George and Tommie Brown

George and Tommie Brown holding neighbor's child.

Good Day to all!  Since I used columns, in her honor, reflecting Gussie Baker’s Punta Gorda Airfield memories for the past several weeks I was unable to recognize African-American folks contributing to local history during Black History month, as I typically would.  Consequently, my next two columns rectify that.


Did you know that George Brown, a prominent businessman in early Punta Gorda, was likely the area’s first, if not Florida’s and the nation’s, “equal opportunity” employer?  Mr. Brown, as he was addressed by all who knew him, arrived in the area around 1893 from Charleston, South Carolina and first worked for the DeSoto Phosphate Mining Company in Liverpool, a now vanished river town in DeSoto County near today’s Sunnybreeze Golf Course.  Liverpool Road still exists.  He and his crew built and maintained the company’s drying bins and barges.


In 1893, the company was sold and reorganized as the Peace River Phosphate Mining Company.  Captain Albert Dewey purchased its fleet of wooden barges and formed the Charlotte Harbor Lighterage Company hauling phosphate from Liverpool to ocean going freighters waiting at Punta Gorda’s port.  Several years later, Brown, an accomplished woodworker, formed a partnership with Peter Miller, also African–American, establishing their own business just upriver from Punta Gorda in the Cleveland community, building and maintaining barges for Dewey.  Wooden barges had to be hauled out for cleaning and tarring every 90 days or so.


In late 1896, Mr. Brown purchased his first lot on Taylor Street in Punta Gorda’s Block 33 from Captain Dewey.  Over ensuing years, he acquired additional lots, eventually assembling a large parcel which he sold to newly formed Charlotte County in 1927 for its courthouse site.  The historic courthouse stands proudly today at the corner of Taylor and West Olympia Avenue, with a mural depicting George Brown on the West Olympia side.


As the 20th century dawned, discovery of more abundant sources of phosphate to the north around Mulberry in Polk County, led to dwindling shipments from Punta Gorda.  The Charlotte Harbor and Northern Railroad also laid track from Liverpool to Port Boca Grande in 1907 and in 1909 began moving phosphate to waiting ships in that manner, devastating Punta Gorda’s port.  Captain Dewey soon moved his operations north to Port Inglis on Withlacoochee Bay.  Foreseeing a dramatic shift in his business plan, Brown bought out Miller and purchased several additional acres of riverfront property in Cleveland.


Soon, Cleveland Marine Steam Ways, today the location of Palms and Pines Mobile Home Park on Riverside Drive, capable of handling vessels of up to 80 feet in length, was in business catering to prominent yachtsmen wintering in Charlotte Harbor.  The boat yard was known for attention to detail and Brown was a respected business man with significant property holdings.


He operated the steam ways until his retirement in 1945 and was known for hiring and paying workers based on their ability, rather than race.  Mr. Brown died in November 1951 at age 83 and is interred at the Lieutenant Carl A. Bailey Memorial Cemetery in Cleveland next to his daughter Ruth and second wife Tommy.  Reporting his death, the Punta Gorda Herald stated at one time he had owned half the land in the city.


Visit Charlotte County online library resources to view photographs of George Brown, his home on Cleveland Avenue, family members, and phosphate related operations.  Select “Community Services”, then “Libraries and History”.  Click on “Physical Items”, then “Archive Search”.  Enter the subject of your search on the “Search” line.  Photographs can also be viewed on the Punta Gorda History Center’s website.  Select “Online Collection”, then “Keyword Search” and enter the search criteria.


“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, 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.