Dan Smith

Good Day to all!  The Charlotte County Historical Society’s annual Hibiscus Festival is coming up May 3, 4, and 5 at Gilchrist Park; 6 – 10 on Friday, 9 – 4 on Saturday, and 10 – 3 Sunday.  Get it on your calendar and hope to see you there!


Did you know that Daniel C. Smith, instrumental in bringing educator Benjamin J. Baker to Punta Gorda, also played a significant part in building the town’s first African-American church?  Born in Georgia in May 1865, he arrived in Trabue (Punta Gorda) as a member of Albert Gilchrist’s seven-man survey crew in late 1885, just ahead of the railroad tracks.  Gilchrist was the engineer hired by Florida Southern Railway officials to lay out the railroad’s route from Bartow Junction to Trabue.  Their arrival increased the new town’s male population to fifteen, eight white, seven black.  Since there were no completed buildings, everyone camped near the bayfront, likely about where the SpringHill Suites is today between West Retta Esplanade and Harborside Avenue.


“Uncle Dan”, as he came to be known by all, soon became a leader in the new community, organizing the first religious services for African-Americans shortly after the railroad’s arrival in July 1886.  They were held in a palmetto thatched pavilion he built himself.


Smith also contributed generously to other civic projects benefitting the new town and was an early property owner, purchasing a lot at the south end of Nesbit Street in 1887.  The projects included a drainage ditch he voluntarily dug along Marion Avenue running east from King Street (U. S. 41 north) to Cochran Street, now Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Boulevard, and two wharves built on the bayfront for which he contributed funds and labor.


Uncle Dan was also a trustee of the African Methodist Episcopal Church that built its first sanctuary in 1889 on land donated by Isaac Trabue.  Now Bethel A.M.E. Church, the current sanctuary stands at 260 East Olympia Avenue.  A bachelor when he arrived, that same year he purchased a small tract of land just south of town on Burnt Store Road, where he planted an orange grove and built a house for his new bride Louisa.  The two story, wood frame home once stood on property purchased by former County Judge Ken Haymans in 1969, now owned by his son Mike, between Taylor Road and North Jones Loop Road.


In addition to having a hand in establishing the first African-American church and school, he even enrolled so the school met its required quota of students.  Smith was also one of 20 or so men who in December 1887, rowed across the bay and walked 30 miles north through the night to Pine Level.  Their purpose was to file papers incorporating the new city of Punta Gorda.  At the time, this area was part of Desoto County and Pine Level the county seat.  However, Smith was not one of the four African-American men voting in favor of and signing the petition for incorporation, as he had not yet registered to vote.  Uncle Dan died in 1935 and is interred at Lieutenant Carl Bailey Cemetery.


Visit Charlotte County History Collections on-line to view photographs of Dan and Louisa Smith.   Select “Community Services”, then “Libraries and History”.  Click on “Physical Items”, then “Archive Search”.  Enter the subject of your search on the “Search” line.  He is also one of several African-American citizens prominent in Punta Gorda’s history depicted in a mural at the Baker Center on East Charlotte Avenue.


“Did You Know” appears, typically, every other Wednesday, courtesy of this newspaper and the Charlotte County Historical Society.  The Society’s mission is to help promote and preserve Charlotte County’s rich history.  We are also always looking for volunteers and interested individuals to serve as board members.  If you believe our area’s history is as important as we do, please visit Charlotte County Historical Society on-line at https://cchistoricalsociety.com/, or call 941- 769-1270 for more information

Check out History Services’ yearlong project, “Telling Your Stories: History in the Parks”.  It began in January 2021 with placement of the first interpretive sign “Charlotte Harbor Spa” at South County Regional Park.  The last was dedicated December 15, 2021 at Centennial Park featuring Florida postcards.  All dedicated signs can be viewed at online library resources.  Select “Programs and Services”, then “History Services” and “Virtual Programs”.

Visit the same site to access recently released oral histories featuring 40 local folks.  Select “History Services” and scroll down, or phone 941-629-7278, to find out what history related programs and videos are available.