In the spring of 1949, Harry Truman was president and the No. 1 song was “Ghost Riders in the Sky” by Vaughn Monroe. Mayor Sterling Hall presided over Bradenton, a sleepy little riverside town of fewer than 18,000 people. Manatee County consisted of 34,704 people, less than twice the city’s population. The Boston Braves played spring training at a field on Ninth Street West while Harvey Blackburn, Supervisor of Schools, pondered how many new students might arrive in Bradenton now that the war was over and families of servicemen relocated to the sunny climes of Florida.
Members of the DeSoto Celebration crew, led by Hernando de Soto Jerry Baker and Queen Doris Shepard, had their own worries. They questioned how to attract more visitors to their event designed to promote the heritage of Bradenton and boost county tourism numbers. After some finagling with the State Department of Conservation and the Dade County Commissioners, it was agreed to bring a small manatee to Bradenton.
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Baby, as he was called, had been born in captivity at the Miami Aquarium and Tackle Company. Aquarium owner, Samuel Stout, had a license to keep only one manatee. Little did he know when she was captured that Lady, Baby’s mother, was pregnant. The calf broke Stout’s agreement with the State of Florida. Rumors circulated that Stout would kill the little manatee by harpooning him. Instead, Baby was transported to Bradenton in a tank that had to be refilled along the way. During these stops, crowds gathered to see him.
When he arrived in Bradenton, his tank was placed on display at the Waterfront Park for six days. Crowds of people paid to see him perform his rollover trick. Children climbed trees to see the manatee for free. The Bradenton Herald reported that “the trees were so full of children it was hard to see the leaves.”
When Baby returned to Miami, Stout’s permit issues resumed. He asked permission to send Baby back to Bradenton, but the little guy who so charmed crowds and made the difference between the 1949 DeSoto celebration making a profit or suffering a loss, was now a problem for city and celebration officials. Who would pay the cost of his care and housing? James Steele, president of Manatee County Fish and Game, organized a movement to provide Baby’s food by asking local grocery stores to furnish his lettuce. But where would he live? A plan to put Baby back in an outdoor tank at the Waterfront Park required shelter from the sun.
Finally, he was given a home at the South Florida Museum, then located at the Memorial Pier (present-day Pier 22). The City of Bradenton, Manatee County Board of County Commission and the Chamber of Commerce discussed how to pay for a tank with running water. Community support followed, and in the dead of night, Samuel Stout and Baby arrived at the museum seeking help from Sheriff Roy Baden and a team of prisoners for the move.
As the manatee grew, the tank was expanded and Baby’s name was changed to Baby Snoots, later shortened to Snooty. In 1966, the South Florida Museum and Snooty moved to a new location on 10th Street West. In 1993, the Parker Manatee Aquarium opened with a large pool for Snooty and his future roommates, injured manatees transitioning to release.
Times have changed since Snooty arrived in Bradenton in 1949. The Pittsburgh Pirates play ball here now, and most people have not heard of Vaughn Monroe. Though “Ghost Riders in the Sky” has been remade by a variety of artists, some people are still unfamiliar with the song. The City of Bradenton has a population of 54,437 and Manatee County has grown to 375,888.
Yet, with Snooty’s death last week, many of these residents, including his fans around the world, are mourning the loss of the little manatee who needed a home and left a huge mark on his adopted community.
Cathy Slusser, Director of Historical Resources, Manatee County Clerk of Circuit Court, can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org Phone: 941-741-4070. Cindy Russell, Historical Records Librarian contributed to this column. Cathy and Cindy both love research and finding unusual facts about Manatee County that no one else knows.