Chapter Six




A hurricane swept through south Florida in September 1947 and was followed by two lesser storms and heavy rain. Lake Okeechobee’s levee held firm and no water leaked through, but a great deal of land on the northern shore of the lake was inundated by the heavy rains, causing most of the Kissimmee River valley to be flooded. Many cattle were lost during the flood and thousands of head sought refuge on the high ground of the Okeechobee dike. On October 6,1947, about 300 persons assembled at the county courthouse and authorized Irlo Bronson, president of the Florida Cattlemen’s Association, who presided over the meeting, to name a committee that would help push a flood control program through Congress. Sen. Claude Pepper flew in for the meeting and announced that he would be meeting with President Truman within a week and would urge him to move ahead with emergency fund allotments for the construction of the water control program. Also on hand at the meeting were representatives of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. This important meeting was commemorated at a "Governor’s Day" celebration held at Okeechobee on April 15-16, 1950. The crowd at the celebration was so large that it reportedly rivaled only the vast turnout present in 1924 for the opening of the Conners Highway. Ammon McClellan was chairman of the event and was assisted by R. B. Meserve, Mayor Hiram H. Raulerson, and S. H. McDougald. A large parade, headed by J. 0. Pearce, Sr., marched through the downtown section. Gov. Warren gave a speech and a fish fry and rodeo were held. Mrs. Fuller Warren, the governor’s wife, unveiled a plaque which said:

The original meeting of 300 citizens of Central and Southern Florida who authorized the formation of the "Flood Control Committee of Florida" was held on this spot Oct. 6, 1947. This committee represented the area before all state and national agencies and the public until the project was approved in Washington and state legislation was enacted forming the Central and Southern Flood Control District in 1949.

Congress authorized funds for the flood control program in 1948 and the Corps of Engineers began to carry out the plan in 1950. The most ambitious aspect of the program involved the Kissimmee River upon which work began in 1957. In order to render the river flood proof, it was converted into a canal fifty-eight miles long, thirty feet deep, with a width varying from 325 to 700 feet, at a cost of about $25 million. Dikes fifteen feet high were built to hold the canal in its channel and guard the surrounding area from floods. The Corps’ action in transforming the river into "Canal 38" caused controversy from the beginning. By the early 1970’s a strong move was underway to restore the river. The flood-plain marshes along the Kissimmee River which were destroyed by the conversion of the river had formerly acted to absorb much of the nutrients which now flow into Lake Okeechobee. The nutrients coming into the lake pose a serious threat to the quality of the lake’s water supply. Many persons feel that if the river were restored to its original meandering course Lake Okeechobee would be protected from further degradation. It should be pointed out that a contributing factor to the lake’s pollution problem is animal run-off waste from dairies that flows into the Kissimmee River and Taylor Creek and eventually winds up in Lake Okeechobee. In 1976 the Florida Legislature set up the Coordinating Council on Restoration of the Kissimmee River Valley and Taylor Creek-Nubbins Slough Basin. The council was ordered to submit a report to the Legislature including plans for "corrective action" in restoring the water quality of the Kissimmee River Valley."

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Okeechobee Livestock Market

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Aerial view of Okeechobee Livestock Market

The Okeechobee Livestock Market was purchased in August 1948 by Robert and Jim Robertson of Wauchula. The facilities were repaired and modernized and the first sale was held September 17th when 784 head were sold. The following year the market was sold to Charles Freeman and Willard "Red" Segier. Freeman sold his interest to Segler who increased the capacity and put in automatic scales. In April 1953 Segler sold out to E. P. Scarborough and Ziba K. Williams who in turn sold the market to Juge Alto Adams of Fort Pierce in July 1953. Adams owned the facility until 1961. when it was purchased by Pete Clemons and Quillie Hazellief. At the present time, Pete Clemons is manager. For a number of years auction sales were held on Tuesdays, but with the increased volume of cattle, sales are now held twice a week, on Mondays and Tuesdays. During the year 1976, 153,349 head were sold at the Okeechobee Livestock Market.

By 1969 there were 127 farms or ranches with livestock in Okeechobee County. 427,452 acres of land were devoted to these farms or ranches. Recent U.S. Census of Agriculture figures showed 107,890 head of cattle in the county, or 5.4% of Florida’s total. The Okeechobee County Cattlemen’s Association sponsors the annual Labor Day Rodeo which was first held in 1951. The Rodeo Arena, located on North US 441, was built with proceeds from the rodeo and has been added to and improved from time to time. The rodeo, which is sanctioned by the Rodeo Cowboys Association, features such events as calf roping, saddle bronc riding, bareback bronc riding, bull-dogging contests, ‘and bull riding. One indication of the importance of Okeechobee County’s cattle industry is the fact that the county high school varsity athletic teams are known as the "Brahmans."

The dairy industry has experienced phenomenal growth in Okeechobee County since 1945. In that year the county had only a single 109-cow dairy farm. By the late 1950’s dairy-men had discovered that the area offered productive land at reasonable prices. By 1972 there were 26 dairies in operation with about 25,000 cows. Holstein, Jersey, and Guernsey breeds predominate. Milk sales in 1954 amounted to $38,019 and by 1970 they had risen to $15,689,000. The Okeechobee News reported in 1972 that Okeechobee County was the leading dairy production county in the southeastern United States and accounted for 45% of Florida’s milk production. Among the leading dairies are Charles McArthur Dairies, Inc. on SR 70, McArthur Jersey Farm Dairies on N. US 441, Larson Dairy, Inc., and Wilson Rucks Dairy.

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Cattle used in 1955 Labor Day rodeo

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McArthur Dairies, North U. S. 441

Commercial fishing by seining in Lake Okeechobee was periodically sanctioned and outlawed until it was finally stopped in the early 1950’s. However, in 1976 the Florida Legislature authorized the Game and Fresh Water Fish Commission to issue permits for seining and trawling in the lake. The three year program was instituted to reduce the fish population in Lake Okeechobee by allowing the seining of catfish, speckled perch (black crappie), and other varieties. Predators such as the large mouth bass must be thrown back. Administrators of the program contend that by reducing the lake’s fish population there will be more food left for the remaining fish and less crowding in the spawning sites. In the long run, they believe the speckled perch will grow larger, due to the greater amount of food available in the lake.

Sport fishing on Lake Okeechobee attracts thousands annually. Popular gamefish include speckled perch, large mouth bass, catfish, blue gills, shellcrackers, and bream. Marinas and fishing camps, which serve boaters and fishermen, can be found along the north shore of the lake. The Okee-Tantie Recreation Area, located at the mouth of the Kissimmee River about five miles southwest of Okeechobee, was constructed by the Central and Southern Flood Control District and was dedicated in 1971. It features camping and picnic areas, marina and boat ramps, and a restaurant. A large, privately-owned development, Crystal Lakes Recreational Vehicle Resort, is being developed by Herb Madray on South US 441. The project is slated to include spaces for over 1,000 recreational vehicles, a golf course, swimming pools, and other facilities. Since 1965 a Speckled Perch Festival has been held annually during the height of the tourist season. Among the festival’s activities are a parade and fish fry.

The Okeechobee News received competition from the Okeechobee Herald, a paper established in 1943 which lasted all of two months. Another Herald was founded in 1949 but merged with the News in 1951. Bryant Bowden sold the Okeechobee News to Ammon and Adnette McClellan in 1949. The McClellans sold out to Lamonte and Emmalene Moore in 1956. In January 1961 a fire burned down the Okeechobee News building destroying equipment, materials, records, and office supplies. Arrangements were made for printing to be done at the News Tribune facilities in Fort Pierce. Shortly thereafter, Moore sold the paper to Indian River Newspaper, Inc. Moore continued as publisher for a time, being succeeded by A. A. Hennon in April 1962, Emerson Moore in June 1962, and Harkless Enns in early 1963. In September 1963 another weekly newspaper, the Okeechobee Mirror, was founded by a group of local businessmen with A. A. Hennon as publisher. In November 1964 the stockholders of the Mirror acquired the assets of the News and established a combined Okeechobee News-Mirror with W. L. "Shorty" Hullinger as publisher. The Mirror part of the title was soon dropped and the paper was again known as the Okeechobee News The News is currently owned by Sunshine Newspapers, Inc.

In 1955 a bill was passed by the Legislature and signed by the Governor which authorized the establishment of the Florida School for Boys at Okeechobee. Groundbreaking ceremonies took place December 1, 1957 with Gov. Leroy Collins, State Sen. Irlo Bronson, State Representative Nathan Zelmenovitz, and other dignitaries in attendance. The Boys’ School opened in July 1959 and was formally dedicated on May 7, 1960. The individual primarily responsible for obtaining the Boys’ School was Nathan Zelmenovitz, who represented Okeechobee County in the Legislature during the 1953, 1955, and 1957 sessions.

The population of Okeechobee County increased steadily from 1950 to 1977. U.S. Census figures show 3,454 persons in 1950, 6,424 in 1960, and 11,233 in 1970. Estimates of 1977 population range from 17,000 to 20,000.

The area’s churches grew during the period after 1945. Our Saviour Episcopal Church was dedicated on Ascension Day in May 1953. The First Baptist Church’s new auditorium was dedicated in 1955. In January 1961 Sacred Heart Roman

Catholic Church was completed.

The Louisiana Raulerson Hospital was opened in January 1949 and served the community until 1961 when Okeechobee General Hospital was constructed. Eventually, larger facilities were needed and in October 1977, ground breaking was held for the H. H. Raulerson, Jr. Memorial Hospital. The new medical center is owned by Hospital Corporation of America.

Civic and commercial developments during the 1960’s included the establishment of the First Federal Savings and Loan Association of Okeechobee County in 1962, the opening of the new post office building in 1963, the county jail in 1964, and the public library and new high school in 1968. An Okeechobee institution, Raulerson’s Department Store, closed in October 1968 but was replaced by Raulerson’s Store for Men, which opened in December 1968. Hiram H. Raulerson, Sr., the owner and son of Lewis M. Raulerson, the store’s founder, has contributed a lifetime of service to his city and county. He was elected Mayor in 1940 and served six two-year terms. In 1960 he was elected to the County Commission and in 1976 won election to a fifth term.

In 1969 Hector Feed Mill, located northwest of the downtown section, was opened. The mill serves the ranch and dairy industries by producing cattle feed. D. R. Daniel’s commercial building on the corner of East South Park and South Parrott Avenue was constructed in 1971. The same year North Shore Plaza, a modern shopping

center located on the east side of Taylor Creek, was opened. The plaza includes Royal’s Department Store, Eckerd’s Drugs, Winn-Dixie Food Store, and other shops. Frank

Altobello built several commercial and office buildings on West South Park during the early 1970’s and later built "Plaza 300," a two story office building on NW 5th Street.

In 1972 the Commercial Bank of Okeechobee was established. The grand opening of the bank’s new building on South Parrott Avenue was held May 16, 1974. The Okeechobee County Bank affiliated with the Flagship Bank chain in 1974 and moved into a new building on North Parrott Avenue in November 1974.

The founding of the Okeechobee County Historical Society in August 1973 is evidence of the growing interest in local history. The society purchased and moved the old Tantie schoolhouse, built in 1909, to county-owned property on U.S. 98, northwest of the city. The school building has been restored and is now filled with artifacts and exhibits relating the colorful history of Okeechobee County.