High School Sports

Part Two: Old Florida charm on the river

Second in a five-part series

By SARA KENNEDY

skennedy@bradenton.com

MANATEE

In almost 30 years of selling real estate, Realtor Michelle Crabtree has seen lots of houses. But when she spotted one for sale in River Bend, she knew she had to buy it.

Sitting directly on the Braden River with its own dock, the land that was once a part of Mote Ranch offers a spectacular view.

“I love my home,” said Crabtree, a third-generation Sarasotan who bought her house along Stillwater Court nearly four years ago. “We had 70 people out here for our wedding, it was wonderful,” she said, gesturing around her backyard, which overlooks a lazy bend in the peaceful river.

As she stood there, an anhinga dried its wings across the way, a gator swam the river and big white egrets flew overhead.

She is one of the lucky ones whose daily life is intertwined with that of the river. Others include a Manatee County commissioner who shrugs off alligators lounging in her backyard; a former owner of the funky campground and restaurant called Linger Lodge; and a member of the family that owns the King Ranch Manatee, who spent his childhood along its banks.

Crabtree, in her early 50s, remembers with a giggle that there was a disturbance during her 2006 wedding ceremony: A party of fishermen motored up the river and noisily caught a huge bass just as she and her groom, Larry Davenport, began to exchange vows.

Crabtree, a broker-sales associate for Michael Saunders & Co., and Davenport, who is in the ice hockey business, laughed it off.

Now, they both work from their home office where they can bird-watch when they take a break from their computers.

“It’s a pleasure to work here,” she said, gesturing at the lush vegetation encouraged by the looping course of the river near Honore Avenue.

Some days they take a leisurely spin on their pontoon boat to Linger Lodge, a long-time restaurant and campground about 30 minutes upriver. There, they order an appetizer of gator meat and drinks. Other days, they go down river toward the Evers Reservoir, where they see wading birds such as ibis and roseate spoonbills.

At home, they regularly spot manatees, otters and osprey.

A tranquil setting

Manatee County Commissioner Donna Hayes lives just down river from Crabtree, and is an equally ardent fan of the river lifestyle.

Hayes hails originally from just north of Pittsburgh, but moved to Florida in 1976. She has been in the insurance business 30 years, and has lived 17 years in the River Landings subdivision, near Evers Reservoir.

“I chose it because it has a fantastic view, yet it’s very convenient to State Road 70 and I-75, and since I’ve moved here, there’s been a lot of developmental changes and commercial centers opened all around me,” says Hayes. “It’s a nice, quiet community where I live.

“I believe the folks in my area in particular like living there because of the view and the tranquil setting,” she added. “Lots of my neighbors have boats. I have a canoe, I go every once in a while.”

So, is there a downside?

She acknowledges that some might consider the occasional gator in the backyard a downside, but notes, “It’s nothing to me.”

Active in the Old Braden River Historical Society, Hayes wants to support its work protecting the river and its historical treasures.

“They do such wonderful things,” she says.

Institution on the river

Frank Gamsky, 79, operated Linger Lodge on the river’s upper end from 1968-2007. He and his wife, Elaine, still live two blocks from Linger Lodge, which they sold a couple years ago.

As he tells it, his niece had moved to Florida, and one day while he was talking to her on the telephone, he heard birds singing in the background and thought, “That sounds real nice.”

His doctor had told him the cold would aggravate injuries he incurred during military service, so he decided to move south.

Up north, he had operated gas stations and an auto radiator business, but he sold them all, packed up and moved to Bradenton. A salesman showed him a little weekend campground called Linger Lodge, located at the east end of Linger Lodge Road, east of I-75, and just south of Braden Woods.

“Out of a tree was a huge blacksnake hanging down... looking at me, and my wife said, ‘Yeah, we’re not going to stay here,’” remembered Gamsky. “Gators were all over, the land was just palmettos, just jungle-ish.

“Something told me, ‘Just take it.’” He bought it.

Every now and then the river would flood. In the woods were bobcats, armadillos, possums, many different types of birds, alligators, wild boar, cattle and horses.

“Throughout the years, I caught 260 venomous snakes,” he says.

At first, he worked a part-time job to support his family, but with improvements they made to the fish camp and campground, he eventually worked full time operating Linger Lodge.

“It was a good business. Eventually after a while, it got to where in the winter months, November to April, many times people would be waiting to get in,” says Gamsky. “It’d fill up every year.”

In 1975, he opened a popular restaurant that sold everything from gator meat to hamburgers, and the business thrived.

“We probably brought in $1 million to Florida almost every year,” he says. “Such nice people, we would have a great time in the winter.”

Why did people come?

“Because it was Old Florida, just Old Florida,” he says knowingly.

It’s an estuary

Though many river residents are transplants from other places, Joe King is a Manatee County native who grew up along its banks.

Now, he is reliving his early years while introducing his own children to the river’s charm.

King, an architect and general contractor who owns Joseph King Architects, of Bradenton, grew up in a house perched above the river, situated on the sprawling family ranch that is still a fixture along the 4600 block of Caruso Road.

“What it means to grow up on the Braden River,” says King, “is that it’s a beautiful river, and the main thing is, it’s an estuary. There are just so many wetland areas, and all different variety of plants and animals and fish. It’s really the nursery area for the larger rivers, the Manatee River and out to the bay, and out to the gulf.”

His home is among 22 comprising the River Forest development, most of which he designed himself.

He likes to take his kids out in canoes and kayaks, and they participate in clean-up days on the river, too.

“I live in the neighborhood my family developed just south of the ranchland,” said King. “It’s essentially a neighborhood within a nature preserve. It had always been a beautiful, forested site, but we worked very hard, especially with the people who bought lots there, to design and build houses so we could keep the forest intact.”

He remembers a controversy over motorboats that sped along the shallow water so fast, they would injure slow-moving manatees that migrated to the serenity of the river to birth their calves.

Since then, signs have been posted on the river to slow down power-boaters. One of them appears directly in front of King’s childhood home where his parents, Robert and Susan King, still reside.

“Signs help to remind people, yeah, it’s shallow, there’s manatees, and also, it’s true more and more, people are enjoying using the Braden River for more canoeing and kayaking.”

Sara Kennedy, Herald reporter, can be reached at (941) 708-7908 or at skennedy@bradenton.com

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