Gamble Plantation Historic State Park

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Gamble Plantation Historic State Park

Gamble Plantation Historic State Park is a Florida State Park located in Ellenton, Florida on the Manatee River and US 301. It consists of the antebellum mansion developed by the first owner, Major Robert Gamble; a 40,000-gallon cistern to provide the household with fresh water; and 16 acres (65,000 m2) of the sugar plantation. At its peak, the plantation occupied 3500 acres in south Florida, and Gamble likely held more than 600 slaves to work the property and process the sugar cane.

With the only surviving antebellum plantation house in South Florida, the park is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. The mansion's columns and two-foot-thick walls are constructed of tabby, a regional material developed as a substitute for brick. The park includes the restored wood-frame, two-story, Victorian-style Patten House, built in 1872 for owner George Patten.

In 1925 the mansion and grounds were bought by the United Daughters of the Confederacy and donated to the state a memorial to Judah P. Benjamin, who served in three Cabinet positions under Confederate President Jefferson Davis during the American Civil War. He stayed at the plantation in May 1865 before escaping Federal forces, and sailing to England, where he had a second career. In 1937 the UDC installed a memorial plaque to Benjamin at the mansion. In 2002 the state acquired the property which holds the ruins of the plantation's sugar mill, one of the South's largest, and added it to the historic park complex.


The coastal area was inhabited for thousands of years by varying cultures of indigenous peoples, who left huge shell middens as evidence of their reliance on seafood. Historic tribes in this area included the Tocobaga, Creek, Yamasee and Seminole.

At the close of the Seminole War in 1842, the United States opened the Florida frontier to settlement by European Americans. Major Robert Gamble, Jr. (b. 1813 in Virginia), who had served in the war, received 160 acres for homesteading, and arrived at the Manatee River site in 1844. Other sugar planters from South Carolina and established slave states soon joined him along the rich Manatee River valley on the west coast of South Florida. They brought slaves with them and purchased others for sufficient labor to develop the frontier properties. Extensive slave labor was needed to clear the lands; plant, harvest and process sugar cane; and build the plantation houses, mills and outbuildings. By 1845 a dozen plantations along the riverfront were producing for the New Orleans market. The planters shipped their commodity crops downriver and across the Gulf of Mexico to the international port.

The Gamble Mansion (1845–1850) was built principally by enslaved laborers and artisans from native materials, and construction took 5-6 years. It is an outstanding example of antebellum construction in the Doric Revivalist Vernacular architectural style. The columns and the two-foot-thick walls were made of tabby, a unique regional material of the Southeast developed in South Carolina and the Sea Islands because of the shortage of clay for bricks. The techniques were brought south by European-American planters and their African-American slaves. The workers created the material by mixing lime (extracted by burning crushed oyster shells), more crushed shells, sand and water. This was poured into forms for hardening and then were used like bricks. The new settlers found huge mounds of oyster shells in middens in the Native Americans coastal villages. Today the mansion is considered a monument to the craftsmanship of the enslaved African-American artisans and laborers who constructed it.

Next to the house is a covered, 40,000-gallon cistern with a wood-shake roof, which Gamble had built to supply the household's fresh water needs. Fish were kept in the cistern to eat insects and help keep the water clean.

Gamble lived in the mansion and used it as the headquarters of his extensive sugar plantation. By 1850 he had hired an overseer, 30-year-old David Lanner from Georgia. That year on the US Census, Gamble declared his real estate worth $19,000. He held a total of 62 slaves. From starting with 160 acres, he rapidly acquired 3500 acres. In addition to the mansion, he directed the construction of numerous outbuildings and slave quarters (also constructed of tabby), and the wharf from which sugar and molasses were shipped by schooner and steamboat. Likely more than 600 slaves lived and worked at the plantation at its peak. Due to a declining sugar market and debts, Gamble had to sell the property in 1856. This is the only surviving plantation house in South Florida.

During the Civil War, the mansion was occupied by Captain Archibald McNeill, a famous Confederate blockade runner. Judah P. Benjamin, Confederate Secretary of State, took refuge here during May 1865 while making his escape from Federal troops following defeat of the Confederacy. He had been accused of having arranged for President Lincoln's assassination in April 1865, and feared being unable to get a fair trial after the war. McNeill aided Benjamin in escaping to the Bahamas. From there, he sailed to England, arriving with almost no resources. He went on to establish a distinguished second legal career in London, where in 1872 he was selected as Queen's Counsel.

The Gamble sugar mill, one of the South's largest, was destroyed by Union raiders in 1864. The brick ruins are located 1/2 mile north on State Road 683. The state acquired the property in 2002 and has cleared vegetation to make the ruins visible for visitors, while protecting them with a fence.

In 1872, the postwar owner George Patten had built a wooden, vernacular Victorian-style, two-story house for his living quarters. He had found the mansion in too poor condition for occupancy. The state has restored the Patten House, which is also part of the plantation park complex.

Tabby is a less permanent construction material than brick, and by 1902, the house and columns were deteriorating badly. In 1923 the Judah P. Benjamin Chapter of the United Daughters of the Confederacy (UDC) began to raise money to rescue the mansion from destruction. By 1925, they had bought the house and 16 acres, and donated the property to the state for preservation as a memorial to Judah Philip Benjamin. The state completed restoration of the house in 1927. The UDC arranged in 1937 for the installation of a memorial plaque to honor the service of Judah Philip Benjamin to the Confederacy. He served as Attorney General, Secretary of War and Secretary of State to President Jefferson Davis. Today, the mansion is furnished in the style of a successful mid-19th century plantation.

In January 2010, Janet Snyder Matthews, an historian at the University of Florida and the former associate director of the National Park Service, led a working seminar at the plantation. Her goal was for students to develop scholarly documentation on the plantation and its occupants, with a goal of upgrading the plantation's historic designation to reflect its significance, perhaps to that of a National Historic Landmark.

Recreational activities

The park is open from 8am to sundown, 365 days per year. No entrance fee is required to enter this park. Picnic tables are available. ADA accessible restroom facilities are available at the park. Guided tours of Gamble Mansion are offered six times daily at 9:30 a.m., 10:30 a.m., 1 p.m., 2 p.m., 3 p.m. and 4 p.m., Thursday through Monday. Tour fees are $6.00 per adult and $4.00 per child. A Visitor Center with a museum is open Thursday through Monday, 9 a.m. - 11: 45 a.m. and 12:45 p.m. - 5:00 p.m. The visitor center is closed and tours are not available on Tuesday, Wednesday, Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Year's Day. Group tours can be arranged by calling the park at 941.723.4536.


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