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Community Sunday Favorites: Asa Pillsbury

Asa Pillsbury's boat dock at Palma Sola

BRADENTON -- When he was only an infant, Asa Pillsbury Jr. traveled to Manatee County from Chicago with his father in 1885, settling at Palma Sola. He was especially interested in boat building. As a boy he constructed model sailboats to race across the Manatee River, one of which is currently displayed at the South Florida Museum. However, above everything else, Asa Jr. was a conservationist.

His siblings were well known in the community. His brother Ed, became light tender for the channel markers along the Manatee River and started the Pillsbury Boatworks on Snead Island. Another brother, Frank, owned and farmed a grove and his sister, Mary “Mamie” Louis, married H.W. Phelps, and helped him care and tend fruit trees in Palma Sola.

Asa Jr. became a boat captain and purchased property in Palma Sola at Shaw's Point west of the old tabby house, which served as a variety of things, including a post office, a quarantine station, and the area’s first tavern.

Asa Jr. married a widow, Cora Earl, in 1905. He became a member of the Audubon Society that same year because he was concerned with bird life on Passage Key, which President Theodore Roosevelt had named a bird sanctuary, according to “The Singing River by Joe Warner.” Asa built his bride a small home on Passage Key. In 1908, he applied for homestead on the property but instead settled for a position as game warden, which he held from 1910 to 1921.

Passage Key, which at one time was the size of Egmont with a spring-fed freshwater lake, but in October of 1921, it was completely swept away in the tidal surge. Luckily the Pillsburys were staying at the commandant’s home on Mullet Key. The block construction of the structure was so strong that it survived the 100 plus mile per hour winds. 

Cora died in 1945 and Asa never remarried. Instead, he collected a considerable number of dogs, according to Warner. Asa was most noted for starting the Pillsbury Boat Works in Palma Sola and building “skipjacks,” or specialty boats for fisherman. 

His proudest possession was an Indian burial mound on his Palma Sola property. In an interview with the Manatee Historical Society, he said archeologists from the University of Florida excavated over 147 skeletons from the site, much more than were thought to be there. The bodies were in fetal position, with their heads faced up or down and lying on either side with knees flexed.

In her book, “The Edge of the Wilderness,” Janet Snyder Matthews theorizes that Shaw’s Point might have been the village of Ucita, the famous Native American community that welcomed Hernando DeSoto. The burial mound on Asa’s property was a companion to the midden mound now located at DeSoto National Memorial, and at one time a causeway or ridge connected the two. A ridge meandered 100 to 200 feet off the beach and along his walkway joined many smaller mounds. Canals flowed underneath the edifices.

Until his death in 1969, Asa lobbied for his mound to be included in Desoto National Memorial, but it was never added to the preserve. 


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