Florida Has a Long and Interesting History
Written by VINCE MURRAY
many parts of Marion County, one of Belleview's first recorded white land owners
was a transplanted South Carolinian, J. F. Pelot Sr. In 1854, he settled
on a farm about three miles west of where the current Belleview City Hall is
located. Pelot bought his land while he still resided in Hardyville, S.C.,
according to Pelot's grandson, Frank Pelot III, in a 1986 Star-Banner story.
Prior to Pelot's arrival, the area around Lake Lillian was a popular resting
place for Indian bands including Seminoles under Osceola.
In April of 1839, United States soldiers held talks with a group of Seminoles on an over-night excursion somewhere near Lake Lillian, which was called Nine Mile Pond at the time. The name came about because the pond was located nine miles south of Fort King in present-day Ocala.
Further evidence of Indian habitation of the Lake Lillian area came during the 1930s when dredging of the lake unearthed Indian arrowheads and other artifacts. "When Lake Lillian was dredged back in the '30s to make it more round, we picked up arrowheads by the buckets-full," said Frank Pelot III, in the 1986 Star-Banner story by Elaine Hamaker.
According to Sybil Browne Bray, writing in "Salty Crackers" (No. 8, 1990), by as early as 1843, folks were receiving land under the Armed Occupation Act. By the 1850s, the Pelots, the Eichlbergers, the Roachs and the Foggs, among others, had developed sizable plantations." Members of the Eichlberger and Fogg families served with a company of Confederate soldiers called the Marion Hornets during the Civil War, joining forces with the Marion Dragoons after the battle of Gaines Mill in Alachua County.
When the Florida Railway and Navigation Company railroad arrived in the county during 1882, a new development firm called the Marion Land and Improvement Company was formed to promote and sell the land around Lake Lillian. Lake Lillian has had several names. From Nine Mile Pond to Butlers Pond to Roach's Pond when the land around the lake was owned by early settler King Roach. It is not known how or when the name Lake Lillian came to pass. By 1886, it was referred to as Lake Lillian in a booklet about Belleview published by the Marion Land and Improvement Company. According to Belleview history expert Gene Scroggie, the name Lillian was thought to belong to the wife of one of the men who formed the Marion Land and Improvement Company. One story passed down about the name of the town, Belleview, was Pelot named it after his daughter Belle. But according to a history of the town written in 1950, the name was derived by the founders in 1884 from a combination of French word "belle" and "view", to promote mean beautiful vistas to be seen around the fledgling town.
Belleview was called "The City of Oaks" in "The Story of Belleview" written by former Belleview Chamber of Commerce President Vincent Razzano in the late 1950s. The area was considered "a health haven in the midst of natural and attractive scenery, rolling terrain, fertile soil and mild equable climate. Its attractiveness to northerners in feeble health seeking a place for winter residence was soon recognized. The Lakeview Hotel, then known as the Hotel Sanitatia, was owned and operated by Dr. H. Knight. Its desirability attracted men of prominent standing in all walks of life."
John F. Dunn was listed as a major stockholder in the Marion Land and Improvement Company. He was an attorney and banker in Ocala and a stockholder in the Dunnellon Short Railway. He was also involved with the development of Heather Island on Lake Weir. Dunn would also head the development of the community of Dunnellon in the 1880s and was deeply involved in the phosphate boom in Marion County during the 1890s. The President of the company was the Hon. C. L. Robinson, an attorney from Jacksonville. Ocala merchant E.W. Agnew was the vice president, Dunn was the treasurer, and the Rev. H. Woodward, formerly of Keene, NH, and a Methodist minister, was the secretary. Others reportedly holding stock in the company were Dr. Harvey Knight, of Lowell, Mass., who later opened a sanitarium and hotel, C.A. Babb, and Ocala's C. W. Campbell.
Bray writes in "Salty Crackers" that, "the local government, made up mostly of northerners removed many features common to small southern towns, for instance the free roaming hogs through the streets. Admirable sanitary regulations were being adopted and were strictly enforced." Another thing the New England founders prohibited was the inbibing of alcoholic beverages. In fact, they wrote the prohibition laws into the original deed restrictions for the land sold.
From 1851-1882, the Concord Stage Line used Lake Lillian as watering stop before changing the teams and getting food for the passengers at a station on the top of a hill about two miles south of town. The route south from Jacksonville to Tampa included stops at Palatka, Orange Springs, Orange Lake, Ocala, Camp Izard, Augusta, Melendex, Pierceville, and Fort Taylor. The route followed the old military road established after the U.S. gained the territory of Florida during the 1820s and 1830s. Today that road is U.S. 301. Another route out of Belleview to the south, according to Bray, was the Old Wire Road. "The International Ocean Telegraph strung its wires along this route. This became Western Union and Florida Railway and Navigation Company became Florida Central and Peninsular Railway and the Seaboard Coastline."
By 1880, the area, around what would become Belleview, had a population of about 350 people. By comparison, Ocala had more than 2,600; Weirsdale (then Foster's Pond) had 28; Summerfield had 50; and Miami had 150. The town was founded in 1884 and was incorporated and held its first election on May 8, 1885. Sixty-three people voted, 44 of them for Alfred Stetson, who became the first mayor of Belleview. With the arrival of more and more people came the need for schools, a library, police and fire service, a church, funeral home, a cemetery and a city hall. The first city hall was a frame building built in 1884 by the Marion Land and Improvement Company. It included a bell tower and stage. On Feb. 12, 1925, the building burned to the ground after a fish fry. A second city hall was built on the site of the first one, but on April 8, 1935, it also burned to ground, catching fire when shards from a fire built by a local Methodist minister, raking and burning leaves blew into the bell tower. The Belleview Fire Department, of the period, was an all-volunteer outfit with one forty gallon water tank with a hose, mounted on two iron wheels and it was hand-drawn. With insurance money and help from Works Progress Administration workers during the New Deal, a third city hall, constructed with limestone from the area, was built between 1935-1940.
Belleview was just a year old when the first library group was formed by Professor George Gary Bush. He located the site of the current library building and had books in his home for public use until the building was completed. Twice fire destroyed all of the books except those on loan. The group raised $500 in order to purchase a site. The library was also located in the offices of the Belleview Blade and later in the lobby of the Belleview Hotel, paying $3.75 a month rent. Two lots were donated by the Marion Land and Improvement Company and the land fenced until construction could begin. W.W. Cole did the original masonry work for $25. The library was completed and dedicated on March 19, 1908. The Belleview Library still stands today as the second oldest library building in the state of Florida. That building serving as the lobby of the expanded library today.
The Blade was among the earliest newspapers in Belleview. Its editor was George P.E. Hart. Later newspapers included the Belleview Newsletter, the Belleview News and the Voice of South Marion.
The first Belleview Grammar School was a large two-room building complete with bell tower. Prior to that, classes were held in the city hall building. In 1913, a Miss Callie was the teacher for the primary grades and a Professor Rickards, who was also a surveyor for the Atlantic Coast Line Railway from Ocala to Leesburg, taught the older students. A growing population prompted a move back into city hall for some classes. But, in 1926, a new five-room school building was built. The old school was dismantled and reassembled as the Santos School for black students; that building still stands. The present city hall was the site of the third school built in 1926 of Spanish design. It housed grades one through 12. By the early 1950s, only grades one through eight attended school in Belleview, the older students took a bus to Ocala or Summerfield to attend high school. The present Belleview Elementary School was built in 1962 on 15 acres donated by Sham Sani, President of Belleview Heights Inc. The city purchased the site of the old school in 1963, and converted it into a city hall building. But by 1974, continued population growth forced some classes back into the city hall building. The new high school and middle school were built in the early 1990s and are among the best facilities in Marion County, even with the portable classrooms necessary to handle the ever-expanding population.
Belleview was also the site of a college, founded by the previously-mentioned George Bush in 1889. Bush, who came to Belleview from New England, had one other teacher on staff. He was Hezekiah Butterworth, who also served as the editor of the nationally-circulated Youth's Companion. The college was in operation for just three years, with only two graduates, one of them Bush's daughter.
Religious life in Belleview centered around several churches. The Church of Nazarene, originally built in 1900 as a Methodist Church, is the oldest church building still standing. Different denominations arranged for a joint pastorate by two clergymen. In 1904, the Methodist minister would arrive from Island Hope and flag the night train to stop with a burning newspaper for the return trip.
Belleview has had three railroad depots, all located near the present-day County Road 25 crosses the railroad tracks at Baseline Road just east of U.S. 441. The first depot was built around 1884 and was noted for its decorative "gingerbread" woodwork. It was a tradition for year-around residents to greet the winter residents in the fall and to see them off again in the spring when they returned home. A second and larger depot, complete with loading dock, was built in 1910 on the same site. A third depot, nearly the same size as the second one but just for freight, was built in the 1950s. This depot was later moved to land near city hall on U.S. 441 to house the Belleview and South Marion Chamber of Commerce. "Woodeater" was the name given to one of the first trains to run through Belleview. But on May 26, 1953, the "Silver Meteor" with a diesel engine rolled through town at 80 mph. Mail arrived by rail, being thrown off the passing train. Outgoing mail was grabbed off a mail arm on the side of the tracks as the train rolled through town.
During the 1920s, fire destroyed almost all of the wood buildings in the center of town. Only the Masonic Hall, which housed the post office, was spared and it still stands to this day. That building is located on Front Street. A second post office was built on the corner of Magnolia and Southeast Hames Road in 1954. A third post office was built in the 1960s, right next door to the second one on Hames Rd.
Today's post office was built during the early 1990s and is located on Southeast 110th Street just west of U.S. 441.
Industry in the 1930s included an ax handle factory that was later converted into a tomato canning factory. Wilke's Canning Company also canned boiled peanuts and shipped their products to wholesalers. Before that, around 1912, there was a saw mill south of the railroad tracks. Timber was readily available and logs hauled from three or four miles away by teams of oxen were cut and shipped out by rail. Another important industry for the area was turpentine distilling. Land owners would rent their pine-covered property to still operators to extract turpentine and rosins for the naval stores business in the first 40 years of the 20th century. Belleview was also known for its citrus, producing more than 250,000 bushels of fruit each year until freezes in the late 1890s forced many growers out of the business. Chicken farming was another agricultural industry to develop around Belleview by the 1920s. Several large poultry farms located in and around the town were started by several immigrants of Polish decent who came to the area from Michigan. Later, during the 1930s and 1940s, cattle ranching became popular as tick-borne diseases were being controlled with a state-sponsored irradication program and a fence law was passed by the state legislature in 1949 ending the open range in Florida.
By 1900, Florida was already a popular destination for winter tourists. The Dixie Highway, which was developed between 1915 and 1927, had divisions running down the east coast (present-day U.S. 1) and the center of the state (present-day U.S. 441) was an important route for early "Tin Can Tourists" to reach the southern part of the Sunshine State. In the early 1900s, what would later become the Dixie Highway was just a narrow dirt road in Belleview. Marion County would use prisoner labor working on chain gangs, cutting tree limbs away from road's edge and repairing potholes with lime rock and clay. Now, it is U.S. 27-301-441 from north Marion County to Belleview, where 301 splits off. The current County Road 484 was a bicycle path in 1913, heading west out of Belleview according to Bray. Between two and three miles out of town was a cutoff, Southeast 120th Street today, which went west towards Eichelberger Cave, located near present-day County Road 467. Mrs. Charles Temere would lead Sunday afternoon excursions to the cave. Once there, they would light torches and enter the cave, which had two large rooms. The second room was so large it had a balcony-like natural formations above it. There were steps leading through a narrow passage back to the springs. Indians had inhabited the caves, and the young people of Marion County continued to explore it until the early 1970s when it was dug up for the lime deposits located around it.
The proximity of water is always a source of concern to any settlers but particularly in Florida. A waterhole known as the Grotto provided Belleview with water for many years. A pump at the top of the Grotto pumped water directly out of a spring fed by the Floridian aquifer to residents. Occasionally, heavy rains would wash the pump into the spring, leaving the town without water until another pump was installed. Today, the Grotto, once a natural wonder the city used in its promotional material, is protected from intruders by a fence.
Water was a serious problem in 1982-83 when 2,000 water customers in Belleview were forced to boil their water after gasoline was detected in the water supply. In September of 1982, the Florida Department of Environmental Regulation closed Belleview's three downtown water wells, claiming some 10,000 gallons of unleaded gasoline had leaked into the municipal water supply. The DER banned consumption of water from the supply, an edict lifted a few weeks later when an order to boil water was enacted, an order that remained in effect, for eight months, until two new city water wells began pumping clean water in May of 1983. The end result was the drilling of the new wells and the replacement of most of the water system including the tearing down of the 75,000 gallon water tower and the building of a new 400,000 gallon water tower located near the Grotto. Cleanup of the contaminated wells was not completed until the early 1990s.