If the communities north of the Manatee River are thought of as a family, the city of Ellenton is probably the middle child. And like most middle children, easygoing Ellenton doesn't always get the recognition it deserves. While Palmetto, to Ellenton's west, has its own mayor and government and distinct, mature identity, and Parrish, to the east, so far remains largely rural, balking at growth like the baby of the family, Ellenton is right there in the middle, taking all the changes happening around it in stride.
Consider for a moment the Gamble Mansion. This antebellum plantation sits in the heart of Ellenton on U.S. 301, just east of Ellenton-Gillette Road. Built by slaves between 1845 and 1850, the mansion is a memorial to a way of life and economic system that were swept away by the Civil War. And yet right beside it are signs of the times. A Fast Fetch stands on a nearby corner east of the mansion. A submarine sandwich shop is a stone's throw to the west. So the mansion is like the respected elder sitting in his special chair at a family gathering, undisturbed, while the young folks hustle and bustle around him.
It wasn't always that way. Blake Whisenant, a 74-year-old farmer and the inventor of the Earthbox (a revolutionary method of growing tomatoes in a box that has a facility in Ellenton), says the city has seen "an absolute change from agriculture to urbanization." Ellenton used to be home to a number of small farmers with 10- and 12-acre farms, he says.
Jim Wiggins, who was born and raised in Ellenton but now lives in Palm Beach County, wrote a book called Ellenton: Its Early Years. "I still get a warm but sad feeling when I visit Ellenton," says Wiggins. The house he used to live in is now a beauty salon, and the 24-acre farm his parents sold in the early 1950s is subdivision housing. In his book, Wigginis describes visiting Ellenton with his parents in the 1980s. He says his father wanted to "go home to die." Wiggins tried to explain to him that the home he remembered was very different from the Ellenton he would find, but his parents insisted on making the trip, anyway. When they arrived and saw how much things had changed, they began to cry.
Twenty years after that visit, Ellenton is still evolving. The main road through the city is U.S. 301, also known as 10th Street if you enter the town heading east from Palmetto. The first section of Ellenton is the older part, where the Gamble Mansion stands. This is where a visitor will find a scattering of antique shops and some venerable old restaurants, like the Big L Restaurant and Hickory Hollow Barbeque. A few older clapboard homes remain on this well-traveled road, but mostly one sees businesses--that beauty salon where the Wiggins' home used to be, for example, a natural foods store, and other smaller enterprises.
Heading further east, I-75 comes into view. And here the housing developments are new, and the businesses are primarily part of larger shopping centers.
More growth is on the way. In the last three years, 27 new urban developments have been approved for Ellenton and Parrish, says Leon Kotecki, principal planner for Manatee County's planning department. All in all, some 7,600 homes will rise in projects that will cover 7,800 acres of land, Kotecki says.
Although at one time, the city of Ellenton was incorporated, with its own mayor and governing body, today the city is unincorporated and follows the rules and guidelines of Manatee County's Land Development Code. The boundaries of the city are some-what blurred, making it difficult to ascertain where Palmetto ends and Ellenton begins, and where Parrish begins and Ellenton ends. Perhaps the easiest way is to consider the Ellenton zip code--34222--and its boundaries and the number of residents within.
The zip code's boundary on the east is Erie Road, and on the west, 24th Avenue. It extends to the north to Erie Court and 17th Street East, west of Interstate 75. And on the south, the boundary is the Manatee River. In 1990, 6,775 people lived within those boundaries, Kotecki says. Ten years later, in 2000, the number had grown to 8,732--an increase of 28 percent.
And in the next 10 years, that rate of growth could increase. Most of the growth that will come from those 27 new developments is going to occur east of the interstate and north and east of the Prime Outlets mall. To accommodate all the new families who will be moving to the area, the Manatee County School Board will build a new elementary school, currently unnamed, near Erie Road, at 7150 69th St. E. A spokesman from the school board says the school will open in August this year with a capacity of 820 students.
Brenda Derringer Hall, her husband, Rick, and their children are among the new arrivals to Ellenton. In May they moved from Sarasota into an eight-year-old Victorian-style home on a canal just a few docks away from the Manatee River, in a subdivision of only a few dozen or so homes called Raintree Inlet. Both Brenda and Rick are musicians--his long career has included a number of hits, such as Hang On, Sloopy and Rock 'n' Roll Hootchie Koo--and they now focus on the smooth jazz category.
"Because our specialty is music, we have to be near the Tampa Bay area because it's a big recording area," Brenda explains. "It's number three in the nation." They can get from their house to the interstate in just a few minutes and be on their way to recording studios in St. Petersburg and Clearwater. They also frequently go on tour, and find Ellenton a convenient mid-point between Tampa International Airport and Sarasota-Bradenton Airport.
And then there's the atmosphere of Ellenton. Brenda says she's happy their two 11-year-old children can go fishing whenever they want. And she finds the water inspiring. She wrote Hot and Cool, a song that recently reached number three on the Top 20 national jazz charts, while sitting by her canal.
A number of businesses have sprung up in Ellenton, replacing old houses and farms. Within two minutes of leaving her home, about a mile east of the inter-state, Brenda finds banking, shopping, a library and several good restaurants, including the Anna Maria Oyster Bar, the Crab Trap II, Leverocks, and Papa Nick's. She's also just five minutes away from Prime Outlets, a popular shopping destination just off I-75 at U.S. 301.
The city of Ellenton "matched all our criteria," she says. "We love being on top of everything because with our travel, we have so little time." And yet, she admits, the influx of nearly 8,000 new homes is disconcerting. She's glad she's in Ellenton now, before it grows even larger. "It's still like being in the country at this point. I feel like the kids really need to see the country before it is gone."
SARASOTA Magazine associate publisher Bobbie McGraw is trying to preserve a piece of Ellenton history. A year ago she and her husband, Harry, bought a nearly 100-year-old house on Leffingwell Avenue, across the street from the town's first church, Ellenton United Methodist. It was, she says, "in its day, very grand, the grandest of the neighborhood." But the home, built in 1905, was in danger of being condemned when the McGraws became the third owners of the structure.
Soon, she admits, they began to wonder just what they had taken on. Several large truckloads of trash were hauled from the yard, revealing two vehicles buried beneath the debris. Four more truckloads came from inside the house, which had dozens of wild cats living beneath it. The house had the original wiring, and there was no country water or sewer hooked up at the property. "We had to get insurance through Lloyds of London," she says. "But we had to save it. The neighborhood is just so sweet, and we wanted to preserve that feel."
She's not sure what she'll do when she finishes restoring it. "I could live here in a heartbeat," she says. "It's a hearty old house. There's such history in this neighborhood." But she's lived in Bradenton for 30 years, and she says it would be difficult to leave her long-time home.
Mary Martha Kaminski was born and raised in the house the McGraws purchased, and she's pleased to see it being restored. Her father, Arthur Leroy Matthews, grew vegetables on five small farms in Ellenton. Kaminski, who is now 79, left home at the age of 21 and moved to Connecticut with her new husband. They came back to Manatee County in 1954. She says at that time Ellenton was still much the same as before.
"It's just amazing what has happened in the last 15 years," Kaminski says, and she's not happy about all of the changes: "Nobody knows anybody anymore. Growth is good, but not immense growth."
Across the street from the house the McGraws bought lies another piece of Ellenton history. Ellenton United Methodist Church held its first services in 1884 in a house built on land donated by Hiram Leffingwell, who was married to the woman the city is named for, Ellen Patten. Leffingwell donated the bell the church used for years. The bell is still there, according to Steve Bruns, pastor at the church, but the chimes McGraw loves hearing on the hour come from a computerized carillon system.
While Ellenton's older neighborhoods are enjoying new interest for their charm and tradition, new developments are attracting many new families and residents. River Wilderness, initially approved in 1980, is the oldest development north of the Manatee River. Planner Kotecki says it was the first development in the north river area that followed the current trend in subdivision building of combining recreational areas, golf courses, and other amenities in one community. It's about to be joined by a number of other new developments.
Kotecki has compiled a study that maps out areas of new growth east of I-75, north of the Manatee River, four miles east of Parrish, and to the north county line, with numbers indicating just how many new households are involved.
Among the larger developments is Harrison Ranch, a 940-acre tract between Ellenton and Parrish purchased late last year by Pulte Home Corporation, the second largest home-builder in the country. Harrison Ranch has been approved for 1,550 homes, but Jim Bowen, division president of Pulte's Tampa office, says the firm will actually build between 1,100 and 1,200, cutting back on the number of lots to save trees and wetlands. Harrison Ranch will consist of mostly single-family homes, with a smaller group of about 150 attached villas, and building will begin early in 2005.
Twin Rivers I and II, located south-east of Parrish, are also among the larger developments in the works, with 600 and 425 lots, respectively. Bradenton attorney Caleb Grimes, who represents the developers, says the project is already under way. Twin Rivers offers larger lots, from about a half-acre to larger than an acre. In keeping with the rural atmosphere, the developers have preserved a horseback trail along the main roadway, but it's not considered an equestrain development. Grimes says the market for Twin Rivers is similar to that of Bradenton's Mill Creek, which mainly consists of families.
Some worry that the new developments will change the character of Parrish. "They're concerned about greenways and retaining the rural atmosphere," Kotecki says, and many residents are asking for landscaping that camouflages commercial areas. Kotecki gives the example of Longboat Key, where a motorist driving down the main road might not realize there's a large shopping center on the street because tropical landscaping hides it.
In Ellenton these days, there's some-what of an opposite effect. A motorist might not notice the Gamble Mansion, for example, because it's tucked away between so many new businesses. But just beyond the McGraws' house on U.S. 301 near Ellengton-Gillette Road (known as Leffingwell Avenue if you're turning south), where this centerpiece of Ellenton's history lies, many of the first families of Ellenton are buried at Mansion Memorial Park. It's easy to find the oldest section of the cemetery. Just look for the area with the huge oak trees laden with Spanish moss that still tower over the old headstones all these years later, forming a protective canopy over the past.
RELATED ARTICLE: The Gamble's Tale
The Gamble Mansion is the oldest building on the west coast of Florida and the only Confederate shrine in the state. It's designated the Judah P. Benjamin Memorial because of its connection to an episode in the last days of the Civil War, when Confederate Secretary of State Benjamin was hidden in the mansion from federal troops.
Over the years, as fortunes changed, the mansion was bought and sold by several men. At one point, the plantation's sugar mill was destroyed by Union forces, but the mansion was spared.
Ellenton native Jim Wiggins' book notes that the demise of the Gamble plantation was a necessary step in the process that would eventually lead to the creation of the community known as Ellenton. Florida, like all other Southern states, had to evolve in the post-war years and build a cohesive community. In 1873, Major George Patten stepped in. He had come to Florida to seek a new beginning after his home and business in Savannah, Ga., were destroyed in the war. He bought the Gamble Mansion at auction. Because Patten was too old to assume the responsibilities of farming, the 3,500 acres of land that came with the plantation were platted into lots and small farms to sell. He named the surrounding community Ellenton, in honor of his daughter, Ellen.
After Patten died, the mansion stayed with the family until it was abandoned in 1893. It became terribly run-down. But in 1925, the Judah P. Benjamin Chapter of the United Daughters of the Confederacy purchased the mansion for $3,200 and deeded it to the state of Florida. These days, tours are offered at the mansion, which houses a collection of Confederate memorabilia and antebellum furnishings, including Jefferson Davis' wedding bed.