The Life and Music of Corky Coker

Corwin "Corky" Coker was a descendant of the pioneer Coker family, that came to DeSoto County soon after the Civil War.
  Although he died on April 26, 2005, the memories of his life linger in the hearts of hundreds of DeSoto County residents.
Corky was the song leader at Oak Hill Baptist Church for 55 years. When Oak Hill Baptist Church started in 1882, Corky's great-grandfather, Bryant Coker, was one of its charter members. Corky "inherited" the position of song leader at the church from his grandfather, Sears Coker, when he was only 17 years old. "Singing praises to the Lord" became the church motto during his time there.
   Music played a big part in Corky's courting of his future wife, Faye Westberry. Faye and other young people accompanied Corky to revival meetings throughout the area, where he would lead the singing. They were married in 1955.
Over the years, Corky continued to be called upon to lead the music at revivals in Baptist churches throughout DeSoto and surrounding counties. He sang at hundreds of funerals. Corky's own funeral service was the longest on record at Robarts Funeral Home because of all the songs and testimonials that were included in the program. About 400 people signed the remembrance book.
Corky loved to sing, and he had a way of getting people to sing and enjoy it. The type of music Corky led could be described as "old-time hymns" and "old-time Southern gospel". This type of music is quickly disappearing from churches across America in favor of "contemporary Christian music". The old songs, however, have endeared themselves to generations of Christians because they edify and speak to the soul.
   While the old hymns are sung throughout the country, old-time Southern gospel music is unique to the South. It emphasizes four-part harmony and lively, joyful melodies.
Some songs reflect strong family values, such as "If I Could Hear my Mother Pray Again". Other songs, such as "Just a Little Talk with Jesus" and "The Royal Telephone" speak of close, personal relationships with God through Christ. A longing for Heaven is expressed in "Heaven Sounds Sweeter all the Time", "This World is not My Home" and "I'll Fly Away".
   Southern gospel music crosses denominational and racial lines, and is still sung in a variety of churches in DeSoto county.
   For several years, Corky sang in a quartet called the Peace River Valley Quartet. Other quartet members included Jerry Scott, Joe Huffman and Glenn Coker. Tim and Philip Huffman, who were children at the time, accompanied the group with musical instruments, and Margie Huffman played the piano.
   As a a young boy, Corky was stricken with polio. He was able to walk without a limp through the early part of his adult life, but as he grew older his limp became more noticeable. The old Southern gospel song, "Hallelujah Square", describing how a crippled man threw away his crutches when he got to Heaven, was particularly meaningful to him.
   Another song that people loved to hear Corky sing was "The Lighthouse". This song tells about an old lighthouse that many people wanted to tear down, but others who had been saved from death at sea wanted it preserved. The song then made an analogy of the old lighthouse to Jesus Christ and his saving grace.
   The words Corky would sing are as follows:
"Jesus is the lighthouse and from the rocks of sin. He has shown His light around me that I might clearly see. If it wasn't for the lighthouse, tell me where would this ship be?"
  In Corky's honor, the Corwin B. Coker Music Scholarship Fund was set up at Oak Hill Baptist Church to offer assistance to aspiring church music directors.
By David Bedell May, 2007 

Brownville School before Hurricane Charlie

Howard Melton (1920-2016)

Lifetime Member of the DeSoto County Historical Society, amateur historian and author, passed away in 2016. Mr. Melton wrote two books about local history: Footprints and Landmarks: Arcadia and DeSoto County, Florida (2002) and More Footprints and Landmarks: Arcadia and DeSoto County, Florida (2004). The Historical Society purchased Howard's collection of historical photograhs, documents, and artifacts that chronicle the history of Arcadia and DeSoto County and opened the Howard and Velma Melton Historical Research Library to the public in 2012. Mr. Melton's collection is conserved in a replica of the Ingraham seed house.  Click here to read two wonderful tributes to Howard written by our members Carol Mahler and Luke Wilson.

HAROLD MCLEOD  (1926-2013)

Publication: Desoto Sun; Date: Aug 15, 2013; Section: Arcadian; Page: AS23    "A tribute to Harold McLeod"  by Carol Mahler
    Harold McLeod was both a doer and a dreamer, and during the last two decades or so, the DeSoto County Historical Society was the beneficiary of his efforts. He was born during the 1926 hurricane, the one that destroyed Moore Haven and sacked Miami. Maybe that wild wind was the genesis of his energy and creativity.
   He made beautiful wood bowls and decorative butter churns which were auctioned at Historical Society meetings to raise funds. He also crafted picture frames, a raffle basket, lemonade stand, parade floats and more. Once he fashioned a round wood table with a lip on it, and I filled it with sand because I wanted older adults to teach children how to shoot marbles. Everyone said that it was a nice idea, but marbles had to be played on the ground. Eventually, he repurposed the materials of that table: he practiced the skill of re-use.
   When his health prevented him from doing the work himself, he designed structures and directed others. One memorable evening, he oversaw five Historical Society members build a replica of a wood outhouse. Even men who knew construction couldn’t understand what Harold was doing, but they followed his directions and were surprised at the tidy result.
   Sometimes his wood work was elegant, and other times, it was what Historical Society members liked to call “rustic.” He painted signs for the Historical Society, and more than once he composed a series of signs recalling the old “Burma Shave” rhymes. One time, he commented that he could chart his failing health in the declining quality of his lettering.
Not only did he have the ingenuity to repair a pitcher pump, but he also used a computer to make flyers, posters, hand-held fans, membership applications, event programs and more. At some point, he realized that he wrote (and spoke) what I call “Cracker vernacular,” so he asked others to proofread his work.
   He spent hours dreaming up “projects” for the Society — especially fundraising ideas — but he also knew the importance of education. Perhaps he was influenced by his uncle Jasper Crowley, longtime Sarasota County teacher and Crowley Museum and Nature Center benefactor.
Harold masterminded our annual Pioneer Day event, and he served as chairman of the first festival. Next year is the 10th anniversary, and I’m sorry he won’t be there to celebrate and be honored. That’s another of his qualities: humility. Most people don’t know how much he did for the Historical Society, and that’s the way he wanted it.
   One of his achievements was figuring out how to construct a replica of John Morgan Ingraham’s Seed House for the Howard and Velma Melton Historical Research Library. Outside, the Seed House resembles the historic wood-frame store, but inside is a modern research facility built to protect the archives.
   The Historical Society relied on Harold’s advice for both the restoration of the John Morgan Ingraham Home and the construction of the Seed House. Any time work was being done, Harold was there to watch and critique. Everyone respected his expertise and common sense.
He was also a terrific storyteller, faithful friend, and dedicated board member. He appreciated others and their talents and knew when to make a suggestion and when to say “yes, ma’am.”
   As member Max Fitzpatrick wrote, “Harold was a tremendous asset to Arcadia and DeSoto County ... do not let his ideas and dreams get lost.” 

The Brownville School
    Architect J. C. Harris designed and supervised construction of the Brownville School in 1927-28.  It replaced a two-story wooden school. About five miles north of Arcadia, Brownville was once a town with a church, general store, post office, sawmill, and service station. Surrounding the town were cattle ranches, crop farms, and orange groves. 
    Brownville School was one of five  DeSoto County schools to be closed in 1947 when—following state legislation—the school system was consolidated, and students were bused into town. Since that time the building has been used as a VFW (Veterans of Foreign Wars) Hall, community center, federal food commodities distribution office, storm shelter, polling place and a training program for mentally challenged adults.
    Badly damaged by Hurricane Charley in 2004, the school has not been completely rehabilitated. The floors, walls, and ceilings were refinished, and the stage curtain for the second-floor auditorium was repainted. Eventually, the school will have an elevator to that auditorium.  The Society had hoped that the Brownsville School would serve as a museum, but the future of that project and use of the building are unknown.

DeSoto County Historical Society

Past Presidents
Adrian H. Cline     1986 - 1987 
Howard Melton    1988 - 1989 
Iris Bell                   1990 - 1991 
Luke Wilson           1992 - 1995 
John A. Reynolds  1996 - 2004 
Jerald Newberry    2005 - 2006 
Art Anauo               2007 - 2008 
Mitzie McGavic      2008 - 2011
Bebe Bradbury      2011 - 2014
Adrian H. Cline      2014 - 

Top: Howard Melton cuts the ribbon at the grand opening of the Howard and Velma Melton Historical Research Library in the Ingraham Seed House.

Below: Daughters Sue Rich and Pat Cooper with Howard inside the Research Library.

The past presidents of the DeSoto County Historical Society were honored at a monthly luncheon meeting of the Society. Pictured (left to right) are: Jerald Newberry, John Reynolds, Luke Wilson, Howard Melton and Adrian Cline. A special thank you to John Lawhorne, who provided us with this wonderful photo.

EVA HINES WESTBERRY,  Woman’s journal tells the story of her long life
by Luke Wilson

   Anyone whose years span a century has a life story worth telling, and Eva Westberry, who passed away this month at age 100, was such a person. While some parts of her story were gathered from relatives and friends, most come from a handwritten journal found after her death.
Her journey of 100 years began June 14, 1908, in High Springs, Fla., as one of several children born to Wesley and Penelope Hines.
   “We had the best parents anyone could have,” she wrote of them. “I never heard them argue in front of us, they took us to church and always had time to talk to us.” Church was some 8 to 10 miles away, a trip made by horse and wagon.
   The Hines family made its living by farming. Their corn was hauled to town to be ground into meal and grits. They raised chickens, hogs and cows, and Eva recalled how they smoked meat and had plenty of milk and butter on hand, though she eschewed dairy products all her life. She recalled them getting rice only about once a month, and making syrup from the sugar cane they grew.
Among the memories she recorded were chores, such as using a rub board and tubs to wash clothes, scrubbing wooden floors by hand, and cooking on a wood stove. All of the Hines children were born before their home ever had electricity.
   Of her siblings, she wrote, “We had lots of fights, but we loved each other very much. We were always close.” One memory of her childhood she recorded concerned her brother Earl, who was called “Early.” She wrote that he was lazy and that “I must’ve carried him a thousand miles on my back.”
They walked about a mile to school, and Eva completed her education by graduating from eighth grade. Her father sold the farm and moved to Madella, near Lakeland, in 1921 or 1922. Not happy there, the family moved to nearby Eagle Lake for a year, then to Bartow, where Wesley took a job cleaning the cemetery for $15 per month. Penelope worked at a restaurant, then at a laundry, where her hands were badly burned in an accident that left them permanently crippled.
   Two of Eva’s sisters had relocated to Nocatee and one of her brothers was dating a girl there, so Eva moved south and found work at the Nocatee Crate Mill. “I went to work there and met my future husband, though I didn’t know it at the time,” she remembered.
   Eva married Levi Westberry in 1927.  Then came the children — Veleti “Vicky” in 1930, followed by W.R. “Buddy” 16 months later. Seven years passed before Peggy was born, after which Kenneth and Don came along in 1941 and 1943, respectively. Eva’s journal includes special descriptions and memories of each of her children.
Levi was a night watchman at the crate mill until it closed in 1951, and drove a school bus for 18 years, according to family members. Their home was lost in a fire in 1948, after which they collected but $2,000 under an insurance policy. They moved in with one of their daughters and, later, into one of the old mill houses.
Eva took a job cutting and wrapping meat in an Arcadia grocery store owned by John Parker, and later did custodial work at Nocatee Elementary School from January 1977 until May 1980. Levi retired at age 58, suffered a heart attack in 1978 and died at age 70.
   When health was failing her oldest and youngest sisters, she took them in and cared for each until their deaths, one in 1984 and the other in 1992, according to her family. Her love of family never faltered, her children said. As her own health began to fail, she battled and recovered from colon cancer in the early 1990s, after which she had a pacemaker installed for her heart.
   Her favorite restaurant was the Golden Corral in Port Charlotte, where she dined on her 99th birthday and told the cashier on the way out that she’d see them next year, members of her family said. True to her word, the centenarian returned there to celebrate her 100th birthday with her family, just two months after her oldest daughter died.
   Other than her family, she received her greatest joy from attending the Nocatee Church of God, where she served faithfully for decades. She’d often bake coconut cakes for the church pastor, the Rev. John Spratlin, who conducted services for her Jan. 8 funeral. Daughter-in-law Shirley Westberry described her “going home party” (funeral) as quite the celebration, reflected by the joyous music.
   Of the Westberry children, only two brothers remain — Buddy and Kenneth. But Eva’s lineage continues, with 16 grandchildren, 27 great-grandchildren, and 19 greatgreat- grandchildren, a remarkable legacy of a remarkable woman. 

The DeSoto County Historical Society's Annual Tribute Dinner has honored Howard Melton (2008), Margaret Way (2009), and Richard Bowers (2010) for their contributions to the community.

Eugenia McSwain Martin Genie Martin

   I was talking to Genie Martin the other day and it is very interesting that her family has followed the same lines in life in several areas......their work, their church and even their names.
   Genie’s family has deep roots. Her grandfather was Dr. Daniel Lafayette McSwain. He was born in 1870. He married Eugenia Henry and they lived on the same property where Martin Realty is today, 207 E. Magnolia. He practiced medicine in Arcadia until 1933. His first surgery was on the sister-in- law of Ziba King (cattle baron). He also did the first surgery ever done by a white man on an Seminole Indian child named “Little Tiger Tail”,in 1920.This surgery was done at Lee Memorial in Ft. Myers. Dr. Daniel McSwain’s wife Genie started the first auxiliary at the First Presbyterian Church and was the first president of it..She was the first pianist and also started the choir. This was a tradition that has followed through the years. Lewellyn Best, who was married to Dr. Gordon McSwain ,was the church organist for 50 years and Lew’s daughter Genie, who is married to Dr. Calvin Martin has been the Director of Music for 45 years and still is .To go on, after Lewellyn McSwain died, her grand- daughter Lew took over and played the organ for 10 years and now her daughter Genie Quave directs the Children’s Choir. Genie Quave is the great great granddaughter of Dr. Daniel and Genie Mc- Swain...Have you noticed the names...Genie,Lew,Genie Martin, then Lew and then Genie again .Dr. Daniel McSwain’s wife, Genie also started the L & E Club (Literary and Embroidery) with 4 of her friends. That club is still very active today. McSwain Park across the street from the house was named in Dr. Daniel McSwain’s honor.
   Next generation was Dr. Gordon and Lewellyn McSwain. Dr. McSwain graduated from Davidson College in North Carolina and when he graduated, the minister of the First Presbyterian Church, Dr. J.J.Martin (no relation ) drove all the way to Davidson to see him graduate as he would have had no one there. He also graduated from Harvard Medical School. Dr. Gordon McSwain created one of the first special care (coronary) units in a small hospital, Desoto Memorial and was awarded Outstanding Community Service Award from Florida Medical Association for his efforts. He was a Fellow in the American College of Surgeons .He was a deacon and an elder of the First Presbyterian Church. Dr. Mc- Swain built the house that is on the Magnolia Property now in 1945.
   And then came Genie, daughter of Dr. Gordon and Lewellyn McSwain. She married
Calvin Wallace Martin, who was born in Sebring. His father was a physician .He graduated from U. Of Fl., U. Of Ga. and his medical degree was from U. Of Tennessee. They moved to Arcadia in 1960 His first patient was Tom Hollingsworth and the first baby he delivered was Jan Daly Shoup, daughter of Adrienne and Bert Daly. Calvin was appointed to the Board of Florida Medical Association by the President of FMA and then elected by his peers for an additional 4 years. He retired from active prac- tice in 2003 and is currently with Hospice SW Florida. Calvin is an elder of the First Presbyterian Church and their son “Mac” is also. He also holds a real estate salesman license with Martin Realty, which is owned by their son Mac. Genie has sold real estate for longer than one can remember. She is also with Martin Realty. Calvin and Genie have three children, Lew, Gordon McSwain Martin, known to all of us as “Mac” and Calvin Martin Jr. All three have followed the family’s occupations. Lew is a nurse practitioner, “Mac” as said before owns Martin Realty and Calvin Jr is living in Micanopy, Flori- da. and practicing in Gainesville, Fl.
   We do want to mention the grandchildren of Calvin and Genie. Lew has Genie, who also sells for Mar- tin Realty and Liza. “Mac” has 2 boys, Alex, named for his great-great-great grandfather and Wallace, his grandfather’s middle name. Calvin, Jr. has 2 girls, Phoebe and Ginger.
   We asked Genie about special people in her life. She said, my father taught me values. One day she put a penny in the Hershey machine. This was during World War II. Normally, one Hershey drops out, but that day she got two. She did not say anything until they were almost home and then she told her Dad. He turned the car around and drove all the way back to the restaurant. It was a long way, but he made her go in and pay the penny to the cashier and explain. Genie said she never forgot that lesson. Her glee club director in high school, Helen Sears, was very special to her and her choral director of University Singers at Florida State University for their excellence in music.
A very important memory to Genie was when General James Dozier was welcomed back after he was captured by the Red Brigade. She was invited to sing and it was nationally televised.
   The music goes on in the life of Genie Martin. When it is time for the Rodeo, her daughter Lew and her granddaughter Liza ride their horses out during the opening and then Lew rides to the middle of the arena and sings The Star Spangled Banner.
By Clel Shore May 9,200