (She was) for educational opportunities. And she became an activist for the prevention of communicable disease. As far as she was concerned, the husbands weren't going to do anything about that.