Bertha Honore Palmer - 1849 - 1918
A Businesswoman in a Man's World
Bertha Palmer was an American socialite, businesswoman and philanthropist known for her significant contributions to women's and artistic causes. At the turn of the century, she owned approximately 140,000 acres of land in and around Sarasota County. She quickly established Sarasota as a fashionable destination for winter retreats.
Born and raised into wealth and power and later marrying into much more, Bertha Honore Palmer is remembered as a strong, powerful, smart and a highly accomplished woman. She was a resourceful pioneer who knew how to make the best of everything around her. She also helped pave the path for other talented women in the business world.
On May 22, 1849, she was born in Louisville, Kentucky as the daughter of a prosperous businessman, Henry Honore. Bertha Honore led a privileged, educated and rewarding life, uncommon to many women during that time. When she was six, her family moved to Chicago, where she did all of her studies. Through the many years, Bertha became an exceptional writer, savvy Politician, talented administrator, a proficient linguist, and skilled musician.
Seven years after the move, she met her future husband, Potter Palmer, at the very young age of 13. He was completely captivated and mesmerized by her and they married in 1871 when she was 21 and he was 44. Potter Palmer was a smart and wealthy Chicago Real Estate Developer, and with the help and support of his wife, their success flourished, even the Depression and a devastating fire. Bertha had two sons, Honore and Potter II. In 1902, her husband passed away and against his attorney’s suggestions, he left his entire estate to Bertha. His attorney’s were afraid that she would remarry and Potter’s only reply was that her future husband would need that money to continue supporting her posh and extravagant lifestyle. She never remarried, though she did have many wealthy European suitors.
Queen of Chicago
During the Palmer’s marriage, the couple became a powerhouse in Chicago, and then Europe. Their success, power, and influence helped Bertha and society in more ways than one. She became known as the “Queen of Chicago” because of all her efforts and dedication to the city and people in it. Bertha was not only a businesswoman, but a socialite and very active philanthropist. Back when women had few rights and power, she helped mend and strengthen the lives of common women with the help of the Chicago’s Women’s Club. Made up of a mix of wealthy and working women who met to study social problems, this club was an organization that lobbied for fair treatment of women and children. They also supported kindergartens (the transition period from preschool to first grade) until the city made them part of the school system. They also fought for inexpensive milk for impoverished children and better care for children and imprisoned mothers. Bertha’s efforts were boundless.
Influence on Sarasota
After the death of her husband, Chicago developer Potter Palmer, Bertha Honore Palmer ventured down to Florida and bought thousands of acres of Sarasota real estate and land. Bertha lived many cold winters in Chicago. In 1910, after reading an advertisement in the Chicago Sunday Tribune for land in warm and sun-kissed Sarasota, she became very interested in the comfortable winter climates of Florida. In January of that year, Bertha, her son Honore, along with her father and brother came to visit. Her family stayed at the Halton in downtown Sarasota and A.B. Edwards, the former mayor of Sarasota and real estate agent introduced them to the area. After falling in love with the “quaint” communities, she bought 80,000 acres of land between Venice and Sarasota. As a shrewd businesswoman and visionary, she considered the area small, but very promising.
As an influential and celebrated woman, Bertha began the trend of establishing winter homes in Florida. After building her estate in Osprey, Florida on 350 acres, she named the neighborhood, The Oaks. Today, it still remains a highly prestigious and luxurious neighborhood on the Bay, but her estate is now known as Historic Spanish Point, where many tourists have come to visit. At one point, Bertha owned 1/3 of Sarasota County. From waterfront properties to farm lands, she purchased and made use of them all. Bertha devoted 15,000 acres to ranching in the Myakka River area and called it Meadow Sweet Pastures. She became a very progressive rancher, land developer, and farm developer who introduced many innovations to encourage the Florida citrus, dairy, ranching and farming industry. She was a dynamic rancher, land and farm developer who promoted innovations in all of those areas.
Only 8 years after moving to Florida, in 1918, Bertha Honore Palmer passed away in Osprey, Florida. Her body was taken to Chicago’s Graceland Cemetery, where it is buried alongside her husband, Potter Palmer. Their tomb was designed to resemble a Greek temple and it is one of the most magnificent and largest in Graceland. She also instigated and inspired her wealthy friends to move down and enjoy the warm winters here.
Today, Palmer Ranch, Historic Spanish Point (Osprey Point), a number of street names and many more features are evidence of her accomplishments and contributions to Sarasota. In 16 years, Bertha single handedly doubled the value of the estate her husband left her and in 8 years of living in Florida, she molded the city into a flourishing and popular destination for the elite. Her efforts, dedication, innovation and perseverance will never be forgotten in this town, as her name and family name are prominent throughout the city and neighborhoods. A few years after her death, in 1930, her friend A. B. Edwards negotiated the purchase of Meadow Sweet Pastures to help create Myakka River State Park. Today, Myakka River State Park, Palmer Ranch, Historic Spanish Point (Osprey Point), a number of street names and many more have been evidence of her accomplishments and contributions to Sarasota.