No Army Camp for Sebring
Someday, someone is going to wish that a reliable history of Hendricks Field, Sebring Air Terminal and the Sebring Airport Authority could be found. Even now (1989) there are many undocumented facts, legends and even pure fables that have been circulated and, in most instances, the sources that could prove the accuracy or inaccuracy of these stories have been lost and verification becomes more difficult if not impossible.
The story of Hendricks Field had its beginning in 1940. Today, only two members of the 1940 City Administration and two members of the 1940 Board of Governors of the Chamber of Commerce are still alive and all of them are either in their late 80’s or well past 90 and it is a well known fact that age does not always improve memories. After almost 50 years, it is disconcerting to find that memory will furnish some details of conversations and events while, at the same time, there can be complete blocks of other important facts and related incidents. I have been assured that my ability to recall (or rather the failure) is not unique but the product of time and age. It is not my purpose to write a history of Hendricks Field but, rather, I propose to set down some of the facts and legends as I remember them so that at a later date, some researcher may find a place for them.
I do have a somewhat hazy recollection of a meeting of some of the members of the Board of Governors of the Chamber of Commerce in June of 1940 when it was suggested that Sebring had some salient features to offer the government in its search for locations for military training installations, in preparation for the practically inevitable war which Germany.
It must be definitely stated here, that not a man in the group had more than a vague idea of what would be needed to establish a “military installation” or what form such a development would take, but some of the points that were advanced were as follows:
In the previous decade, Sebring had furnished a ten-acre plot on which a Civilian Conservation Corps camp of 200 men was accommodated comfortably. Across the road from this campsite the City of Sebring owned a square mile (640 acres) of undeveloped land which could be offered to the government. It was suggested that, while this was a large area, greater space might be needed in the event the proposed use might include a gunnery range or a landing strip for planes but, if more land was needed, there were hundreds of acres to the south that were undeveloped save for a few homesteads.
The salient fact was that not one of these men had the slightest idea of the form, the size or the purpose that a military installation might take.
During World War I, Arcadia was the host city for a training camp for British air pilots. The City of Arcadia and the government had been very happy with the arrangement and had found it most profitable.
The City of Sebring had electric power in excess of its needs and was in a position to furnish all that a training camp might need (or so it thought).
For seven years previous to 1940, Sebring had the most pleasant relations with the U.S. Army, the U.S. Department of Agriculture, and the Department of the Interior because of the location of the C.C.C. camp. These bureaus of government had used the site on many occasions as the central meeting place for symposiums and conferences for their activities in the state. In every instance, the relations had been so pleasant that it was felt that the Army officers and other government officials could be counted upon to endorse any offers by the City of Sebring (Later, this proved to be true.)
The idea was advanced that Sebring enjoyed a most easily defended position in the state as it was as far as possible from any coast or landing position.
The Chamber appointed a committee to pursue the subject and it lost no time in requesting an executive session with the City Council which, at that time consisted of W. V. Higgins, E. R. Burns, L. D. Poer, J. F. Spooner and W. H. Dutton. It is probably needless to say that when these and other arguments were laid before them on that Friday afternoon in June 1940, the council members offered no adverse rebuttal. In fact, they not only liked the concept but agreed to offer the land and any cooperation in their power. They even agreed to contribute $150 toward the expenses of the committee’s trip to Washington to investigate the possibilities of implementing the idea (all other expenses were borne by the committee members). The Council even authorized the City Attorney, Joe Kinsey, to accompany the committee with the tacit understanding that he could advise the committee and to some degree represent the interests of the Council.
A view from the front door of a barracks. Photo courtesy of Sebring Historical Society.
June 30, 1940 - Sebring American newspaper
NO ARMY CAMP FOR SEBRING
War Department Announces Not Available Here
Sebring’s efforts to acquire an army payroll were brought to a sudden termination today in official news from the nation’s capitol that the army does not contemplate locating a Defense Army Camp at Sebring. The information which was conveyed to the Daily American through United States Senator Claude Pepper only echoed a message from Congressman J. Hardin Peterson received yesterday that any hope that the Army ever contemplated locating an army camp here was based on a number of rumors.
In Washington to lobby on behalf of Sebring for the camp are Joe Kinsey, City Attorney, Real Estate Operators Payne M. Sebring and Ford Heacock and Highlands Hammock Superintendent Allen Altvater, who were selected to go to Washington to see what could be done. The City, through the Chamber of Commerce, is financing the trip, it was decided.
No announcement of the committee’s trip was made hitherto as it was decided not to publicize the matter and the American was not called in or even advised of the meeting, which was held in council chambers shortly after noon Friday.
It was believed by those interested that certain property adjoining the C.C.C. camp, owned by Clayton C. Jones, and another strip adjoining the airport, owned by John O. Wilson, would be ideal and available should the government be interested. Kinsey, was a natural selection to head the committee which was of his own selection. Heacock and Sebring were local operators, chosen for their knowledge of real estate values.
As is customary, the government prefers to deal with a municipality rather than individual owners of property which circumvented by having the city buy or lease for resale or sublease to the War Department, it was explained.
Despite efforts to prevent publicity which might furnish an undesirable “tip” to other possibly competitive towns, the news leaked out by word of mouth, bringing forth the following comments by citizens pro and con:
1. An Army camp in Sebring would promote an influx of “ladies of the evening” or “fille de joy” as the French say.
2. It would make Sebring the center of Fifth Column or spy activities in Florida.
3. It would establish Sebring as a “military target” in case of war.
On the other hand there were many favorable comments which concerned the extra business that would be brought to merchants in the added payroll:
1. It would be a blessing in disguise.
2. It would bring that long awaited payroll.
3. It would start Sebring growing again.
Some criticism was heard as to the provisions for what appeared to be not strictly a municipal matter, though involving the city expenses of the committee coming from the municipality. Whereas on the other hand, it was stated that nothing ventured nothing gained. Others who did not criticize the expense observed that the committee went off “half cocked” and that in view of the quick announcement by the war department, it was evident Sebring could never have been seriously considered and therefore they should not have gone. Or at least should have waited 48 hours, at which time they might have learned the answer at the cost of a telegram.
The following telegram from Claude Pepper announcing the verdict was received by the Daily American at noon:
REGRET TO ADVISE THAT ARMY DOES NOT CONTEMPLATE LOCATING DEFENSE ARMY TRAINING CAMP AT SEBRING
CLAUDE PEPPER, UNITED STATES SENATOR
Anyone reviewing the following news item many years after its publication, may be justified in not only some chuckles but also a few hearty guffaws especially if he happened to have been one of the members of the committee.
The editor of the Sebring American evidently wrote the article while in the throes of disappointment that he had not been consulted. The basic facts were accurately reported but the trimmings were the product of Rod Arkell’s very fertile imagination. The Council did meet with the committee on Friday afternoon and they did agree with the plan to explore the possibilities of obtaining some type of military activity in the vicinity of Sebring. As for financing the trip, the involvement of the City amounted to $150 - about enough to buy the gasoline. Committee members paid their own expenses.
There was no clear concept of the type of military facility that might be available. For several years prior to 1940, a 200 man C.C.C. camp had occupied a tract of about ten acres on the road to Highlands Hammock. At the time, the camp was being phased out. The City owned a square mile almost directly across the road as well as a couple hundred acres now known as Highlands Homes. The general feeling of the City Administration and the committee was that the 800 to 900 acres which the City was willing to offer, would be adequate for a large installation.
There was really no thought of selling anyone’s property. The basic motives of the Council and the committee were primarily patriotic. War fever was heating up and Sebring was eager to offer its facilities. At the same time, with citizens joining the armed services and others leaving town to take work in defense plants, it was realized that with no war-related activity in the vicinity, the economy of the community would probably dry up.
It was felt that Sebring had much to offer. The central location in the state, remote from the coasts, was regarded as a distinct advantage as the Germans were patrolling the coasts in undersea craft. Electric power, water and housing were in strong supply. One feature that was thought to be advantageous was the record of cooperation given the Civilian Conservation Corps, by the City of Sebring, which earned high praise in all reports by the Army which was involved in the C.C.C. movement.
Contrary to reasons given by the American for the selection of the committee members, they were chosen because of their personal, political and/or professional connections in Washington and their ability to present the City’s case. They lost no time in getting to the capitol city and were in the office of the congressman on Monday before his secretary reported for work. They had begun their discussion with Congressman Peterson when a telegram from the Sebring American arrived. The author of the wire wanted to know whether plans were in the making for a military installation at Sebring. Joe Kinsey asked for and received Mr. Peterson’s permission to draft the answer so it was no surprise to any of the committee members when they read the newspaper accounts of the results of the trip.
Two days were spent in Washington making contacts and waiting in reception rooms. The men told their story to everyone who would listen and they left Washington with very little more knowledge than they had when they arrived. In every office they had been politely received and politely dismissed with never a word of discouragement but with several assurances that “I will look into this and see what can be done.” One man was sincere and kept his promises.
The party’s adventures did not end when they left Washington. Dr. L.W. Martin had joined the group and made the trip home with them and it was a blessing he did for on the first day out some kind of an intestinal disorder struck every member (even the doctor). As Payne Sebring told a friend, “At first I was afraid I would die. Later, I was afraid I wouldn’t.”
This trip was intended to be a “fishing expedition” to learn whether anything could be accomplished and to let everyone know that Sebring wanted a military base and had something to offer.
Congressman Peterson went to work putting facts and figures before the right people and bureaus in Washington. It was no simple task with simple solutions, as many other communities were also making bids, but Mr. Peterson had the power, the know-how, and the persistence to get the job done. In the months that followed, the City Administration, the Chamber of Commerce and numerous individuals spent seemingly endless hours with correspondence, conferences and survey parties from Washington. After almost a year, the results were announced in the columns of the Sebring American by the same editor who had predicted dire results a year previously.
Thursday, June 12, 1941 - Sebring American newspaper
SEBRING NEW U S DEFENSE UNIT
1,500 AIRMEN 250 CADETS; 9,200 ACRES
Peterson Wires Newspapers and Officials Here
With a blast of the Sebring Fire Whistle early this morning residents of Sebring sent up a cheer that sounded like an early victory against Adolph Hitler. The blast, however, was a response to a flock of telegrams sent to Sebring by Congressman J. Hardin Peterson stating as follows:
AM AUTHORIZED TO ANNOUNCE AREA IN
(signed) J. HARDIN PETERSON
Three million dollars will be spent on readying the campsite for military use.
War Department Advertises for CampSite Bids
Highlands County’s long-anticipated Flying School Base to be established between DeSoto City and Sebring was first announced today by the U. S. Government in a legal notice for bids on the BASIC FLYING SCHOOL at Sebring, Florida through the U.S. Engineering Department.
The notice which calls for bids on three deep wells with equipment and accessories is a necessary vital step and is the first official notice of the definite selection of the Highlands County Air Base Campsite.
However, the notice is only one of many indications of the War Department’s decision to establish a Flying Air Base in Highlands County.
With the arrival of the SRD and SAL rail and road officials, the Lakeview Drive residences for advance officials, the taking of an official census of hotel accommodations, the renovation of several hotels and employment of extra hotel help including a number of waitresses and kitchen help for service after July 1st, has only served to notify the public of activities concerning the Air Base which this morning official notice verifies.
As though in anticipation of the coming of the camp which would swell this section’s population to two or three times its present size by fall or winter, Sebring’s recent growth has included two new theatres, one new restaurant, and a number of new homes. At the same time, several important business changes include the sale of a hotel, a drug store, a laundry business, a restaurant and transfers of lesser importance have been reported.
In connection with the camp, a census was taken some weeks ago regarding the local supply of dairy produce and other supplies.
Important sales, lease or rentals of residential property this week are reported to include the former Courtney Riley Cooper residence, the Col. Wm. Evans residence, and at least two other pretentious homes along Ridgewood Drive.
In 1941, the City Administration consisted of:
M. F. McGee, Mayor
Vernon Higgins, Council President
E. R. Burns, Councilman
W. L. Dutton, Councilman
L. D. Poer, Councilman
J. F. Spooner, Councilman
The Chamber of Commerce Administration was:
E. G. Burton, President
A. C. Altvater
C. C. Cobb
F. T. Haskins
Dr. L. W. Martin
R. O. Turner
Dr. H. V. Weems