The East County Water Control District (ECWCD) hosted the second in a series of four community presentations in honor of its 55th Anniversary on May 15.
"The speaker series is an occasion to provide educational opportunities for residents on the rich history of our corner of Southwest Florida with a focus on the area's culture, community, environment and services," said Commissioner J. Nathan Stout.
According to ECWCD manager, David E. Lindsay, the District and the Lehigh Corporation have a blended history since the same board of directors governed both for many years based on the one-acre, one-vote election rules.
The District preserves and protects water resources through drainage, conservation, mitigation, navigation and best management practices for 70,000 acres of land in both Lehigh Acres and the western portion of Hendry County.
"We have received a lot of support from the community regarding the speaker series and residents have a real interest in learning about the history of Lehigh Acres," said Lindsay.
The second session in the series took a journey through the history of Southwest Florida from the 1930s 1970s. Audience members examined the history of the "Buckingham Army Airfield" and the birth of Lehigh Acres.
Author, Matt Johnson, shared knowledge learned from compiling his pictorial history book, "The Buckingham Army Airfield."
According to Johnson, the construction on the Airfield began in 1942 and was operational by spring of 1943. The population of Fort Myers during this era was approximately 10,000. At the height of operations, the Airfield had a residency of 16,000.
Commissioner Stout recalled his mother had taken a leave from her duties as a school teacher in Fort Myers to work in a civilian post at the Buckingham Army Airfield during the War.
Johnson shared a little known fact that the Airfield was also home to the Women's Army Corps (WAC) and the Women's Airforce Service Pilots (WASPs) that employed several female pilots. The women's troop at the Airfield was called the Order of Fifinella and their emblem was designed by Walt Disney.
The second part of the session focused on Lehigh Acres from concept to development.
Guest speaker, Fay Richmond, has lived in Lehigh Acres since 1960. Her family was very active in the community throughout the years and her father started the first volunteer fire department in the community. Her late husband, Jim Richmond, was general manager for the "Lucky Lee Ranch" and later vice president of the "Lehigh Acres Title Company". Lehigh Acres' founder, Lee Ratner, was her brother-in-law.
According to Richmond, Lehigh Acres was built in stages. First, Ratner, a self-made millionaire, purchased land in what would later become Lehigh Acres for an agricultural tax write-off. This property then transformed into a working farm, called Lucky Lee Ranch and Fay's husband was brought on to manage the ranch. Not too long after did the idea of developing a community on the vast farm land began to grow. By 1954, lots were being sold and in 1955 the first home was built.
"In the beginning, lots were sold for $10 down and $10 a month. At first, they never thought anyone would buy land out here," said Richmond. "After a few years of sales and marketing, my husband's office would be full of envelopes with $10 bill in them."
Ruth A. Anglickis, a Chicago native, moved to Lehigh Acres in 1962. For nearly 20 years she served as executive assistant to the president of Lehigh Corporation before assuming the role of vice president at Landex Resorts International.
"The Lehigh Corporation was successful at more than just building a housing development, they established a sense of community," said Anglickis. "It used to be that you knew all of your neighbors, no one locked their doors or their cars and everyone was involved in the community."
Commissioner David Deetscreek moved to Lehigh Acres in 1979 and worked for the Lehigh Corporation as a golf professional, at what was later known as the Admiral Lehigh Golf Resort.
"People used to joke that Lehigh Acres was the 'Cheers'' of the south where everybody knew your name," said Deetscreek.
Anglickis recalled working seven days a week and 12 hours a day for weeks on end during the first Lehigh Acres' boom. The corporation created or hosted 125 clubs and organizations, so there was always something for the community to do.
Both the Matador Room and the Auditorium hosted many notable events, with celebrities and president's passing through.
Golf also played a large part in attracting new residents to the area. The resort soon grew from a nine-hole course to an 18-hole course and then there was the addition of what is now the Mirror Lakes Golf Club.
As a Class "A" PGA Golf Professional, Deetscreek spent a lot of time traveling to tradeshows promoting the community.
"It was always fascinating that no matter where I went, whether it was Canada, or Illinois or somewhere in between, someone in the audience always said they had a lot in Lehigh or knew someone that did," said Deetscreek.
Lehigh Acres resident Donna Brach was pleased to hear the history of Lehigh Acres.
"My husband and I plan on attending all of the sessions. This program is such a great way for the community to learn more about its roots," said Brach.
The free speaker series will continue to run Wednesdays, from May 15 May 29 at 601 East County Lane, Lehigh Acres, 33936. Refreshments and check in begin at 12:30 P.M. and the presentations run from 1 3 p.m. Seating is limited and reservations are required. Light lunch is provided. To reserve your seat, contact Carla Ulakovic at 239-368-0044 x17 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
Southwest Florida A Look Through the Ages
Wednesday, May 22 1 3 p.m. A Growing Community (1980s 2000s)- This session will take a look at the growth and development of Lehigh Acres after the exit of the Lehigh Corporation. Speakers Include: Lee County Commissioner Frank Mann, ECWCD Commissioner J. Nathan Stout; Bob Howard, former ECWCD manager/engineer; Wayne Daltry former director of the Southwest Florida Regional Planning Council
Wednesday, May 29 1 3 p.m. Lehigh, A Look Forward - This session will take a look at the future potential for Lehigh Acres. Local government and agency representatives will share insights and their efforts to improving the local community.
Speakers include: State Rep. Matthew Caldwell, ECWCD Manager David E. Lindsay, Interim Fire Chief John Wayne, Lee County Sheriff's Bravo Captain John Haberman.