Written by Christopher Hendrix. Research conducted by the staff of Manatee Village Historical Park. All sources are available upon request.
Note: Bradenton is spelled three different ways in this article because Bradenton has undergone several name changes throughout its history. Originally, the town was named Braidentown, and in 1903 the “i” was dropped, making the name Bradentown. In 1924, The “w” was dropped, and the name became what it is today, Bradenton. We utilize the appropriate spelling of the name, depending on the year being discussed.
Around the turn of the century, Manatee County’s became a popular vacation spot for tourists and wealthy travelers from up north. With the growth in popularity of several hotels, like the Manavista Hotel and the Belle Haven Inn, tourists began to come to the area in larger numbers than ever before. At the time, the hotel industry was catered to wealthy guests who stayed for weeks or even months at a time, escaping the harsh winters up north. With the length of the vacations, it was common for hotels to advertise the various activities they offered for their guests. Sometimes, these activities were ones that were unavailable in the areas visitors would come from, and often times were activities reflected what the local community did for their own leisure. These factors only added to the allure of Florida, drawing even more visitors and new residents.
Some of the more common activities residents and visitors alike would participate in throughout Florida were fishing and hunting. Florida was hailed for having a very lively fishing culture, and almost every community had someone who could take people fishing. New York Times travel writer, William Drysdale, said during his first trip to Manatee County, “...boats are of two kinds – those that you have and those that you know where to borrow.” (William Drysdale, Fishing in Florida: Explorations on a Desert Island, February 23, 1884, as found in Palma Sola: The Youngest and Largest Town in Florida, 1884).
With good year-round weather and abundant fisheries along the Florida coast and in the rivers, there was no shortage of opportunity for even the most inexperienced fisherman. Fishing was an activity that was shared by both men and women, something not often found in this time. Should someone wish for a more adventurous fishing expedition, they could board a boat and partake in some offshore fishing. Often times, their target was Tarpon or Goliath Grouper.
Hunting was another very common activity guests partook in. Whether it be bird, deer, or alligator, there were experienced guides and dogs ready and willing to take visitors on a hunt. Some hotels, like the Belle Haven Inn, in Sarasota, had a hunting guide with dogs on their staff to take guests on hunts. They advertised the large amounts of birds or alligators seen, alluding to the ease of which a hunter could find their prey.
While it was not uncommon to see a guest go hunting or fishing for the purpose of returning with a trophy, often times it was done simply for the sport. Sometimes, expedition members did not even partake in the hunting or fishing. Many attended the excursion for the experience of going and seeing the Florida wilderness.
As the 20th century began, hunting and fishing were joined by other sports, such as tennis and golf. Tennis, in particular, was so common for hotels to offer, it is believed all of Henry Flagler’s hotels had a tennis court. The Manavista also had a tennis court, located on the grounds of the hotel, right on the river bank. The tennis court was featured in postcards and advertisements in the 1900s through the 1920s. A nine-hole golf course was located at the fairgrounds, near where LECOM Park stands today. The fairgrounds and golf course were on the edge of Bradentown, about a mile from the Manavista Hotel.
Playing sports was not the only past time people partook in. At the fairgrounds stood a small baseball field which housed local league games. Local baseball leagues developed in communities throughout the state, and the games were frequently attended by locals and tourists. In the early 1920s, the St. Louis Cardinals funded the development of a new baseball field on the same site. The field was level and had grand stands that allowed for larger crowds. Though it has undergone extensive renovations several times over the years, that field now called LECOM Park.
Sports were not the only type of leisure offered in Manatee County. Musical performances and socials such as dances and balls were commonly held at the Warren Opera House and the Manavista Hotel. These were frequently open to guests and local residents alike, and newspapers often advertised and reported on these events.
It was common for hotels to open for the season with a ball or a lavish dinner, and the Manavista was known to open for the season “with a banquet for [their] guests and the people of the city.” (Manatee River Journal, Thursday December 30, 1920). The Manavista itself boasted a dining room, music room, and dance hall, which were commonly utilized throughout the year. Some tourist seasons, the Manavista would host weekly dances, and other years, they'd host conferences and club meetings.
Enjoying musical performances was also a featured pastime for residents and tourists. A March 1906 performance at the Warren Opera House in Bradentown – located next door to the Manavista – included several vocalists, a violinist, and Manatee’s own blind pianist. From all accounts, it was a very well enjoyed performance. Advertisements for events at the Opera House could be found in newspapers from almost every year it was open, and not just during tourist season. Plays, lectures, political speeches, even the gramophone, were all events hosted at the Opera House. Some of the performances were put on by locals, others traveled to Bradentown to perform or speak.
While tourism certainly boosted the leisurely activities put on throughout the area, these were all activities local residents already partook in. Hunting and Fishing had been a part of Florida culture since mankind first moved to Florida, and remains that way to this day. Sports, such as golf and tennis, may not predate the hotel industry in the area, but they certainly took a strong foothold here. Golf now so ingrained in the county’s culture, the area has more golf courses and country clubs than most of the rest of the country. The St. Louis Cardinals were not the first team to do their spring training in South Florida, but it is almost a Major League Baseball tradition now. Bradenton and Sarasota both host their own MLB spring training teams and minor league baseball teams.
While the years have gone by and technology has advanced, leisure has largely remained the same. The late 1800s to early 1900s did not have widespread access to electricity or internet, but most of what we do for entertainment today is what our ancestors were doing 100-140 years ago.
More information about this topic can be found in our August 26 lecture: Visiting Paradise: Tourism in Manatee.
Fishing in Anna Maria Island Postcard, ca. 1913, courtesy of Manatee County Public Library Historical Digital Collections
A Hunting Party, ca. 1900-1905, courtesy of Manatee County Public Library Historical Digital Collections
Manavista Hotel Grounds and Tennis Court Postcard, ca. 1911, courtesy of Manatee County Public Library Historical Digital Collections
Bradenton Links Municipal Golf Course Postcard, ca. 1911. courtesy of Manatee County Public Library Historical Digital Collections
St. Louis Cardinals at McKechnie Field, ca. 1923, courtesy of Manatee County Public Library Historical Digital Collections
Warren Opera House Stage, ca. 1905, courtesy of Manatee County Public Library Historical Digital Collections