Mrs. Potter Palmer: The Legendary Lady
She dined with royalty, socialized with captains of industry, enjoyed close connections to the White House, and had a good head for business. She raised children and enjoyed her grandchildren, buried a beloved husband, and chaired the Board of Lady Managers for Chicago’s World’s Columbian Exposition. Mrs. Potter Palmer also loved Sarasota. She was heard to say that the bay reminded her of the Bay of Naples, Italy.
In 1910 Bertha Palmer made her first impact on Sarasota history and on the Spanish Point homestead. The Chicago socialite and widow of Potter Palmer came to Sarasota to establish a winter estate. She purchased thousands of acres for cattle ranching, citrus groves, and real estate development. The Webb homestead was part of the land she chose for her 350-acre estate which she named “Osprey Point.” She preserved the pioneer buildings and connected them with lavish formal gardens and lawns.
Many of these garden elements have been restored at Historic Spanish Point. The classical columns of her Pergola & Sunken Garden still glow in the Florida sun with vibrant bougainvillea tightly hugging their bases, an aqueduct meanders through the tropical foliage with its waters flowing over a shell cascade into a reflecting pool, and a tall classic portal serenely stands over a lush green lawn. The Pergola & Sunken Garden is a popular location for wedding ceremonies.
Mrs. Palmer’s varied business interests in Sarasota may have contributed to the land boom and further development of the gulf coast. One of these interests was cattle ranching. As a member of the Florida State Livestock Association, she operated a 15,000 acre ranch she called Meadow Sweet Pastures.
New techniques and innovations in the field of cattle ranching improved production; one of these was the use of large concrete vats where the animals were “dipped” in medicines and insect repellants. Meadowsweet Pastures was acquired by the State of Florida and is now a substantial part of the Myakka River State Park.
Bertha Palmer died of breast cancer at age 68 in May of 1918 while here at her winter estate. The Palmer family maintained Osprey Point and in 1959, her grandson Gordon Palmer sponsored the three year excavation by Ripley P. Bullen of the archaeological site which now encompasses the museum at Historic Spanish Point. Gordon’s widow, Janis along with Potter Palmer IV and other family members encouraged the nomination of Spanish Point to the National Register. In 1976 it became the first site in Sarasota County to be listed in the National Register of Historic Places. In 1980, the Palmer heirs donated the National Register site to Gulf Coast Heritage Association.