Robert Basil Waldron 2020 SCF Pioneer Family

Posted 2/20/20

Robert B. Waldron. Like so many of his generation, this year’s Swamp Cabbage Festival Pioneer Family patriarch was an all-round jack-of-all-trades, not-afraid-to-get-his-hands-dirty, get-er-done …

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Robert Basil Waldron 2020 SCF Pioneer Family

Robert B. Waldron.

Like so many of his generation, this year’s Swamp Cabbage Festival Pioneer Family patriarch was an all-round jack-of-all-trades, not-afraid-to-get-his-hands-dirty, get-er-done kind of man. They had to be – help wasn’t just a phone call away in those days. Not that folks didn’t help each other out all they could, but each individual took responsibility for themselves and their family. Each individual put their all into their livelihood. You did whatever it took, which usually included drive, determination, knowledge, an adeptness for “on the job training” and a positive attitude on life.

Robert Basil Waldron, known as Bob, was born in Arcadia in 1892, the last of nine children. The family house was the first to be built from wood in that town. He was born into a fairly traditional American family – the story goes that they originally came to the Colonies from Holland in the late 1500s.

At age 25, he served in the Army as a bugler in the 839th Aero Squadron in Europe during World War I.

Catherine Waldron

He picked up his life back in Arcadia after the war, and on May 16, 1922, he married Catherine Campbell (a member of a pioneer Tampa family). On their honeymoon they ran over a hog and their car got centered on it. After that Bob was fond of saying they ate “high on the hog ever since”.

Well, the couple set about building a lifetime together. During that early time of their life, they would travel all around the area from Arcadia to Collier County. He raised crops like beans, potatoes and tomatoes in Bean City (west of South Bay), worked for the government in Clewiston and became a farmer and businessman in LaBelle.

Humor and faith always helped pioneers like the Waldrons through difficult times. Once, when money and food were scarce, the story goes that Bob went hunting and took his only shotgun shell. He found a flock of ducks and took his best shot – bringing home four ducks. And there were times when there wasn’t enough food for the family. He would not want to eat so the children would get enough – but Catherine wouldn’t let him.

As he said, the Lord provided.

Over the years Bob ran packing houses and farmed in many places. The couple lived in Felda in 1928 and, after the hurricane that year, they moved to Clewiston where he helped map out streets for the new town. He started the Farm Security Administration during the Great Depression, helping the farmers he knew so well to get back on their feet. In 1934, the family moved to LaBelle, the place the family would really thrive.

Times were often hard, but their pioneer raising helped them through. The couple had three daughters: Margaret (Cross/Case), Virginia (Hollingsworth) and Bobby, who passed away at just 14 years of age. Bob made his mark on this community by farming and through various business ventures like buying and selling real estate at rates people could afford. After leaving the Farm Security Administration, he bought a truck and trailer. LaBelle’s many floods that occurred before the Caloosahatchee River was dredged made life difficult for all, including the Waldrons who, at one time lived in the old bank building on Bridge Street (now the auction house). Flood waters would rise three or four steps into the house when the river overflowed its banks.

The floods made life particularly hard in the Black community (mainly the southeast area of the city at that time). Bob owned 40 acres on the other side of town (now Ford/Sunset Park) where he moved 15-20 houses and began selling lots at $25 or $30 with no interest. During the Depression it was hard for people to keep up payments. Often people would put money down on a lot and not pay anything again for years. That was okay by Bob, he just kept them “on the books” till their accounts were paid in full and they got the deed. His grandson, Ernie Hollingsworth, said Bob still had two or three lots when he passed away. He provided work for many people over the years, on the farm, at his hotels or just around the house. His help and fairness earned him the respect of the Black community.

He opened a pool hall in the old bank building, later moving it to the end of the old Trading Post. He had the Court View Restaurant at the northwest corner of SR 80 and Main Street, which eventually burned down. Bob’s grandson said the original Flora and Ella’s pie recipe came from there, his mother’s recipe. The cook, named Ulamay, went to Flora and Ella’s when the Court View burned down.

Bob Waldron was a man who knew how to get things done. For instance, he cut the Hendry Hotel in half and moved it from Sears to LaBelle in 1949 where he later bought it from Ralph Hendry and it became the Waldron Hotel. It would be resold to R.G. Peters in 1960, then to the late Don Davis, who renamed it the Villager Hotel. It burned down in 1978-79.

At one time he also owned the Sinclair gas station just east of the LaBelle Motel (which he built in 1956), later selling the station, also to Don Davis. He even started a citrus nursery.

(Submitted photo) Robert Hollingsworth Family - From left: Coby Hollingsworth, Robert E. Hollingsworth, Marilyn D. Hollingsworth, Billy Watson, Serenity Watson, Mary Watson and Dalton Watson.

His community efforts included serving as a county commissioner from 1948-52 and as a city commissioner as well.

Bob understood well that life wasn’t all work and no play. He endeared himself to townsfolk as a pianist and he enjoyed a good game of poker with friends at the “Short Branch” (which was next to the Long Branch bar - now the Quart House restaurant). He never missed being at one of the town’s favorite eating establishments of the time, White’s Restaurant, for breakfast with his farmer friends. At 4 a.m. each morning they could be found, preparing for their day, sharing their news and a hearty meal.

Bob’s contributions to his community were not all economic.

He was a founding member of American Legion Post 130, a 33rd degree Mason and member of the Scottish Rite Fort Myers Araba Temple. His grandson Ernie said, “He was not afraid to help where it was needed.”

Turkey hunting was a favorite pastime - so much so that one grandson, Gene Cross, took to calling Bob “Turkey Daddy,” or “Turk” - a name that stuck with the family.

It must be said that his wife, Catherine, served the community right along with her husband, by caring for the family and running the hotels. She even became a popular local artist with her many oil and watercolor paintings.

To be considered a Pioneer Family, candidates need to raise their families to share their passion for community-service and economic know-how with the next generation, building a strong foundation for those who follow.

The Waldron’s daughter Margaret became a real estate broker, helping to build large developments and condos in Fort Myers and also in Hendry County (Case Road). Margaret’s first husband, Hayward Cross, was a contractor and second husband, Harold Case, was a member of an old Fort Myers family, with many early ventures to their credit. Margaret’s son, Gene Cross, bought the rights to Bill Gerstman’s “Monkey Dust” and changed the name to Everglades Seasoning. He later sold it to Seth Howard who moved it to Sebring.

Son Robert helped his grandfather farm, worked at the LaBelle Trading Post and was a cattleman.

Her son, Donnie Cross, was a rodeo promoter, cattleman and all-around horse trainer.

Many people in those days held more than one job. The Waldron’s second daughter, Virginia, sold real estate, was a bookkeeper for the Trading Post and various farmers and sold insurance for White’s Insurance. She also was an apartment manager in Fort Myers.

Virginia married Glenn Hollingsworth, who became the high school coach. As a new coach he got uniforms for the team. Being an innovative type, he once soaked new basketball nets before playing a particularly tough team. Naturally, the water shrank the nets so the balls could not fit through them. That stopped the game and broomsticks had to be used free the balls, while the local team got a much-needed rest. Glenn blamed it on defective nets.

Later he became a Parole and Probation officer for Hendry and Glades Counties - a one-man office that included the Big Cypress Reservation. He later took over the Palm Beach County office and finally the Collier County office.

Virginia and Glenn Hollingsworth had two sons:

Robert E. Hollingworth (known as Ernie) is proud to call LaBelle home and freely shares fond memories. For instance, many know that the LaBelle Trading Post was a major general store for many years in LaBelle, offering most anything from appliances, clothes, guns, saddles and tack to animal feed and ice. Ernie worked there while in high school, bagging groceries. getting animal feed and crunching ice for labor busses. He has many great memories of Seminoles coming to town to shop there for supplies, and playing with the Indian children. He is now retired from 27 years of active and reserve service in the U.S. Coast Guard (his service ending as chief of the armory as sector St. Petersburg). He also spent 25 years with the North Fort Myers Fire Department. Ernie recalls going to the Big Cypress Indian Reservation with his dad when he was Parole and Probation Officer. He recalls seeing the people in their chickees, cooking on an open fire, women sitting and sewing on the ground in traditional clothes, the older women’s hair arranged in the traditional way. There were new homes on the reservation that the Indians would not move into because they would not use the indoor bathrooms. Used to more modern ways, the younger families finally moved into the houses first.

Ernie’s wife Marilyn was a sergeant with the Hendry County Sheriff’s Office and worked as a county EMT.

His late brother, Wesley, had several businesses in LaBelle, was a Hendry County deputy and also a city commissioner – a capacity where he helped get LaBelle’s marl roads paved.

Robert B. Waldron passed away on June 13, 1986, after a lifetime of community building. His Catherine went on without him till she passed in 1990. LaBelle looks much like it does today because of the efforts of the Waldron Family.

Robert and his wife, Catherine, founded a legacy that continues to help build the LaBelle community that they loved and that now honors them as the 2020 SCF Pioneer Family. Time was when the couple had moved around this end of Florida until finally planting their roots. After a few starts and a few stumbles, they found their way home and were instrumental in the growth of a special little town called LaBelle.

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