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History of Casey Key
Casey Key today is a blend of past and present. Yes, modern mansions have sprung up along its shores. But those luxury residences are still accessed by a single, winding, narrow road, where cars often brush up against sea grapes and bougainvilleas, and sometimes one driver has to stop to let another pass.
There are no high-rise condominiums, grocery stores, fast-food joints, or traffic lights. In fact, commercial development is limited to a cluster of Old Florida motels plus an historic fish camp and new concessionaire at the barrier island’s southern end.
So while some things on this seven-mile stretch of land have changed, much remains the same from the days when Casey Key was a largely uninhabited piece of paradise. There’s still a lushness to the landscape and a slower pace of life. And the waterfront views, as they always have, continue to take your breath away.
Prehistoric tribes lived in Sarasota County as far back as 5,000 years ago, taking advantage of the area’s prolific Gulf, marsh, woodland, and bay ecosystems. Well before Florida became part of the United States in 1845, Spanish-speaking fishermen from Cuba set up fish camps along Sarasota Bay, stopping to cast their lines and see what they could catch.
What’s now known as Casey Key was listed on early maps of Florida as both Clam Island and Chaise’s Key at various points in time. It got its current name in the mid-1800s, courtesy of Captain John C. Casey.
This 1829 graduate of West Point (and classmate of Robert E. Lee) served as the acting agent for transferring the state’s Seminole people to the new Indian Territory in Oklahoma. In 1849, a meeting was held between Casey and the Seminoles at what was referred to as Casey’s Pass (now the Venice Inlet). He had a good relationship with the Seminoles and their chief, Billy Bowlegs, but only convinced some tribe members to accept the government’s relocation offer.
Casey also assisted the U.S. government in mapping Florida’s Gulf Coast. An 1856 map based on his sketches and information shows Casey Key and Casey’s Pass, perhaps in acknowledgment of his work in the area.
Around the same time, the Florida Armed Occupation Act of 1842 was bringing new settlers to our local shores. As an incentive to populate Florida, it gave 160 acres of land to any head of a family, as long as he or his heirs lived there for five consecutive years, enclosed and cultivated five acres, built a house during the first year and bore their own arms for protection.
Born in Savannah, Georgia, William Whitaker was the first documented pioneer of European decent to take advantage of the act and settle permanently in Sarasota in the 1840s. He later helped welcome the Webb family, who arrived from New York in 1867. Their doctor had advised the move, believing that Florida’s climate would be beneficial for Mrs. Webb’s asthma.
When the Webbs first arrived in Key West, a Spanish trader told them about a bluff of high land on Sarasota Bay well suited for a good homestead. Whitaker helped them find it based on the description, and the Webbs named their Osprey homestead Spanish Point in honor of the trader. They grew sugar cane, built a sugar mill, and operated a winter resort for tourists at their site on the mainland across from Casey Key.
John Slemans Blackburn, a farmer and cattle broker from Iowa, settled nearby in 1881 with his family. The Webbs’ youngest son, Jack, helped them build their home, which was thatched with palmetto leaves. Blackburn grew potatoes, sugar cane, and bananas and built his own sloop, Sea Turtle, to bring his crops to market.
Blackburn’s son, Benjamin Franklin Blackburn, moved to the area himself in 1884, and the whole family had a fish camp near the site of the present-day Casey Key Fish House restaurant. Today the northern access point to Casey Key, Blackburn Point Road, bears the family’s name, as does a park that offers access to the Intracoastal Waterway.
Farther south, what’s now known as Venice was first settled in the 1870s by Robert Rickford Roberts, who established a 121-acre homestead on the south end of what’s now Roberts Bay. In 1882 he sold some of his property to Frank Higel, who set up a citrus operation. Venice was originally called Horse and Chaise, inspired by a carriage-like tree formation marking a fishing spot. The city adopted the name Venice in 1888 per Higel’s suggestion.
After seeing a newspaper ad, Chicago socialite Bertha Palmer came to the area in 1910, purchasing the former Webb homestead and some 140,000 additional acres in the area on which she farmed and raised livestock. Dr. Fred Albee came to Venice in 1916 and set about building a model city, commissioning John Nolen to plan it.
Discovering the Key
While all of this activity was happening on the mainland, Casey Key remained largely undiscovered. The land lush with buttonwoods, mangroves, cedar trees, and other vegetation was home to wildlife like bobcats, panthers, raccoons, and turtles—and not much else.
But settlers across the bay were soon drawn to this uninhabited isle and the fine fishing and hunting opportunities it presented. Just after the turn of the 20th century, Isaac Shumard and his family arrived on Casey Key. They had traded their Missouri farm for a Lakeland-area orange grove but proved unsuccessful at that venture. When they applied for a homestead grant, the only land in the area available at that time was on Casey Key.
They built a house from logs cut off-island, with a roof constructed of palm fronds until shingles could be made from cedar trees. Since there were no window screens, mosquitos were repelled by smoke from burning cedar boughs. But there was ample food (fish, clams, oysters, turtles), and the Shumards also raised bees on their land. In the early 1910s, Shumard sold much of his 62 acres on Casey Key to the Sarasota-Venice Company but kept 10 acres for his family’s home.
Zachariah M. Dryman followed Shumard’s lead, homesteading more than 100 acres on Casey Key in 1909. The bay along this area was later called Dryman Bay.
If Florida was still considered a remote outpost at this point in U.S. history, then Casey Key was even further removed from civilization. There were no bridges connecting the island to the mainland at this time, so sailboats were the primary method of transportation. The key’s growth was gradual, with friends of friends arriving to share in the tropical foliage and pristine white-sand beaches. The island’s homes were approached by boat from Blackburn Bay, with their entrances facing the bay and backyards leading to the Gulf of Mexico.
But some wanted development to move at a faster pace. A $1.3-million Treasure Island Hotel was proposed for the southern end of Casey Key by the Sarasota-Venice Company and attempts were made to change the island’s name to Treasure Island to attract visitors. Neither effort really took off.
An Escape from the Norm
Yet it did get easier to access Casey Key after the construction of a toll bridge at the southern end of the island in 1923 by E.C. Warren and of the Blackburn Point Road swing bridge at the northern end in 1925-26. And sites like the Treasure Island Beach Club and Bath House Restaurant provided spots for socializing.
Though the stock market crash of 1929 slowed development some, Casey Key got full telephone service in 1937. The homes built here tended to be small cottages, not the large waterfront estates of today. Children who grew up on the island remember days spent at the beach or boating, exploring the key’s many natural assets. “It was like living on a deserted island in the Caribbean,” said Paul Thayer, who grew up on the Key.
The historic North Jetty Fish Camp remains a fixture on the island. The former trolley car was placed on county-owned property at the southern tip of Casey Key around 1946. Locals and visitors love stopping by the rustic, old-timey spot overlooking the Venice Inlet for everything from a cold beer to fishing bait.
In 1949, Pat and Marty Mason built the Admiral Benbow Club and further helped spur interest in Casey Key. The cement-block, beachfront duplexes were rented out each winter to friends from around the United States and to readers of the Junior League Members’ Mart (“a very swish place to advertise,” according to Mrs. Mason). Many visitors ended up succumbing to Casey Key’s beckoning call and secured their own property on the island, despite the fact that the club was more basic than deluxe. “There wasn’t enough electricity on the island to run a terrazzo machine, so the floors were cement,” said Mrs. Mason.
A brochure put together by the Casey Key Motel Association extolled the island for its “beautiful white sand beaches abundant with palms and tropical growth.” It praised the fact that the key was one of the few undeveloped places on the Florida coast with “no stores, come-ons, or gimmicks to interfere with pure pleasure and enjoyment.” Motels bore enticing names like Gulf Surf, Sandpiper, Island House, and Suntan Terrace, many of which can still be found today.
Preserving the Past
Much of what that brochure promises—like the island’s get-away-from-it-all vibe, lack of commercialization, and natural beauty—still exists, thanks to the efforts of Casey Key residents. The Casey Key Protective Association and its predecessors helped ensure that much of the island was zoned for residential use only, prohibiting commercial development. When the key’s old shell road needed to be paved, property owners contributed 20 cents per foot with the stipulation that the throughway would retain a “country road” look.
In the early 1970s, the association succeeded in having the Florida State Legislature enact the Casey Key Conservation District Act. That designates much of Casey Key as a wildlife and marine sanctuary, restricts the use of the land to single-family residences and prohibits unreasonable destruction of natural vegetation or disturbance of submerged breeding areas. It also worked to get the key zoned so that no additional motels could be built; if an existing one is destroyed for any reason, it can only be rebuilt on the same square footage as the original structure.
The residents’ efforts to keep Casey Key’s special appeal intact have paid off. Film director Victor Nunez chose Casey Key as the setting for his 1984 movie version of John D. MacDonald’s “A Flash of Green” because it resembled a 1950s-era coastal Florida community.
Island inhabitants can still take in some of the same stunning Gulf to Bay views early settlers might have gazed upon. They enjoy private beach access (two public beaches are located at the southern end of the key) and often prefer their connections to simpler times over modern conveniences.
Take the Blackburn Point Road swing bridge, for example. When the Florida Department of Transportation announced in 1989 that it would be replacing the old span with an ultra-modern, $6.5-million bridge, residents protested fiercely. They overwhelmingly favored the refurbishment of their beloved, one-lane structure, the last swing-span bridge left in Sarasota County, even if it meant that all traffic on and off the island was restricted to the Albee Road bridge for several months. The swing bridge is now on the National Register of Historic Places and serves as daily reminder of why Casey Key is such a special and desirable place to live.
And the days of island residents are filled with moments that demonstrate the uniqueness of the place they’ve chosen to call home. Whether they’re walking, riding their bikes, or driving along Casey Key Road, they can’t help but slow down and wave to each other as they pass. These kindred spirits have put down roots here, just like the towering palm trees, verdant sea grapes, and flowering foliage growing outside their front doors.