When newspaper man Cornelius Van Santvoord Wilson and his wife, Rose, arrived in Sarasota in 1899 after publishing the Manatee County Advocate, there was precious little here to suggest anything but a dubious future for them, their enterprise or the community.
In those days Sarasota was just a minor part of Manatee County, a sparsely populated village that was difficult to reach and offered only the barest necessities. Downtown had a livery, a blacksmith shop, a few homes, two boarding houses, and the DeSoto Hotel, which was usually vacant and looked older than its years. Livestock wandered freely. The bayfront was littered with fishing shacks, fishing nets and whatever trash and garbage had washed in. Old photographs of early settlers document the harsh realities of their lives; the day-to-day battle to survive is clearly etched on their stoic faces.
But the old black-and-white photos fail to convey the area's intrinsic, virginal beauty. That beauty was what caused Wilson, a justice of the peace known affectionately as "The Judge," to believe in Sarasota's potential for growth. On June 1, 1899, the Wilsons published the first edition of the Sarasota Times, "Devoted to the west coast of Manatee County."
The original printing plant was in a humble wooden building on the north side of lower Main Street; and the newspaper began as an oversized, four-page weekly produced on a hand press from hand-set type. Advertisements, the lifeblood of every newspaper, were meager at first; and the Wilsons' personal savings and his earnings from selling real estate supplemented the venture. The paper sold for a subscription rate of $1 per year.
Both of the Wilsons were progressives who vigorously pushed for the growth and improvement of Sarasota. Rose championed the right of women to vote (she became the first Sarasota woman registered to vote) and supported educational programs for Sarasota's children. She was also a charter member of the Town Improvement Society, which did much to beautify downtown. She pushed for the building of the Tamiami Trail; and when the Chamber of Commerce was formed she was elected to the Board of Governors.
For his part, C.V.S. Wilson believed that Sarasota's future lay not with cattle and fishing but with winter tourism. He editorialized about the need to improve Sarasota's infrastructure, and his newspaper campaigned for Sarasota to be incorporated into a town. And he preached of the importance of advertising Sarasota's virtues. "Hotels on the Manatee River are filled with Northern visitors," he wrote. "Here in Sarasota our hotels are empty. The reason is simple-we do not advertise. What Sarasota needs more than anything is a Board of Trade or Chamber of Commerce that will concentrate on telling the nation of our superb attractions."
He recognized the importance of offering recreation as a means of drawing newcomers and backed the effort to develop a local brass band. "There is nothing that gives so much snap and go to a town as a brass band," he wrote. "Let's have a band and keep abreast of the times." (The band was soon formed, and over the years it regularly entertained locals, snowbirds and was often present at the train station to welcome important personages.)
By 1910, the watershed year that socialite Bertha Honore Palmer came here for a look-see, the paper's advertising had increased as more businesses opened. As today, real estate agents, merchants, and doctors and lawyers in and around Sarasota sought business through ads. Revenue was bolstered by an endless list of patent medicines that promised to cure all maladies. For instance, B.B.B. (Botanical Blood Balm) relived practically every ailment by "purifying the blood." Ballard's Snow Liniment, "King of Liniment," boasted of curing rheumatism, cuts, sprains, wounds, old sores, stiff joints, neuralgia, and, of course, etc.
Although the Wilsons' newspaper printed the news of the state, nation and the world, it was first and foremost community-oriented. The comings and goings of its citizens were regularly reported. ("Grandmother Rogers has returned to her home in Warthering Springs.") New arrivals to Sarasota's hotels and boarding houses were listed daily, along with hometowns and occupations. ("The yacht, Merry McB., belonging to A.C. Cobb, a hotel man, visited Sarasota last week.")
There were no photographs or cartoons in the paper during its early years but jokes were printed. "The gentleman at the foot of the stairs called up to his wife, 'I forgot whether you told me t' have two drinks and come home at 11, or 11 drinks and come home at 2.'" Words of wisdom were dispersed throughout: "The sands of time never run slow with a busy man." "It isn't a scandal until it be thrice told."
Wilson wrote his last editorial on Sept. 10, 1910. In it he told his readers of his illness and recognized his wife, Rose. "For twelve years she has stood side by side with me in the publication of this journal," he wrote. "(It) is a credit to me and my paper that her name will be placed at the head of the editorial column.of the Sarasota Times." He ended with, "Now, with life's duties finished and only awaiting the call to pass 'over the River' I lay down my pen and pencil. Put aside my stick and rule, vacate the editorial chair and walk out of the sanctum with honor unsullied, aged seventy-three. Farewell." He died on Sept. 28, 1910.
Five years later, the Sarasota Times was almost burned out in the great Sarasota fire of 1915. But volunteers, led by Rose, managed to beat back the flames, and the paper never missed an issue.
During the next 13 years, until the beginning of 1923 when Sarasota was on the cusp of the phenomenal real estate boom, Rose carried on. The paper grew to 12 pages with a circulation of 2,000 readers. Sarasota was rapidly changing to a modern town, drawing the newcomers that the Judge and Rose had envisioned so many years earlier. (When Andrew McAnsh, the builder of the Mira Mar Apartments, Hotel, and Auditorium, arrived in town he was met by the brass band the Judge lobbied for.)
In 1923, Rose sold the Times to two local businessmen, who then sold it to L.D. Reagin. Reagin moved the plant into a Mediterranean Revival building on today's First Street just off U.S. 41 (the building is currently for sale) and continued publishing until the paper became a casualty of the Great Depression.
In her final column, "The Ties That Bind," Rose thanked her readers for their support, saying that she was selling "to those who were prepared to enter the field and give the town a better newspaper service than we could." She ended by writing, "Now that larger plans speak of a greater Sarasota there are none who feel a greater interest and pride than those who in the pioneer days caught the vision and paved the way." Rose died in 1964, her role in Sarasota's success unknown to most of the tens of thousands who had followed her here.