Kentucky Military Institute's winter campus was in Venice

By Larry R. Humes For The Venice Gondolier
March 08, 2021

They weren’t exactly the Calvary, but it must have felt like it when the first trainload of cadets, instructors and staff of the Kentucky Military Institute rolled into the Venice Depot on Jan. 5, 1933.

An estimated 1,500 Suncoast residents, some from as far away as Sarasota and Fort Myers, converged on the depot about 5 p.m. to welcome the school and the financial support it promised the beleaguered city.

With an enrollment of some 250 students, it was said at the time that when the school arrived for its winter session, KMI doubled the population of Venice.

Formed in 1845 in Frankfort, Kentucky, and one of the first to be affiliated with the U.S. Army’s Reserve Officer Training Corps, KMI was one of the oldest military schools of its kind in the nation.

More than 11,000 boys matriculated at the military preparatory school during its 126-year history, and went on to distinguish themselves in all walks of life. Alumni bravely served in all wars up to and including Vietnam, and seven generals during the Civil War were KMI graduates, five for the Union and two for the Confederacy.

Other distinguished alumni include: actors Victor Mature and Jim Backus, television comedian Fred Willard, and Indianapolis race car driver Danny Sullivan. Although military service was not required as a result of attending KMI, many alumni did choose to ultimately serve the nation in uniform.

The school was founded by Col. Robert T. Allen, a West Point graduate and distinguished Army officer who also was an inventor and former college professor. Col. Charles Fowler, an 1878 graduate of KMI, purchased the school in 1894 and moved it two years later to a former plantation in Lyndon, Kentucky, a suburb of Louisville.

Believing that outdoor recreation would benefit the cadets in their scholastic work, Fowler established a winter campus for the school in 1906 in Eau Gallie, Florida, located near Melbourne. The annual trip for the winter session continued until January 1920 when a number of buildings on the Florida campus were destroyed by fire. Because of that, and a separate fire on the Kentucky campus, the school was forced into bankruptcy.

Four instructors from the Greenbriar Military School, led by Col. Charles B. Richmond, purchased and reopened KMI in 1924 with an enrollment of 150 cadets. Like Fowler, Richmond also believed in the positive effects of the Florida climate and began searching for a winter campus.

Several potential sites were considered, but Venice eventually was chosen. According to an article in the June 1, 1932 edition of the Sarasota Herald-Tribune, the selection of Venice was influenced by Ray Richardson, a 1906 graduate of KMI who served as the school’s commandant in 1909 and 1910.

KMI leased the former San Marco Hotel and Hotel Venice from the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers in July 1932. The first floor of the San Marco would be used for classrooms and office space while cadets and some school staff would be housed on the second and third floors.

Students and faculty also were housed in the Hotel Venice building, and all meals were served in that building’s dining room. Both buildings were leased until 1939 when the school purchased them along with the former Orange Blossom Garage next door that presently houses the Venice Theatre.

That building was used as KMI’s gymnasium and armory where military science classes also were

The entire school would come down to the winter campus after the Christmas holiday on a special train nicknamed the KMI Special. Annual tuition in 1933 was $950, which included travel to Florida and meals.

The Depression did not directly affect the school and having a winter campus was also a marketing strategy that boosted the school’s enrollment. KMI would remain on the winter campus until just before Easter and would then return to its Lyndon campus for the remainder of the academic year.

Through its ROTC affiliation, regular Army personnel were assigned to KMI and taught military science courses while also overseeing drills, dress parades and other exercises. What is now Centennial Park originally served as the school’s parade grounds and formal dress parades were held there on alternate Sunday afternoons for the public’s benefit.

Thousands would come from as far away as Tampa and Fort Myers to enjoy the spectacle.

Although the drill field had not been completed when the first cadets arrived in 1933, the first formal dress parade was held on Jan. 14th in front of the San Marco, and the 25-piece cadet band provided the music. In addition to leasing the two former hotels, KMI also was entitled to use the city’s bath house which contained showers and dressing rooms. The school also was provided use of the local nine-hole golf course and clubhouse.

Each day’s activities were regulated by recorded bugle calls. Students awoke at 6:30 a.m. to the sound of Reveille, and retired each evening at 10 p.m. to Taps.

Drill exercises were held three times each week and all cadets participated in athletic events each afternoon at 3:30 p.m. following classes. The entire corps marched to every meal and, during inclement weather, formations were held in the grand hallway of the San Marco. Cadets were required each week to clean the rifles assigned to them. The rifles were subject to periodic inspection.

In typical military fashion, KMI operated on a merit-based system. Infractions of the rules received demerits and days free of “sticks” earned merits. A merit would cancel out two demerits, and if a cadet ended up with more demerits than merits, that cadet would have to “walk the beat,” which meant marching with his rifle along a sandy, square path behind the San Marco. Suffice to say, that path experienced a good deal of foot traffic.

KMI’s motto was “Character Makes the Man,” which reflected the school’s honor code. Cadets signed an oath for each test they took that stated they had neither given nor received help on the exam. Those who committed major infractions such as drinking, stealing or cheating could be expected to find themselves on the next bus home.

The families of cadets who visited during the winter session would stay at local hotels such as the Venezia, the El Patio, and the Park View Hotel which was located on the present site of the Post Office. In the early days, families could also rent some of the homes abandoned during the Depression.

KMI’s last season in Venice was in 1970. The school formally closed the following year, a victim of the growing resentment against the military and the nation’s involvement in the Vietnam War.

Although a half century has passed since KMI called Venice home, its presence can still be felt. The Florida Legislature approved the renaming of the KMI Bridge onto the island in 2014. Sarasota County dedicated a marker in Centennial Park that tells the history of the school in Venice. And a new exhibit about the school, funded by the KMI Alumni Association, was formally opened in the grand hallway of the San Marco building. The exhibit is open to the public and can be viewed Monday through Saturday during business hours.

Larry Humes is a 1965 graduate of KMI and writes about local history. He can be reached at

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