THE STORY OF TERRA CEIA ISLAND, FLORIDA

Originally compiled by Catherine J. Bayless

with funds provided by

The National Endowment for the Humanities Youthgrant Program

Terra Ceia Island is an important part of Florida history. Located at the foot of the Sunshine Skyway Bridge on the Gulf Coast of Florida between Bradenton and St. Petersburg, Terra Ceia has a history that covers more than five hundred years and includes tales of Indians, Spanish Explorers, soldiers, immigrants, and pioneers. The first known inhabitants of Terra Ceia were the Timucan Indians. These people lived quietly on the Western shore of Terra Ceia. Proof of their existence can be seen in the shell mounds that dot the area. No one knows exactly when the Timucans came to Terra Ceia nor then they left. Perhaps they fled in fear of the Spanish when Hernando DeSoto and his men arrived in the area in 1539. The Spanish often captured indians to use as slaves and the indians may have known about this practice. DeSoto and his men established a camp at the Indian mounds and rested there for six weeks before beginning an expedition into North Florida.

From the time the Spaniards left until 1843, the island was virtually uninhabited. Temporary huts and fish camps were built by Spanish fishermen who found the shallow inlets and bayous of the island made the area a haven for fishing. One of these fishermen was Miguel Guerero who gave his name to Miguel Island and Miguel Bay. In 1843, however, Joseph and Julia Atzeroth, along with their three year-old daughter Eliza, arrived by sailboat on Terra Ceia. Natives of Babaria, the Atzeroths came to Terra Ceia seeking a warm, southern climate that would improve Julia’s health, for she suffered from a liver ailment. Terra Ceia was the right presciption for her complaint, and Julia or Madam Joe, as she would later be called, quickly became well. The Atzeroths found a land of dense hammock growth like some areas of the island today. They built a small cabin on the north shore of Terra Ceia Bay and applied for 160 acres of land under the federal government’s Armed Occupation Act of 1842. This act gave settlers the right to claim 160 acres of free land if they promised to live on the land for five years.

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The Atzeroths were not alone for long; many settlers soon followed them to Terra Ceia. Some of the settlers have descendents living on the island today. Life was hard for those early settlers. Supplies had to be brought to the island by sailboat, roads were made of sand, farming was done with mules or hand plows, mosquitoes spread disease, wild animals threatened livestock, and bad weather ruined crops. Yet, despite the demanding life of Terra Ceia, the community grew.

1881 Hallock Property Map of Terra Ceia

 

By the 1880’s, steamships began docking on the island and became the main method of transporting produce. Steamships were larger and faster than the sailboats that had been in use earlier. As a result, farms were expanded, and more settlers arrived in the area. Five docks extended out into Terra Ceia Bay from the south shore of the island. These family-owned docks were soon joined by a public dock at the south end of Center Road. Island activity was centered in this area. Stores and a post office were established along Bayshore Drive near the docks where steamers regularly brought necessary supplies such as ice, fertilizer, seeds, and cloth. There, fruits and vegetables were loaded onto them for shipment to Northern markets.

Island life revolved around farming, but not all the time was spent in the fields. The first Terra Ceia school was established by Mrs. W. H. Abel who taught the island children in the parlor of her home. In 1894, the first schoolhouse was built. Music and art lessons became available, and a drama goup was active in the 1890’s. The Methodist Church was organized in 1899 and moved into a church building in 1915. The First Baptist Church of Terra Ceia was formed in 1904.

VIA

On May 2, 1901, a group of women organized a Women’s Club which was the first women’s club to be established in Florida. The goal of this club, which was called the Terra Ceia Village Improvement Association (V.I.A.), was to improve and beautify the island of Terra Ceia, and club records show that the V.I.A. actively sought to reach this goal. Profits from such ventures as dinners and steamboat excursions helped to build and maintain a new schoolhouse as well as other projects.

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During World War II, an aircraft observation tower was built near the clubhouse. VIA members manned the tower. In 1954, the club was incorporated and men were included as members. The Terra Ceia Village Improvement Association is still in existence and continues to beautify and improve the island.

In the early 1900’s, steamboats were replaced as the main means of transportation. Seaboard Air Line railway and Atlantic Coast Line railroad laid spurs to Terra Ceia. These tracks extended as far as the north end of Center Road, and the focus of Terra Ceia life was moved from the waterfront to this inland spot. Stores, packing houses, and a depot sprang up along the railroad tracks. The post office was moved here, as well.

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Vegetables and citrus were produced on an even larger scale. Fields covered wide areas of the island. Terra Ceia grown celery became known throughout the Northern states. The island was even recognized for the flowers it produced. When William Howard Taft was inaugurated in March of 1908, the flowers used for decoration were asters grown on Terra Ceia. A company was also established in 1926 that shipped gladiola flowers and bulbs all over the United States.

The early years of the 1900’s were a time of great prosperity for Terra Ceia. Agricultural production was high; railroads continually brought supplies and new settlers. A successful bank was established in 1911.

With the depression of the late 1920’s and early 1930’s, however, came financial ruin. Just as banks all over the country failed, the Bank of Terra Ceia closed its doors in 1931. In 1932, a tidal wave hit the gulf coast of Florida, and island farms and groves were killed by the salt water. In the 1940’s, the railroads discontinued their routes to the island and pulled up their tracks. The island’s years as a major agricultural area were over.

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Today, Terra Ceia is an island of small farms, groves, and gardens. Quiet residences now line the streets where stores and businesses once stood. Though the island was physically cut in half in the 1950’s by U.S. Highway 19,

it’s residents have maintained the feelings of community pride and spirit first found in its early settlers. An area full of history, Terra Ceia stands as a quiet reminder of the past.

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