In the early years of this century, before bridges connected the keys to the mainland, a favorite place to have a picnic was "Uncle Ben" Stickney's. On the bay side of Sarasota (now Siesta) Key, south of the what's now known as the Stickney Point Bridge, Stickney's homestead gained a reputation for hospitality far beyond Sarasota's borders.
Benjamin Stickney was born in St. Louis in 1842. As a young adult, he followed family tradition in the hotel business and in 1894 was the proprietor of Sarasota's DeSoto Hotel at the foot of Main Street. After retiring, Stickney built his homestead on Sarasota Key under spreading live oaks draped in Spanish moss. When Stickney died in February 1912, The Sarasota Times mourned the community's loss on the front page. The Baptist Church held the funeral service, even though Stickney was an Episcopalian, because it was the only church large enough to hold all the people. Clergy from the Episcopal and Presbyterian churches led the services, and the Belle Haven Inn Quartet provided the music. Stickney was buried in Rosemary Cemetery. The newspaper's tribute to Uncle Ben concluded, ". . . the murmuring waves along his shore breathe a requiem for the passing away of one who was loved and honored."
A variety of press reports and other commentaries over the years testify to the warmth and breadth of Uncle Ben's hospitality. A writer from Venice recalled Stickney taking in many a traveler caught on the key during bad weather. Sitting in front of a blazing fire, the welcomed visitor would listen to Uncle Ben's stories as he prepared the evening meal. Although sometimes called the Hermit of the Key, Stickney impressed those who knew him as a lovable character, everyone's friend, a nature lover, the genial host.
The photo above was taken about 1908 at Uncle Ben's. Identified picnickers include Mrs. Carrie Abbe (Sarasota's postmistress) on the left, Ethel Wood and Rose Wilson (publisher of The Sarasota Times) fifth and seventh from the left, and Thomas (principal of Sarasota's public school) and Margaret Yarbrough. Typical picnics, as reported in the Times, included shell gathering, walks to the Gulf side, exploration of the largely uninhabited key, and a meal brought in large baskets from the mainland.
The food would be spread out on tables built by Uncle Ben. Typical of press coverage of picnics at Uncle Ben's, in February 1912 a reporter enthused about Mrs. Abbe's picnic for a party of 50. Present were visitors from 13 states (14 if Stickney's chickens, Rhode Island Reds, were included). The visitors sailed in the bay, strolled on the beaches and sang on the way home aboard the double-decker Siesta.
Special Thanks to Ann A. Shank, former County Historian, for her research and time devoted to writing this article.
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