Skip to main content

The Boca Grande Club early years: The 1970s and 80s

SUBMITTED BY THE BOCA GRANDE HISTORICAL SOCIETY – A November 1978 article in the St Petersburg Times announced the creation of a new development on Gasparilla Island, to be called the Boca Grande Club. The original investors in the project were Harper Sibley, who developed the Ocean Reef Club on Key Largo; Wilber H. (Bud) Cole, a founder of Punta Gorda Isles Inc.; Louis Fischer, former president of General Development Corp.; and William Cox, a Coral Gables architect who is designing the new Boca Grande Club.
The article projected that the Club would build five units per acre, although zoning would allow 20 units per acre. The Club would therefore be the biggest thing on the island, where the 1970s population was estimated to be 500 people. The developers emphasized, however, that they “wanted the club to blend in with the island, not change it.”
The Boca Grande Club organization acquired the property on which they would build from Sunset Realty, whose owner, Henry Schwartz, reportedly “stepped into a Wall Street-area auction house one day in the 1940s to get out of the cold.” For sale was the north end of Gasparilla Island and other area properties which he bought for an undisclosed amount.
During the next 30 years Sunset sold a few individual lots, but resisted selling large parcels to developers until this sale to the Boca Grande Club. Speculation regarding his change of heart is that Schwartz was positively impressed by the Ocean Reef Club connection, and by Bud Cole’s record with Punta Gorda Isles.
In September of 1979, the Boca Grande Club developers sent a solicitation to prospective members/owners. The mailing included a letter, with the first paragraph offering, “Nature at its best! The beautiful sand of three miles of Florida’s last great unspoiled shell beach, coupled with the bluegreen coolness of the Gulf of Mexico.”
The solicitation also contained a brochure that told the history of the island, described the uniqueness of Boca Grande and its amenities, and noted the natural beauty of the beaches and the mangroves, and also included schematics of the planned villas.
The letter was an invitation.
“Because we think you are the kind of person who might enjoy the way of life on Gasparilla, I would like to extend to you an invitation to become a charter member of the Boca Grande Club. Yearly dues are only $312, and for a limited time, we have waived the initiation fee of $500.”
The letter was signed by A. Jackson Kelly, Chairman Board of Governors.
In addition to attracting residents from out of state, Cole anticipated “families in the immediate area who will join to use the club’s facilities. And we expect members from the large Florida metro areas, such as St. Petersburg- Tampa, Orlando, Fort Myers and even Miami. Some will purchase villas for their own occasional use and will put them in the rental pool at other times.”
A 1983 Boca Beacon documented a standing-room-only fashion show called “All That Jazz” at the Boca Grande Club. Fugate’s provided the fashions, and Betsy Fugate Joiner was mistress of ceremonies. Among the models were Misty Nabers, Polly Gaines, Jack Barndollar, Paula Paine, Anne Wright, Jennifer Lowe, Cotton Hanley (“wearing a Lilly dress that looked like it was made for her”) and Nat Italiano, “who stole the show by carrying his 10-month-old daughter, Jamie, who had recognized her daddy as he passed.”
In 1985 there was an exciting social event called Gasparilla Days, which included a costume ball, the abduction of women and a child by pirates, the firing of a canon, walking a plank across the pool (won by Joe Martz and John Brandenberger), a dinghy race, a treasure hunt and other contests. All this was followed by a Charlie Harrison barbecue featuring pig and spareribs from his Arcadia ranch.
In April, 1983, the Club announced its sponsorship of a $100,000 tarpon tournament to be held in July. It would be a semi-release tournament, with scales set up in the Pass and each boat allowed to enter one fish per day. The tournament was open to members and guests. By 1984 the tournament included an all-female team, a party at the pool of the Club’s new Marina Village and the prize of a new Chevy Blazer for the first fish caught weighing over 150 pounds. The car went unclaimed.
In 1988 and 1989, the tournament was using a catch-and-release procedure in which tarpon were resuscitated after being weighed. The resuscitation team consisted of professionals and volunteers from Eckerd College and the Florida Department of Natural Resources.
The Boca Grande Club continued to grow throughout the 1980s and beyond, becoming the facility that exists today.
Sources for this article include the original solicitation package for the Boca Grande Club, as well as 1980s issues of the Boca Beacon from the Small Town Papers archives.
To learn more about the history of Boca Grande and Gasparilla Island, visit the History Center website, bocagrandhistoricalsociety. com, like us on Facebook, or when we’re open visit the History Center at 170 Park Ave., or call 964-1600.
The History Center welcomes input from all. Please send comments or questions to We invite the community to lend photographs, documents or other materials to our historical center archives, which we will scan and return to the lender.