If you have spent time wandering on Siesta Key, you probably have traveled down Higel Avenue at some point in your exploration of this magnificent island and its crystal sand beaches. And on your journey you surely were drawn to admire the pristine homes and gated mansions along this route, which runs from the Siesta Drive bridge to the heart of the island. However, you may not have known that the namesake of this street is one Harry L. Higel, and his legacy is worth a trip down memory lane.
Higel was the first developer of Siesta Key, which originally was known as Little Sarasota Key. A native of Philadelphia who was born in 1867, he came to Venice, Fla., with his parents in 1884 and relocated to Sarasota shortly after the town was formed in 1902. Upon his arrival, he purchased the Main Street dock and a store from the Florida Mortgage and Investment Company, a Scottish group that acquired land to start a colony in the 1880s. He also managed land sales for John Hamilton Gillespie, who was sent from Scotland to handle the affairs of the Florida Mortgage and Investment Company and help to salvage the investment in the initial colony. It had failed because no infrastructure was in place when the original settlers arrived in December of 1885.
The list of Higel’s contributions to the Sarasota area is long: he served five terms as a member of the town and city council beginning in 1902; he was elected mayor three times, his first term in 1913, when Sarasota was incorporated as a city, and then later in 1916 and 1917; he helped form the Sarasota Yacht Club and served as its first commodore; he was an agent for John Savarese, a wealthy Tampa fish dealer; he operated the steamer Vandalia; and he was Sarasota’s first retailer of kerosene and gasoline.
Siesta Key became one of Higel’s passions years before a bridge to the island was built. In 1907 he formed the Siesta Land Company with two partners, Capt. Louis Roberts and E.M. Arbogast. Roberts was one of the island’s initial homesteaders. He arrived in the 1870s and later built and operated the Roberts Hotel. Ocean Boulevard, Roberts Road, and Hansen Bayou are named for his wife, Ocean Hansen Roberts. Arbogast was a part-time resident and real estate broker from Marlington, WV. On the north end of the island the company platted “Siesta Key on the Gulf,” and the venture is the wellspring from which Siesta Key’s residential development has emerged.
However, a financial depression in 1907 temporarily put the brakes on Siesta Key’s development. A mere 23 adults and three children were listed on the 1910 census! However, the setback did not last long. Between 1911 and 1913, Bayou Hansen, Bayou Nettie, and Bayou Louise were dredged and canals were created. In 1912, Gulf Bay Land Company re-platted “Siesta Key on the Gulf,” opened Hanson Bayou to Big Pass, and began building roads, sidewalks, and bungalows. In 1913 Higel built bathhouses for visitors, and then in 1915 a U.S. Post Office named Siesta was opened on a bay-front dock. At that point, Higel began an advertising campaign to promote “Siesta on the Gulf.” The island was touted not only as a vacation destination, but also as a farming opportunity.
To attract tourists to the key in 1915, Higel built the Higelhurt Hotel on Big Pass. Adjoining the bath houses, it was a beautiful and imposing two-story building with columns and a large screened porch. According to Sarasota: A History, by Jeff LaHurd, “Rooms rented for $2.50 a night and offered hot and cold running water, large baths and gas and electric lights, unexcelled views, a sugar sand beach an superlative fishing.” More than 200 people attended the grand opening, but the life of the hotel was to be short. In 1917 it burned to the ground and was never rebuilt.
Higel’s son Gordon gave this first-hand account of the fire’s impact on his father the day after it occurred: “There in the distance was a dream that he had accomplished and here all of the sudden it’s gone. And I can see him now. I looked up at him and tears were just coming down his cheeks. I was nine years old.”
Indeed, Higel was a passionate man, and his efforts were rewarded as Siesta Key continued to grow and prosper. The first bridge to the island, located at Stickney Point Road, opened shortly after the Higelhurst burned. The second bridge, which connects Siesta Drive to Siesta Key, was completed in 1927. The latter is dedicated in Higel’s honor, but unfortunately he was not alive to see it completed. He was murdered in early 1921. Terribly beaten, his body was left by the side of a beach road on his beloved Siesta Key. A man by the name of Bert Luzier and his son, Merle, found him at 8:30 am on January 6, and they quickly rushed him to Dr. Joseph Halton’s house in Sarasota, but he didn’t survive long. It was suspected that one of Higel’s known enemies Rube Allyn, the former editor of the Sarasota Sun and editor of Florida Fisherman, was responsible. He was arrested, but there wasn’t sufficient evidence to prove he committed the crime, and the case remains unsolved to this day.
Despite the fact that Higel died just as the real estate boom of the 1920s was taking off, his contributions to infrastructure and development helped to build the foundation that paved the way to prosperity on Siesta Key. Shortly after his death homes started to go up amid the canals and lagoons. Then in 1925, the main portion of the Grand Canal was dredged and Palm Island was created from the fill. The canal, which originally was named Archibald’s Canal in honor of Mayor Frank Archibald, followed a natural drainage ditch through saw grass flats from the Bay, according to “A Report on the Hydrography and Biology of Two Man-made Canal Systems,” a study done by New College’s Division of Natural Resources in 1974. (The Grand Canal system now consists of nine miles of waterways with 89 acres of water surface, the paper notes.) By 1925, lots also were platted on Heron Lagoon on the south end of the island.
Around the same time, the Out-of-Door School opened on Siesta Key, and today it is located off Higel Ave. According to Hidden History of Sarasota by Jeff LaHurd, it began in 1924 as three open air buildings on three acres. It was founded by Fanneal Harrison and Catherine Gaven, who were followers of Belgian education pioneer Ovide Decroly. Fanneal, who had two years of medical training from the University of Michigan, directed health camps in France for underprivileged children in post World War I France. Gavin had experience with the Girls Club Camps and Camp Fire Girls and also did war reconstruction work in France in Belgium. The premise of the school was proposed as “helping children to find out what they themselves want to know.” (In 1977, the school was purchased by 120 school families and transformed into a nonprofit organization. It is now known as The Out-of-Door Academy.)
Higel’s promotion of Siesta Key as “A Place to Rest and Have Peace and Comfort” has indeed come to fruition. His initial efforts attracted visitors and new residents alike, and they helped to build a strong community around the intricate 50-mile maze of canals that now stretches across the island’s 3.5 square miles. In the 40s and 50s, Siesta Key also became a draw for famous Sarasota School of Architecture architects Ralph Twitchell and Paul Rudolph, who built a number of unique Sarasota Modern style homes and guest houses.
Perhaps the dedication of Siesta Key’s second bridge best summarizes Higel’s place in Sarasota’s heart: “To the Memory of Harry L. Higel. A Beloved Citizen of Sarasota.” The street that bears his name is but a small reminder of the great things he did for the island and the city of Sarasota.