History On the Air and Online
Thanks to Cheryl Cook, host of “Can We Talk?” on WKDW Community Radio of North Port for interviewing DeSoto County Historians Carol Mahler and Luke Wilson as part of her “Can We Talk?” show. The radio signal is not strong enough to be heard in DeSoto County, so listeners can tune in online at kdwradio.com. After graduating from high school in Miami,  Cook moved to south Sarasota County in 2002, and served as a North Port City Commissioner for four years. WKDW Station Manager R. J. Mallory invited her to begin a series of radio talk shows, and “Can We Talk?” debuted in Jan. 2017.
Seeking local history, she turned to Arcadia—the “crossroads” of southwest Florida—and contacted the DeSoto County Historical Society. Over the past year Carol an Luke have met with her several times in the John Morgan Ingraham Seed House to talk about history, and they are planning to take their discussions to some area historic sites.  Stay tuned for more details.

What’s in a name?
    The downtown oak was called the “Tree of Knowledge” because politicians spoke beneath its boughs, as did Doyle E. Carlton, Sr. (1885-1972) when he campaigned, as announced in an advertisement the March 1, 1928 Arcadian: “Doyle E. Carlton, candidate for governor, will speak in Arcadia, Saturday Night, . . . under ‘Tree of Knowledge’.” 
    I makes sense for the tree to have served as a gathering place especially before air conditioning was available. Its shade in an otherwise built downtown no doubt attracted raconteurs of all kinds.
    According to an article in the Feb. 5, 1938, Tampa Tribune, “The tree received its name, ‘The Tree of Knowledge’ from the late Uncle Jim Hollingsworth. As a member of the city council in 1900, he conceived the idea of placing benches under the tree as a city gathering place.”
    Most people are familiar with the “tree of knowledge of good and evil” in the Genesis story from the Bible, but few know that the “Tree of Knowledge” was a silent film, staring Robert Warwick, and directed by William C. deMille. Based on the 1897 play of the same name written by R. C. Carton, the movie was popular in Florida’s theaters in 1920.

Why was the oak planted?
    The tree was originally planted along with another to celebrate the births of two children: Robert Morris Whidden (1889-1927) and Inez Carlton Taylor (1889-1957). 
    Born on Sept. 6, Whidden was the son of Robert Early Whidden and Mamie Haygood Whidden. Carlton was the daughter of Stephen J. Carlton and Estelle Simmons Carlton. The families were friends: R. E. Whidden worked as a “fruit grower” and vice-president of the DeSoto National Bank, and S. J. Carlton as a “fruit dealer,” according to the 1915 Arcadia City Directory. The two men probably did business together.
    The two trees survived the Thanksgiving Day fire that destroyed downtown Arcadia on Nov. 30, 1905, and then the 1926 hurricane. However, by 1938, they were dead. 
    The Arcadia Garden Club sponsored the planting of a ten-year-old sapling that was dedicated on Feb. 4, according to the Feb. 10 Arcadian. Captain S. C. Smith offered a brief history, and short speeches were given by Mrs. R. E. Watkins, Garden Club president; Mrs. A. E. Bennett, Woman’s Club president; A. J. Dunham, Board of County Commissioners Chairman; Mayor Marshall Whidden; and P.P. Speer, City Clerk. Robert E. Whidden was present although his son, Robert Morris Whidden, for whom he planted the original oak, was dead.
    In 1982, after being held hostage by the Italian Red Brigades for 42 days and rescued by special forces, U.S. Army Major General James Lee “Jimmy” Dozier was given a hero’s welcome home at the Tree of Knowledge, as detailed in the Feb. 20, 1982 Arcadian.
    In 2002, N. DeSoto Ave. was closed between Oak and Hickory streets and improvements were made. Today, the oak names a City of Arcadia park that features public restrooms, a pavilion for concerts or events, and wrought iron benches beneath the canopy.

Women who held public office in DeSoto County after women won the right to vote in 1920 and before 1940​.

Mary Moye Gwynn (1883-1952) served as Clerk of Court from 1937 to 1945. She worked in the clerk’s office for 25 years before she was elected. According to the 1926 Arcadia City Directory, she and her husband Clifford B. Gwynn lived with her parents on Gibson St. just west of Lee Ave.  Intersecting with State Road 70 east of Arcadia, Gwynn St. is probably named for her husband’s family. She is buried in Oak Ridge Cemetery.

After Della Robertson retired as “Supervisor of Registration,” now known as Supervisor of Elections, Sarah Catherine “Sallie” Ivey (1886-1987) was elected in 1937 and served until 1956. In 1915, she advertised herself as a public stenographer and bookkeeper for hire. She worked the superintendent of schools; and then for the Nocatee Crate Company in 1920. Born in Valdosta, Georgia, she moved to Arcadia around 1895.

Daughter of Thad Carlton and Missouri Carlton, Kate Carlton (1898-1980) graduated from DeSoto County High School in 1916. She served 20 years—from 1936 to 1956—as DeSoto County Tax Assessor, an office now known as Property Appraiser.​z

Tree of Knowledge not used as a “hanging tree”
    At the March 17 Arcadia City Council’s meeting, during a lengthy discussion following agenda item 5 “Presentation Regarding Noose Incident at the City of Arcadia Golf Course (Rev. Samuel Morgan—
President of the Local NAACP Chapter),” Councilman Lorenzo Dixon called for the “Tree of Knowledge” to be cut down because it was used to hang black men. However, the records do not reveal it was ever used as a “hanging tree.”
    Criminals were executed at the county jail built at the southeast corner of N. Brevard Ave. and E. Hickory St. where the parking lot northwest of the county courthouse is located today. For example, after being convicted of committing two murders on Nov. 25, 1916, Dave Miller was hanged on a gallows that “stands just east of the county jail, within the enclosure, and the execution will be private,” according to the Aug. 15, 1918, DeSoto County News.
    Unfortunately, vigilantes killed African-American men out in the woods of the southern U.S. as well as in DeSoto County. For instance, an article in the June 17, 1909, Champion reported, “. . . he was taken off a quarter of a mile or so to a convenient tree and hanged.”
    Property Appraiser David A. Williams theorized that the reputation that the tree was used for hanging may come from the tradition of the “political graveyard.” After an election, cardboard or wooden tombstones for the losers were erected in the nearby grass, and supposedly, some candidates were “hanged in effigy.” Such overzealousness caused the practice to end.

​DeSoto County, Florida: Welcome to Historic Arcadia! A leisurely stroll through time . . . 

Settlement in the Arcadia area began in the mid-1850s as southwest Florida endured the Third Seminole War followed by the U.S. Civil War. Known first as Waldron’s Landing, Raulerson’s Landing, and “Tater Hill Bluff,” Arcadia was established as a post office in 1883; incorporated as a town in 1886 (nine months after the arrival of the first train); became the county seat in 1888; and was reincorporated as a city in 1901. (According to legend, the town was named for Arcadia Albritton Coker in gratitude for a birthday cake she baked.) Citrus cultivation and truck farms were early--and enduring--industries. During the “range wars” or “cattle wars” of the late 19th century, Arcadia was as wild as any frontier town. Following the devastating fire of 1905, Arcadia decreed only brick or block structures downtown. Arcadia prospered through the teens and twenties: two railroads, the Dixie Highway (western route), a Tourist Camp, and the All- Florida Chautauqua Amphitheatre were built, and the first rodeo was held. During World War I, two U.S. Army Air Fields were established for training pilots, so Arcadia called itself “Aviation City.” The air fields were rebuilt prior to World War II and initiated the city’s renewal following the Great Depression and its rapid growth in the late 20th century. In 1984, more than 370 historic homes and businesses were placed on the National Register of Historic Places. In 1985, the Florida Main Street program revitalized downtown when many shops began selling antiques. Arcadia was again in the Main Street Program after the disastrous hurricanes of 2004, including a direct strike from Hurricane Charley. The DeSoto County Historical Society was founded during the centennial celebrations for Arcadia and DeSoto County in 1986-1987. More details and structures are available in the Walking Tour of Historic Arcadia, Florida booklet on sale in shops and from the Society. 

       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 Everglades.  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.

he 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

The Tin Can Tourists were organized at DeSoto Park, Tampa, Florida, in 1919. They received the official state charter a year later. The group's stated objective was "to unite fraternally all auto campers". Their guiding principles were clean camps, friendliness among campers, decent behavior and to secure plenty of clean, wholesome entertainment for those in camp.

Summer reunions were held at various Midwest locations, with Traverse City, Michigan serving as a primary host city. The club spent winters at DeSoto Park from 1924. Because locals grew tired of their park being overrun with northerners, the park was closed a month early in March. The canners took the hint and moved the winter convention to Arcadia in 1923, where the community had built a municipal park especially for the Tin Can Tourists. The winter convention was the best attended and was an economic boon to the host community. Sarasota had its eye on the prize and lured the convention away from Arcadia in 1932. For more information, visit  https://tincantourists.com/2016/02/01/tin-can-tourists-history.

Photos below are in Arcadia in the 1920's. Photos courtesy of State Archives of Florida.

Arcadia’s Oak Named “The Tree of Knowledge”
by Carol Mahler
    The Tree of Knowledge in downtown Arcadia was planted in 1938 by the newly formed Arcadia Garden Club.
It replaced the original two trees planted in 1889 to celebrate the births of Robert Morris Whidden and Inez Carlton Taylor.
    Elected in 1971 as Arcadia’s first African-American city council member, Eugene Hickson, Sr., grew up during the same years as that oak matured and graduated from the segregated Smith-Brown School in 1948.
    He must have been familiar with oak’s history when he served his first term as Arcadia’a mayor (1979-1984). On Dec. 19, 1981, under the Tree of Knowledge, he and the Reverend Fred Spencer, pastor of Trinity United Methodist Church, held a prayer service for the safe release of U.S. Army Brigadier General James “Jimmy” Dozier after he had been kidnapped by terrorists in Italy two days previous. The two even tied a yellow ribbon around the tree as the song “Tie A Yellow Ribbon ‘Round The Ole Oak Tree” by Tony Orlando and Dawn was popular at the time.
    As early as 1928, the oak was known as “The Tree of Knowledge” because politicians spoke beneath its shade. The March 1, 1928 Arcadian advertised that “Doyle E. Carlton, candidate for governor, will speak in Arcadia, Saturday Night, . . . under ‘Tree of Knowledge’.”
    When the tree was replanted in 1938, people questioned the origin of the name, and one answer was published in the Feb. 5, 1938, Tampa Tribune, “The tree received its name, ‘The Tree of Knowledge’ from the late Uncle Jim Hollingsworth. As a member of the city council in 1900, he conceived the idea of placing benches under the tree as a city gathering place.” In later years, many people told stories and tall tales sitting in the tree’s shade, so the name was used derisively. 
    Property Appraiser David A. Williams speculated that the misconception that the Tree of Knowledge was used as a “hanging tree” may have arisen from the tradition of the “political graveyard.” After an election, wooden tombstones for the losers were placed in the nearby grass, and some candidates may have been “hanged in effigy.” Such overzealousness ended the practice.

Click here to Visit our history in photographs

History of the Tree of Knowledge