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Sunday Favorites: Small Towns, Big Businesses


Palmetto and Bradenton are relatively small cities now, but imagine how small they were in the late 1800s, when people were just beginning to settle the area. 

It was up to these settlers to provide for their family with what they had. Some people planned ahead and brought their business with them from the north, shipping machinery parts to the area or arriving on steamboats, which they later used to transport citizens. 

Others grew their business from their fertile Florida soil. Whatever the circumstances, there were many successful businesses that began right here in Manatee County

Native Florida cattle gather in the Gulf.

Photo: Florida Memory Project

Beef: It’s what’s for dinner

One of the first major exports in Manatee County was cattle. The original Florida crackers were hunters who used whips to round up free-range cows left over from Spanish explorers of the 1500s.  

The horsemen branded and drove them to one of four loading docks on the Manatee River, from where they were shipped to Cuba. Records show that there were 1036 recorded cow brands in Manatee County. 

During the Civil War, crackers were recruited into “cow cavalries” to drive herds north to supply the Confederate Army. Toward the end of the war, Florida was the lead provider of beef to the Confederates. 

Two epidemics — the fever tick in 1917 and the screwworm in the 1930s— completely depleted the native piney-wood cattle. During the boom of the 1920s, fences went up all over the state. 

Although Florida continues to be one for the leading beef producers in the nation, the original crackers became extinct with the demise of the piney-wood cattle and the disappearance of Florida’s free range.

Grapefruit fit for a King

At one time, the largest grapefruit grove in the world was in Manavista, just east of Palmetto.  

In 1892, Kimball C. Atwood purchased 2,645 acres on the Manatee River and employed 500 men to clear the land. The finished grove was touted to comprise 96 miles of grapefruit. 

Five artesian wells supplied the grove with irrigation. 

The Atwood brand became popular all over the United States and in Europe. At the Atwood Grapefruit Co. packinghouse, steamers would pick up cargo at the end of a quarter-mile-long pier, which was wide enough for two wagons to pass. 

Homes of the cartakers of the Atwood Grove.

Photo: Florida Memory Project

On top of the packinghouse, the cupola served as an observation tower. A lookout would sound a conch shell to alert workers to prepare for an incoming ship.

When England’s King George V tasted a sample brought to the royal household for a party, he wrote the Atwoods about placing an order. It became an annual tradition to ship the king a complimentary box of handpicked grapefruit. 

Mr. Atwood used to joke it was the least he could do since his grandfather captained a Maine regiment at the Battle of Yorktown. 

The grove reached its peak in 1927 and remained in Kimball Atwood’s possession until his death in 1936. His family kept the property until 1968.

You say tomato, I say tomato

William G. Gillett grew the first tomatoes in Florida in 1875 in the hammocks between Ellenton and Parrish, two towns north of Palmetto. He found that the sandy soil yielded a higher quality of tomatoes per acre. Soon other growers followed his lead and planted tomatoes.

Children work inside a packinghouse 1893

Photo: Florida Memory Project

Others followed Gillett’s direction; around 1910, packinghouses started to open around the county, such as one owned by brothers Cleveland “J. C.” and Daniel Marion “D. M.” Courtney that began operation in 1918. Their plant was on Eighth Avenue, with access to the railroad.

Tomatoes were picked green and placed in ventilated wooden crates where they would ripen for the 12 days that it took to ship produce to New York.

In 1918 the Manatee Growers Association was organized and remained active until 1960. 

The association built packinghouses and worked collectively for better marketing, financing and purchasing for farm supplies and fertilizer. The gradual decline of the group came about when other forms of cooperation, such as state farmers' markets, began to take over.

Grover Cleveland “Shorty” Vowell was born in Mississippi in 1885. He came to Ellenton in 1903. In 1929, with the help of Bob Billingsly Whisenant, he invented a horse-drawn sprayer.

L.A. Rawls did the welding at the Harllee and Harrison garage in Palmetto. The sprayer was patented and manufactured at the Vowell Sprayer Co. in Ellenton.  

Staking tomatoes was a technique used in Manatee and Hillsborough counties for several years before being adopted throughout the United States. Cleveland “Shorty” Vowell is credited as the first grower to use stakes, which were made of bamboo or palm branches. This small innovation was an improvement because it made harvesting easier and more efficient. Ground-grown plants had a delayed maturity rate and were more susceptible to disease and decay. 

But business wasn’t all about agriculture and ranching. Next week, we will be looking at more successful businesses. 


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