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Our History Matters: Remembering Johan Peter Wilhelmsen, an aspiring community founder

Manatee County history showcased through ecko tours’ Manatee River of Time tour

Manatee County's natural history and scenic wildlife are showcased through ecko tours' Manatee River of Time tour.
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Manatee County's natural history and scenic wildlife are showcased through ecko tours' Manatee River of Time tour.

The establishment of new settlements has been a common theme throughout history. Individuals moved to new areas, seeking new opportunities, many with dreams of establishing their own towns.

Sometimes these newly developed towns vastly expanded and became larger cities; at other times, the newly established towns did not succeed.

Towns would not succeed for a variety of reasons — sometimes they’d be surpassed by towns with better access to resources, and at others, these newly forming towns didn’t succeed for simply any particular reason at all. The settlement just never became popular.

The establishment of communities has even had a long practice here in Manatee County, starting with the first white settlers who arrived in 1842.

Johan Peter Wilhelmsen emigrated from Germany prior to the United States Civil War and arrived in Florida in the 1860s. Wilhelmsen and his wife, Sara Jane, settled in Manatee County, east of the town of Manatee.

Since their homestead was so much farther east than the village of Manatee, Wilhelmsen had dreamed of starting his own community.

However, competition for establishing a new settlement would soon pick up.

Before Wilhelmsen could fully establishment the settlement of Willemsenburg, the Fogarty family settled a quarter of a mile away from the Wilhelmsen home site.

Both Fogartyville and Willemsenburg developed side by side. However, as more people began to settle in the area established by the Fogarty’s, Wilhelmsen’s resentment grew.

In 1877, Wilhelmsen purchased his 40-acre homestead from the government for $100, which amounts to approximately $2,392.70 today, in hopes of establishing the town of Willemsenburg.

The small town initially had three homes and an unfinished hotel. By 1884, the new road of Manatee Avenue was being constructed, and a bridge was needed to run from the town of Manatee, over Ware’s Creek and into Willemsenburg and Fogartyville.

While the community had initially decided to pay for a basic bridge, at 50 cents a running foot, Wilhelmsen wanted a nicer bridge leading into his town. He was able to persuade the community to pay for a bridge at 75 cents a running foot.

Three years after Wilhelmsen argued for a nicer bridge, he realized the need for a school in the area. In 1887, he donated a half-acre of his land for a school, leading to the creation of the Willemsen Academy.

Students from both Fogartyville and Willemsenburg attended the school, and by 1891, there was a maximum enrollment of 24 students.

After donating the land for the school, Wilhelmsen was looking for other opportunities to improve his town and surpass his rival. This opportunity came to him in 1889.

In many early religious congregations, members of the communities would meet in private homes. For the Episcopalians in Palma Sola, Willemsenburg and Fogartyville services were held in different homes until they banded together to organize a Sunday school.

However, as more individuals joined the congregation, they realized the need for a larger building.

In 1889, Wilhelmsen deeded and donated a 1 1/2-acre lot of his land to build a church. The church, Christ Episcopal Church, was located near the Manatee River and became the first Episcopal Church in Manatee County.

Though Wilhelmsen was able to bring a school and a church to his community, the development could never outgrow that of Fogartyville. By 1902, the boundaries of Fogartyville had reached the front door of Wilhelmsen’s home.

Wilhelmsen died on Oct. 15, 1902, ending his dream of founding a great city. He was buried in Episcopal Courtyard next to his first wife, Sara Jane, who died in 1895.

Bridget Donahue-Farrell is the curator at Manatee Village Historical Park and loves learning about local history and finding comparisons to larger topics within the scope of the United States history. Our History Matters is an occasional series published in the Bradenton Herald.

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