Thursday, February 17, 2011
The Ghost Town of Pine Level, Florida
The first government surveys were conducted near the Peace River Valley in 1849. Settlers began to move to the interior along rivers and creeks, with the majority of development occurring in the coastal areas. Manatee County was created on January 9, 1855, and within its borders it contained 5,000 square miles extending from the Gulf of Mexico to Lake Okeechobee. The small Village of Manatee, one mile east of present day Bradenton, was chosen as the county seat. By 1860 the population was 854.
Early settlers in eastern Manatee County soon protested that the Village of Manatee was unsuitably located since some settlers had to travel the full width of the county to visit the courthouse. Representatives where appointed by the Manatee County Commission to select a central terminal for the new county seat. On April 29, 1866 a plot of land in the SW Quarter, Section 22, Township 378, Range 23E, was proposed by the representatives as the designated county seat and given the name “Pine Level.” The proposal was approved and county seat was moved to Pine Level. It must not be overlooked that the county seat was possibly relocated from the Village of Manatee since it was considered to be the “center of Rebel thinking” in an era during the Civil War. Thus moving the government to the neutral interior of the state, and specifically to Pine Level, may have been a reconstruction ploy to punish Confederate sympathizers.
The new courthouse played a central role in Pine Level’s history and demise. The following are specifications for the first courthouse built at Pine Level on May 29, 1866 according to George Lane Jr.’s research in his Arcadia & Desoto County: “One log house, 20 feet square in the cleaved 10-foot story with a room added to the end, 20 feet by 10 feet, with a partition through the room making two 10-foot Jury Rooms to be cased with 2 foot hart [sic] pine or cypress board and floored with planked or hyghed puncheon boards. One door in each side and two windows to be case and faced with shutters. The house to be furnished with one table, 2 feet by 8 feet long, 22 10-foot benches, 1 box bench for the Judge.” The courthouse would later be secured with locks and enlarged.
This first courthouse was destroyed by fire, a second courthouse would succumb to the Great Hurricane of 1878, and the third would later become the residence of Mr. D.W. Mizell. Joseph Herman Simpson notes in his book The History of Manatee County: “The courthouse was constructed of small peeled unhewn logs. There were a few inches of sawdust put on the floor and the suffering people had to endure from fleas…was almost unbearable. It was said to be the worst courthouse in Florida.”
John H. Bartholf, a Captain in the Union Army during the Civil War, was Pine Level’s first appointed postmaster in 1871. In 1876, Bartholf tried to annul the ballots in the Tilden-Hayes presidential election by resigning his position as court clerk. Joshua Gates and Ziba King were authorized to pick up the ballot report, but Bartholf refused, as he had no authority to release it. King and Gates forced Bartholf at gunpoint to sign the report which Gates and King then sent to Tallahassee. In Louise Frisbie’s Peace River Pioneers she writes: “A subsequent attempt to investigate this incident ended at the county line, where a group of armed Democrats met the committee. The delegation found it expedient not to pursue the matter.”
By the 1880’s, Pine Level could claim a courthouse, a jail, two churches, dry goods stores, a sawmill, a cattle brokerage, a real estate brokerage, a drug store, boarding houses, a restaurant, a school house, a post office, warehouses, a newspaper, and many homes and several saloons. Saloons out numbered other businesses 14 to 1 and Saturday night was a host for lawlessness, gambling, drinking and shootings. Charles Hagan, raised on the town’s main street said: “We had the wild west right here. Tombstone, Abilene and Deadwood had nothing on us! We probably had more blood spilled right here in Pine Level than in all the Seminole Indian Wars combined…” An unknown settler was once quoted, “they’d kill a man for Christmas!”
In the spring of 1884, a group of men organized the secret Sarasota Vigilance Committee, which they first described as a political fraternity. The gang included a total of twenty-two men consisting of local farmers, planters, storekeepers, and cowboys. The New York Times called them the "notorious Sarasota Assassination Society." The Sarasota gang made Pine Level their headquarters where they ransacked banks, terrorized land speculators and new settlers in the area.
On March of 1885, twenty members of the infamous Sarasota vigilantes were captured and prosecuted by Sheriff A.S. Watson. There were only nine men to stand trial; eleven had escaped. James Warnke purports in his book Ghost Towns of Florida that “at the time, the courthouse was not finished due to lack of funds. The jail was so flimsy that it leaked prisoners like a sieve.” Reporters from New York, Boston and Chicago endured the heat and fleas to cover one of the most bewildering court cases as the gang was tried for the murders of Harrison Riley and Charles E Abbes, a Sarasota postmaster.
Of those tried, Charles B.Willard and Joseph C. Anderson were convicted; however, one of them escaped from a hole in the jailhouse roof, leaving behind a thank you note. The others were released after only serving three years of a life sentence. By 1892, all of the Sarasota gang members were free.
In 1886, The Florida Southern Railroad was built from Bartow to Arcadia on the east side of the Peace River, but the town of Pine Level was passed by. Residents of the Village of Manatee and the surrounding area were pressuring legislators to create a new, smaller Manatee County. On May 10, 1887, Desoto County was created from Manatee County. Pine Level remained the county seat until November of 1888 when Arcadia received this designation. George Lane notes in his book Arcadia & Desoto County that “Pine Level began its decline into a farming village, diminishing in importance and population.”
Today, what remains of Pine Level are scattered bricks from the chimney of the old courthouse, the Pine Level Campground Cemetery (dating back to the town’s inception in 1850), and the Methodist Church (organized in 1868 and the oldest in Desoto County). Across Pine Level Road, the old hanging tree remains commemorating the location where justice was once dispensed behind the courthouse.
Posted by Indietop20 at 9:04 PM