BY LIZA STROUT - The Historical Society and the Johann Fust Community Library saw the biggest crowd yet for their February 22 History Bytes presentation. More than 75 people gathered in the loggia and on the grounds of the library to hear the story of the Whidden family on Gasparilla Island.
Dave Arner, President of the Board of the Gasparilla Island Maritime Museum, which is housed inside the grounds of Whidden’s Marina, spoke before the packed house.
The tale of Sam Whidden started with his birth in Grove City. Born to a poor fishing family, Sam started working at an early age. By the time he was a teen he was a great fisherman. In the off-season, he would pick citrus in the groves for which his hometown was named. This ambition would serve him throughout his life.
In 1917, Sam lied about his age to join the Army. He was among the first soldiers to land in Europe during WWI and spent the next two years in the trenches, a far cry from what he had expected. It gave him time to think about his future.
When he returned to Florida, he had $88 and little else. But it was the golden age of tarpon fishing, and guides who knew local waters were needed. In 1921, he met the Crowninshields and with his reputation as an excellent guide, began working for them.
During this time, Sam also opened a pool hall and ran it himself. He became the hunt chef for Mr. Crowninshield’s quail hunts. Mrs. Crowninshield discovered his cooking abilities and put him in charge of the barbecues that she hosted for the Scouts.
Because there were not enough irons in the fire of Sam’s life, he bought the Redgill Fishing Company from Kingsmore Johnson. The company provided seafood to markets in Manhattan. The building that housed the company was built on military land, but in 1926 Joseph Spadero purchased the land south of First Street to build his Hotel.
On the strength of a handshake, Mr. Spadero leased the Redgill property to Sam Whidden at the rate of $500 a month, an arrangement that continued until 1958 when Mr. Spadero died. Sam immediately began to build his marina.
In 1933, Alice (who went by her middle name, Leslie) Gregory, arrived at the Gasparilla Inn looking for work. She was hired as a waitress in the dining room. Sam met her and was knocked head over heels. They were married before the year was out.
She helped at the marina store and on the dock. It was her idea to open a restaurant in the building, and Sam acquired the old soda fountain from Fugates. During the day it was used for its original purpose, and at night it became the restaurant’s cocktail bar.
In 1934, Isabelle, the first of two daughters arrived, followed in 1935 by Barbara. Sam finally hired someone to help cook at the restaurant, and invited his brother Harry to work at the marina. Before long Harry had started his own business, a grocery store that would eventually become Hudson’s.
Life was wonderful for 7 years. Then Leslie began to show signs of the kidney disease that she had hidden from Sam. In May of 1940, she passed away, leaving Sam the broken-hearted father of two young girls.
After her death, he moved his family into the marina, where they all worked. Isabelle remembered that she was pumping gas for boats as soon as she was tall enough to hold the nozzle, and that she and Barbara may have actually been born working.
As Sam aged, Isabelle was the one who managed Whidden’s. She had done the books since she was a child, so it was natural that her influence expanded over the years. Barbara went to beauty school and ended up in California for a few years. When she returned to the island in 1968, it was as Mrs. Peter Chatham.
Since Sam’s death in 1978, the sisters have fought to keep the business going. They opened a dance hall, they continued the marina and they sold mullet. It has been a struggle over the years, especially with the toll that time and nature has taken on the buildings. By the 90s, the pilings supporting the building had been eaten away by marine life, and the building was in danger of falling into the bayou.
The people of the island got together and began work to help keep this piece of history going. They applied to have the building placed on the National Registry of Historic Places, which finally happened on December 28, 2000, which would have been Sam Whidden’s 100th birthday. The building has been restored, and the Gasparilla Island Maritime Museum was installed in the old Redgill building. There are currently three generations of Sam Whidden’s descendants living on the island, and those who love Gasparilla Island will long remember the stories and the legacy of Sam Whidden.
On Wednesday, Feb. 29, the fifth in the series. “The Futch & Lowe Families,” will be presented by Capt. Freddie Futch,at the Johann Fust Community Library at 11 a.m. History Bytes is free to the public, and there will be refreshments following the presentation.
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