Marie Selby was born Mariah Minshall in Wood County, West Virginia, on August 9, 1885. When Marie was still a young girl, the Minshall family moved to Marietta, Ohio where her father studied geology at Marietta College and invented parts for oil drilling equipment. The Minshall family frequently went on camping and hiking trips along the Ohio River; perhaps it was this early introduction to nature that spawned in Marie her love of the out-of-doors.
William & Marie
Marie was an accomplished pianist, and attended a music seminary in Illinois. Shortly after completing her musical studies she met William (Bill) Selby, a partner with his father in the Selby Oil and Gas Company. William and Marie were married on January 31, 1908, in the First Presbyterian Church of Marietta. Early in their marriage the young couple was intrigued by the country’s first cross-country automobile race. They decided to travel the same course, and outfitted their touring car with spare parts and camping equipment. As a result of the Selby’s enthusiasm and determination, Marie Selby became the first woman to cross the country by car.
Sarasota as Home
Bill Selby had visited Sarasota before his marriage and was drawn into the area by the excellent fishing waters and the astounding beauty of the west coast of Florida. He brought his young wife to Sarasota in hopes that she would share his enthusiasm. She did, and they bought seven acres of land bordering on Sarasota Bay and Hudson Bayou. Little did they dream, at that moment, of the exquisite Sarasota landmark their property would become in the not-so-distant future. In the early 1920s the Selbys built a Spanish-style, 2-story house among the laurel and banyan trees.
Modest Home, Generous Garden
Landscaping of the Selby home site was planned by Marie. Borders of flowers bloomed along the roadway which led to the tip of the peninsula. A large rose garden figured prominently in the overall design – a garden Marie was always reluctant to leave behind during summers spent at the Selby ranch in Montana. Despite their enormous wealth (oil and mining industry produce great wealth for William), the Selbys lived a quiet and unpretentious life. Their home was modest as was their entertaining style. They were not a part of the Sarasota social scene. Both Marie and Bill Selby dressed plainly, as their interests lay in outdoor activities. One would often find Marie in a cotton dress and sneakers. They owned a ranch where they raised purebred Angus cattle and rode horses, often seen around town in dusty riding clothes.
Boating was another favorite activity at the Sarasota Yacht Club. In 1928, a reception was held at the Selby home for local members and visiting members of other yacht clubs participating in the annual Regatta. That year, Marie Selby won the “Express Cruiser Race” and the Sarasota Yacht Club won overall, retaining the trophy won in 1927.
Yet one guesses that Marie’s love of nature and of gardening was her most consuming passion. She was a charter member of Sarasota’s first garden club, the Founder’s Circle. She had a great desire to keep Sarasota a beautiful and green place and was disturbed later in life by the proliferation of high-rise construction. The row of bamboo on the bay side of the property was planted by Marie to block her view of the offending condominiums.
The Selby Legacy
In 1955, William Selby had established the William and Marie Selby Foundation. The impact of Selby Foundation in the Sarasota community has been, and continues to be, enormous – on education, the arts, youth and children, libraries, health services, and programs in support of the aged. William Selby died on December 4, 1956 and Marie continued to live quietly in the home she loved until her death on June 9, 1971. The contents of Marie Selby’s will revealed her wish to leave her property to the community as a botanical garden “for the enjoyment of the general public.” A board of directors was appointed and after consultation with the New York Botanical Garden and the University of Florida, it was decided that the garden should specialize in epiphytic plants, thereby making it unique among the more than 200 botanical gardens in the country.
Marie Selby Botanical Gardens was officially opened to the public on July 7, 1975. Marie Selby’s final wish was fulfilled, and the Selby legacy was in full bloom. In November 2001, William and Marie Selby were reinterred in front of their beloved home on the grounds of Selby Gardens. A triangular-shaped fountain pays tribute to this pioneering couple whose generosity has touched generations of Sarasotans. A plaque on the Selby House honors Marie as a Great Floridian, so named by the Florida Legislature in 2000 for her significant contributions to the history and culture of the state.
Selby Gardens Today
Since the Gardens originally opened to the public, the property has more than doubled in size from seven to nearly 15 acres. The historic Payne Mansion on adjoining property was purchased in 1973 and now houses the Gardens’ Museum. Selby Gardens maintains a plant collection representing specimens collected from New World Tropic locations during research expeditions and acquisitions from international institutions. The collection numbers more than 20,000 greenhouse plants, plus thousands more in the outdoor gardens. Eight greenhouses include the stunning Tropical Conservatory – the only greenhouse that is open to the public where unusual flora can be seen year-round. The Botany Department provides headquarters for the Bromeliad, Gesneriad, and Orchid Research Centers, and Selby Gardens’ Herbarium, Spirit Collection and Molecular Laboratory. The Ann Goldstein Children’s Rainforest Garden, opened in November 2013, features interactive stations that allow children and families to explore rainforest plants and habitats. Marie Selby Botanical Gardens has, in short, become a respected center for research and education, as well as a famous showplace that delights more than 140,000 visitors each year.