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Confederate History of The Gamble Plantation Historic State Park

Confederate History of The Gamble Plantation Historic State Park: Blockade Runners and an Escaping Secretary of State

Confederate history buffs will find a story of interest at the Gamble Mansion, but at the time of the Civil War, it was kept from public knowledge.

The owners played a pivotal role in the Civil War Confederate history of the Gamble Plantation Historic State Park. By 1865, the Gamble mansion was owned by Civil War blockade runner Archibald McNeil, who helped to keep the commerce shipping lines open during The War of Northern Aggression. Judah Philip Benjamin, secretary of state for the Confederacy and advisor to Confederate President Jefferson Davis, asked for McNeil’s help after Confederate surrender. Benjamin, a prominent New Orleans plantation owner of Jewish decent, was on the run. A $40,000 bounty was on his head for allegedly arranging Lincoln’s assassination.

Helped by Confederate supporters as he moved around in disguise, Benjamin evaded capture, crossing the Suwanee River and eventually arriving at the Gamble Mansion. McNeil secreted him away on a boat bound for Bimini, slipping down the Manatee River, past watchful eyes along the blockade. After a trip through the Caribbean, Judah Philip Benjamin eventually arrived in London and became a well-respected barrister there.

The Homes at The Gamble Plantation Historic State Park

There are two homes on the property, the 1844 mansion itself and nearby, the Patten House. The Patten home was built fifty-one years later, when the new owner thought the mansion too far gone to disrepair for his family to live in. The Gamble Mansion, dilapidated and useless, became a storage facility for fertilizer, aka manure. The United Daughters of the Confederacy rescued it in the early 1900s, brought it back to its former glory. Today it is owned by the state.

Gamble Mansion #1For those interested in exploring more about Confederate history of The Gamble Plantation Historic State Park, visit the mansion and the grounds  in Ellenton, Florida on the Manatee River. It is a short drive from nearby Sarasota and Bradenton to the south and Tampa and St. Petersburg to the north.

The grounds are open year round, from 8 AM to sunset. The mansion is open for tours Thursday through Monday, from 9 AM to noon and 12:45 to 5 PM. The Patten House is only open a few times a year, so it’s best to call the state park first at (941) 723-4536.

The Gamble Plantation Historic State Park

The Gamble Plantation Historic State Park: Plantation Operations

The Gamble Plantation Historic State Park in Ellenton, Florida, preserves a bit of antebellum history and offers up clues that reveal the challenges of homesteading and the politics of the day.

The Gamble Plantation operated because of slave labor, over 160 human beings at its height of operations. The Little Manatee River that runs through the property provided necessary water, diverted to the sugar cane fields through a series of canals built by the slaves. The canals provided easy boat transportation to and from the Manatee River and helped with flood control, as well. One of the original canals can still be seen along the edge of the property that remains.

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A cistern, seen on the right side of the home in this picture, collected rainwater from the roof for the home’s residents.  Unfortunately, the cistern also attracted mosquito larvae. To combat this problem, Major Gamble kept minnows in the cistern, to eat the eggs, an early form of purification. In addition to sugar, vegetables were raised and cattle were kept.

The plantation (citrus, olives, and grapes were also grown) only operated for twelve years. A crash in sugar prices led to its demise. Major Robert Gamble fell deeper in debt and was eventually forced to sell his property and slaves in 1856.

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Destroyed by Union soldiers in 1864, the remains of a sugar mill are all that remain of the cane operation.

The cane reeds were fed between the sugar cane rollers, and juice was collected in large catch pans. Pure cane  juice is still sold at roadside stands in the Everglades.

The history involving The Gamble Plantation Historic State Park Gamble Mansion in 1865 will be discussed in the next post. Owner Archibald McNeil’s assistance in helping Confederate Secretary of State Judah Philip Benjamin escape prosecution after the Civil War was England’s gain.

 

The Gamble Mansion

The Gamble Mansion’s Thick Walls Protected Against Seminole Attack

The Gamble Mansion is South Florida’s only remaining antebellum mansion. Located in Gamble Plantation Historic State Park in Ellenton, it belongs now to the Florida State Park system after being rescued from decay and neglect by the United Daughters of the Confederacy. But in pre-Civil War days, it was home base for a thriving sugar plantation. The park itself is now known as the Judah P. Benjamin Confederate Memorial.

Shortly after the Second Seminole War ended in Loxahatchee, Civil War Major Robert Gamble staked out his homestead and began to build a home. The mansion was built in two stages. The rear of the house was built first, as protection against Seminole attacks as they fought extradition in a clash of cultures. The US government’s intention to resettle the Native Americans on reservations out west did not sit well with the Seminoles. They used guerrilla warfare to resist, hiding in swamps they knew well and mounting surprise attacks. While many were captured and relocated, quite a few Seminoles avoided capture and maintained their independence. Their descendants are scattered about the state.

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The architectural style called Doric Revivalist Vernacular graced the front of the house. The Greek Revival pillars make it seem larger than it actually is. The original plantation grew to encompass 3,500 acres in its prime; today 16 acres remain.

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The Gamble mansion is built of red brick and tabby, a crushed shell, sand, water, and lime mix. The insulating two-foot thick walls and wide verandas provided much needed relief from the summer heat, as did the numerous Live Oaks found on the property. The home was large for a bachelor: ten rooms in all in the two-story mansion. The building is split into two sections, front and back, with the traditional dog-trot air space between buildings.

Comfort has hard to find, but the homesteader did his best.

The mattresses on the beds were stuffed with Spanish moss, so named, it is told, because it resembled the early explorers’ beards. Taken from the Live Oaks on the property, the bugs that inhabit Spanish moss, called “chiggers”, also made it into the beds, giving birth to the saying, “Sleep tight, don’t let the bed bugs bite”. The mattresses were secured by ropes, which could be tightened by a key. There is an extra blanket on the roller in case the air turned chilly.

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An early American flag

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Civil War era kitchen at the Gamble Mansion:

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In my next post, we’ll look at the role the plantation played during and after the Confederacy and its impact on operations in and around the Gamble Mansion.