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Sunday Favorites: When Telephones Came to Town


SARASOTA - On a particularly productive day this week, I decided to remove the old telephone jack from my kitchen wall and repair the drywall prior to painting the room. After all, telephone landlines are antiquated and basically thing of the past, right?

It got me thinking about how much life has changed since the first settlers came to the area. Today, it’s hard to function without a smartphone, but early settlers had no communication at all. Many of the homesteads were government issued and consisted of vast acreages – miles and miles from any neighbor. There was no one to call in an emergency.

The first telephone wire to be installed on the west coast of Florida was actually located in present-day downtown Sarasota. It was connected by Furman Whitaker so his wife and mother-in-law could have better communication while he was away at medical school, according to ”The Whitaker Telephone Line,“ a paper prepared by the Manatee County Historical Society.

Communication was a big concern to both families, as each had suffered immense tragedy in primitive Manatee County.

Furman Whitaker was born actually born at a fortified encampment in present-day East Bradenton during a Seminole raid. His father William Whitaker and mother Mary Jane Wyatt Whitaker decided to abandon their cedar log cabin at Yellow Bluffs, on Sarasota Bay at present-day 12th Street, during the Third Seminole War (1855-1858). Mary knew first-hand what the Seminoles were capable of if they were treated unethically.

As a child, her family was friendly with Seminole Chief Billy Bowlegs, and had him for dinner on numerous occasions. One night her father, Col. William Wyatt, asked him a serious question.

”If we were at war, would you kill my family?

”Yes,“ Bowlegs replied, ”but I’d do it quickly.

The reply was meant to be a compliment, but it resonated with Mary and was not willing to chance staying at the Yellow Bluff home while tensions with the Seminoles were hostile.

After the skirmish was over, Mary and William returned home with newborn Furman, only to discover it had been burned to the ground. Their hired hand, a Scottish immigrant who refused to leave, was also killed in the attack, according to the Lures of Manatee by Lillie McDuffie.

The family rebuilt, this time erecting their home at a more inland location, the southeast corner of present-day 12th Street and US 41.

As Furman got older, Mary realized he had a disability that prevented him from doing much physical labor, so she encouraged him to explore other opportunities. At 19, he went away to college in Danville, KY. When he returned, a new family had arrived in Sarasota and built a home nearby – Mr. and Mrs. Charles Abbe and their two daughters, Nellie and Caroline.

Furman and Nellie were married in 1879. They built a home at the site of the first Whitaker cabin near the bay. Life seemed to be going well for the family – Nellie birthed four children and Furman and his brother Charles operated a small store, shipping freight between Sarasota, Key West and Cedar Key aboard the schooner ”Ruby.“

Yet, tragedy struck again in 1884 when Nellie’s father Charles was murdered by the Sarasota Assassination Society, a secret society of men that tormented and stalked the family for months before finally committing the crime.

In 1893, Furman decided to become a doctor and was accepted into Hahnemann Medical College in Chicago. Before he left, he purchased an acoustic telephone line from a company and had it shipped to the area so Nellie and her mother could have better communication lines while he was gone.

The system consisted of copper wire stretched for 1/8 mile which was supported by trees or wooden posts between the two houses and hung six to eight feet above the ground. Each home had a conical metal disc with which they talked into and a hanging bell.

When one party wanted to speak to the other, she rang the bell to get the person’s attention on the other end, then spoke loudly into the metal disc. The voice transmission was entirely acoustic, yet the voice transmission was said to be clear and loud enough to be readily understood, according to interviews which were conducted by the Manatee County Historical Society.

Probably its biggest attribute was the peace of mind it gave all parties, knowing they could easily get in touch in an emergency.

The telephone served the family while Furman was away at medical school. After his graduation in 1895, they moved to Atlanta, In order to begin his medical practice. They ended up moving back to the area three years later and Furman became the first person born in Manatee County to become a doctor and practice in the area (Sarasota was still part of Manatee County at that time). Not bad for a kid who was born with a physical disability!

A more permanent telephone system came to Manatee a few years later. It was installed by a teenage inventor, tune in next week to hear the story of the illustrious Jack B. Leffingwell and his crazy idea that would change community communication for the better!


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