Desoto Co FLGenWeb Project
of Old Pine Level....
The site of Pine Level is in what has always been an extremely hostile environment. This flat woods area during prehistoric times was occupied sporadically by small populations of nomadic hunters.
The period of white and historic Seminole occupation of the area began just prior to the mid-19th century. In a treaty negotiated in 1839 with the Seminole Indians, a portion of the tribe agreed to move east and south of the Peace River, leaving portions of what is today Manatee, Hardee, and Desoto Counties open to settlement.
In 1849, the first government surveys were conducted in the area. People slowly started to move and to settle in the area, with the majority of development occurring along the coast. Those few that did choose to settle in the interior did so along rivers and creeks.
Manatee County was created January 9, 1855, and it contained 5,000 square miles. It extended from the Gulf of Mexico to Lake Okeechobee and embraced a tract 60 miles or more in width from north to south. The small village of Manatee, one mile east of Bradenton, was chosen as the County seat. In 1860 Manatee County had a population of 854.
Earlier settlers in eastern Manatee County (many living in the Peace River Valley) soon protested that the village of Manatee was too inconveniently located for many. Some had to travel the entire width of the County to visit the courthouse.
A committee to select a more central site for a new county seat was appointed by the Manatee County Commission and recommended that a site in the SW Quarter, Section 22, Township 378, Range 23E, be designated the county seat, giving it the name "Pine Level". This recommendation, dated April 29, 1866, was approved and the seat of county government was moved.
Although the desire to have a county seat more centrally located and convenient to all citizens of the County is the most often quoted reason for a relocation, it is also significant that the Village of Manatee was the "center of rebel thinking" in the area during the Civil War, and the farther away from establishment settlements, the less interest people had in the war. Thus movement of the center of local government from an area of intense Rebel sympathies to a more neutral interior site falls in line with general reconstruction thinking. Also, in this vein, was the appointment of John Bartholf, a Captain in the Union Army during the Civil War, as postmaster of Pine Level in 1871.
The specifications for the first courthouse built at Pine Level, May 29, 1866, were as follows: "One log house, 20 feet square in the cleaved 10-foot story with a room added to the end, 20 feet by 10 feet, with a partition through the room making two 10-foot Jury Rooms to be cased with 2-foot hart, covered with 2-foot hart pine or cypress board and floored with planked or hyghed puncheon boards. One door in each side and two windows to be cased and faced with shutters. The house to be furnished with one table, 2 feet by 8 feet long, 22 10-foot benches, 1 box bench for the Judge." Three years later, the courthouse was enlarged and made more secure with locks.
Pine Level's courthouse didn't seem to impress many people, especially Bradenton-based historian Joseph Herman Simpson who wrote in his book, The History of Manatee County, the courthouse was constructed of "small peeled unhewn logs..... There were a few inches of sawdust put on the floor and the suffering people had to endure from fleas... was almost unbearable. It was said to be the worst courthouse in Florida."
Newsmen from all over the eastern United States endured the heat and fleas to cover one of the most spectacular court cases when the Sarasota Vigilantes were brought to trial in 1885. For years owing to the lack of transportation and the sparseness of population, this band of men took law enforcement into their own hands. They originally formed to keep carpetbaggers and new settlers out of the area. About twenty of them roamed the vastness of Manatee County, meting out their own version of justice wherever they saw fit. Not the usual gang made up of cutthroats and killers, this gang was made up of farmers, planters, storekeepers, and cowboys. However they did become killers and bandits. They punished those whom they thought needed punishing, and killed when they thought that the law had been to lenient. They were finally brought to trial in March of 1885, and again six weeks later. Three of the defendants were convicted. Of these, two escaped from the Pine Level Jail, and the last one only served three years. Although this left the majority of the raiders at liberty, the outcome of the trials broke their spirit and the power of the organization; and the vigilantes ceased their forays.
Even after the relocation of the county seat, transportation was still a problem. It was a strenuous trip for residents of eastern Manatee County to reach Pine Level. The river crossing was accomplished on a barge, guided by a rope stretched across the water. From the western bank to the courthouse, "bus service" was provided by horse and buggy. Finally the ferry at "Tater Hill Bluff" - now Arcadia - was replaced in 1882 by a wooden bridge.
Shortly after its establishment, the town of Pine Level began to grow rapidly. By 1880, there was a collection of a dry goods store, sawmill, cattle brokerage, real estate brokerage, drug store, boarding house, restaurant, school house, two churches, courthouse, post office, jail and several saloons. Hunters, trappers, and farmers traveled by ox-cart or horse back to Pine Level for supplies and companionship. In a wilderness outpost where saloons out numbered other business establishments 14 to 1, there was electricity in the air come Saturday night. Gambling, drinking, and fighting made Pine Level infamous for its hell-raising atmosphere.
On a more positive note, Pine Level served as the springboard for development of this frontier, being the crossroads of communication, commerce, government, education, and religion in an isolated and hostile environment. Life under these conditions forged the traditional Florida Cracker's "frontier ethic" exemplifying the virtues of hard work, honesty, and a desire for swift and impartial justice. Pine Level is the site of one of the first, oldest, and continuously functioning churches in frontier Florida. Yearly, religious camp meetings would be held just north of town in which families from all over the territory would gather to worship, exchange gifts, socialize, and provide an opportunity for young people to choose potential spouses from outside their local community.
In 1886, The Florida Southern Railroad, today the Seaboard Coastline, was built from Bartow to Arcadia on the east of the Peace River. This spelled doom for Pine Level, as the town was bypassed.
The residents of the Village of Manatee, Sarasota, and Palmetto were pressuring legislators to create a new, smaller Manatee County. Desoto County was created from Manatee County on May 10, 1887, and contained 3,750 square miles, comparable in size to Rhode Island. Pine Level remained the county seat of Desoto County for approximately 18 months; in 1889, Arcadia was designated the new County Seat. It was deemed more capable of attracting new industries. Pine Level began its decline into a farming village, diminishing in importance and population.
In 1914, with the establishment of the Florida East-West Railroad (paralleling present SR 70 to the coast), development of New Pine Level was started two miles to the north of Old Pine Level by a North Carolina firm. Unfortunately, this railroad folded in the 1930's and with it, New Pine Level. In reference to this railroad, Mr. Harvey Keen, a lifetime resident of the area whose home is the old brick school, of New Pine Level, states that the FloridaEast-West Railroad was built primarily to haul forest products, turpentine, and timber from Arcadia area to Bradenton on the coast. Once the timber was depleted, there was no longer a need for the railroad.
Today, remains of several dwellings are apparent, consisting of surface scatters of brick, ceramic, metal and glass. The only standing structure on the townsite is that of the Pine Level Methodist Church, a single story white frame building. This structure is the bottom floor of the original school house that was used to replace the original Methodist church (destroyed in 1923 by a hurricane) previously located immediately south across Pine Level Road. The top floor of this "new" church was destroyed by a hurricane in 1930 leaving only the first floor, which was re-roofed and is the present church.
Across Pine Level Road, the old "Hanging Tree" remains, listing badly, roots exposed, marking the spot where justice was dispensed behind the courthouse.
A bronze marker erected by the State of Florida stands under the shady oaks by the single-lane road to remind passers-by of the honor Pine Level once held.
Level Vital Link to Area's Past," Sarasota Herald Tribune.
This article/information was obtained at the Desoto County Chamber of Commerce