If you went to the Lehigh Spring Festival Parade a few weeks ago, you may not have seen a Lehigh Acres woman who had been chosen as the representative of the community's Pioneer Family. She rode in a car in the parade, seated inside with her name on the side of the car. She was selected for the honor by the Greater Lehigh Acres Chamber of Commerce.
This year's representative of the Pioneer Family of the Year is Martha Thrower and she knows quite a bit about Lehigh, going all the way back to when the old Lehigh Corporation created and town of Lehigh Acres. She has watched it grow from a small community to a town of at least 87,000 people, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. Even with such a large population, Lehigh Acres is an unincorporated town and is overseen by the Lee County Commission as is the rest of unincorporated Lee County.
A movement a few years back to incorporate the community lost because many residents believed they would have to pay more taxes, which incorporation planners said was not true.
Martha Thrower said she came to Lehigh Acres in 1966, about a decade from when the area was purchased by Lee Ratner of Chicago, who had sold a major pest control firm and had invested his money in the area he called his ranch, which became known eventually as Lehigh Acres. Ratner has purchased the land for agricultural purposes hoping to take major losses on his federal income taxes, but soon learned after friends had convinced him that people up north would buy lots and build homes and come live here for retirement.
Martha Thrower said she learned of Lehigh from reading ads in an old newspaper that had been sent to Miami where she worked in a bank handling the VA and FHA financing for buyers in Lehigh Acres.
Lots had been platted throughout the 97-acre ranch and the Lehigh Corporation of which Ratner headed, was selling lots and building homes and Thrower saw that as an attraction for herself, so she came to visit Lehigh and liked what she saw.
It was a small community of nice small comfortable homes and some very nice people and the Lehigh Corporation which was building the town asked her to go to work for them. Back then it was called the Lehigh Building Corp and she worked under the direction of the late Arthur Kessler.
Myra Kessler is the widow of Kessler and she also worked for the corporation sending out marketing pieces and ads too paper on the East Coast. It could have been Myra's mailings that reached Thrower in Miami.
After Arthur Kessler passed away, a few years later, Thrower was promoted to manager of the Mortgage Loan Dept. where she arranged financing for all homebuyers and the finalizing of all purchases and closings. By then the name of the company has become The Lehigh Corp.
Lehigh was called a "company town" because of the actions taken by the Lehigh Corp., in the selling and constructions of homes. The corporation was praised by the community's residents because of the care the firm gave to the community, making constant improvements and giving away land for churches to build on and more.
Thrower said she worked for the Lehigh Corp. for 26 years and later worked as a sales agent for Century 21 Town and County for another 10 years before she retired.
But Thrower didn't decide to sit home and do nothing in her retirement. She continued to be active in various organizations. She served for 11 years on the Lehigh Community Services board of directors. And during that time she was its secretary for four years.
"I have two wonderful sons, James and Frank who attended Lehigh Elementary, Alva and graduated from Riverdale High School," Thrower said.
Looking back at those days, she said that she attended Little League baseball, Babe Ruth activities and belonged to the American Legion.
"I was secretary of the Little League for three years.
She also gave of her time to other organizations in Lehigh.
Would she do it all over it again?
"I sure would. I came to Lehigh when it was rather small and a lot of properties available to those who wanted to build homes here to live and raise a family or to eventually retire here. We were an affordable community and we were a family community and that brought a lot of people to come to Lehigh," she said.
"I love Lehigh and have seen it blossom to the town that is today and that is good and I believe there is good future growth planned for Lehigh. I think as the economy improves, and it will, more people will choose Lehigh as their hometown."
When she first moved to Lehigh, there may have been one elementary school. Young families continued to move to Lehigh and the county was forced to build more schools and today, Lehigh has several elementary schools, two middle schools and two high schools. Many students in Lehigh also attend nearby Riverdale High School as did Martha Thrower's two sons.
Liz Eilf, who spent many years as the executive director of Lehigh Community Services, spoke highly of Thrower, calling her a great asset on the board some years ago and also a very good volunteer.
Even with some of the issues in Lehigh such as bad roads and the fact that there are not enough street lights and not nearly enough sidewalks, Thrower has a positive attitude. She says she knows those things are coming with plans underway now with the county and the Lehigh Plan which will major changes in parts of Lehigh.
Two areas are being targeted now for changes to activities centers which will promote the development of area businesses in stores to build up to the street with parking in the back to make the community a more friendly "downtown" feeling. In addition to the Homestead core plan, another activity center is planned on Joel Blvd., in the area of the old Admiral Lehigh Hotel and other offices and near Lake Lehigh. Plans call for the establishment of business enterprise, homes and apartments, beautification projects and more.
These are the things that Martha Thrower is looking forward to. She said she is as excited today with what the future of Lehigh will become as she was when she came to Lehigh in the 60s and helped with her contribution to make Lehigh come alive as a community.
Those 26 years that she was employed by the Lehigh Corp., probably saw the great movement of growth in Lehigh's history. She continued for another 10 years in selling homes and properties.
"Lehigh is like a flower; it just continues to bloom as the years go by. It is still a great place to live and I think the future for the community is a good one," she said.