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By early 1917 sentiment was strong among the citizens of Okeechobee for the formation of a new county. People said it was too far to travel to the county seat at Fort Pierce and residents of Basinger, which was a part of Osceola County, had an even longer trip to make when they transacted business at the county seat of Kissimmee. As far back as 1912 there had been talk about a new county to be formed from parts of St. Lucie, Osceola, and DeSoto. In late March 1917, community leaders in Okeechobee met and decided to press for the formation of a new county. A committee made up of Dr. C. R. Darrow, S. J. Drawdy, and Charles Hatch went to Fort Pierce and employed Otis R. Parker to formulate a bill setting up the new county. The bill was presented to State Representative J. M. Swain of St. Lucie County who introduced it in the Legislature in early April. The original bill passed by the Senate in April called for the inclusion of a portion of eastern DeSoto County, including the Fort Basinger area. In the House, Rep. Langford of DeSoto opposed slicing off any of his county so the House passed an amendment to the bill eliminating any part of DeSoto from the new county. The Senate concurred in the House amendment and Okeechobee County officially came into being May 8, 191 7, although the law did not take effect until August 7, 1917. The new county included land from Osceola, St. Lucie, and Palm Beach counties and had an area of 487,040 acres. The Fort Pierce News in its issue of May, 4, 191 7 (with a dateline of May 3rd. Tallahassee) said,
Against the determined fight of representatives from DeSoto and other counties, J. H. Walker of Bassinger and W. L. Coats of Okeechobee, who represented the committee on Okeechobee County organization, and who are assisted by S. J. Drawdy of Okeechobee, who came on his own account in the interests of the new county, the delegation made one of the most remarkable fights for the creation of a new county that has been witnessed in many sessions.
The efforts of Mr. Walker who is one of the largest cattlemen in Osceola County and Mr. Coats of Okeechobee, who has been prominent in the development of one of the states newest towns deserves the hearty commendation of the people of what will be the new county of Okeechobee with Okeechobee City as the county seat...
Mr. Coats who has worked so hard for the creation of Okeechobee County has become known at the capitol as "Okeechobee Bill." The delegation, having secured the passage of the bill, left the Capitol tonight for their homes.
William Lee Coats
John Hardy Walker, Sr.
The first officers of Okeechobee County were: Smith J. Drawdy, Sheriff; Henry H. Hancock, County Judge; David R. McNeill, Tax Assessor; Ewell R. Wright, Tax Collector; Rufus P. Fletcher, Clerk of the Circuit Court; W. F. Walker, Supervisor of Registration; Richard E. Hamrick, Superintendent of Public Instruction; Samuel L. Gray, J. M. Lee, and Willis W. Chandler, members of the school board; D. E. Austin, W. W. Potter, Alex Thompson, Robert Upthegrove, and R. E. McLaughlin, County Commissioners. The first meeting of the County Commission took place September 4, 191 7. At that meeting, George F. Parker, a lawyer who had moved to Okeechobee the previous April, was chosen County Attorney. County offices were set up on the second floor of the 0. 0. "Buckshot" Davis Building. Okeechobee Countys first State Representative was William Lee Coats who served in the House of Representatives during the 1918 extra. Session and in the 1919 regular session.
Benjamin F. and Lily M. Davis acquired the Okeechobee Call in 1916 and became its publishers, reportedly bringing the first press and linotype machine to Okeechobee. In March 1919 the Davises sold the paper to W. P. Underhill, L. A. Hough, R. L. Pearce, J. H. Walker, and W. R. Gary for $4500. During the year 1919, S. J. Triplett served as editor. The Okeechobee Publishing Co., Inc. was set up in November 1919, and in February 1923, H. A. Neal, manager, sold the company and newspaper, which by this time had been changed to the Okeechobee News, to Lon Burton. Burton sold the paper to Robert and Rod Arkell in 1923, and in 1925 it was bought by Judge Gardner Nottingham. William Griffis purchased the News in 1926 and operated the business until July 1936, when he sold it to Keathley Bowden and Associates. Bryant Bowden, Keathleys brother, became editor in 1936.
Two individuals who moved to Okeechobee in 1917 played prominent roles in the history of the county. David Richard McNeill was born in North Carolina in 1867 but came to Florida as a boy. He later moved to Jacksonville where he was Vice President and General Manager of Consolidated Naval Stores Company for many years, serving as President of the companys subsidiary, Consolidated Land Company. Shortly after moving to Okeechobee permanently in 1917, he became the countys first tax assessor. Later he served in the City Council and represented Okeechobee County in the Legislature during the 1923 session. McNeill was a force for civic improvement, pushing for roads, streets, water works, and churches. He and D. E. Austin were at one time partners in the real estate business and served as agents for the Okeechobee Company. Mr. McNeill also established the first turpentine still in the Okeechobee section. At his death in 1939, a front page editorial tribute in the Okeechobee News called D. R. McNeill "the most outstanding man Okeechobee County ever claimed as one of its citizens."
Also moving to Okeechobee County in 1917 was George Cleveland Durrance. A native Floridian, born in Polk County in 1884, he became County Judge in 1918 and served until November 1919. He served in that position again from 1925 to 1933 and then engaged in private law practice. He traveled as attorney for the State Road Department in 1941 - 43 and in 1950 became County Attorney. Judge Durrance died in 1968.
David Richard McNeill
Judge George C. Durrance
The Okeechobee Telephone Company was incorporated in December 1917 with R. E. McLaughlin as president. A county commissioner from the Fort Drum district, McLaughlin built a telephone exchange building in Okeechobee about 1918.
E. M. Merserve's Irish potato field,
Robert Upthegrove's bean fields, April 1918
The Okeechobee Call reported in its March 14, 1918 issue that it "has been a little dull here for the past year. No one denies it. The first years of her life Okeechobee boomed. All of the town was built in less than two years. Then it slumped. While we do not look for a boom town, we do look for a steady, substantial growth."
During the years of American involvement in World War I (1917-18), the local citizenry did their best to aid the war effort. The May 30, 1918 issue of the Call reported that the Second Red Cross War Fund Campaign had gone "over the top." The week-long fund drive included donations of jewelry given by a number of ladies which was raffled, and then given back by the winners to be auctioned off. Mr. Peter Raulerson gave a city lot which was sold for $150. Scharfschwerdt Bros. Motion Picture Hall ran a special picture grossing $32.45. Proceeds from the above were donated to the Red Cross. A parade held on Saturday was the highlight of the campaign. City Marshal William "Pogy Bill" Collins, who played a snare drum, led the parade. Mrs. E. M. Meserve appeared as "Columbia," accompanied by the flag bearer, Mr. Howard Dimick. The Okeechobee Home Guards followed and then came members of the Red Cross. "Bringing up the rear followed by nearly all the boys in the county came Chairman E. M. Meserve mounted on a donkey, which was donated by Mr. J. A. DeLoach. After the parade disbanded by singing the Star Spangled Banner, Mr. Meserve rode that donkey right into the Movie Hall, where he continued to kick at the Kaiser,..."
The shore of Lake Okeechobee
In 1918 a Fort Pierce-St. Lucie County and Okeechobee-Okeechobee County Directory was published in one volume by House of Directories, Asheville, N.C. The directory included an alphabetical listing of heads of families and businesses in the town of Okeechobee. Among the businesses included were four hotels: Northern, Mrs. Minnie McNeff, propr.; Southern, Arthur Nasser, propr.; Lovvorn, J. E. Lovvorn, propr.; Hillsboro, Mrs. Sophia Moser, propr.; general merchandise and department stores: Raulersons, L. M. Raulerson, propr.; Geo. D. Frese Gen. Merchandise; Slesingers Dept. Store, Albert Slesinger, propr.; Okeechobee Supply Co., J. B. Atkinson, mgr.; Simmons Merchantile Co., Z. H. Simmons, propr.; grocery stores: McCarthy and Co., grocers and hardware, J. D. McCarthy, propr.; Cash Grocery Co., W. F. Owen, propr.; Henry T. Bass meat mkt.; hardware stores: Okeechobee Hardware and Furniture Co., E. M. Meserve, propr.; Scharfschwerdt Bros. Co.; furniture stores: 0. 0. Davis Furniture Store; barber shops: Sanitary Barber Shop, Charles Winkler, propr.; Star Barber Shop, Minor Holmes, propr.; garages: Okeechobee Garage, Scharfschwerdt Bros., propr.; Okeechobee Garage Co., Inc., J. E. Nash, vice pres.; Walston Auto Service; drug stores: Park Pharmacy, Drs. C. R. and A. A. Darrow, proprs.; Okeechobee Drug Co., F. E. Thomason and R. P. Fletcher, proprs.; restaurants: The Echo, J. and H. E. Bouza; Mrs. Serena Jones Restaurant; theatre: Scharfschwerdt Bros.; bank: Bank of Okeechobee; fish companies: Booth, Southern, and Standard Fisheries, boat builders: Okeechobee Marine Ways, Capt. Win. Knight, propr.; Styers Marine Ways. Also listed was Okeechobee Ice and Power Co., F. W. Mumby, mgr. Professionals included were two lawyers: R. E. Hamrick and Geo. F. Parker; five physicians: C. R. Darrow, Anna Darrow, F. E. Thomason, Frank Lopez, and George M. Hubbard; two dentists: C. R. Bibb and Mace Bean; and three real estate dealers: D. R. McNeill, D. E. Austin, and Thos. B. Owens. An advertisement in the directory told of the Okeechobee Bus Line which made one trip to Fort Pierce each day, leaving at 3 p.m. and arriving there at 5:30 p.m.
|Interior of Meserve's Okeechobee Hardware store. On left is E. M. Meserve; Clarence Hancock is on right.|
Among the individuals listed in the directory the name of D. E. Austin stands out because of the many positions he held in the community. He is listed as Mayor, County Commissioner, President of the Board of Trade, President of the Bank of Okeechobee, agent for the Okeechobee Company, partner in McNeill and Austin real estate, Okeechobee Food Commissioner, and President of the Okeechobee Citrus and Vegetable Exchange.
The directory listed fourteen black heads of families, many of whom were employed by the FEC Railroad. There was a black Baptist Church and a black African Methodist Episcopal Church. One of Okeechobees earliest black citizens was Will Harp, who helped Ellis Meserve build his original hardware store in 1915.
The Rev. E. M. C. Dunklin, a Baptist minister, arrived at Okeechobee in 1920. Generally known as Brother Dunklin, he preached the Gospel throughout the lake region to persons of all races. For seventeen years Brother Dunklin and his family lived in the Okeechobee area.
Okeechobees Primitive Baptist Church was established May 24, 1919 with 11 members. Elder Dan Wilkerson was first pastor. The church moved into its new building in 1923; land for the building was donated by Peter and Louisiana Raulerson. The McCarthy family was instrumental in the founding of Sacred Heart Roman Catholic Church in Okeechobee. From 1915 the family operated a grocery and hardware store, Daniel B. McCarthy being shown as manager in 1917, but by 1918 his brother, John David McCarthy was proprietor. After Dan returned from service in Word War I, the brothers built a mission chapel which in 1921 was established as Sacred Heart Church. Father Gabriel of Fort Pierce came to Okeechobee to celebrate the mass on a regular basis. After his retirement, Father Michael Beerhalter of Fort Pierce became pastor of the Okeechobee church. Members of the First Methodist Church constructed an imposing redbrick building in 1924 which is still in use at the present time. During the year 1928, the Rev. Mitchell Taylor of the Episcopal Church in Fort Pierce traveled to Okeechobee twice a month to conduct services. Lay reader services were held for a number of years but were discontinued during World War II because of a shortage of clergy and gasoline. Christian Scientists began holding services in the home of Bessie Alderman in 1934. Later, services were held in the school auditorium and the Womans Club.
The Womans Club of Okeechobee was organized in May 1924 with Mrs. W. R. Terrell as president; Mrs. J. D. Bird, vice president; Mrs. A. F. Arrhenius, secretary; and Mrs. 0. J. Price, treasurer.
The first class to graduate from Okeechobee High School was in 1920. The four graduates were Dorothy Darrow, Beryl Lovvorn, Willie DuBose, and Alma Camp. During the year 1921 the following schools were in existence in Okeechobee County: Okeechobee, Okeechobee Colored, Upthegrove, Utopia, Eagle Bay, Oak Grove, Platts Bluff, Basinger, Fort Drum, Osowaw, and Potter. In 1925 Okeechobee High School , a two-story brick building, was constructed.
Okeechobees second bank, The Peoples Bank of Okeechobee, was incorporated December 7,1920, with G. B. Skipper as president, F. M. Elledge, 1st vice president; Lytle Hull, 2nd vice president; and M. E. Skipper, cashier.
Thomas W. Conely, Jr., was born in Marianna, Florida, in 1892. He was admitted to the bar in 1916 and practiced law in Marianna until 1921 when he moved to Okeechobee. The story of Judge Conelys arrival in Okeechobee was detailed in a Miami News article from November 1, 1959:
"I wanted to move to South Florida and (a) law book salesman told me Fort Pierce, Sebring and Okeechobee were the best bets. I decided on Okeechobee because it was the smallest, the youngest, and there was supposed to be only one lawyer in town."
Accompanies by Walker Liddon. . .Conely came to Okeechobee to find the population of attorneys had grown to three before he could open an office.
"We went back to the hotel and were trying to decide whether to go on to Sebring, when suddenly there was a knock on the door."
The visitor turned out to be Sheriff William Collins, who doubled in his spare time as manager of the Okeechobee baseball team.
"Okeechobee was a red hot baseball town in those days and the sheriff said hed heard we were ball players," Conely recalls. "Id played bush league baseball in northern Florida and Walker in southern Alabama, so we said yes."
The upshot was an agreement that the two would remain overnight and play with the Okeechobee ball team the next day. If they still wanted to go on to Sebring after that, the sheriff would provide conveyance for the trip.
Needless to say, they remained to open a law office, and Sheriff "Pogy Bill" was instrumental in setting up their first case. "He had arrested some gamblers and they asked us to defend them," Conely recalls. "The late J. E. Lovvorn, then county judge, called us in and told us he didnt think representing gamblers was a very good way to get a start in the law business. We told him it was our duty as lawyers and the case was set for trial."
There was a surprise in store for the neophyte lawyers when they arrived at the courthouse to find the county judge had summoned a panel of all-lady jurors.
"We protested it was unconstitutional," Conely remembers, "but the judge refused to grant a continuance and our boys were convicted."
"We are going to appeal on the grounds of the all-woman jury, but our clients had had enough by that time and preferred to pay their fines."
Conely was elected mayor in 1923 and served two terms. He represented Okeechobee County in the State Legislature in 1927 and from 1929 to 1932 was county prosecuting attorney. In 1933 he became County Judge and served for twenty-four years.
The early and mid-1920s were the period of the great Florida "boom." Construction began in 1923 on the W. J. Conners Highway which started at the Twenty Mile Bend along West Palm Beach Canal, went to the lake, and then moved north along the eastern side of the lake to the city of Okeechobee. Conners had bought the "the unsold holdings of the Flagler-controlled Okeechobee Company and its vast farm tracts nearby. In order to attract buyers for these and his other thousands of acres bordering Lake Okeechobee, he construct (ed the) paved road to the lake shore." [ Hanna and Hanna, Lake Okeechobee, p. 224 ] The toll road was opened June 25, 1924, and on July 4, a giant celebration was held in Okeechobee to honor Conners and his highway. After the Conners Highway was completed State Road 8 (now SR 70), an east-west route, was finished. In 1924-25 the Seaboard Air Line Railway laid its tracks through Okeechobee County, enroute to the east coast. The Florida East Coast Railroad extended its line from Okeechobee to Canal Point in 1925, eventually running the track to Lake Harbor on the south end of the lake. [The opening of the new FEC cut-off line from Fort Pierce to the northeast shore of Lake Okeechobee on March 8, 1947, replaced that portion of the old branch line of the FEC which had passed through the city of Okeechobee.]
Graduating class of Okeechobee High School, 1923. Front row, left to right: Isabelle Byrd, Louisa McLenna, Emma Lou Thompson, Fleeta Jennings, Zetta Durrance, Sadie Schilling. Back row, left to right: Hugh McLaughlin, Wilburn Lawson, Douglas Thompson, Ted Platt, Kirby Thompson, Leroy Daughtry
South park Street, looking East, June 15, 1923.
In Miami for a sports tournament in 1924 were, back row, left to right: Bob T. Lamb, Pogy Bill Collins, John S. Lamb, Maldon Lamb, Peck Wright, Roy Raulerson, Edward Alsobrook, John Denham Bird, Jr.
Bowden Brothers Ford dealership, Okeechobee, about 1924-1925. Eighth from right is Ford representative, seventh from right is Bryant Bowden, fifth from right is Keathley Bowden, third from right is F. E. Dasher, bookkeeper. The building was located on North Park near present site of Gilbert Chevrolet.
Lumber executive Walter C. Sherman, who headed the St. Andrews Bay Lumber Company, established a community called Sherman, southeast of Okeechobee, in 1924. A mill was set up which converted the stands of longleaf pine in the area to timber until 1937 when the supply was exhausted.
William Jennings Hendry was born in DeSoto Company in 1899. He came to Okeechobee during the mid-1920s and later purchased the Osceola Fish Company. He became a fish and frog leg distributor, entered the cattle business in 1935, and also was involved in the flower raising industry. Elected Mayor in 1936, he served until 1940 when he was elected to the State House of Representatives. Hendry served in that post for six terms, retiring after the 1951 session.
Real estate businessman J. R. Minehan moved to Okeechobee in 1925.
On April 17, 1925, Gov. John W. Martin signed legislation which authorized the sale of bonds at 6% interest to finance the building of a county courthouse at Okeechobee. George Gaynor Hyde, an architect, designed the building which had an estimated cost of $200,000. The contracting firm of Rogers and Duncanson built the courthouse in 1926. Okeechobees City Hall, which was also built in the Spanish architectural style prevalent during the Florida boom, was constructed about the same time as the courthouse.
Okeechobee County Court House, 1926
Okeechobee City Hall, 1977
Hotel Southland, J. G. MacNeff, owner
In 1925-26 the Southland Hotel was built on the northeast corner of North Park and Parrott Avenue. A corporation headed by J. G. McNeff put up the building but it eventually went bankrupt and the hotel was among the assets which were assumed by the state of Florida. In 1937 Mr. and Mrs. Marshall Conrad "Tom" Pitts purchased the hotel. Pitts came to Okeechobee in 1923 and was appointed postmaster about 1934, a position he held for many years. When the Southland was razed in January 1968, for the construction of a filling station, an article in the Okeechobee News stated that "(t)he three story hotel consisted of a spacious, homelike lobby with a fireplace in which a log fire blazed cheerily, weather permitting, a large dining room, a private dining room which in later years was converted into a bar, a huge, well equipped kitchen, fifty-seven guest rooms, several storage rooms, and a large apartment on the main floor where the Pitts family resided."
Okeechobee High School under construction, 1925
By 1926 the Florida real estate boom which had been characterized by the frenzied speculation in the buying and selling of land had ended. The Bank of Okeechobee, which was now housed in a yellow-brick building on North Park, failed in 1926. The building was subsequently sold to Hunt Brothers, who operated a grocery business there. The Peoples Bank closed in 1929. In 1930 the new Citizens Bank was established and remained in operation for a brief period during the 1930s. The July 4, 1930 Okeechobee News lists the following officers: P. Tomasello, Jr., Chairman of the Board; H. L. Chandler, president; and D. S. Hudson, vice president and cashier. Joining the above three on the Board of Directors were C. E. Simmons and Carl H. Fay.
|Undefeated in 1926 Okeechobee High Baseball Team
row, left to right: Eugene McLaughlin, Max Holmes, Morris Thomas, Steve Underhill, Edgar
Hargraves, Clayton Walker
The fishing industry began to decline in importance during the late 1920s. Hanna and Hannas Lake Okeechobee cites several reasons:
During the floods of 1926 and 1928 quantities of fish were pushed out of the lake into lagoons and ponds where, with the receding of waters, they were left to die. But Okeechobee City had already lost the monopoly of the industry through competition from Moore Haven and the building of roads to the lake shore, which made possible the more efficient shipment of fish by refrigerated trucks. Still another factor was the highly organized opposition of sports-fishing groups...These groups asserted that as much as 10,000 pounds of black bass were scooped up in single hauls.
Panoramic view of Okeechobee, November 16, 1926. Building on left is former home of Bank of Okeechobee which failed earlier that year. In center foreground is Flagler park. Facing the park on south Park Street are, left to right, O. O. Davis Bldg.; Meserve's Okeechobee hardware; Scharfsdhwerdt's Bldg.; Park Theatre, owned by Joe Underhill; Raulerson building is on corner. Across street is Peoples Bank.
Okeechobee County escaped extensive damage during the 1926 hurricane which destroyed Moore Haven on the western shore of Lake Okeechobee. During the September 1928 hurricane twenty-five persons were reportedly killed in Okeechobee County, a relatively small number when compared to the death toll in other parts of the lake region. Most of the Okeechobee County victims lived at Eagle Bay, a small fishing community on the lakeshore. Flood damage was extensive on the north shore of the lake but the town of Okeechobee was over two miles from the waterfront, which gave it some degree of protection. Nevertheless, property damage throughout the city was quite heavy. The Okeechobee Flood Control District was established in 1929 and in 1930 work began on an 85-mile levee to protect the surrounding land from future flooding. The dike, which was financed by Federal and State funds, was completed in 1937.
Commercial fishing on Lake Okeechobee, 1920's. Seated front left is Ed Upthegrove, seated in center is Jim Upthegrove, standing on right is James T. Chance.
Meserve's Hardware after 1928 hurricane
Scene in front of Southland Hotel as
Okeechobee citizens welcome President-elect Hoover
William "Pogy Bill" Collins served as Sheriff of Okeechobee County throughout the 1920s. Among his deputies were Curtis Wright, Hendrix Alderman, James Daughtry, and John Barber. Sheriff Collins helped to establish a baseball team and was instrumental in the organization of the local Boy Scout troop. He helped unfortunate families, both white and black, throughout the county, by leaving clothes, shoes or groceries on their porches. According to Curtis Wright, Pogy "never used his fists to hit a man. He just slapped with his open hand." The national prohibition law proved to be Pogys downfall. He controlled bootlegging in the county by supervising the rumrunners activities, but in 1929 he was charged with violating the liquor law. In 1931 two trials were held in Miami. A hung jury resulted from the first trial but the second time around Pogy was convicted and given six years probation. He resigned from office in 1931 and Z. H. Simmons was appointed to serve out his term. Collins then moved to Frostproof where he served as Chief of Police and died in l935. [Thanks to the efforts of Gordon Leggett, Pogy Bills previously unmarked grave in the Okeechobee Cemetery was marked by an impressive monument in 1977. Merritt Monument Company donated the headstone and Tom Perry donated the stonework. ]
Z. H. Simmons son, Claude, was elected Sheriff in 1932 and reelected in 1936. Claude Simmons died in January 1938, and Gov. Fred Cone appointed his widow, Eugenia Hollingsworth Simmons, sheriff to serve until an election could be held. Mrs. Simmons was the first woman sheriff in the state of Florida but later remarked, "I was a sheriff in name only and I appointed as my deputy, Cossie C. Simmons, also my brother-in-law, who conducted all the sheriffs business. He had been jailer during my husbands term as sheriff." Mrs. Simmons stated that during her term she "never carried a gun or arrested anybody."
Claude Simmons in Tallahassee for the inauguration of Gov. Doyle Carlton in 1929
Gilbert Culbreth arrived in Okeechobee in 1924. His first job was hauling rock for the construction of State Road 8. Then he operated a filling station and in 1928 became wholesale agent for Sinclair Refining Company. In 1931 Culbreth purchased the Park Theatre and put up a new theatre building in 1934. In August 1933, he became Chervrolet dealer for the Okeechobee area and established Gilbert Chevrolet Company. Two years later his tire and appliance business was established on Parrott Avenue. The Chevrolet dealer in Okeechobee prior to Culbreth was Ellis Walston.
The January 13, 1939 issue of the Okeechobee News announced the opening of a new cannery plant in Okeechobee:
A deal was consummated this week in which the Markham Bros. Packing Co. took over the old building and equipment of the Frederica Packing Company and started operation in full force there yesterday with W. A. Markham in charge of the operation. The company bought the equipment from Frederica Packing Company while they purchased the building and lot from E. H. Walston and as soon as possible the new concern expects to enlarge the building and install more machinery which will make it possible to double the present output and will give work to about 75 persons.
The article stated that production would eventually increase to about 2000 cans per day and that first tomatoes and later beans and other vegetables would be canned by the company.
The cattle industry continued to increase in importance. In 1928 there were some 15,000 head in the county but in 1938 there were approximately 35,000 head, belonging to 156 owners. The quality of the cattle gradually improved due to tick eradication and the introduction of purebred bulls. The Okeechobee County Cattlemens Association was organized in 1937 with John Olan Pearce, Sr., as its first president. Pearce, who was born at Fort Basinger in 1895, has been active in the cattle business all his life and was instrumental in founding the Florida Cattlemens Association.
On May 5, 1939 a livestock market, cattle shed and pens, constructed by the Okeechobee County Cattlemens Association, were opened on the Basinger Road, near the Seaboard railroad tracks. At the opening celebration an auction was held with a large crowd present. In July 1942, the Dixie Cattlemens Association, a group of cattlemen operating as a large enterprise, "took over ownership and management of the Cattle Auction Sales Ring at Okeechobee," and held sales every Thursday from July 9,1942 until Dec. 21, 1942. During that period they sold 3512 head of cattle for a total of $113,763.51.
Both the city of Okeechobee and Okeechobee County were in severe financial trouble during the 1930s and early 1940s due to bond issues that had been floated during the boom days of the 1920s. The county obtained relief on August 24, 1942 when a Federal Judge "entered a final decree confirming the debt settlement proposed by Okeechobee County in 1940, and which has been in litigation for the past two years," according to the Okeechobee News of August 28, 1942. The article went on to say that
(P)rior to the time that the proceedings were filed in court, the countys total indebtedness was approximately $1,500,000 of which approximately $900,000 was past due and immediately payable. The county was plagued with many suits by various creditors, demanding exorbitant levies and demanding immediate payment of their securities. Thereupon, the county, with the cooperation of R. E. Crummer & Company of Orlando, Fla., and with a majority of its bondholders, brought proceedings in the United States Court under the Municipal Composition act to force all creditors to accept new refunding bonds authorized to be issued for the countys indebtedness. Approximately all creditors had accepted the composition proceeding, except the duPont interests, and a few other creditors, who consistently refused to accede to the agreement, and thereupon extensive litigation ensued, which was brought to a successful conclusion by the entry of the foregoing decree.
The action on the part of the Federal Court will mean that the taxes of all taxpayers in the county, so far as they apply to one issue of bonds known as the "Courthouse and Jail Issue" will be stablized and tax-payers will no longer be faced with exorbitant levies for the payment thereof.
The action on the part of the county in finally successfully consummating its readjustment program without expense to the county, is probably the most forward and comprehensive step taken in the last ten years for the benefit of the taxpayers.
The city of Okeechobee had a total bonded indebtedness of $1,253,381.89 as of January 1, 1942. In December, 1942 the city filed bankruptcy proceedings and a plan of composition was adopted that allowed the city to refund 55% of its bonded debt or approximately $689,000. Interest payments were set at 1% for the first seven years with a gradual increase thereafter. Fifteen mills were allocated for debt service with five mills remaining for the citys general operating fund. In the early 1950s the debt service was lowered to six mills.
Okeechobees first World War II blackout occurred in January 1942. About 9 p.m. airplanes roared over the town and the whistle at the canning plant sounded, signaling all lights out. Okeechobee Countians purchased $110,550 worth of War Bonds from the time the program began on May 1, 1941 until December 31, 1942. Starting on May 1, 1942 each county in the nation was given a monthly quota of bond and stamp sales. The first quota set for Okeechobee County was $1500, in May 1942, but residents surpassed the quota by purchasing $3 150 worth of bonds. Okeechobee women prepared surgical dressings to aid the war effort. Under the supervision of Mrs. E. M. Meserve, volunteers met at the Womans Club starting in September 1942. Local men and boys were organized into Civilian Defense Units which included rifle and signal squads and a Citizens Defense Corps.
On November 20, 1943, the Okeechobee County Bank opened. Officers were: C. H. McNulty, President; N. Ray Carroll, Vice President; and E. G. Kilpatrick, Cashier. Directors were C. H. McNulty, N. Ray Carroll, E. M. Meserve, J. M. Roe, Sr., J.O. Pearce, Allen Markham, and E. G. Kilpatrick. At the close of the banks first day there were $267,042.00 on deposit. The News reported in its issue of November 26, 1943:
For many years Okeechobee has been without a bank and due to a number of government checks being issued over the county, it has been quite difficult for the merchants to handle these checks and still retain enough cash to make the necessary change for bills of large dimension due to the fact that the nearest bank in the past (was) located more than thirty miles from Okeechobee. (E)veryone is proud now that Okeechobee has re-established a banking system in the town.
Mr. McNulty, the banks founder, "had been impressed by the cattle business, fishing, farming, a large canning plant and the general sound condition of the county, .. .realized the need for a good banking institution to serve the people of this trade area and therefore.. .decided to enter the banking business here."