(The following is an excerpt from a book entitled, The Green Jeep, by Howard S. Jones, step-son of Frank W. Williamson, Sr.)
“Lake Okeechobee’s back country for 25 or 30 miles on all its northern side was both prairie land and pine. These prairies of wire grass and sedge, the grazing grounds for cattle, were unbroken except for patches of flat wood where towering pitchy pines, 15 inches in diameter and 75 to 100 feet in height grew on slightly higher ground. In places, crossing these flat woods, were heads of cypress and small trees growing in shallow sloughs. Dotting the prairie were numerous small ponds called according to the growth found in each one, sawgrass ponds, flag ponds, or maiden cane…”
—Lawrence E. Will, in A Cracker History of Okeechobee
IN 1941, four and a half months before Pearl Harbor, Frank Wesley Williamson, Sr. came to Okeechobee to manage a new federal agricultural development program. He at first had a job with the Farm Security Administration, but was transferred to this new post. The mandated objective was a cooperative effort to develop activities in all fields of Southern agriculture. According to the Okeechobee News article of July 25, 1941, the program was to provide support and the enabling of first-time small operators entering the cattle business. So the Dixie Cattlemen’s Association was organized with $794,250 of Federal capital, all ear-marked for investment in land and equipment. Adjusting for inflation, when daily wages for hard labor might run $2.00 or less, this was a considerable sum. One hundred twenty-five families joined the association.
The Association, under Frank’s management, purchased a vast tract of land across the entire county, going east to west. I have heard that the purchase was 100,000 acres, but the newspaper article indicated it was about 75,000. This was a period when most people thought of Florida as mostly an assortment of wealthy tourist wintering places. Everything else was swamp or mosquito-infested wilderness. They weren’t far off in that estimation.
Land development was one of the first priorities. Wild tough cattle, probably descendants of those abandoned by early Spanish explorers, still ran loose on portions of the vast property. Their value, if you could have caught them, might have been at most a few dollars a head. Hiring hands, fencing, pasture planting and cattle management began in earnest. Camp houses, cow pens, traps for holding cattle and a headquarters had to be built. One problem became immediately apparent: there was no good way to sell your cattle. The Association, under his direction, built the first auction market in Okeechobee County. It was opened for business on July 9, 1942. On August 14, 1942, the Okeechobee News reported, “Manager Frank Williamson stated that small ranchers are receiving, for the first time, a fair and equitable price. The top price for calves was $10.40 per hundred pounds.” Sixty-five years later, the now privately owned Okeechobee Livestock Market is still in operation.
Just after WW II, the mood of the nation and government were changing. This was the era of McCarthyism, when backlash swept through the country. For this and other reasons, Congress ordered the systematic shutdown of all kinds of cooperative programs, including The Dixie Cattlemen’s Association of South Florida. The land and assets were offered for sale to the public. Frank recognized the potential of the property; he’d ridden horseback through just about all of it. So after considerable time and effort, he and a friend, Johnny Edwards, bought a large portion of the original tract. They split the assets in 1948, with the Caloosa Ranch being about 10,000 acres on the east side of Highway 441. Johnny Edwards took the portion west of the highway.
Frank maintained an outside vocation as an agricultural appraiser, plowing earnings back into repaying the loan and developing the ranch. Marshes were drained, flood-control plans established, fences and cow pens built, and access roads carved out of the dense hammocks. Riding on horseback ahead of the dozers clearing brush and trees, he scouted for the best route of the roadway, one which allowed for high water times and minimal destruction of the woods and wildlife areas. He discovered a particular oak sapling, just stirrup-high, which had a perfect shape. It was square in the path of the proposed access road. Leaning from his saddle he tied his handkerchief to the top branch, turned back and alerted the dozer driver to reroute the road and leave the little tree alone. Asked why he singled out this one specimen, he replied simply, “It’ll be a fine oak someday.” And it is; perhaps serving as a living monument to his sense of stewardship, character, wisdom and foresight.
Twenty-odd years later, Robert Butler, who had from childhood regularly painted scenes of the ranch, was commissioned by the family to capture that tree on canvas as a Christmas gift for me and my little family. He gave it the title, “Oak of Compassion,” alluding to the talk my step-father and I had in my early years on the ranch. I don’t know who initiated the idea, but that picture is as priceless and precious to me as any material thing can be.
The Oak of Compassion by Robert Butler
At some later time he divided the property into two parts: the Caloosa Ranch to the east of the old railroad grade, and the Williamson Ranch to the west, which I think he retained as personal property. Many years later the Caloosa was incorporated into Williamson Ranch, but just recently it has been re-established as a business entity. The brand of the Caloosa was “The Bent Arrow”, a slightly bent featherless arrow. The Williamson brand was called a “T-O”, and looked like a T that has been cut mid-stem with an overlapping O inserted in the middle of the stem. In other words, the top of the shortened T showed above the inserted O and a short bottom of the T shown below the O.
I was unaware of these sorts of details at the time. Bits and pieces of the history would come to light in abbreviated fashions, only here a little and there a little over the next few years. I suppose that he thought it would be construed as bragging if he were to go into detail… a mark of the character of the man.
Howard S. Jones