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Sunday Favorites: Small Towns, Big Businesses Part 2


Palmetto and Bradenton are relatively small cities now, but imagine how small they were in the late 1800's, 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


The Manatee

The Manatee was a primary means of transportation in the Manatee section. 

Photo: Florida Memory Project

The Stanton siblings, William, Curtis and Samuel Ward grew up imitating their father, a successful marine architect/engineer. Samuel Stanton Sr. observed as their crude childhood sketches eventually became blueprints for his boat builds. 

The family operated a shipyard in New York. After purchasing property in Bradenton, Samuel Sr. traveled to New York and began construction on a vessel that transported his family to Manatee County and became a major means of passage for area residents. It took two years to build the steamboat The Manatee.

It launched on August of 1884; the family arrived 20 days later. Samuel Jr. became a famous marine artist and author. He was killed in the Titanic disaster of 1912, but his body was never recovered.  

Tropicana Orange Juice

Anthony T. Rossi (1900–1993), of Sicily, immigrated to the U.S. when he was 21. He settled in Palmetto and began packing fruit gift boxes under the name Manatee River Packing Company. 

As the business grew, the company moved to east Bradenton and became Fruit Industries, supplying ingredients for the salads at New York’s famed Waldorf-Astoria Hotel. 

Rossi produced frozen concentrate orange juice, and then he developed flash pasteurization in 1954, a process that preserved the fresh taste of the juice.  Below is a photo of the lab at Tropicana. In 1957, the company’s name was changed to Tropicana Products, Inc. 

Tropicana started as a fruit stand, but today is distributed all over the world. 

Photo: Florida Memory Project

By 1958, a convoy of refrigerated trucks transported goods nationally and the S.S. Tropicana, above, was shipping 1.5 million gallons of juice to New York each week. 

In 1969, Tropicana became the first company in the citrus industry to operate its own plastic container manufacturing plant. Rossi sold Tropicana to Beatrice Foods in 1978. He then retired, and was inducted into the Florida Agricultural Hall of Fame in 1987.

Reasoner Brother’s Nursery

Reasoner Brother’s Nursery is considered the oldest nursery in Florida. 

The nursery opened in 1883, and is still in business today. 

The Reasoner brothers are credited with propagating the first pink grapefruit in Oneco. 

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 color.

The Business of Life Insurance

Garfield DeVoe (G.D.) Rogers first made a living dipping turpentine in Thomaston, Ga., but dreamed of greater things. 

In 1905, he walked along railroad tracks from his hometown to Bradentown, selling railroad ties to buy food along the way. He first opened a dry cleaning and tailoring business on Ninth Street in Manatee, crafting suits for $13.50 – the first of many profitable businesses. 

In the 1930s he turned Central Life Insurance Co., which sold policies to black people during segregation, into a million-dollar company after taking over in 1933. He purchased the land and building for Lincoln Academy in 1930, where he served as principal. 

With the help of chief counsel for the NAACP, Thurgood Marshall, he campaigned for equalization of salaries for black teachers in Manatee County during the 1940s.  His daughter, Louise Rogers, became the first black member of the Manatee County School Board. When G.D. died in 1951, the funeral procession stretched over 50 miles. Several state officials and congressional representatives were in attendance, many of which stood outside Bradenton Methodist Church.  (HCPLC)

The Pink Palace

The Manatee River Hotel is now a Hampton Inn

Photo: Florida Memory Project

Railroad money of the Van Swerigen family built the Manatee River Hotel in 1925. They spared no expense during construction, spending an estimated $1.4 million. Because steel beams supported the entirely concrete structure, it was considered to be fireproof. 

Construction took three years to complete due to the lavish decorations. It featured 200 staterooms, four exclusive tower studios, several ballrooms for social events, and a rooftop garden with a dance floor – where celebrities danced the Charleston, toasted bootlegged champagne and sipped infamous Manatee moonshine. 

A-listers like Rita Hayworth, Clark Gable, Tyrone Power, Babe Ruth, Al Capone, Dizzy Dean and Herbert Hoover were allegedly guests at the upscale resort. It was turned into a retirement homed in the 1960s, then abandoned in the 1990s. 

An Artist Pool

In 1914, Mary Ward and her two children settled on Manatee Ave and 26th Street. Previously a pottery artist, she discovered a clay deposit at the 2700 block of Riverview Boulevard and started a businesses – it became Manatee County’s first artistic commercial endeavor. 

The clay had a distinct blue color, but it became neutral after firing. Candlesticks, bowls and vases were adorned with Florida birds, palmettos, and palms. A body of water was exhibited on each piece. 

The pottery served mainly decorative purposes. Production was first done in the back of a house in Fogartyville; one wheel was run by electricity, but the other three were foot pumped. Ward’s pottery was marketed all over the country. 

She set up a small shop in downtown Bradenton, below. In 1921 she sold her interest to Henry A. Graack, then moved to Orlando where she started Orlando Potteries.  


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