Early Settlers on Bee Ridge

By | April 7, 2014

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early-settlers-bee-ridgeToday the name Bee Ridge generally brings to mind a seven-lane highway of vehicles speeding between U.S. 41 and I-75. It hasn’t always been that way. The original Bee Ridge was a high ridge of land bounded roughly by Phillippi Creek, Cow Pen Slough, and Bee Ridge and Clark roads. It was home to wild bees and some of Sarasota County’s earliest settlers. Two of the several families who shaped the frontier Bee Ridge community were the Rawls and Tatum families. One well-known link between these families was Luara Fedonia “Aunt Donie” Redd. Born on the Manatee River, she and her parents, the Rev. Isacc Red and Elizabeth Brown Red, moved to the Fruitville-Bee Ridge area after the Civil War. While still a teenager, she met and married Sebring Rawls.

A decade later Rawls died and his widow, left with five young children, married William Harve Tatum in 1885. After several years they moved their growing family (eventually there were 13 children) to a site off Proctor Road, behind the present Sarasota Baptist Church. By the end of the century they had a four-room, two story house with porches and detached kitchen. One bedroom upstairs housed the boys, and the other, the girls. Heat during the winter came from a wood-burning fireplace. Firewood was a daily necessity for cooking, and a Tatum daughter remembered splitting wood by moonlight. She also remembered the once-a-week floor scrubbing with washing powder and sand. The scrub brush was made from palmetto fans stuffed through holes in a board and cut to an even length. They used brush brooms made from gallberry branches tied together to sweep the yard. Preventing the accumulation of grass or other burnable material reduced the threat of fire to early homesteads.

Making a living was a time-consuming effort for all members of the Rawls/Tatum family at that time. The homestead produced much of its food after they cleared and plowed the land. A vegetable garden grew not far from the house. Cattle, fenced in next year’s corn field, fertilized and churned up the soil. Sweetening came from the yearly sugar cane crop. One of the Rawls sons later described helping grind the cane before going to school. A large pot over an outdoor fire was used to boil the syrup. Home-grown fruits included grapes from an arbor on the north side of the house, citrus, guavas, pineapple and bananas. Rice grew on the wetter land. Meat came not from a neighborhood store, but from hunted deer, turkey or wild hogs. The hogs also provided meat and casings for sausage and fat for making soap. Hunters in the family could sell alligator hides or heron and egret feathers to J.V. Turner on Main Street in Sarasota.

For staples and goods not produced at home, the Rawls/Tatum family typically shopped in the village of Manatee. Traveling by ox cart for the overnight trip, they often carried such items as potatoes, grapes and syrup to trade or essentials such as coffee, salt, and flour.

During the school year, the children learned their lessons either at home or in a one-room building on the Hawkins farm, across Proctor Road from the Tatum home. During the limited free time, a favorite swimming place was nearby Bonnet Hole Slough. Tatum daughter Agnes Lowe later described swimming in a long dress with petticoat and drawers below the knees. Bathing suits were not part of the family wardrobe when she was a child. Family tradition, which lasted for several generations, was camping in the woods or along the Myakka River around the Christmas holiday. One of Aunt Donie’s granddaughters remembers Roman candles, fireworks and tree decorations. There was no less celebration while camping than there would have been at home, and with several dozen extended family members camping, it was a family reunion as well.

Courtesy of Sarasota History Alive!

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