E. Nelson Fell of Osceola County, FL

Articles by Jim Robison

Originally published in the Orlando Sentinel

Jim Robison has graciously given permission to post the following articles which originally appeared in the Osceola section of the Orlando Sentinel on 29 May, 5, 12 and 26 June 2005. The original publication may have additional photos accompanying this text.

New Zealand native engineers big
part of Osceola prosperity

by Jim Robison

Copyright © 29 May 2005

This is the first of three columns on E. Nelson Fell, founder of Narcoossee. Today: A world-traveling family comes to Florida.

        It's one thing to make an impression in one town. It's quite impressive to do so over and over.

        Osceola County's history has many examples of people who became leaders here and elsewhere.

        Cracker cattle king Jacob Summerlin was a modest man of wealth whose influences shaped early Kissimmee cattle heritage as well as the frontier life from Orlando to Bartow.

        Steamboat captain W.J. Brack became one of Osceola's first county commissioners during the boom times of the 1880s when canal dredging drained flat wetlands and Brack's 35-foot side-wheeler Spray opened commerce from St. Cloud and Kissimmee to Fort Myers on the Gulf of Mexico.

        Brack, who had been one of 22 men who voted in 1875 to incorporate Orlando and later became that city's first mayor, had moved to a two-story house west of Peg Horn at Brack's Landing on Lake Tohopekaliga. He owned a sawmill and general store and a cattle ranch near Narcoossee.

        R.E. Rose, trained as an engineer and brought to Kissimmee by swamp-drainer Hamilton Disston, was Osceola's first County Commission chairman. He had come from Louisiana. In Osceola County, he raised prize-winning sugar cane and later wrote the state reports that promoted Florida's sugar industry. Disston was widely known for his Philadelphia tool-manufacturing business. By draining Central Florida swamplands, he saved post-Civil War Florida from bankruptcy and became the biggest land owner in the nation.

        Railroad executive James Ingraham brought the South Florida Railroad to Kissimmee. During his long career, he worked for the three best-known Henrys in Florida's late 1800s and early 1900s, Sanford, Flagler and Plant.

        Historians have focused many books on these men, but one of their contemporaries, while not unknown, has not drawn as much attention.


        Edward Nelson Fell, for whom Fell's Point on East Lake Tohopekaliga and Fellsmere in Indian River County take their names, had seen most of the world before arriving in Florida. The youngest son in a British family of entrepreneurs, Fell already had an impressive worldwide resume before coming to Florida, where he founded two communities, the English colony of Narcoossee and the farming town of Fellsmere.

        Fell's father, Alfred, was an Englishman who in the mid-1800s took his wife and children to New Zealand, where he ran a successful wholesale business. Gordon Patterson, a humanities professor at Florida Institute of Technology in Melbourne writes about Fell's early life in a 1997 article, "Ditches and Dreams: Nelson Fell and the Rise of Fellsmere," for The Florida Historical Quarterly. Fell was born in Nelson, New Zealand, in 1857. The family, then including seven children, returned to England two years later.

        Alfred Fell's business was successful enough that the family could afford prestigious private schools in England and continental Europe. E. Nelson, or thereafter just "Nelson Fell," would attend the Rugby School, followed by the Royal School of Mines, Patterson writes.

        The Fell children and their mother traveled throughout Europe each summer, writes Teresa Rushworth in a February article for Vero Beach Magazine, "From Orange Groves to the Cherry Orchard."

        Along with the family came "nannies, tutors and a governess," Rushworth writes. "They studied French, German, and Italian and became familiar with the art and architecture of the places they visited. Their musical interests took shape a bit later as they explored Austria."

        Nelson Fell listened to compositions by Bach, Wagner and Gilbert and Sullivan. As an adult, Nelson Fell would take a prized piano on extended business assignments throughout the world.

        The poet Alfred, Lord Tennyson, a neighbor when the family was living on the Isle of Wight, mentored Nelson Fell on the arts and literature, including his own poetry.

        Fell's father later sent him to Heidelberg for a year to learn German engineering techniques. Nelson Fell's first job would be working for his older brother Arthur.

        "Over the next thirty years, the elder Fell dispatched his brother around the world to supervise numerous mining and engineering projects."

        His first overseas assignment for the family mining investments was in Brazil, followed by Colorado, which Rushworth notes was still very much the Wild West.

        "His experiences in Colorado may have served to prepare him for what he would find in late 19th-century Florida, where cattlemen toting Winchester rifles frequented saloons in which they played poker, drank whiskey and fought each other."

        Fell had made his choice early in life. He had six older brothers and sisters, greatly reducing his chance of inheriting enough to live a life of leisure. Arthur Fell, the oldest son, would be a knighted member of Parliament and the head of the family-owned businesses.

        To make his mark, Nelson Fell would have to make his own money.


        He was 27 and working as a mining engineer in Colorado when his brother decided the family should invest in Florida land.

        "Central Florida underwent a British invasion in the 1880s," Patterson writes. "Governor William Bloxham's sale of four million acres of land to Hamilton Disston, a Philadelphia industrialist, in 1881 launched a second, albeit unofficial, English period in Florida history. Within a year, Disston had sold half of his holdings to Sir Edward Reed."

        It would be Reed and another British capitalist who lured English and European entrepreneurs to buy land in Florida. English newspapers spread the word.

        "Publicists told prospective buyers that Florida was a place where pleasurable surroundings, commercial opportunity and a healthy climate combined to create a veritable paradise," Patterson writes. "By the mid-1880s, a contemporary observer noted, "every train and steamer from the north bears hither its English party. Some come to this sunland of palm and pine for pleasure, some for health; some -- and these are the majority -- come bent on making here the fortune they failed to make in the Old World."

        The Fell family and partners bought 12,000 acres of raw frontier Florida east of Lake Tohopekaliga, including 2,000 acres that would become the English colony of Narcoossee. Nelson Fell and British Lt. Col. William Edmund Cadman took charge of dividing the land into small farms for sale. Also, Nelson Fell began plans to drain 2,500 acres of marshland.

        His brother's instructions were to establish a community "commensurate with his family standing."

        Nelson Fell prospered in Florida, enough to attract the attention of Anne Mumford Palmer, whose father was a New York judge known to all the right people. She grew up in what Rushworth calls a "cosmopolitan lifestyle," spending much of her childhood abroad, mostly in Paris.

        They married in 1885, the year after Arthur Fell sent his young brother to frontier Florida. Their first child, Marian, was born in 1886 in Cornwall-on-Hudson, N.Y. Another daughter and a son followed, but the Fells would rear their children in a land known for mosquitoes, rattlesnakes and alligators.

        Next Sunday: The Fell family at The Point in Narcoossee.

Englishman shapes his
'dream of paradise'
in Narcoossee

by Jim Robison

Copyright © 5 June 2005

        The name Narcoossee comes from Maskoki, one of the languages spoken by tribes of the Southeastern states who became the Seminoles of Florida. It means "bear."

        That was the name selected for an English colony on East Lake Tohopekaliga. The founder was a New Zealand-born Englishman named E. Nelson Fell, the youngest son in a British family with worldwide mining investments in the late 1800s.Fell, for whom Fell's Point on East Lake Toho and Fellsmere in Indian River County take their names, started both the Florida communities at opposite ends of his long career as a mining engineer. He was a well-traveled but still young man when he started Narcoossee. After retiring, he founded Fellsmere.

        At age 27, Fell was "a seasoned engineer with experience in England, Brazil, and the American West," writes Gordon Patterson, a humanities professor at Florida Institute of Technology in Melbourne, in a 1997 article in the Florida Historical Quarterly, "Ditches and Dreams: Nelson Fell and the Rise of Fellsmere."

        Trained in England and Germany, Fell was working in Colorado on his family's mining interests when Arthur Fell, the oldest son who ran the London-based family investments, dispatched his younger brother to the Florida frontier to take advantage of cheap land advertised throughout Britain and Europe.

        In the mid-1880s, Florida Gov. William Bloxham made a land deal with Philadelphia saw and tool maker Hamilton Disston. Between 1881-84, Disston's dredges drained 2 million acres along the Kissimmee River, its lakes, canals and streams, carving a steamboat highway from deep in Florida's interior to Lake Okeechobee and along the Caloosahatchee River to the Gulf of Mexico.

        Arthur Fell, not waiting to miss an opportunity to expand the Fell fortune, put together a partnership to buy 12,000 acres of raw frontier Florida in what then was Orange County, including 2,000 acres at what became the English colony of Narcoossee.

        In 1887, three years after the Fell land purchase, the Florida Legislature sliced off large portions of Orange and Brevard counties to create the new Osceola County. Nelson Fell would become one of the early county commissioners.

        Patterson writes, "Advertisements describing the rich possibilities present in central Florida regularly appeared in English newspapers throughout the 1880s and 1890s. Publicists told prospective buyers that Florida was a place where pleasurable surroundings, commercial opportunity and a healthy climate combined to create a veritable paradise. By the mid-1880s, a contemporary observer noted, `every train and steamer from the North bears hither its English party. Some come to this sunland of palm and pine for pleasure, some for health; some -- and these are the majority -- come bent on making here the fortune they failed to make in the old world.' Nelson Fell belonged to the third group."

        The town of Narcoossee, Arthur instructed his brother, should become "commensurate with his family standing."

        Within a few years, some 200 Englishmen had joined the Narcoossee community that now included "a post office, a blacksmith's shop, a carpenter's shop, a real estate office and, most importantly, a railway depot," Patterson writes.

        Narcoossee was one of the stops for the Sugar Belt Railroad, built to carry passengers and cargo between Kissimmee and Disston's sugar-cane plantation. When Disston crews opened the St. Cloud Canal, the level of East Lake Tohopekaliga dropped by as much as five feet. On muckland that just two years earlier was cypress swamp and saw grass along East Tohopekaliga, Disston's Florida Sugar Manufacturing Co. planted 600 acres of sugar cane that a reporter in 1886 described as "green, waving cane, in one body, spread out like a sea."

        Soon, Disston's nearby sugar mill on the St. Cloud Canal was processing the cane from more than 1,000 acres and the Sugar Belt Railroad was hauling barrels of sugar to Kissimmee.

        At first, Fell relied on the Colonist steamboat until he "secured an extension of the Sugar Belt Railroad to Narcoossee in the late 1880s," Patterson writes.

        The Sugar Belt made it possible for Narcoossee colonists to expand groves and farms.

        With the first stages of success in Narcoossee, Fell had married Anne Mumford Palmer, daughter of a New York judge who had spent much of his childhood abroad, mostly in Paris. Their first child, Marian, was born in 1886 when the family was living in Cornwall-on-Hudson, N.Y.

        To raise a family that soon included another daughter and a son, Nelson Fell built a home at The Point in Narcoossee. At the northeast end of East Lake Tohopekaliga is Fell's Cove. Patterson writes that Fell built his family home "on a promontory jutting into [the lake] that became known as Fell's Point."

        Teresa Rushworth in a February 2005 article for Vero Beach Magazine, "From Orange Groves to the Cherry Orchard," calls The Point "a spit of land jutting out into the lake."

        She also describes the Fell home at The Point as "a brick bungalow surrounded by cypress trees, beautiful plants and flowers and exotic wildlife."

        Nevertheless, Narcoossee was not Paris, and the Florida frontier was not New York. It must have been a rugged challenge for Fell's wife and children, especially when Nelson Fell was absent for long periods on family business.

        In 1890, steamboat captain Rufus E. Rose, who had come to Florida to work for Disston and became the first chairman of the Osceola County Commission, encouraged Fell's successful campaign for county commissioner. It was the beginning of a long-standing relationship between Fell and Rose, who later was the state chemist who encouraged Fell to drain land bordering the Everglades for sugar cane and other farms at Fellsmere.

        Narcoossee, however, never reached the Fell family expectations.

        The same economic forces that doomed Disston's Florida investments impacted Narcoossee. By the early 1890s, the boom times of Florida's railroads, banks and related enterprises, especially land sales, were ending. Also, a nationwide depression called the Panic of 1893 dried up new money. Killer back-to-back freezes in the winter of 1894-95 killed the citrus groves throughout Central Florida. Grove owners abandoned their land. Men and families who worked in the groves moved away. Facing debts and defaults he could not stop, Disston killed himself in April 1896.

        World politics also worked against Narcoossee.

        Suddenly, British immigration to the United States slowed, then reversed.

        Patterson writes, "In 1895, a border incident in British Guiana touched off an international dispute between Britain and Venezuela. By 1897, the two countries were on the verge of war. President Grover Cleveland criticized the English position, maintaining that Britain had violated the Monroe Doctrine. Lord Salisbury, who headed the English foreign office, replied icily to President Cleveland's criticism. He declared that the United States had `no practical concern' in the South American boundary dispute. Cleveland answered with an ultimatum: Britain must submit to American arbitration or face the consequences. The two great Atlantic powers edged toward a declaration of war."

        Englishmen in Narcoossee, some with military commissions that might pull them into war and others still loyal to the British Crown, left Florida. Britain and the U.S. sidestepped war through negotiations, but it was too late for Fell's "dream of paradise" in Narcoossee, Patterson writes.

        Arthur Fell, always looking for the next opportunity, saw huge prospects in copper mining on the other side of the world from Narcoossee, and his young brother was just the man for the job.

        Leaving his wife and children in Florida, Nelson Fell left the Sunshine State for the bitter cold of Siberia.

        Next Sunday: From the Sugar Belt Railroad to the Trans-Siberia Railroad and back to Florida.

Fellsmere drained town founder

by Jim Robison

Copyright © 12 June 2005

This is the last of three columns on E. Nelson Fell, founder of Narcoossee. Today: From the Sugar Belt Railroad to the Trans-Siberia Railroad and back to Florida.Anne Mumford Palmer Fell had grown up as the daughter of a New York judge, and she spent much of her childhood abroad, mostly in Paris. Later married to E. Nelson Fell, a world-traveling mining engineer for his British family, she was rearing their children alone in the Florida frontier wilderness.

        While she stayed with two daughters and a son at the family home at The Point on East Lake Tohopekaliga, her husband had left the town of Narcoossee he had founded as an English colony to try to recover some of the family fortune he had lost in Florida.

        Narcoossee was not Paris, but then, Siberia was not Florida.

        Nelson Fell, born in New Zealand to English parents who sent their children to Britain and other European countries for their education, was the youngest son. Arthur Fell, the oldest, had taken his father's wholesale business and built a worldwide mining enterprise he ran from London.

        Nelson Fell, his brother's first choice to oversee family investments abroad, had been dispatched to mines in England, South America and the American West before the family invested in 12,000 acres of rugged pine and palmetto prairie and cypress swamps in the 1880s land boom in Florida. At Narcoossee, Nelson Fell had come close to creating a farming paradise with British civility.

        Narcoossee lured British military pensioners as well as the younger sons unlikely to inherit family estates. London newspapers carried glowing promotional advertisements for Florida's sunshine, and land companies claimed riches could be made growing citrus, sugar cane, cotton and rice.

        Nelson Fell, who had supervised dredging to drain 2,500 acres for farmland, became an Osceola County commissioner in 1890. English colonies spread from Narcoossee to the Lake Conway area in south Orange County. The Sugar Belt Railroad linked Narcoossee with Kissimmee and St. Cloud.

        If judged on its own merits, Narcoossee might have become a tremendous success, but troubles elsewhere in Florida, the nation and the world closed in on Fell's dreams.

        Florida's land boom went bust just as the nation entered a depression. Back-to-back hard freezes killed citrus groves. Also, Britain and the United States nearly went to war over a dispute about South American tensions, prompting many of Narcoossee's Englishmen to leave Florida.

        Nelson Fell, again accepting a family investment challenge from his brother, also left Florida, writes Gordon Patterson, a humanities professor at Florida Institute of Technology in Melbourne, in a 1997 article in the Florida Historical Quarterly, "Ditches and Dreams: Nelson Fell and the Rise of Fellsmere."

        After meeting with his brother in London in 1901, Nelson Fell's destination was the great treeless plains of Central Asia in what then was the Russian frontier and what today is the wilderness in the Kirghiz Steppe in Kazakhstan. Arthur Fell had become a member of the British Parliament where, Patterson writes, he "had learned that there were tremendous investment opportunities in central Asia."

        Joined by one of his Narcoossee agents, Charles Piffard, Nelson Fell in January 1902 boarded the Trans-Siberia Railroad for a 2,000-mile journey. They rode horseback for the last 600 miles.

        Fell would write a 1916 book about his years running a primitive copper mine, Russian and Nomad: Tales of Kirghiz Steppes. Back in London, he reported to his brother that buying and running the Spassky copper mines would make unlimited profits. Fell returned to Russia in 1903. Soon he told his family to leave their Fell's Point home in Narcoossee and join him in Russia. That decision was made easier by floods and freezes in Narcoossee that had made it necessary for the family to move. Fell also persuaded his future son-in-law, Kissimmee lawyer Patrick A. Vans Agnew, to abandon his law practice to work in Russia.

        Patterson writes, "Fell flourished during his five years in central Asia. Piffard and Vans Agnew were able assistants. The three men directed the company's smelter and ranged across the Kirghiz steppes, purchasing coal and mining copper."

        Fell writes in his book, "With new capital the mines and works were developed into an important and successful enterprise, employing a small army of men: Kirghiz carriers, miners and labourers; Russian mechanics, engineers, superintendents, accountants. The number of foreigners employed was very small and, both by policy and inclination, we endeavored to work in close and sympathetic harmony with the Russians themselves, and the Russian organized system."

        Silver and copper mining in Russia made Fell, then 52, a rich man. In 1909, he returned to the United States with plans to retire to a Virginia estate. His wife was making plans for their oldest daughter's marriage to Vans Agnew, who planned to return to his law office in Kissimmee. The younger Fell daughter, Olivia, soon would marry Vans Agnew's brother, Frank.

        P.A. Vans Agnew suggested his father-in-law postpone retirement and give Florida one more chance. Florida was again on top of one of its boom-to-bust-to-boom cycles. Plus, the state's leaders were eager to drain the Everglades for farms and towns.

        Fell turned to a longtime friend, Kissimmee's R.E. Rose, who had been one of Hamilton Disston's engineers from the swamp-draining years of the 1880s. Rose focused on profits that could be made from selling land after massive drainage of the upper St. Johns River region. Fell selected acreage that had been part of an 1895 plan to drain land west of Sebastian and build a railroad to Kissimmee. Draining the muck lands proved to be too much, and lawsuits doomed what had been the W.W. Russell's Cincinnatus Farm Land Improvement Project.

        "On March 11, 1910, Nelson and Anne Palmer Fell paid a $63,125 down payment -- with $91,875 outstanding -- for title to approximately 118,000 acres of land," Patterson writes. "Fell's investment came to a little more than $1.35 per acre."

        The Fellsmere Farms Co., which would create the town of Fellsmere, planned to drain the land by digging canals to the Sebastian River. Fell was confident that if the Tatus brothers could sell muck land in Miami for $50 an acre, he could do better.

        "A short distance away from Fellsmere, in Kissimmee Park, land was selling for sixty dollars an acre," Patterson writes.

        With 175 men and a monthly payroll of $20,000, the drainage work progressed. When the first 8,000 acres were dry enough, Fellsmere's population reached 600 new settlers with telephone lines and a company-run newspaper, two hotels and a bank. An advertisement in the Saturday Evening Post boasted of the "Fame of Fellsmere."

        But, just as fate had doomed Fell's dreams of paradise in Narcoossee, forces combined to bring down Fellsmere, too. It began with land-fraud scandals, a congressional investigation of South Florida's swampland scams and the government's involvement in questionable drainage projects. Fellsmere's investors got nervous, and money dried up.

        Fell's auditors found that the company was bleeding money and unable to keep up with the massive drainage expenses. With World War I breaking out in Europe, plans for a colony of Belgian, Dutch and French farmers in Fellsmere evaporated. Also, the company's title to the land was clouded by a probate dispute.

        Fell managed to keep his company afloat until mid-1915 when storms flooded the farmlands and town. Fells helped the farmers and the townspeople recover, but the company couldn't afford to drain enough land to keep land sales going. By June 1916, the company couldn't pay its debts. A court-appointed receiver took over. Fell lost everything he had invested.

        By 1917, Fell had retired to his Virginia estate. He died there in 1928.

        Next Sunday, a related story: Marian Fells Vans Agnew achieves world recognition by translating a Russian writer for English readers.

P.A. Vans Agnew helps Nelson Fell
develop Florida, Russia

Jim Robison

26 June 2005

In the late 1800s and early 1900s, Kissimmee was very much a frontier town, but folks still needed a lawyer from time to time. Many of them turned to P.A. Vans Agnew.Patrick Alexander Vans Agnew, just Alec to friends and clients and sometimes Minor to his family, enjoyed a time in Florida that might never be matched.

        Vans Agnew, a Scot, helped birth two Florida towns, Narcoossee in Osceola County and Fellsmere in what now is Indian River County. He helped negotiate a sale for his future father-in-law that helped a London-based company buy silver and copper mines in Russia's frontier of the early 1900s, then he helped run the mines. He also was the attorney for the Kissimmee-founded Friends of the Seminoles, which persuaded the state and federal governments to set up Florida's first reservations for the Seminoles. He then negotiated private land sales that made it possible, putting up his own money when necessary.

        Oh, and as a joke many thought was serious, he was the Kissimmee city attorney who wrote the world's first ordinance to regulate aviation in 1908.

        The son-in-law/father-in-law partnership between Vans Agnew and E. Nelson Fell began in Narcoossee, the English colony on East Lake Tohopekaliga started with Fell family investments during the land-draining boom of the 1880s.

        Nelson Fell, for whom Fell's Point on East Lake Toho and Fellsmere take their names, was the New Zealand-born youngest son of a successful British wholesaler who moved his family to London in 1857. Nelson, educated as an engineer in Britain and Germany, went to work for his oldest brother, Arthur.

        Arthur Fell sent his youngest brother to Brazil and Colorado to set up family-owned mines, Gordon Patterson, a humanities professor at Florida Institute of Technology in Melbourne, writes in a 1997 article, "Ditches and Dreams: Nelson Fell and the Rise of Fellsmere," for The Florida Historical Quarterly.

        Nelson Fell was 27 when his brother sent him to Central Florida to take charge of a family partnership that owned 12,000 acres of raw frontier land, including 2,000 acres at what became the English colony of Narcoossee.

        Fell was a new Osceola County commissioner in 1890 when he brought the oldest son of another Narcoossee family into his enterprise. P.A. Vans Agnew and his younger brother, Frank, had grown up as friends of Fell's daughters, Marian and Olivia.

        The Fell family's homestead at The Point, land jutting out from the northeast shoreline of East Lake Tohopekaliga, was a frequent gathering place for British holidays and other community celebrations. The guests included the Vans Agnews, whose children also rowed in the lake with the Fell girls.

        Vans Agnew would become one of Nelson Fell's business partners.

        "Alec Vans Agnew was known as a charming, intelligent man with a fine sense of humor," writes Teresa Rushworth in a February 2005 article for Vero Beach Magazine, "From Orange Groves to the Cherry Orchard."

        When Florida's land boom of the late 1880s went bust and the nation fell into a depression, Nelson Fell tapped P.A. Vans Agnew, then a young lawyer in Kissimmee, to travel to London, then across Europe to Central Asia to negotiate silver- and copper-mine investments. The pair then ran the family-owned mines on the Russian frontier.


        After several years in Russia, Vans Agnew would be reunited with his future bride when Nelson Fell sent for his wife and children to join him. Marian Fell was 16 at the time. Their courtship would last until after her 22nd birthday and the Fell family's return to Florida.

        Marian Fell and Vans Agnew, who had reopened his law office in Kissimmee, were married in 1914. His younger brother, Frank, would later marry Olivia Fell. Marian and P.A. Vans Agnew built a home on Paradise Island in Lake Tohopekaliga for their four children: Anne, born in 1916, Patricia in 1919, Alec in 1924 and Marian in 1927.

        Vans Agnew "plunged into local politics and became the city's attorney," Patterson writes. His wife, drawing on her knowledge of the Russian language and culture, translated many of the stories and plays of Russian writer Anton Chekhov, who had died while the Fells were living in Russia.

        Nelson Fell had bought a Virginia estate with plans to retire on the riches he had made in Russia. Vans Agnew, still enthused by his business success in Russia, persuaded his father-in-law to undertake a second Florida challenge, draining thousands of acres of the Everglades and building the town of Fellsmere from scratch.

        Patterson writes that Fell and Vans Agnew formed the Fellsmere Farms Co. with plans to drain 118,000 acres of wetland at the headwaters of the St. Johns River and build a town they would name Fellsmere. Fell was a "hydraulic engineer with more than three decades of experience in directing land development in Florida," Patterson writes. Vans Agnew was a gifted lawyer. Together and with other investors, they would combine Fell's name and "mere," or "great watery place," to create "the culmination of his life's work," Patterson writes.

        The challenge proved too much. In 1917, after six years of frustrations, the Fellsmere Tribune reported "the close of the greatest and most complete drainage proposition in Florida," a failure brought about by skepticism about Florida land promotions, flooding and tight money resulting from the outbreak of World War I.


        Back at his law practice in Kissimmee, Vans Agnew helped a Kissimmee couple, historian Minnie Moore-Willson and her real-estate broker husband, J.M. Willson, organize Friends of the Florida Seminoles.

        "Prime movers in the drive to obtain a state reservation for the Seminoles were James Willson Jr., a Kissimmee real estate man, and his wife, Minnie Moore-Willson, who wrote the popular The Seminoles of Florida, published in 1896," writes historian James M. Covington in "Formation of the State of Florida Indian Reservation," published in the July 1985 issue of The Florida Historical Quarterly.

        Lobbying efforts by the Willsons prompted Florida lawmakers on May 28, 1899, to set aside 36 townships on the western edge of the Everglades.

        A state commission led by cattle king F.A. Hendry, a legislator from Polk and Lee counties, soon abandoned the notion of persuading the Seminoles to move to state-owned land and instead tried to buy land where the Seminoles lived.

        Eighteen years passed from the time the Willsons started Friends before they were able to secure land for the Seminoles.

        On May 9, 1917, Gov. Sidney J. Catts signed a law that had passed with unanimous votes in the House and Senate for the Seminoles to have their own land. The measure set aside nearly 100,000 acres of state-owned land in Monroe County for the reservation.

        When the Everglades National Park was created in 1935, the Seminole land was exchanged for 104,000 acres in Broward and Palm Beach counties, Covington writes. The largest parcel became the Big Cypress reservation.


        Kissimmee's history-making aeroplane law was proposed in the summer of 1908, making headlines on both sides of the Atlantic.

        Less than five years after Wilbur and Orville Wright's first flight, Vans Agnew, then Kissimmee's attorney, returned to the city from a vacation in France. He had observed planes diving awfully close to Paris buildings.

        What resulted, according to Alma Hetherington's The River of the Long Water and Aldus M. and Robert S. Cody's Osceola County: The First 100 Years, was folly with serious undertones.

        Hetherington writes that Agnew was in a jovial mood when he approached Mayor T.M. Murphy, who later became a judge, with his idea to draft legal documents to regulate airships within the city limits. It included a provision that the city "purchase an aeroplane of approved modern type."

        "Although he wrote the ordinance in a whimsical spirit," writes Hetherington, some newspapers took him seriously. The French paper L'Auto published a story, reprinting Kissimmee's detailed steps to regulate air traffic. It set fees for licenses and required safety measures. It outlawed landings and takeoffs from city streets. It set speed limits and restricted how low planes could fly over neighborhoods.

        The headline in the Kissimmee Valley Gazette read: "Mayor Takes Time by Forelock." Gene M. Burnett writes in Florida's Past that the Kissimmee newspaper presented the legislation as serious news, calling the measure put forth by the mayor a model for other communities "throughout the civilized world."

        Vans Agnew, while agreeing he may have created a modern version of putting the cart before the horse, defended his draft of the aviation law, Burnett writes.

        International newspaper accounts soon overshadowed local jokesters with praise for Kissimmee's foresight, but the measure never made it onto the city's lawbooks and the city did not buy a plane.

        Vans Agnew left Kissimmee in the 1920s, serving as attorney for Jacksonville. He returned to the family home on Paradise Island and died in 1929. His wife then left for England.



Copyright  2005:  Jim Robison

Donated to the Genealogy Club of Osceola County for posting on their website