First Pioneer Day - April 2005

Harold McLeod having a snack of homemade cookies and keeping an eye on the 50/50 drawing with the contraption he built to keep the raffle basket turning at the first Pioneer Day in April, 2005. Harold was a very active member of the Historical Society.

Sadly, Harold McLeod passed away in August of 2013. See our tribute to him in People & Places.

    The DeSoto County Historical Society will commemorate the centennial anniversary of Arcadia General Hospital in 2020 and the Division of DeSoto County into Charlotte, DeSoto, Glades, Hardee, and Highlands counties in 2021 at the 16th-17th Annual Pioneer Day & BBQ. This family-fun festival will have social distancing and encourage face-coverings. The event is 9 a.m. to 4 p.m., Sat., Mar. 27, with the Arcadia American Legion sponsored Antique Tractor and Hit & Miss Engine Show at the Turner Agri-Civic Center, 2250 NE Roan St., Arcadia.

    In 1920, a group of doctors purchased Simmons Sanitarium, originally built in 1912 for Dr. John A. Simmons. They renamed it Arcadia General Hospital, and it served the community—including residents of Punta Gorda until 1947 when Charlotte Hospital opened. This history and more will be on display at the event.

    In 1921, DeSoto County was divided into the five present-day counties of Charlotte, DeSoto, Glades, Hardee, and Highlands, and the Society congratulates each the new counties on their centennial anniversaries!

    Pioneer Day features bodacious barbecue and other tasty treats—especially the Arcadia Albritton Coker Bake Sale that honors a woman who had a town named for her because she baked a birthday cake.

    Demonstrators will show off their pioneer skills and crafts. The DeSoto County Fire Department will have a fire hose demonstration and host information about how a fire destroyed downtown Arcadia in 1905. Working and retired cowmen will set up a traditional “cow camp” and tell stories about their way of life. Whip crackers will demonstrate the technique that gave rise to name “Florida crackers.

    The festival will include an old-time music jam, animals, antique automobiles, Florida authors and artists, and more. For information, call 863-266-5774.

​HOW IT BEGAN

In 2005, Harold McLeod suggested that the DeSoto County Historical Society have a “Pioneer Day” festival, and the Society held the first one on April 12th that year at the Tree of Knowledge Park. The event featured demonstrations of old-time skills and crafts, musical entertainment and storytelling, Florida authors, historical displays, and a raffle. In 2007, it was moved to a larger venue--McSwain Park, adjacent to the DeSoto County Courthouse.  It then outgrew that site and moved to Veteran's Park on SR 70 in 2010.  

In 2008, a caricature of James Mitchell “Acrefoot” Johnson, a DeSoto County legend, became Pioneer Day’s official logo. At 6‘7” and 250 lbs., he delivered the mail between Fort Ogden and Fort Meade by walking the 60-mile route in one day--twice a week. Tales about him abound--some fact and some fiction.

In 2010 and every subsequent year, Pioneer Day has been an official Florida Heritage Month event and has included teams of emergency service personnel competing in a barbecued rib cook-off.   

Pioneer Day offers family fun of all kinds. Special and traditional Florida foods--such as swamp cabbage and strawberry shortcake--are available. A “Discover History” hands-on area is FREE for children and includes old-fashioned toys and games, cane pole fishing, washing with a a scrub board and wash pot, a pitcher pump, writing with a dip pen, orange juicin’, and more. Demonstrators show off their skills in basket-weaving, black-smithing, butter-churning, candledipping, quilting, soap-making, spinning, woodworking, and other crafts.

Clubs, churches, and other organizations display their history. The Suncoast Dulcimers--a hammered dulcimer group; the Fiddle Crabs--an old-time string band; Barney and Nancy Miesse; and Lee James entertain along with legendary characters Arcadia Albritton Coker and James Mitchell “Acrefoot” Johnson. Animals, antique engines, vintage automobiles, a classic fire truck, Florida authors and artists--all showcase Florida’s unique heritage and history.

2021 Pioneer Day was held at the Turner Center for the first time.  Though it was a hot day, over a thousand people came and enjoyed the BBQ and other foods, the variety offered by vendors, and the wonderful demonstrations of crafts and life skills of our ancestors.