Today’s developers build such amenities as golf courses and stately clubhouses to attract residents, but back in the 1880s, when the Florida Mortgage and Investment Company was trying to lure pioneers to Sarasota, it had to provide more basic facilities-including a modern graveyard. In 1886, the company established Rosemary Cemetery, and in 1903 they donated it to the city. Other than broken promises, the cemetery was the only thing the company gave to the community, and no money was set aside for its upkeep.
In 1916, the Woman’s Club published a plea for assistance in maintaining the cemetery in the Sarasota Times. Mrs. W.A. Grate, chairman of the cemetery committee, beseeched, "How many of our good people will send a dollar, or even fifty cents, or twenty-five, according to the condition of his or her purse?"
The same lack of funds has plagued most of the other groups that, over the years, have assumed responsibility for this hallowed plot of ground. In addition to the Woman’s Club, they’ve included the Historical Society of Sarasota County, the Sarasota Alliance for Historic Preservation and friends and relatives of the deceased.
Located between Central Avenue and Florida Avenue, Rosemary Cemetery is named for the herb that denotes remembrance. Among the headstones are the names of citizens whose faith and hard work transformed Sarasota from yesterday’s unknown backwater into today’s inviting destination for visitors from around the world. Longtime local reporter Dorothy Stockbridge-Pratt once noted that the headstones read like the street names of Sarasota. Harry Higel, developer of Siesta Key, is buried here, as are John Hamilton Gillespie,
The town’s first mayor; Owen Burns, who guided the city into the modern era; original colonists John Browning and his wife Jane; the Rev. Lewis Colson and his wife Irene, early leaders in the African-American community; and such well-known local names as Stickney, Whitaker, Cunliff and others. To learn about them is to know the colorful history of the community.
About 240 people of all ages and all walks of life are buried beneath headstones made of granite, poured concrete, marble, or brick and mortar; some of the headstones have become so weather-worn that they are no longer legible. Some have seashells imbedded on them-one in the shape of a large heart. Others have badges, military insignias, pictures or holders of flames that have long since burned out.
Most touching are those with a small lamb, denoting that here lies a child. An inscription on two sums up the heartfelt emotion of all of them: "From mothers arms to the arms of Jesus"; and on the stone of four-year-old Robert Harold Gallagher, who died in 1930, "Darling We Miss You."
Some who died during the Great Depression when money was tight are buried without a marker. Others have epithets that amuse, such as Glenn Campbell Brye’s: "God does not deduct from man’s allotted time those hours spent fishing." Dennis Joseph Brye’s headstone reads like something out of "How To Win Friends and Influence People." It says of him, "He was the man who dealt in sunshine and the one who won the crowds/He did a lot more business than the man who peddled clouds."
Perhaps the soul most at peace in the cemetery is that of W.A. Hodges, who is buried between both of his wives. Perhaps not.
Emilia Prime, who died in 1924, is remembered, simply, as, "a good Christian." Heartbroken over the loss of their son, Paul Drymon, who died in 1912 at the age of 17, his parents had these comforting words etched on his stone: "No Pains, No Griefs, No Anxious Fear Can Reach Our Loved One Sleeping Here."
Centered in the cemetery is a stone pergola donated by Mrs. Potter Palmer with seats "for the frequenters of this hollowed spot of rest." Mrs. Harry Higel donated a gate in 1911, with the reminder that it be kept closed so that cattle couldn’t roam among the headstones and tear up the plants. Others donated shrubs, trees and fertilizer. In those days a plot cost from $10 to $20.
In March of 1887, Tom Booth, one of the colonists attracted to Sarasota from Leeds, England, by the promises of the Florida Mortgage and Investment Company, was the first to be buried in Rosemary Cemetery. His friends said that he worked himself to death. Later that year Elaf Green, a carpenter, went mad and murdered his wife and three young children. They, too, are buried here.
In 1915, the Sarasota Times quoted visiting professor W.B. Jones’s praise of the cemetery, which he called "one of the most attractive and neatly kept cemeteries he had seen in Florida." It is far from that today. Walking through it, one is struck by how its neglect and shoddy appearance belie its importance to this community. Many of the headstones are in disarray and weeds grow everywhere. There are few flowers and much litter.
But help is on the way. A grant from The Mildred F. Doyle Trust through the Historical Society of Sarasota County with the assistance of Judy Ball provides funds to repair some of the damaged markers and sponsor a cemetery conservation workshop to help volunteers care for the cemetery. Ball has also worked hard to have the cemetery designated by the National Trust For Historic Preservation. Perhaps in the near future the words on the stone of Henry F. Reils will ring true: "Here he lies where he longed to be."