In 1891, Francis P. Fleming, governor of Florida, appointed Francis Irsch as the general immigration agent for the state.
Irsch, a captain in the Union Army during the Civil War, was once a prisoner of war at Libby Prison in Richmond, Va.
Libby Prison, which was reserved for Union officers, was in a former food warehouse. Damp and poorly lit, the building was a breeding ground for disease among the malnourished, confined officers.
Irsch was a part of the escape of 109 officers from Libby Prison on Feb. 8, 1864, but was soon recaptured and returned to Libby Prison.
After the war, Irsch continued in the military before becoming a broker for South American furs and animal skins.
He began investing in Manatee County real estate as early as 1883 and in 1891 established the Colonization, Mining and Commercial Co. of Florida. The goal of the company was to acquire, hold and dispose of land, prospect, mine, sell and export phosphate and fund and develop colonies.
In a pamphlet titled, "Florida Immigration: An Address to the County Commissioners, Corporations, Land Owners and Citizens of Florida," Irsch promoted seeking skilled and educated laborers from Europe, primarily Germany and Switzerland, to immigrate to Florida.
He estimated it would cost $765 for a family of four to
settle in Florida for one year until they were established. He noted it would be necessary to build churches and schools for the immigrants and stated "immigrants, if possible, should be chosen from the same nationality and religion" to alleviate homesickness.
After adding in the cost of churches, schools, salaries for teachers and preachers, he figured it would cost $12,562 for a community of 25 settler families to move to Florida (not including the cost of the land, which he urged the state of Florida to donate).
He impressed upon readers the Western states were progressing and developing because of the type of people they sought and Florida would be wise to do the same.
For this purpose, Irsch acquired a piece of land near Ellenton on the north side of the Manatee River (about 8 miles from Palmetto, east of where Erie Road runs north from the U.S. 301 and the Manatee River today and west of Parrish). He was given permission to drain and ditch this land, which was low-lying and swampy, and the men who sold him the land for $1 also donated $200 for a school.
The new town was called Fleming after the governor. Irsch recruited some of the former Union officers who were also in Libby Prison to move to the area and in the spring of 1892, a small group arrived in Manatee County.
Settlers arrive, build town
One of these was Louis Lindemeyer who was born in Germany, but had lived in New Jersey for many years. He was drawn to Florida because of ill health and came with his son, Emil, a farmer; daughter, Caroline (who later married William Fogarty of the Fogarty family); and wife, also named Caroline. Accompanying Lindemeyer were a carpenter, blacksmith, locksmith, wheelwright and shoemaker.
The first thing that the group did was lay out the new town in a 3 1/2-mile area with streets 50 feet in length, a park and a community well. They also bought $300 worth of wire fencing to protect their crops.
Less than a month after arriving, the residents of the colony of Fleming reported they had planted corn, watermelons, pumpkins and other fruits and vegetables. The original colonists were joined by a smaller group a few months later.
Unfortunately, the Associated Railway, which had promised to build tracks through Fleming and upon which the new settlers depended to provide transportation for crops, lumber, and other merchandise went bankrupt before tracks were laid.
Eventually, the town of Fleming consolidated with Erie and later, Parrish, but the descendants of the original colonists continue to be a part of the north river community to this day, fulfilling the prophecy promoted by Francis Irsch more than 100 years ago.
Cathy Slusser, a historian for the Manatee County Clerk of Circuit Court's Office and author of two novels about Manatee County history, is halfway through the third book based upon the life of Caroline Lindemeyer Fogarty. She is indebted to the Buice family of Parrish for their stories of the Lindemeyers and to Susan Tanner Grzybowski for sharing her research on Francis Irsch.