|Ghost Towns of Highlands County, Florida|
By JOYCE MINOR | Highlands Today
Published: 24 June 2012
In 1892, two hardscrabble cattlemen fought a duel to the death in a Florida frontier town known as Fort Kissimmee. Today, that area is part of the Air Force Bombing Range near Avon Park.
The story goes that Henry Shaw stole a hog from another settler, said Kathy Couturier, the bombing range's archaeologist. John Sheffield identified Shaw to the hog's owner, so Shaw challenged Sheffield to a duel.
That fateful day, the men stood back-to-back, guns raised. They stomped off 10 paces, turned and fired, killing each other.
Since then, the two have rested side-by-side under a huge oak tree in Fort Kissimmee Cemetery. That cemetery is all that remains of Fort Kissimmee, one of many ghost towns in Central Florida.
At least eight of the 243 ghost towns in Florida are in Highlands County. A variety of articles in "The Historian," the Sebring Historical Society's bulletin, show that between 1850 and 1930, this area had bustling towns called Nalaca, Hicoria, Kuhlman, Henscratch, Venus, Tasmania, Fort Basinger and Fort Kissimmee.
They mostly exist only in legend now, corroborated by old photos, maps in museums, and the memories of a few surviving Florida Crackers who remember the region's boom era.
The U.S. government opened the northern half of Florida to free range cattle grazing in 1859. Most of Southern Florida was still Seminole territory. To keep peace between the tribes and the settlers, the government built a chain of forts along the divide.
Because squatters and homesteaders clustered around those forts for protection, Florida still has an abundance of towns and cities with the word fort in their names.
The actual structure known as Fort Kissimmee was built in January 1850 during the third Seminole War.
Couturier said it was only used intermittently because of repeated outbreaks of malaria among the soldiers billeted there. When the fort closed in 1858, only the central block house and a few small outbuildings remained, but the civilian settlement around it continued to grow.
The founding resident of the town of Fort Kissimmee was Lewis Henry Thomas, who, from 1885 to 1890, bought several large parcels of land along the Kissimmee River. Thomas married Spicey Ann Underhill. Together, they raised nine children in their home on the riverbank.
Couturier, who is writing a book on the area's history, has interviewed several descendants of the family. They confirmed that Thomas ran cattle and hogs on the free range and also managed a citrus packinghouse in nearby Orange Hammock.
Couturier's research also uncovered that Spicey Thomas operated a barge ferry 2 miles upriver from the fort. Children from the surrounding ranchlands, as well as some from the Polk County sawmill settlement of Kicco (pronounced Kisso), were ferried to school in Fort Kissimmee.
Eventually, Kicco built its own school, but today it, too, is a ghost town with nothing left but two small shacks and a toppling water tower.
"Louis Henry Thomas was known as Grandpa to the entire community, because he had a reputation for kindness and generosity," Couturier said.
Records show he donated land for Fort Kissimmee's first church, school and cemetery. Descendants of other settlers such as the Boney family, the McClelland family and the Rimes family all told Couturier that Thomas helped their ancestors get established in the new town.
Today, all these family names fill the little cemetery, which is technically on the bombing range, but was deeded to the Fort Kissimmee Cemetery Association in the 1950s. It is still operated and maintained by descendents of those original families, and today it's among the few remnants of the town of Fort Kissimmee.
Located in the northern sector of the bombing range, Nalaca also was a thriving community at one time. Couturier confirmed that Nalaca grew up around a turpentine operation, which employed virtually the entire population of the town in the business of collecting sap from the native longleaf pines. The town's only store was a company commissary.
In Nalaca's heyday, the Atlantic Seaboard Railroad ran through the community, carrying turpentine resin and pine logs to markets in Tampa and Fort Pierce.
According to a 1972 article in "The Historian," by March of 1920, Nalaca was large enough to have an official U.S. post office, but by June of 1921 the turpentine industry dropped off and the post office closed. Within a few years, the town virtually disappeared.
Several miles south of present-day Lake Placid, there was a town called Hicoria, established in the 1890s.
According to Albert DeVane's "Early History of Florida," the name Hicoria is derived from the Latin for hickory, and was probably chosen because many hickory trees dotted the area.
Hicoria's founding father was James Carlton. In 1908, the U.S. government opened the area to homesteaders, and DeVane records that Carlton was among the first to apply. He and his two sons cleared their land with hands and axes, one tree at a time, then planted orange groves.
A turpentine operation started in Hicoria in the early 1920s and employed several hundred people, DeVane writes. Then, in 1928, the Sherman Lumber Co. moved its Okeechobee mill to Hicoria. Hicoria's population grew rapidly, and at one point neared a thousand.
Logs were cut by hand with two-man crosscut saws. Harold Brown, in a report to the Highlands County Historical Commission, described how Hicoria's timber was moved from forest to mill via steam locomotive. The train's steel rails were torn up and moved each time an area was lumbered off. It was said crews could tear up or rebuild a mile of track per day.
In 1930, a huge fire devastated the Hicoria mill. Area newspapers reported that flames began in the kiln where lumber was dried and quickly spread to the stockpiled lumber. Soon every fire department in the county was on the scene. Still, the blaze was not contained until the next day.
America's Great Depression was the beginning of the end for Hicoria. DeVane documented that in 1932 the mill closed because there were no orders for lumber. It reopened after six months, but by 1934 the area's forests had been completely lumbered off and the mill shut down permanently. Soon, the Hicoria turpentine operation also folded.
Workers rapidly moved away. The mill's steam engines, except for one, were dismantled and sold for spare parts. The remaining engine is on display at Lake Placid Historical Society's Depot Museum.
Jerry Pendarvis, who now lives on Pearl Lake, remembers Hicoria. "It was a great place to grow up," he said. "My family's been here for generations." He added, "There are still cattle ranchers and citrus farmers around here who are descendants of the original homesteaders."
The settlement of Kuhlman was on the eastern shore of Lake Josephine approximately 6 miles south of Sebring.
A 1972 issue of "The Historian" reports that some settlers arrived in Kuhlman as early as the 1880s. Kuhlman homesteaders numbered 42 families by 1911, when Sebring was still just an idea on paper. Tom Cason and William Spivey were among the earliest Kuhlman residents. Cason had the largest home in town and also built the town's first one-room schoolhouse.
According to the article, Kuhlman's first schoolteacher, Obelia Prescott, was paid $50 a month by the county and boarded with the Cason family for $2.50 per month. The school term was usually only three to five months so that children could work alongside their parents spring through fall.
Carole Goad of the Sebring Historical Society lives in the area still known as Kuhlman.
"It is technically a ghost town, because the town itself is gone. But there are several resorts and golf courses, and lots of people still live in the neighborhood," she said.
Old Venus began as an area called Fisheating Creek. It was located at the junction of two military trails. Cattle drivers who traveled those trails began settling in Venus in the mid-1800s.
As with Kuhlman, there is still an unincorporated area known as Venus, and a considerable number of people still live there, most on scattered cattle ranches and citrus farms. At one time, a few miles from the current Venus, there was an actual thriving town that county records list as Highlands County's oldest settlement.
As the settlement grew into a town, its name was changed to Venus by a sawmill owner who regularly traveled to Arcadia for supplies. It was said he liked to make the two-day trip traveling at night. He found his way home by following the bright planet, so Venus came to represent home.
When the town applied for a post office in 1891, storekeeper James Willoughby Bailey listed its name as Venus. He soon became the first Venus postmaster.
"The Historian" says that by 1889 the county approved a school in Venus and hired a teacher, Isaac Winegrove of Orlando. Winegrove walked all the way from Orlando to Venus because there was no railroad service then and he didn't own a horse.
During the 1920s Venus grew rapidly as sawmills provided steady employment. Many two-story homes were built with stores on the ground floor and living space above.
Carolyn Hargrove, who now lives in Lake Placid, grew up in Old Venus and eventually served as its postmaster. Her parents moved to Venus in 1926 when her father became manager of a turpentine operation. Later he ran a sawmill and worked in cattle ranching.
"Venus was a real town then," she said. "We had three grocery stores, a gas station, even a boarding house." She adds, "We were especially proud of our three-room brick schoolhouse."
Early on, Venus became known as Highlands County's political center. "It is said that no politician running for office would begin his campaign without a free barbecue in Venus," wrote Teresa Stein in her Aug. 3, 1991, newspaper column "Heartland Heritage." These events, attended by people from across the county, were usually held in a shady Venus field known to all as The Oaks. The menu was always the same: wild hog and swamp cabbage.
When the stock market crashed in 1929, the growing town of Venus had just invested in concrete curbs and poured several concrete foundations for new businesses. Over the next few years, local sawmills folded and people began moving away to find work. Venus stores closed one by one, and the number of local children dipped so low that the school closed in 1933.
The town of Tasmania was not far from Old Venus. Local legend says the name was suggested by a sea captain who retired there. The town's location was 30 miles east of Arcadia, described in "The Historian" as near Graham's Dairy on State Road 731.
People began settling in Tasmania in the mid-1800s, but the greatest influx occurred in the early 1900s when the area was opened for homesteading. According to DeVane, each homesteader was allotted 160 acres but no deed to the land until they cleared at least 8 percent of it. They also had to build a habitable structure and maintain continuous residence for three years. Conditions were so harsh, few actually succeeded in "proving up" their claims.
Most Tasmanians were cattle ranchers, since the area was considered slough land and therefore not good for farming.
A.P. Cook, a descendant of Tasmanian homesteaders, was quoted as saying his family sold their claim in 1918 for just $75. Cook also said, "The most successful people in Tasmania were bootleggers."
When Highlands County was formed in 1921, the county line cut directly through Tasmania. That decision may have accelerated the town's decline by causing railroad officials to bypass Tasmania and route their tracks through Palmdale instead.
Most of Tasmania's residents left in search of work between 1920 and 1930. Today no physical trace of the town remains.
Col. Zachary Taylor, before he became U.S. president, commanded Army forces in Florida during the Seminole wars.
In 1837 he marched 1,100 men along the western bank of the Kissimmee River, in what is now Highlands County. They camped on a sandy point overlooking the river and Taylor decided it would be a good site for a fort. The next morning construction began on a stockade.
The outpost was named Fort Basinger. The fort was active only for about two months, but was reopened during the third Seminole war in the 1850s.
After the U.S. government declared the area open for homesteading in 1904, extensive citrus groves were planted.
"The Historian" reports that in the 1920s the town had five stores, three blacksmith shops, two churches, a saddle shop, and a post office that opened in 1925. It also boasted a three-room school with 150 students and only three teachers.
One of those teachers was Edna Pearce Lockett, descendant of Capt. John Pearce. She later became one of the first women in Florida to manage a large cattle ranch, and went on to serve in Florida's Legislature from 1950 to 1953.
Fort Basinger dwindled during the Depression. Today, only the Pearce-Lockett homestead and the schoolhouse remain, just south of where State Road 98 crosses the Kissimmee River.