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The first snowbirds arrive.

From the unlikely beginnings of rickety flivvers and a tent city grew the annual migration that's supplied so much of Sarasota's prosperity.

ON JAN. 7, 1921, A SMALL CHAPTER OF the Tin Can Tourists of the World was organized in Sarasota. Twenty-two members from all around the country were initiated, with Mr. Oscar Seaburg of South Bend, Indiana, elected Chief Can Opener. His duties included seeing that a committee was formed to keep a complete record of all Tin Canners coming to and leaving the Sarasota tent city, instructing members on the by-laws, and stressing proper decorum and sanitary conditions in the camp. After the meeting, the official ode, "The Tin Can Forever" was sung.

The Tin Can Tourists of the World would introduce thousands of Northerners to the sunny charms of Sarasota, and they were to prove a tremendous help to the local economy in the '20s and '30s. From their ranks came that archetypal Sarasota asset -- the Northern snowbird -- and many eventually retired to Sarasota in their golden years.

There were 17,000 Tin Canners when the Sarasota chapter organized in 1921, but they were growing rapidly. Their slogan was "400,000 members by Jan. 1, 1923." A loosely federated organization formed after World War I, they traveled south each year in droves, driving modified flivvers -- any color you wanted so long as it was black. The newspapers referred to them as "the ever-returning hordes" and headlines like "5,000 Tin Canners in 1,500 trailers invade Sarasota" were common after the group began holding its annual conventions here in the early '20s.

While in previous decades most Sarasota visitors were from the upper classes, who had the time and money to hazard the enormous difficulty of travel, this was a new breed of tourist, middle-class, group-oriented and willing to brave the new (though primitive) roadways to the semi-tropical sun. Their emblem was an empty tin can perched over the radiator cap. The name may have derived from the tin-can condition of their cars, or the belief that most of them dined from tin cans -- or both.

They adhered to a code of ethics stated in their objectives: "To unite fraternally all auto campers, to provide clean and wholesome entertainment to all campfires, and to help enforce the rules governing all campgrounds."

In Sarasota, they congregated at Payne Park. Each year, more arrived. By 1935, there were 2,369. In 1936, 4,003; and by 1937, 5,000 were expected in 1,500 "automobile house cars." Since Sarasota at that time had a countywide population of only 16,000, their arrival made a huge impact on the town.

Life around the park, a mini-city at convention time, was a regulated series of social, sporting and sightseeing events. Dances were held almost every night; trips were taken to the Ringling Brothers Winter Quarters; baseball games, shuffleboard and horseshoe tournaments were organized, and moving pictures were shown. Liquor was not allowed on the grounds, and smoking was forbidden during dances and at all times in the ladies' card room. A police officer was stationed at the park to direct the flow of traffic and handle complaints.

Their stay climaxed with a parade through downtown Sarasota. It stretched for three miles with thousands of onlookers cheering an eclectic assortment of floats, bands (including a kitchen ensemble that played washboards, cabbage graters and kazoos) and the cars of the Tin Canners, from "road yachts" to housecars built on outmoded trucks. The local newspaper observed that while the parades were not up to Gasparilla standards, they "bore the snap a bunch of boys might show when whooping it up away from home."

The Sunday morning after the parade, camp was struck, and after a short service, black cars streamed down Main Street to their hometowns all over the country.

The group disbanded in the '40s, probably because of tire and gas rationing associated with World War II, but by then another stream of tourists -- and future residents -- had arrived, the soldiers who trained at the Army-Air Corps bases in Venice and Sarasota.

Today tourism remains the foundation of the Sarasota economy. Snowbirds, who live here only part-time, comprise 35 percent of our population. In all, 975,000 visitors come every year. Though none of their autos will have a jaunty tin can perched on the radiator, all share a common ancestor in the sociable, adventurous Tin Can Tourist of days past.
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Title Annotation:15 Years of Sarasota; migrations to Sarasota, Florida
Author:Lahurd, Jeff
Publication:Sarasota Magazine
Date:Apr 1, 1994
Words:738
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