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Sunday Favorites: Saying Goodbye to 'Beth Salem'

Pliny Reasoner started the Royal Palm Nursery in 1883.

ONECO – One of the oldest houses still standing in Manatee County will likely be razed to make way for a new gas station.

Manatee County Commissioners approved preliminary plans to demo the 118-year-old home, 3004 53rd Ave. E., Oneco, for construction of a Race Trac gas station at their June 5 meeting.

Completed in June of 1896, the home was constructed on the Beth Salem homestead, and has housed members of the Reasoner family for many generations. It was listed on the National Register for Historic Places since 1995.

Until recently the home was used as an office for Royal Palm Nursery, the property adjacent to the 3.5-acre homestead, which is considered the oldest operating nursery in Florida and has been run by the Reasoner family since the late 1800s.

The Reasoner legacy began with Pliny Reasoner, a college-educated northerner with a degree in agriculture. As a recent graduate, he was anxious to test some of his newfound knowledge on Florida fauna, which was famous for thriving year round, according to The Lures of Manatee by Lillie McDuffee. 

Reasoner and his friend R.B. Foster were among the first pioneers to arrive by wagon. Before adequate roads were constructed in the 1880s, settlers traveled by railroad to Cedar Key then chartered yachts to arrive in Manatee County. 

McDuffie writes that Reasoner and Foster trekked from Princeton Ill., in 1881 trudging 30 miles a day on crude Florida roads in order to get to the Manatee area. 

Several grey Norman horses led the men’s wagon. The creatures were the first of their kind in the area and McDuffie described how their impressive size was of stark contrast to the native ponies used by many of the other settlers. 

Reasoner was reportedly impressed with the soil and climate of the Manatee section. He immediately began collecting fruit tree clippings throughout the state and importing palms from Cuba. Soon he began profiting from his vast “collection,” thus beginning Royal Palm Nursery. 

Egbert took over operations after Pliny's death.

The Reasoner nursery was located in Oneco, an unincorporated area approximately 6 miles from downtown Bradenton. Royal Palm Nursery was the only business for miles. Because the business was so isolated, it is assumed the nursery helped name the village; the railroad at the time called the station “One Co. stop,” which eventually evolved into “Oneco.” 

In addition to developing his business, Reasoner published many of his agriculture-based writings in Florida newspapers and out-of-state research publications, which gained him acclaim nationwide. 

However, Reasoner’s legacy was cut short after he contracted yellow fever in 1887 or 1888 (McDuffie writes 1887, but other literature suggests the outbreak occurred in 1888). He was only 27 when he died. 

Manatee County was under quarantine at the time with a reported 35 cases, most of which occurred in Palmetto.

Pliny’s younger brother, Egbert Norman Reasoner, (1869-1926), took over the business following Pliny’s death. He had come down to help his brother with the business in 1885. At the time, the number of fruits and plants offered by nursery was extensive; newspaper advertisements boasted over 22 different plants. 

The Reasoner brothers are credited with propagating the first pink grapefruit. They shipped some to Texas where the fruit gained vast attractiveness to consumers. The soil found in the Rio Grande Valley created a much deeper pink and has produced pink grapefruit ever since.

In 1895, Egbert married a minister’s daughter, Iowa-born Sarah Burrows. 

Beth Salem, or “House of Peace,” was their wedding gift from Sarah’s father. 

Egbert, Julia, Pliny Jr., Norman and Sarah Reasoner stand outside Beth Salem.

The house was constructed according to a set of plans designed by Sarah's cousin, architect Parke T. Burrows. The famous architect has six buildings in Florida and Iowa, including Beth Salem, on the National Register of Historic Places. 

Completed in June of 1896, the Late Victorian, shingle-style home cost $4,000 and was modeled after many houses built in the Midwest at the time. At the time, it was considered one of the handsomest houses in the county. 

“The house displays transitional characteristics of the Shingle Style incorporating the gabled Victorian Villa of Queen Anne style and the powerful influence of the American Colonial, a national residential style,” according to the Royal Palm Nursery website. 

One of the more distinctive features in the home was a wood carving over the mantle that reads “Beth Salem; May Peace be Within Thy Walls.” Carvings of mockingbirds and yellow jasmine surround the phrase. 

The carving was a gift from Charles Hitchings, a friend and neighbor of the Reasoners who hand-made the mantle piece when the home was constructed. 

The 118-year-old home is scheduled to be torn down to make way for a gas station.

Originally, the home was landscaped with bamboo, hickory and oak trees. It is purported that the home was the first with indoor plumbing in Southwest Florida, and also among the first with a telephone. When it was first built, its phone number was “7’, according to an article from the Bradenton Herald.

Egbert died in February 1926, at only 56 years of age, but his sons and daughters kept the family-owned business running. 

In 1936, the original 140-acre parcel was greatly reduced due to financial difficulties during the Great Depression, according to the national Registry of Historic Places. In recent years, the widening of SR70 has also reduced the plot. 

Reasoner descendents have helped shape the county through their contributions, which went beyond agriculture. 

Julia (Reasoner) Fuller, daughter of Egbert and Sarah, kept scrapbooks chronicling events in the area. Her collection paved way for others to capture Manatee County’s early history. 

She began the first library in Bradentown, of which she became librarian. In 1974, her home was sold to William A. and Bette M. Roseberry. (MCHS) 

In 1980 Egbert was one of the first six men inducted into the Florida Agricultural Hall of Fame and Pliny was inducted the year after. The brothers were the first two inductees from the horticultural field. 

Although Egbert and Pliny’s dream evolved from “a fledging grove of oranges to a thriving multi-faceted enterprise,” their ancestors have not been able to deal with the upkeep of Beth Salem. 

The historic home has been a financial burden on the Reasoner family.

They tried to sell the home for just under $100,000, but when interested parties found out how much they’d spend moving the home to another location, they lost interest. 

With no incentives in place to preserve historic properties, Beth Salem will most likely be one of many historical resources that will be bull dozed to make way for chain convenience stores and restaurants. 


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