(May 22, 1849 – May 5, 1918)
American businesswoman, socialite and philanthropist
By Nella DeCesare
In the 21st century where women’s role models are found in such questionable places as Hollywood and reality television, today’s forward-thinking woman is indeed hard-pressed to find an inspirational figure that exudes feminine strength, resourcefulness and tenacity.
For these qualities, today’s woman will need to transport herself back to the early 20th century. This trip will not only procure a fine example of a woman’s woman, but it will portray strength and admiration to all who engage.
Whether a young woman trying to make a mark in the business world or a seasoned executive, or maybe even a stay-at-home mother, an introduction to Mrs. Potter Palmer will not only fascinate, but provide a role model that stands the test of time. Now, go back in time to Old Sarasota where the balmy, warm temperate wind gently blows in from the Gulf of Mexico, winding its way among lush palms and majestic oak trees as the social elite gather for afternoon tea on the spacious, sunny veranda on the Oaks, the Sarasota estate home of Mrs. Bertha Palmer.
The city of Sarasota was founded in the 1800’s, but it didn’t really come into its own until it was incorporated into a town in 1902. The town grew as more and more people flocked to the balmy Southwest Florida coast. One of those people was a remarkable woman named Bertha Palmer.
Bertha Palmer was an early 20th century socialite who had made her mark decades before as a Renaissance woman. She was a linguist, a writer, a politician, a musician, and an art collector who married Chicago-based millionaire Potter Palmer in 1870 at the age of just 21. With her husband, and her evident charm, Bertha rose to the top of elite Chicago society. “She was beautiful, dashing, quick, and smart; and more than that, she was sure of herself,” said historian Ernest Poole. Her talents made her a star attraction of the Chicago social scene.
Bertha Palmer indeed had a lust for life that was in the public spotlight for years. She mingled with royalty in Europe, collected fine jewels from all over the world, hosted soiree after soiree in her plush Chicago mansion, gathered fine works of art, and even participated in women’s rights groups in Chicago – all while raising two sons, Honoré and Potter Palmer II. Her husband died in 1902, leaving her extremely wealthy, and although she had plenty of suitors – including, it was rumored, the King of Serbia – she never remarried.
Following her husband’s death, Bertha wanted to expand and seek other environments to conquer other than the social scenes of Chicago, London, and Paris. She saw an advertisement in a Chicago newspaper placed by A.B. Edwards, who owned a real estate and insurance office in Sarasota, Florida. At the time, Sarasota was a small, but bustling town with just a few hundred residents located on Sarasota Bay. It certainly wasn’t Chicago, but there was something about the area – perhaps the warm tropical climate off the Gulf of Mexico – that enticed Bertha.
With a new target in her sights, Bertha traveled to Sarasota. She liked what she saw – a small, charming town with enthusiastic residents and an unbeatable climate. She envisioned something better for the area, and sought to turn it into a haven for people like herself who were searching for something bigger and better – people who enjoyed the finer things in life and needed a winter retreat away from the blistering cold of New York and Chicago.
In 1910, after she saw Sarasota for the first time, Bertha Palmer purchased over 90,000 acres in and around Sarasota. She quickly turned her hand to working as a rancher, and used large swathes of her land to raise cattle. She also created a farm, Meadowsweet Farms, and together with the state department of agriculture she conducted several experiments that would help farmers grow and ship crops to other parts of the country in a more effective manner. Bertha also established the Palmer National Bank.
Her main goal, though, was to advance the town that she had fallen in love with, and entice others to visit. Bertha quickly began extolling the virtues of Sarasota and the surrounding environment to her friends and associates. She helped the town advertise abroad, targeting well-to-do individuals and families who needed winter retreats – or simply needed to get away. She compared Sarasota Bay to the Bay of Naples, in Italy, and used the bay as a key focal point. She promoted the warm climate and the beauty of Sarasota, luring people to come and see for themselves. She even founded a resort specifically for visitors to the area, with festive galas every week.
As a result, Sarasota blossomed. Jewels, fine dresses, vintage cars, and the latest fashion all soon came to Sarasota in droves, brought by wealthy travelers who were allured by the environment. The home of Bertha Palmer, named The Oaks, was the focal point of the Sarasota cultural renaissance at the turn of the century. Her galas were held along the avenues lined with oaks and amid lush gardens and ponds that drew in legions of visitors and helped advance the reputation of Sarasota as a must-see vacation destination. The site of The Oaks is now occupied by the exclusive members only country club, The Oaks Club, a golfer’s paradise.
Bertha Palmer’s influence is still felt today. Several streets in Sarasota are named after her or her family. Myakka River State Park, the 37,000-acre park located in Manatee and Sarasota Counties, was founded in part on a gift of land from her estate by her sons to the state of Florida after her death in 1918. The real estate development known as Palmer Ranch is what is left of the 90,000 acres Bertha acquired, and is now home to subdivisions, shopping centers, and other areas.
Bertha Palmer was a visionary who saw promise and potential in Sarasota and wanted to bring others to the beautiful confines of the city by the bay. She was also a pioneer who sought to grow Sarasota into one of the premier vacation destinations in the early 20th century. And, like most strong, confident and smart women, Bertha used her considerable charm to influence wealthy visitors, who in turn, helped transform the city of Sarasota into what it is today.
By all accounts, Mrs. Bertha Palmer was the supreme role model in the making. She truly honed the skill of networking that any 21st century woman would envy in today’s business world. She did not need anything but what she had to offer, which was a little old-fashioned influence and good advice to family and friends in her social circle, urging them to discover her pristine southwest Florida retreat and make it their own as she did. Her lofty connections, savvy business acumen and charm helped establish the Sarasota known today and, once her vision was complete, she would leave her success and legacy to not just the residents of Sarasota, but to all women for generations to come.