Saving Gamble Plantation

Ideas from tourists abound to save Ellenton park

rdymond@bradenton.comJanuary 31, 2011 

ELLENTON -- It could be promoted as one of America’s first “green” homes.

Or its grounds could be leased by year-round vendors selling traditional Southern food and other related items to tourists.

Or a robust new ad campaign could be devised that promotes its uniqueness in history as one of the largest sugarcane plantations in the South.

The Gamble Plantation is worth saving, by these ideas or others, declared tourists Sunday as they visited the Gamble Plantation Historic State Park and Judah P. Benjamin Confederate Memorial in Ellenton.

Many of the tourists had already learned that the Gamble and Terra Ceia state parks are in danger of being closed as part of a Department of Environmental Protection cost-cutting proposal.

The two parks are among 53 state parks that could be closed under the plan, which was presented last week to the House Agricultural and Natural Resources Appropriations Subcommittee.

The DEP must cut 15 percent of its budget for next fiscal year in light of the state’s estimated $4 billion budget shortfall.

The white, antebellum-style Gamble mansion was built between 1845 and 1850 by sugarcane planation owner Maj. Robert Gamble. After her tour Sunday, Louise Tario of Englewood said going somewhat commercial could help the Gamble pay its own way.

“You hate to see it commercialized, but maybe that will help it survive,” Tario said. “People would pay for food and for things for their children to do. Add more picnic tables. It would keep them here two hours rather than an hour.”

“It has to support itself,” added Jim Tario, Louise’s husband.

With “green” construction the “in” thing right now, Louise Tario noted high ceilings that keep the cooler air lower in the mansion, opposing windows that promote air flow and surrounding breezeways that create an insulating layer between the sun and the house.

John and Mary Fraser of Ontario, Canada, also thought “America’s First Green House” would spark more tourist traffic, the lack of which is one of the reasons why the Gamble is on the endangered list.

The Frasers were both fascinated that the Gamble mansion used a 40,000-gallon cistern and not a well for its water.

“Water conservation was practiced here,” Mary Fraser said. “They captured the rain from the roof.”

“It would be a shame if money is the main consideration here,” John Fraser said. “I think too much emphasis is being put on cutting valuable culture. I think the Gamble should be preserved at all cost.”

Tyler Adams, a student at Winter Haven High School, is a history buff and he convinced his friend, Angela Davis, to drive down from Polk County to see the Gamble on Sunday.

“I found it on the state of Florida website,” Tyler said. “I like history.”

A few steps away from the mansion, Noelle Stilman and four generations of her family were enjoying a birthday party for 16-year-old Aubrey Roman from Sarasota on the grounds of the Gamble.

“I came here when I was a little girl and now I come with my family,” Stillman said. “It’s great because it’s free and the grounds are beautiful.”

Local group aids survival

The Gamble’s annual budget is roughly $200,000, including a manager and several full-time employees, and the park is operating at a deficit at this time, said Bradenton’s June Hartlieb, president of the Gamble Plantation Preservation Alliance, a local not-for-profit group with 50 members dedicated to the Gamble’s continued survival.

State parks are rated 1 through 4 depending on tourist traffic, with 4 being the highest number of tourists, said Hartlieb, whose group is hosting its 11th annual Plantation Festival fundraiser 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. this coming Saturday and Sunday.

“We are a 1,” Hartlieb said of the Gamble, for which she has conducted tours for more than 20 years.

If Hartlieb could argue the Gamble’s case for survival before the DEP, she would point out that many of the 53 parks on the cutting block are historical parks, which poses a major loss to Florida.

“We have parks for people who canoe and hike, which is great for people who can walk,” Hartlieb said. “But many seniors enjoy an historical source such as this.”

Hartlieb thought the visitors’ suggestions for increasing business were excellent. But she, of course, must consider implementation.

“You are talking about a lot of security in having vendors,” Hartlieb said. “As for the green architecture, we have long known that the Gamble has a natural air-conditioning system. The walls are two feet thick in places.”

Hartlieb’s group has its own action list for helping the park survive, including getting permission from the state to hold weddings inside the mansion itself, rather than just in the surrounding areas. A sister parks earns $2,500 for such weddings, Hartlieb said.

Another idea is to acquire a well-built wooden stage to hold concerts and other events.

The group also wants to make the Gamble mansion a showcase again, befitting of Maj. Gamble’s stature, a process which would include new furniture and landscaping.

“We must bring it aesthetically up to code,” Hartlieb said. “I do believe the money would come in once all those changes are made.”

Richard Dymond, Herald reporter, can be reached at 748-0411, ext. 6686.

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