Wealthy benefactors have been part of Sarasota fabric from the early days

Real History by Jeff LaHurd: Wealthy benefactors have been part of Sarasota fabric from the early days

Jeff LaHurd | Special to the Herald-Tribune

Sarasota has come to depend not on the kindness of strangers, but, rather, of well-known citizens of this community who were captivated by its beauty and charm, fell in love with the picturesque surroundings and felt compelled to improve it.

William and Marie Selby are a great example. The couple moved to Sarasota in the early 1920s. and built a modest home on seven acres of land bordering Sarasota Bay and Hudson Bayou. Despite their wealth, derived from William’s partnership in the Selby Oil and Gas Company, they lived a quiet, unpretentious life away from the Sarasota social scene.

As a lover of nature, Marie had an interest in keeping Sarasota beautiful and green. Upon her death in 1971, she bequeathed her home and property to the community with the aim of forming a botanical garden “for the enjoyment of the general public.” Selby Gardens was founded two years later and opened to the public on July 7, 1975.

The legacy of William and Marie’s Selby Gardens features a variety of gardens and habitats, displaying tropical and subtropical plants from around the world. The gardens are a celebration of the institution’s world-class programs in horticulture, botany, conservation, and education.

Its beauty is a major tourist draw. An oasis of tranquility, offering a respite from the commotion of urban life. The perfect place to escape the hustle-bustle and bask in the beauty of nature.

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Calvin Payne, another oilman who adopted Sarasota as his new hometown, was a major civic leader and Sarasota booster.

When the hurricane of 1921 tore up the fishing industry downtown on Sarasota Bay, it was a godsend to many who believed the byproducts of fishing – the nets, shacks, old boats, fishing equipment, stench and flies that swarmed the area – was prohibiting growth.

But this was the livelihood for many, and through Payne’s generosity both the blighted area was cleaned up, and the industry was moved to a much better site at what became known as Payne Terminal at today’s 10th St.

Sarasota was always on the lookout for tourist attractions as well as advertising our many virtues. Spring Training baseball would provide a platform for both. Baseball was America’s number one sport in the 1920s, a sure means of attracting fans here. And equally, as important, big city newspapers sent their scribes to report on the team’s progress as well as writing about the host-community.

John Ringling was credited with scoring the mighty New York Giants to town in 1924. Managed by the fiery John J. McGraw, aka Little Napoleon, who ruled his team with an iron fist, and had won the World Series the year before. Always in the Pennant race, he once said, “Sportsmanship and easygoing methods are alright, but it’s the prospect of a hot fight that brings out the crowds.” And McGraw brought the crowds.

Where to put the baseball diamond? This was just before the boom and speculative cash was a problem. Again, enter Calvin and Martha Payne. They sold the property which would be named Payne Park to the city at a greatly reduced price.

Mayor E.J. Bacon declared a public workday, and the citizens and craftsmen joined together to lay out a diamond and construct a grandstand. The ladies of the community-made refreshments for the workers.

Over the years, the finest players and teams played there, drawing fans from around the country. And the press did write glowing accounts of the beauty of the community as it grew and developed.

Around the park, the Tin Can Tourists began to gather. After that, the Sarasota Mobile Home Park grew. As early as 1960 there were rumblings about the park’s location and purpose. Calvin and Martha Payne deeded the property with the stipulation that it be used for “park, playground and other kindred uses and for no other purpose.” They did not intend a trailer park. Payne’s son, Christy, was quoted in The News, that the park is “wholly disregarding the intent of the gift my mother and father made.”

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