Homesteaders Made Own Castles In Wilderness

Emanuel Francis Masters found work as a plasterer when Henry Plant's South Florida Railroad built the Tropical Hotel on Lake Tohopekaliga.

The Tropical, at Broadway and Monument Avenue, was open from October through May in the late 1800s. The grand hotel was one of the largest resort hotels south of Jacksonville. It was built when the pioneer growth of Kissimmee kept three sawmills busy.

Masters built his family's house between Boggy Creek and the upper western shore of East Lake Tohopekaliga. He picked a site among oaks, magnolias, cabbage palms, hickory and sweet bays, writes his granddaughter, Myrtle Hilliard Crow, in Old Tales and Trails of Florida.

One of Crow's tales in her book recalls the day her grandfather met the new teacher in Kissimmee and carried her back to the family home where she was to board. The buckboard ride took the apprehensive teacher through Crow's wonderland.

``As he was a Spaniard, he put a fancy border around the eaves of the house and whitewashed it inside and out,'' she writes. ``There were three bedrooms, a long living room, a kitchen with a back porch, which was bordered with geraniums and other potted plants. Many were the guests who were served delicious food by my grandmother amid these surroundings.''

The teacher, anticipating a primitive lifestyle in the backwoods, was so shocked ``she jumped up and down, exclaiming, `A palace in the wilderness, a palace in the wilderness.'''

A few decades earlier, J.H. Allen found his way back along Shingle Creek and started a sawmill village on Lake Tohopekaliga after the Civil War.

Allendale faded away to become the cowtown of Kissimmee City, headquarters for Philadelphia entrepreneur Hamilton Disston, the man responsible for most of the changes.

The chairman of Osceola's first County Commission, Rufus E. Rose, a steamboat captain and Disston's land agent, had suggested the new town share its name with the river Disston's dredges were widening and deepening.

Disston, who had a $1 million deal with the state to drain swamps and dredge a river highway from Lake Tohopekaliga to Fort Myers on the gulf, probably would get lost among the sea of tourist attractions, shops, hotels and restaurants that is today's northwest Osceola County.

Others who helped settle the Kissimmee-St. Cloud area might be just as bewildered.

Walter Gwynn, who dragged chains through cypress swamps and pine and palmetto forests to survey the land for the state and the railroads a century or so ago, might get lost.

Homesteaders and cattle families who settled the land to the south along the Kissimmee River Valley might not recognize their home sites. The tiny community of Shingle Creek had its own post office by the 1850s, but few others settled in the Lake Tohopekaliga area until after the Civil War.

Allen, a former Confederate major from Kentucky turned riverboat captain, operated one of the first cargo steamers on the Kissimmee River. He also opened a lumber mill and a general store on the lake. He stocked everything settlers needed. Settlers would exchange meat, hides and plumes for flour, grits, cane syrup, molasses, rice, medicines, cloth and hardware.

The place really started to change when Disston, the oldest son of English immigrant Henry S. Disston, who started the family-owned saw and tool company, signed a $1 million IOU in June 1881 and made himself the largest individual landowner in the United States with 6,250 square miles - primarily south from Kissimmee.

Before Disston's dredges opened up the Kissimmee's twisting channels, a reporter in the 1800s called the river a ``labyrinth of bychannels and cutoffs that beset its sluggish course.'' He added, ``There are bends where it takes an hour's steaming to reach a spot less than 100 yards ahead of the bow.''

By dredging a steamer channel from Lake Tohopekaliga to Lake Okeechobee and along the Caloosahatchee River to the Gulf, Disston and others brought steamer travel and industry to Kissimmee.

Disston used a log building on the lakefront near the foot of Vernon Street as a commissary. He also built a home in Kissimmee to share with his wife, Elizabeth, when they were not in Philadelphia.

By draining the lowlands, Disston turned the wilderness south of Kissimmee into what biographer Charles E. Harner describes as ``one of the world's most desirable living places.''

Historian Elizabeth Cantrell writes in When Kissimmee Was Young that when her uncle, L.A. Willson, arrived from Kentucky to a boom town on Lake Tohopekaliga 50 houses were under construction. Settlers were camped out waiting for lumber, keeping three new sawmills busy.

By 1887, when the state created a new county named Osceola from portions of Orange and Brevard counties, laborers had settled nearby to work in the sugar and rice fields at St. Cloud.

Still, much of the land remained wilderness. Osceola County's 815 residents were spread out over 1,325 square miles.