Meet the Remarkable Women Who Helped Shape Sarasota

We start our ongoing series with a woman who may be lesser-known to Sarasotans at large—even though three schools in the traditionally African-American community of Newtown bear her name: Emma E. Booker ElementaryBooker Middle and Booker High. (Booker Avenue is also named in her honor.) Those lasting tributes are only fitting, since Emma E. Booker was a pioneering educator of her time, who began teaching while still in her teens herself. Born in Live Oak, Florida, she moved to segregated Sarasota around 1914 to teach at Sarasota’s only public school for Blacks, then called Sarasota Grammar.

Classes for Black students then were held in rented buildings, with often inadequate and secondhand books and supplies. But Booker was determined to do better. By 1923, she had become the principal of Sarasota Grammar and headed a fund-raising drive to open the community’s own school building in 1925, with four classrooms and an auditorium at the corner of what is now Seventh and Lemon. There she expanded the programs each year until she had eighth-grade graduates. Eventually, as the boom of the 1920s was replaced by the Depression, and her request to add a ninth-grade class was denied by the school board, Booker left Sarasota to take a position in St. Petersburg’s school system.

But her influence here was undeniable, not only in the schools that bear her name but in those early students—many of whom became educators themselves—she personally helped to see a path forward in a time and place where the odds were stacked against them. She also persevered over the years to finally achieve her own bachelor’s degree in 1937, just two years before her death—a remarkable accomplishment for a woman of color at the time.

Sarasotans should be grateful enough to Mable Ringling for her contributions to the museum of art she and her husband, circus king John Ringling, created back in the 1920s. But we have much more we can honor this impressive woman for.

Born in 1875 in a farming community in Ohio, Mable, like John, rose from humble beginnings to soar to the top of a dazzling world of art and high society. There are differing rumors of how the couple met, but Mable was 30 when they married in 1905, so she had probably already proven herself as an independent person even before she hitched her wagon to John’s star.

The Ringlings purchased 20 acres of waterfront property in small-town Sarasota in 1911 and began spending winters here while also enjoying homes in New York City and New Jersey. Both were fond of travel, venturing from museums to auction houses to galleries to acquire the Old World paintings, tapestries and sculptures that suited their collecting passions. No place captured their affections more than Venice, Italy, which Mable used as a model when they commissioned architect Dwight James Baum to design their lavish home along Sarasota Bay, Ca’ d’Zan.

From all accounts, Mable oversaw every detail of the building, from the mixing of terra cotta to the glazing of tiles, and, perhaps most especially, the plantings that formed her Rose Garden (still in bloom today as one of the oldest public gardens in the South). Once the mansion was completed, she also took on the role of hostess for Great Gatsby-esque parties welcoming guests such as New York Governor Al Smith, comedian Will Rogers, New York City Mayor Jimmy Walker and theater impresario Florenz Ziegfeld. Orchestras played from the couple’s yacht docked by the terrace, and musicales and garden parties were regularly on the entertainment schedule.

But although she mingled among the elite, Mable was also known for her kindness to children (although she had none of her own, she played the role of fairy godmother to locals and extended family members), her community spirit (she was a director of the Sarasota Woman’s Club) and her love of the pets that roamed the Ringling home and grounds. In everything they did, from collecting to real estate interests, she was a true partner to the larger-than-life John—and he must have been devastated to lose her when she died of diabetes and Addison’s disease in 1929 at only 54 years of age.

While her name is forever tied to the Ringling museum, it’s also fitting that in 2014, a 1930s-era fountain in Luke Wood Park, dedicated in her honor by members of the Garden Club she once headed, was restored after years of neglect. Like her Rose Garden, it’s a more personal reminder of a woman whose impact here was huge.

Continuing our look at some of the women who made Sarasota history, we salute the famous “Shark Lady”—Dr. Eugenie Clark, a pioneering scientist who founded Mote Marine Laboratory, which started out as the one-room Cape Haze Marine Laboratory in Placida, Florida, in 1955.

“Genie” Clark was an ichthyologist with special knowledge of sharks and tropical sand fishes, a courageous diver and explorer who continued to work underwater until the year before her death at 92 in 2015, an educator and the author of three books (including the best-selling Lady with a Spear) and more than 175 articles, including popular stories in National Geographic magazine.

Born in New York in 1922, Clark first visited New York Aquarium at Battery Park at age 9 and was immediately fascinated by the sharks and fish she saw there. She earned her bachelor’s degree in zoology from Hunter College in 1942 and applied to graduate school at Columbia University, but she was rejected by a department chair concerned she would leave her career to raise a family. (She did indeed go on to have four children, but that did not stop her from pursuing her scientific dreams.)

Clark later earned her Master of Arts and her Ph.D. in zoology, taking her first dive in the early 1940s. In all, Clark conducted 72 submersible dives as deep as 12,000 feet and led over 200 field research expeditions all over the world.

The lab she founded, which became Mote Marine in Sarasota, is now more than 60 years old and hosts diverse marine research and conservation programs, education programs and a public aquarium. Scientists at Mote work in oceans surrounding all seven continents. Clark’s own career spanned almost 75 years and no doubt inspired countless scientists and students—many of them women. In 2018, she also had a newly discovered species of dogfish shark named for her—Squalus clarkae—aka Genie’s Dogfish.

It’s always tempting to draw parallels between the lives of two of Sarasota’s early “power couples”—John and Mable Ringling and William and Marie Selby, of Marie Selby Botanical Gardens’ fame. Although the foursome were contemporaries in the city in the 1910s and 1920s, their lifestyles were very different, with the Ringlings’ showier, flamboyant social life contrasting against the Selbys’ low-key, homespun patterns.

But they did hold some things in common: Marie and Mable both loved gardens, with each designing a rose garden on their respective properties along Sarasota Bay. And boating was a common interest as well; the Ringlings always had a yacht and the Selbys were active early members of the Sarasota Yacht Club, with a succession of boats named Bilma—a combination of the names Bill and Marie.

Marie, born in 1885 in West Virginia and growing up in Marietta, Ohio, along the Ohio River, always felt an affinity for the outdoors. Her father regularly took his family on camping and fishing expeditions, a passion Bill Selby, who with his father ran the Selby Oil and Gas Company, shared. In Sarasota, where the couple owned a ranch in Myakka City as well as their bayfront property where the gardens stand today, the two frequently rode their horses around town, dressing “down” in such a way passersby would never have guessed at their wealth.

Marie was also an accomplished pianist who studied music in Illinois prior to her marriage in 1908. (An often-told story about the Selbys is that not long after their marriage, they followed the route of the first cross-country automobile race in their specially adapted touring car—surely a 3,000-mile test of any couple’s compatibility—making Marie one of the first women to cross the country by car, if not indeed the first.)

At home in Sarasota, where Bill had first discovered the natural beauty and abundant fishing as a bachelor, Marie and Bill settled into their relatively modest Spanish-style home on their seven acres and Marie spent time establishing her beloved garden. (She was a charter member of the Sarasota Garden Club’s Founders Circle.) With no children of their own, the Selbys had taken an interest in helping young people, and in 1955 established the William G. and Marie Selby Foundation, a year before Bill died. That foundation has provided more than 3,500 scholarships and more than $83 million for hundreds of nonprofit agencies.

Marie lived quietly at her home after Bill’s death until her own passing in 1971, supporting both the fledgling New College and the Van Wezel Performing Arts Hall with financial gifts. But her major legacy was the provision in her will for her gardens to be left to the community as a botanical garden “for the enjoyment of the general public.” Open since 1975, Marie Selby Botanical Gardens has indeed provided that enjoyment, with more than 200,000 visitors yearly and a collection of thousands of plants, indoors and out. No wonder Marie was named a “Great Floridian” by the Florida Legislature in 2000, for her “significant contributions to the history and culture of the state.”

Eliza Webb was not the first Northerner to move to the southwest coast of Florida for her health (due to her asthma), but she and husband John were surely the first to shape a winter resort to welcome others traveling here for the same reason.

In 1867, the Webb family made an arduous journey from Utica, New York, to Key West by ship, then to Tampa and then to what was still known as Manatee County in search of a prime piece of property on which to make their home. They had been steered in the direction of today’s Osprey (and its now-named Historic Spanish Point) by a Cuban fisherman who had told them of an ideal spot along Little Sarasota Bay—one with freshwater springs, high elevation to avoid flooding, and, oh, yes, what happened to be an ancient Indian burial mound. The Webbs settled into what they called Webb’s Point and began farming crops like sugar cane, peas, corn and squash after building a log home with a roof of thatched palmetto. (Luckily, they had five children to help with those endeavors.)

But it wasn’t just as hard-working farming pioneers that the Webbs made their mark. Savvy businesspeople, they also developed a sugar mill to process their cane, a packing house to ship vegetables and citrus products North, and, eventually, a resort welcoming 20-25 guests at a time, who paid $35 a month for room, board, fuel and laundry. Before closing in 1910, the Webbs’ winter resort had established a popular tradition of snowbird visitors.

Undoubtedly, Eliza as the matriarch must have been largely responsible for the care and feeding of those early guests, who enjoyed frequent picnics and boat outings as part of their stay. The next time you find yourself complaining about too much housework, remind yourself of this letter from Eliza to her sister Nell, dated June of 1875. A few excerpts (provided by Historic Spanish Point):

“I will make no excuses for not having written before, except want of time. Lizzie has told you how we live that we are almost a self-supporting household. We make all the clothes for the men even to their hats which we braid from the Palmetto a kind of Palm which grows all around us. The only thing we don’t make for them is their shoes.

“We make our own sugar and syrup…we raise vegetables for Key West market…for three months in the summer we can get Turtle and their eggs on the Gulf beach….Then our bay is filled with most excellent fish and oisters. Game is quite plenty but it is not often that I can look out of the window and see three Deer feeding within gun shot as I did for three days in succession a few days ago.

“We shall have quite a little show of fruit on our Orange trees this year and Lemmons Limes Citrons and Guavas in abundance, also Bananas. How I wish you could come down some winter and see for yourselves all these things would be so new to you. And then our winters why do you know they seem to me to be a foretaste of that better country to which we all hope to go some time.”

Eliza herself went to that better country in 1884. She is buried in the Pioneer Cemetery at Historic Spanish Point with other family members; the historical, environmental and archaeological site is open to visitors.

And, and by the way, 30 acres of the Webbs’ original land was sold to Bertha Honore Palmer in 1910, helping to initiate that prominent woman’s expansive entry into Sarasota. 

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