Once a ghost town, Venice is coming back from a housing bubble bust

October 28, 2021
By T Michele Walker

Most of us have been around long enough to have experienced one or two housing bubbles. The current seller’s market has created many unexpected changes, good and bad.

When Florida faced its first housing bubble in 1928, it almost wiped Venice off the map. At first, the city almost completely disappeared and for a short time turned into a ghost town. Its saving grace was a school.

Venice was first known as Horse and Chaise because of a carriage-like tree formation that marked the spot for fishermen. Officially founded in the 1870s by Robert Rickford Roberts, Venice’s Roberts Bay still bears his name.

Frank Higel arrived in Venice in 1883 with his wife and six sons and started a citrus business. In 1888 Higel established a post office with the name Venice because of its likeness to the canal city in Italy where Higel spent his childhood.

Venice was soon filled with pioneers who raised cattle and farmed the Florida terrain, but it was the railroads that brought people to the Sunshine State. The person responsible for that was Bertha Honore Palmer who was responsible for getting railroad tracks to this area of the country.

Florida experienced its first real estate bubble in the 1920s, as Bertha Palmer sold 112 acres to Dr. Fred H. Albee, an orthopedic surgeon. Dr. Albee had dreams of turning Venice into something special and to build a Medical Center.

Albee hired John Nolan to build Venice in a European and Mediterranean style that we love and enjoy to this day. To make this happen, Dr. Nolan flipped his investment selling to a railroad union, the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers.

The BLE Realty Corporation was organized to develop the area and the Venice Company was created to market the property. The plan was to build a city on the land along the Gulf of Mexico. Five-acre plots farther inland were planned for agriculture. The company retained Dr. Nolen to complete a plan for a city on the gulf in 1926.

During the 1920s, Florida land speculation was intense. Stories of fast fortunes and quick land sales encouraged many owners to develop their land to profit from the boom.

All seemed to be going well until 1928. That’s when the Florida boom went bust and due to a lack of money, the BLE was gone.

This is when Venice became a ghost town. It was one year before the Great Depression when Venice had only 300 residents. The situation was bleak.

In 1932 the BLE leased out the San Marco Hotel and the Venice Hotel as classrooms and dormitories to a school, the Kentucky Military Institute. Cadets and their families were enthusiastically welcomed by the people of Venice as thousands met the cadets at the train station. The money brought into the community saved their town and it is said that the cadets doubled the population of the struggling town overnight.

The military institute needed a winter campus out of the freezing cold Kentucky winters, so the move was mutually beneficial. For the next nearly 40 years, cadets, teachers, and some parents would arrive by rail shortly after New Year’s Day and stay in Venice until Easter. In 1971, with the Vietnam war creating a heated controversy around the nation, the military school closed its doors.

Many notables have made Venice their home through the years. In 1960 the Ringling Brothers and Barnum and Bailey Circus relocated their winter headquarters to Venice with shows under the big top for 31 years.

Today the circus is gone. The railroads are gone. The Kentucky Military Institute is gone, but Venice is going stronger and is more beautiful than ever.

Today, the San Marco Hotel building is now a retail building with various shops. Inside you can find a display that tells the story of the Kentucky Military Institute.

As for the notables who have graced this lovely town, two famous graduates from KMI are actor Fred Willard of Modern Family. If you remember Gilligan’s Island, then you have seen KMI graduate Jim Backus as Thurston Howell the Third. He also provided the voice for several popular cartoon characters over the years, including Mr. Magoo.