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History of DeSoto County

 

           

As a result of the First Seminole War (1817-1818), Florida became a U.S. Territory in 1821.  The area that is now DeSoto County was originally in St. John’s County which encompassed the entire peninsula. St. Augustine was the county seat.  This area became Alachua County as split from St. Johns County in 1824, and Newnansville (near Gainesville) was the county seat.

 

Hillsborough County was carved from Alachua County in 1834, and Tampa was its county seat.  At the end of the following year, the Second Seminole War (1835-1842) began.  It was the longest, bloodiest, and most costly Indian war that followed passage of the “Indian Removal Act” of 1830.  At the war’s end, Peace River became the northern boundary of the reservation for the Seminoles not killed or sent west to Indian territory.

 

In 1855, the Third Seminole War (1855-1858) began, and the following year, Manatee County was formed from the southern half of Hillsborough County.  The Village of Manatee was the county seat.  Manatee County extended from the Gulf of Mexico to Lake Okeechobee and from southern Tampa Bay to the Caloosahatchee River.  After the Civil War, Pine Level was established as the new county seat in 1866.

 

Many pioneers had already settled near Camp Ogden, a fortification built in 1841 during the Second Seminole War in preparation for the U.S. Army to invade the Big Cypress and the Ev erglades.  Fort Ogden's post office, established in 1876, is the oldest in DeSoto County to be in continuous service.

 

In 1887, Manatee County was divided in half, and the new county was named DeSoto for the Spanish Conquistador Hernando DeSoto. It contained 3,750 square miles, extending from Charlotte Harbor to Lake Okeechobee, from Polk County to Lee County, divided from Monroe County the same year. Pine Level continued as the county seat of DeSoto County until Arcadia was chosen on November 6, 1888.

           

Fort Ogden, Brownville, Nocatee, Punta Gorda, Pine Level, and Arcadia had been contenders for county seat--with Nocatee as the favorite.  When several communities were quarantined because of yellow fever, voting was postponed.  On August 4, a second vote did not result in a majority choice.  A third vote in November chose Arcadia.  In 1921, DeSoto County was divided into the present-day counties of Charlotte, DeSoto, Glades, Hardee, and Highlands.

 

Arcadia began as a small settlement located on a bluff overlooking Peace River.  The river provided transportation, so the area was known as Waldron’s Landing named for early settlers, and then as Raulerson’s Landing, for Harris Raulerson who used to deliver supplies and transport produce--especially potatoes--in his side-wheel steamboat.  Many pioneers who hauled their potatoes for shipment began to refer to the area as ‘Tater Hill Bluff’.

 

Long-leaf pines, also known as yellow pines, grew thickly on the east shore of Peace River.  In 1883, James Madison “Boss” Hendry, a Baptist preacher, moved his sawmill here by ox-drawn wagon.  Along the way, he stayed overnight in the home of Thomas H. Albritton, a fellow Baptist at Lily.  Hendry told the family that his birthday was the following day, so Mrs. Albritton and her daughter Arcadia baked a cake for him.  In appreciation for their kindness, Hendry promised to honor Arcadia by naming for her the town he predicted would arise.  In 1883, a post office called Arcadia was established at the settlement near Hendry’s sawmill. 

 

In 1881, Captain Francis J. LeBaron of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers surveyed Peace River and found pebble phosphate in the riverbed.  Six years later, his associate T. S. Morehead established the first company to “mine” phosphate from the river.  At first, the mineral was extracted with pick and shovel, but later steam-driven dredges were used.  By 1908, mining of the river ceased, and companies began strip-mining deposits of phosphate in Polk County.

 

The first train of the Florida Southern Railway arrived in Arcadia on March 4, 1886.  Arcadia was the “end of the line” for several months, and during that time, its population increased so much that it was able to incorporate as a town in December.  Five years later in 1901, Arcadia reincorporated as a city.

 

In 1892, Henry Plant gained control of the Florida Southern Railroad, and added it to the Plant System.  Several years after his death, it became part of the Atlantic Coastline Railroad in 1902. Service continued until the mid 1970s.  Built in 1927, the “Fort Ogden Extension” of the Tampa Southern Railroad, an ACL subsidiary, ran northwest from Southfort (south of Fort Ogden) to Sarasota until the 1950s.

 

The Charlotte Harbor and Northern Railroad was established in 1907 so that freight trains could haul phosphate to the deep-water port of Boca Grande, and it became part of the Seaboard Air Line in 1925.  In 1914, the Seaboard built the East and West Coast Railroad as a subsidiary to haul lumber and turpentine between Arcadia and Bradenton.  The first train arrived in Arcadia on March 15, 1915, and service was discontinued in the 1930s.

 

In 1967, the Seaboard Coast Line Railroad consolidated the Seaboard Air Line and the Atlantic Coast Line routes.  Today, the Seminole Gulf Railway follows the old Charlotte Harbor and Northern tracks from Arcadia to Fort Ogden, and then continues on the former Florida Southern Railway tracks to Punta Gorda, Fort Myers, and Naples.

 

On Thanksgiving Day, November 30, 1905, downtown Arcadia burned to the ground in three hours. Only three brick structures (which still stand today) survived the conflagration: the First National Bank, Seward’s General Merchandise Store, and the D. T. Carlton Building.  The loss of forty-three wood structures and their contents was valued at $250,000.  On December 1, the Arcadia City Council voted all future construction to be brick or block, and Arcadia’s beautiful downtown is the result.

 

During the Civil War, the Peace River Valley supplied cattle to the Confederate Army.  Herds prospered throughout the nineteenth century, and many were driven to Charlotte Harbor and shipped to Cuba.  The so-called “range wars” raged in the nineteenth century’s last decade, and Arcadia once had a reputation as a frontier town as “wild” as any in the American West.  In 1895, Frederic Remington visited Arcadia.  He wrote and illustrated an article about the era, “The Cracker Cowboys of Florida,” that was published in Harper’s Magazine.

           

Since 1928, the heritage of stock-raising has been celebrated annually during the Arcadia All-Florida Championship Rodeo.  In 1939, the Arcadia State Livestock Market opened and continued operation until 2005.  Today, Florida ranks 12th in the nation in the number of beef cows, and many of them are raised in DeSoto County.

 

Citrus is another important industry.  Before the advent of juice concentrate, most fruit was sold fresh. Packing houses operated in Arcadia, Nocatee, and Fort Ogden as well as the county’s smaller communities.  Later, Arcadia had a cannery for fruit juices.  Now most fruit grown in DeSoto County is processed into frozen concentrate, some at the Peace River Citrus Products processing plants in this and neighboring counties.

 

In 1917, the Dixie Highway was routed through downtown Arcadia.  Established in 1914, the highway was built to connect the midwest to the south.  Florida had both an east and west route, and south of Kissimmee, the west route followed what is U.S. Highway 17 today.

 

Arcadia’s building “boom” of the 1920s produced commercial structures as well as a new city hall, a concrete bridge with electric lights, many subdivisions, a nine-hole golf course–today’s Arcadia Municipal Golf Course, and the Arcadia Tourist Camp, now the City Mobile Home Park, where two “Tin Can Tourists of the World” Conventions were held.  Built in 1928, the colossal All-Florida Chautauqua amphitheater had only one season in 1929.  The ruins are located on the grounds of Peace River Campground.

 

During the Great Depression, Arcadia began construction of a municipal airport with Federal Emergency Relief Act (FERA) funds.  FERA also funded a beef cannery at the Florida Baptist Children’s Home (located in Arcadia from 1903 to 1948).  Works Progress Administration (WPA) projects included the construction of a U.S. Post Office in 1937 (complete with WPA artwork, “Arcadia” by Constance Ortmayer), a sewing room, and conversion of the old high school into a cafeteria/gymnasium.

 

In 1931, George K. End founded the Floridian Products Corporation just outside Arcadia.  He “milked” the snakes for their venom.  He canned and sold rattlesnake meat at the “World’s Only Rattlesnake Cannery.”  He sold shoes, belts, jackets, and skirts fashioned from the skins; souvenir heads, skulls and fangs; bone bracelets and anklets; plus rattlesnake oil and other medicinal products.  In 1937, he moved his operation to Tampa where he operated the “Rattlesnake, Florida,” post office. http://floridamemory.com/blog/2014/07/07/please-pass-the-rattlesnake/

           

During World War I, two U. S. Army airfields were established near Arcadia to train pilots:  Carlstrom Field and Dorr Field.  Arcadia proudly named itself “Aviation City.” At the war’s end, Dorr Field was closed, but Carlstrom continued as a flying school until 1923.

           

Both fields were re-activated by the Embry-Riddle Aeronautical Corporation as primary training schools prior to the U.S.’s entry into World War II.  The British Royal Air Force sent cadets for training at Carlstrom and other fields in southwest Florida.  Twenty-three British cadets who died were buried in Arcadia’s Oak Ridge Cemetery.  They are honored every Memorial Day in a service conducted by the Arcadia Rotary Club.

After World War II, Carlstrom Field was developed into G. Pierce Wood Memorial Hospital, a state institution for mentally ill patients.  It closed in 2002 to make way for the DeSoto Correctional Facility for Juveniles, which closed in 2010.  Dorr Field was initially also redesigned as a state mental hospital, and then was used as a training center.  In 1969, it became DeSoto Correctional Institution.

           

Residents of Arcadia and DeSoto County have invented and patented many items used today.  In 1895, Thomas Gaskins invented the automatic railroad car coupler; his son, also Thomas Gaskins, devised Gator Roach Hives, a precursor of the popular “roach motel”; Charles Kettering tested his “aerial torpedo”--a forerunner of the “smart bomb”--in 1918 at Carlstrom Field; Frank Cline designed hydraulic track adjusters used for military tanks as well as the Cline Rolling Straight Edge for road paving; Lewis Bishop innovated the rotary lawn mower, crop sprayer, cultivator-seeder, among other machines; Carl Fenton designed a cattle feeder that functioned as a windmill to keep feed or mineral out of the weather; and Thomas Jessup invented a plow to uproot saw palmettos.  Many other inventions remain curiosities.

 

In 1984, the Arcadia Historic District was listed on the National Register of Historic Places.  Composed of fifty-eight blocks and 340 acres, the district embodies the development of the city from the establishment of its post office in 1883 through the late 1920s.  In 1984, Arcadia also became a Main Street City, and revitalization of downtown--with antique shops filling the historic stores--began in time for the City’s centennial.  The DeSoto County Historical Society was founded to assist in that celebration, and continues to preserve and promote the history of DeSoto County for future generations.

           

The Main Street Program was renewed in 2005, following the hurricanes of 2004, including a direct strike from Hurricane Charley.  (In 1960, Hurricane Donna had toppled the decorative arches and urns of the Plaza Hotel, the only 1920s-era hotel still standing.)

 

In 2009, Barack Obama was the first sitting president to visit DeSoto County when he arrived to view the largest solar-generating power plant in the state.  Other visitors canoe or kayak Peace River or shop for antiques. On the fourth Saturday of the month, the Antique Association hosts one of the largest antique fairs in the state, with more than 100 dealers.

           

DeSoto County’s economy also relies on its historic industries:  agriculture, cattle ranching, citrus groves (and processing), and plans to strip-mine phosphate.  Residents are proud of the past and trust in our heritage to provide a pathway to the future.

 

                                                                                                --by Carol Mahler, June 25, 2014