Tuesday, November 20, 2018

Weird elections a Florida tradition

Black and white photo from late 1800s shows courthouse in Enterprise, FL, with people standing out front
Courthouse in Enterprise when the community was the county
seat of Volusia County. (Photo credit: Florida Memory)
Weird elections are nothing new in Florida. One local fight was complete with "wire-pulling of all sorts," a near-mobbing, a man being shot at, and stealth transfer of official records. Lest that sound modern, please note: this election took place in 1888.

The fight was between sleepy Enterprise and upstart DeLand in Central Florida. At stake was the title of county seat, a prize for any frontier town's economy.  In 1888, Enterprise had already been the Volusia County seat for 34 years. But the riverfront town's prominence and population were slipping as the steamboat era waned.

DeLand was a brash, rising community, having been founded only 12 years earlier. By 1888, it had a larger population than Enterprise - 2,000 to 850, according to a newspaper letter reprinted in the 1976 book Reflections: West Volusia County, 100 Years of Progress. DeLand also had a bigger business district, a respected university, and leading citizens who used money and power to sway opinion.

One of those citizens was town founder Henry A. DeLand. He offered to donate land for a courthouse. He, his wealthy buddy John B. Stetson (the hatmaker), and another friend named Fred S. Goodrich, committed $15,000 to build a courthouse at no charge to county government. Provided, that is, the county seat be moved to DeLand. The information is documented in Reflections and in the local DeLand history book written by Henry's daughter, Helen Parce DeLand, in 1928.

Helen's book, Story of DeLand and Lake Helen Florida, describes the electioneering as a "hot campaign of speech-making, newspaper broadsides and wire pulling of all sorts." She uses the quote marks in her book, so the description must have come from an earlier publication, perhaps a newspaper.

One "ardent" campaigner was a DeLand-based attorney and citrus grower A. G. Hamlin. (The Hamlin orange is named after him.)  Someone shot at him as he was heading home one evening. Foes from Enterprise, I presume, but you never know. He also was almost mobbed, Helen writes. No details are given.

Things were rocky from the start. DeLand attorney Isaac Stewart gave county commissioners - in Enterprise - a petition asking for a public vote on the county-seat question. The petition was signed by 825 people, which Reflections states was more than a third of the electorate (all men, remember, at that time). County commissioners couldn't or wouldn't cough up a second to the motion. They declared the matter closed.

Something called a "writ of mandamus" was issued that forced commissioners to reconsider. Cornell Law's website says, basically, that such a writ orders a government body to do its job.

The election took place on March 28, 1888. Results are shared in a number of local history books, including the two cited above. DeLand received 1,003 votes. Enterprise got 439. Other towns in the county also earned a few votes here and there, including 1 each for Ormond and New Smyrna.

Helen DeLand writes that "two or three thousand people gathered in the streets" of DeLand to celebrate. Festivities included use of an anvil and black powder. Something went awry and a local man was seriously injured.

Down in Enterprise, some residents filed a lawsuit to prevent the physical removal of county records. Local lore says DeLand men snuck the records out of Enterprise in the middle of the night. The stealth riders were on horseback.

Photo from late 1880s shows DeLand's first courthouse under construction
Construction of a courthouse in DeLand started soon after
 the 1888 election. (Photo credit: Florida Memory)
The local leaders held to their promise, and a courthouse was built in DeLand. The existing courthouse in Enterprise became a school for a while.

Today, 130 years later, DeLand remains the county seat of Volusia County. Enterprise eventually reverted to unincorporated status. Both places are revered for their historical value.

The drama of the 1888 election is long gone, but nasty political fighting remains sadly popular today.

Although election shenanigans still happen, some things do change. That $15,000 pledged for courthouse construction in 1888 would be worth about $415, 000 today. No courthouse could be built anywhere in Florida for that amount now.