Pine Level is a ghost town in DeSoto County, Florida, founded back in the 19th century. It was the county seat for Manatee County and the subsequent DeSoto County, and during its heydays, it had not just stores, bars and saloons, but also churches and many homes, and its own courthouse and jail.
Today, not much remains of this once bustling DeSoto town. The buildings for the Mount Pleasant Baptist Church and the Pine Level Methodist Church still stand, and two cemeteries can be visited: Indian Mound Cemetery and Pine Level Campground Cemetery At the former courthouse site, some bricks remain from the courthouse chimney, and there is also the old Hanging Tree, although it has been toppled over by a hurricane.
The Pine Level Methodist Church building, which is a white single-story house, is actually the bottom floor of the original Pine Level school house. The congregation moved to the school house building when the original Methodist Church building in Pine Level was destroyed in a hurricane in 1923. In 1930, the top floor of the former school building wad destroyed by another hurricane, and instead of repairing the upper floor, the congregation put a roof on the bottom floor.
The ghost town Pine Level is marked by a State of Florida bronze marker.
The folklore of the Pine Level area contains plenty of colourful descriptions of “Alligator” Platt, who is said to have hunted alligators in Horse Creek prior to 1880 by hiding along a river bank, waiting for an alligator to surface, and then diving into the water and wrestle the animal. During the struggle, both man and gator would vanish for some time in the swirly muddy water, until Platt would resurface astride his catch and with his thumbs hooked in its eyes.
“It was easy to capture the biggest saurian that way, with no expense for gunpowder and shell, said Platt, recommending the method to his contemporaries.” — Federal Writers’Project, “Part III: The Florida Loop”, Florida: A Guide to the Southernmost State (1947)
The exact origin of the settlement that became Pine Level remains unknown, but there are indications that people of European ancestry began settling in the area in the 1850s and founded a little community.
In 1866, this site was selected to be the new county seat for Manatee County. Until then, the country seat had been Manatee, a village on the Manatee River. (That village is now a part of the city Bradenton.)
Exactly why the county seat was moved remains unclear. Officially, the new site was a more central location, but it might also have been a way to punish the Manatee village for aligning with the Confederate side during the Civil War. What we do know is that some settlers protested that since Manatee village was located on the edge of the county, they had to travel the full width of the county to visit the courthouse. On 1866, Pine Level – a plot of land more centrally located in Manatee County – was designated county seat. More exactly it was in the SW Quarter, Section 22, Township 378, Range 23E.
A courthouse was built in Pine Level in 1866, and it would come to play a central role in the town´s history.
These were the specifications for the courthouse:
“One log house, 20 feet square in the cleaved 10-foot story with a room added to the end, 20 feet by 10 feet, with a partition through the room making two 10-foot Jury Rooms to be cased with 2 foot hart [sic] pine or cypress board and floored with planked or hyghed puncheon boards. One door in each side and two windows to be case and faced with shutters. The house to be furnished with one table, 2 feet by 8 feet long, 22 10-foot benches, 1 box bench for the Judge.” – George Lane Jr., Arcadia & Desoto County.
The 1866 courthouse was destroyed by fire, and the courthouse built to replace it was severely damaged in the Great Hurricane of 1878, so a third courthouse had to be erected in Pine Level.
In 1871, the first postmaster was appointed to Pine Level. His name was John H. Bartholf, and he was a Civil War veteran who had been a captain in the Union Army.
In 1876, Bartholf embroiled himself in a political scheme that pitted him against the Fort Ogden cattle baron Ziba King. Bartholf tried to annul ballots in the Tilden-Hayes presidential election by resigning from his postmaster position. When Ziba King and Joshua Gates came to pick up the ballots, Bartholf refused, arguing that he no longer had authority to release them. At gunpoint, King and Gates made him sign the report, which was then taken to Tallahassee.
By the 1880s, Pine Level had become a fairly well-established little town. In addition to the post office, courthouse and jail, there were two churches, a school house, a newspaper, a dry goods store, a drug store, a sawmill, several warehouses, a cattle brokerage, and a real estate brokerage,
The town was also home to a restaurant, several boarding houses and many saloons. At one point, the number of saloons actually outnumbered the other businesses 14:1, and Pine Level was renowned for its rowdy Saturday nights, where drinking and gambling mingled with shootings and general lawlessness. Despite being in the eastern United States, Pine Level had all the hallmarks of a dangerous Wild West town.
In the spring of 1884, the Sarasota Vigilance Committee was formed, and they made Pine Level their base. Originally described as a political fraternity established by local farmers, planters, storekeepers and cowboys, the group eventually became known as the Sarasota Assassination Society.
In 1886, the Florida Southern Railroad was completed between Bartow to Arcadia. Now, there was a direction and convenient way to travel by train between these two locations, while Pine Level remained without any railway. Residents of the village Manatee – the old county seat – began arguing for the creation of a new, smaller Manatee County.
In 1887, Manatee County was split into the counties DeSoto and Manatee. Pine Level fell within DeSoto, and became the county seat for the newly formed county, while the village Manatee was re-instated as the county seat for Manatee County.
About eighteen months later, the county seat of DeSoto was moved from Pine Level to Arcadia – changing the future destiny of both Pine Level and Arcadia in a major way. The move was understandable, as Arcadia had both great access to the River Peace and a railroad connecting it to other parts of Florida.
No longer being the county seat was a blow for Pine Level, but not all was hopeless. The population and commerce declined, but Pine Level survived as a farming village.
In 1913, the East and West Coast Railway began working on a nearly 50 mile long route that would connect Bradenton east with Arcadia, and Pine Level was selected as one of the stops along the way – 41 miles from Bradenton. The new connection, which opened in May 1915, became an important transportation route for a large saw mill in Pine Level.
In 1933, however, the Interstate Commerce Commission authorized the East & West Coast Railway to abandon the tracks from Bradenton to Arcadia, an order which was carried out in 1934.