In 1915, the citizens of Fort Myers must have taken a large measure of pride in the modernization of Fort Myers with the completion, in that year alone, of McGregor Boulevard and the stately Lee County Courthouse.
But beneath the veneer of modernization and civic pride smoldered old animosities.
A NEW COUNTY
First Lee County Courthouse, 1894
Lee County was created by act of the state legislature in 1887. Early in 1888, a general election gave the county seat to Fort Myers. And that’s when the trouble began.
Exhilarated by visions of a glorious future for Fort Myers and Lee County, the new county commissioners—in particular, William (Bill) H. Towles—immediately began working up support for construction of a very grand, 3-story, concrete courthouse. Only the permanency of concrete would do justice, so to speak, to the seat of a county that covered very nearly the whole of southwest Florida.
Bonds were issued to pay for the project, but no one bought them, and five years later, the county commissioners miserably contracted with the lowest bidder for a regular old 2-story, frame courthouse.
WILD BILL TOWLES
Bulldog Bill Towles
They called him “wild Bill.” He was a portly man, curly-haired, ruddy faced. A cattleman, enormously wealthy. Amiable, if you agreed with him, dangerous if you didn’t.
In his autobiographical A Pioneer Yank in Florida, Allen H. Andrews describes Bill Towles as, “a familiar figure about town, lounging in his open buggy, topped by a big umbrella and with his foot hanging lazily over the dashboard.” Given his memorable encounter with “wild Bill” in 1914, the description is charitable.
Bill Towles was a bulldog. If he once got his teeth into something he wanted, you couldn’t shake him loose from it. Bill wanted a MONUMENTAL STONE courthouse. It was, therefore, a pretty safe bet that we were going to have one.
TWO SIDES TO EVERY QUESTION, OR TWO-FISTED TOWLES
He waited 20 years. And then in 1914, as chairman of the board of county commissioners, Towles brought up again the little matter of a concrete courthouse. The Board readily (hurriedly?) assented to his proposal. An architect was hired and a $74,900 construction contract awarded. So far, so good.
Ah, but wait. Harvie Heitman objected. Naturally. He would.
The animosity between Towles and Heitman, arising ostensibly from their allegiance to rival banking businesses in town, may have been occasioned, in the alpha male psyche of bulldog Towles, by any number of other circumstances, such as:
• Heitman may have built the first brick building in town, but with McGregor money, which ought to have been used to build Fort Myers a solid stone courthouse instead of Harvie Heitman a store.
• Then when McGregor dies, Heitman prances over to the man’s widow and asks for money to build a hotel. So next we have a forty-one room, solid concrete Bradford Hotel while the county commissioners are still meeting in a creaky old courthouse that don’t even have toilets.
• And now, when Towles has finally got a new courthouse approved, Heitman wants to fight him on it. Heitman, who is, in the very same year, building himself not one, but 3 more solid brick buildings in town: the 193-foot long Earnhardt (that’s the “E” in “Harvie E. Heitman, of course) on the south side of First Street at a cost of $85,000; on the corner of First and Hendry, across from the Bradford, he’s got another one going up for $25,000; and out on Bay Street, another one for $10,000. Half the town’s being torn down for the Heitman buildings and yet he don’t think it makes any sense to tear down this old fire hazard of a court house because, according to Harvie Heitman, it’s still in good shape.
Towles’ thinking may have run something along those lines.
Allen H. Andrews
In 1914, Allen H. Andrews was the editor of a weekly horticultural paper titled The American Eagle. He describes the controversy over the building of a new courthouse as follows:
“Late in 1913 W.H. Towles of the county commissioners began public agitation for a new $100,000 courthouse. Just what the urgent need was for such an expenditure in a sparsely settled county…was not at all clear to the rural population…As the Eagle was being published some 16 miles south of the county seat, with only a heavy sand trail leading thereto, we naturally took sides with the rural population in the controversy, and on December 11, 1913, came out with an editorial headed, ‘Good Roads or a $100,000 Courthouse—Which?’”
The Bradford Hotel, circa 19teens
Apparently, wild Bill Towles was not a firm believer in freedom of the press, nor as it will be seen, in due process of law generally. About five weeks after Andrews ran his editorial, he was standing in front of the Bradford Hotel when he glimpsed someone standing directly behind his left shoulder. Turning quickly, he confronted big, red-faced “wild Bill” Towles. Towles grabbed Andrews by the throat with his meaty left, and bellowing, “You’re talkin’ too damn much around here,” smashed a meaty right into Andrew’s face, followed by a left to Andrew’s right cheekbone. His glasses knocked askew, Andrews swung wildly, landing a blow “somewhere in the face” and Towles charged him “like a mogul locomotive.” Dazed and partially blinded, Andrews “dashed into an adjoining store.”
Realizing that prosecution of William Towles was futile, Andrews, like the righteous (and courageous) newspaperman he was, hurled another editorial at Towles the following week, describing the assault and stating, “The American Eagle cannot be bought, driven, nor bullied, and I will say further that if anyone thinks he can intimidate its editorial policy by any such tactics as were tried on me last Friday they have another good large guess coming to them.”
Towles’ opponents in the courthouse controversy, led by Harvie Heitman, managed to halt the project twice on legal technicalities. Each time, the county commission opened the project back up to bids, and each time, the bids came in higher. F.P. Heifner of Atlanta got the final contract for $100,000 (equivalent today to over $2 million). Signing of the contract was scheduled for Monday, October 26.
Commissioner Towles was informed that 2 of Heitman’s men would go to the circuit court in Arcadia to seek another injunction against him. The board members immediately authorized him to take any action he felt necessary to push the courthouse project through.
Towles called contractor Heifner into his office. “Close the door behind you,” he said. Heifner shut the door and awaited instructions.
ACL Railway station, Monroe Street
Just before 4:00 p.m. on Monday, October 26, 1914, Heitman’s delegates boarded the Atlantic Coastline train for Arcadia at the railway terminal just across Monroe Street from the courthouse. As the first exhaust SHHHHed from the engine and the steam-driven pistons engaged the wheels, jerking the passengers forward in their seats, Bill Towles led Heifner’s construction crew, armed with crowbars, pick axes and hammers, down Second Street toward the courthouse. Court Clerk H.A. (Berry) Hendry strode out of his office next door and across the lawn to the courthouse. He had two men with him. They began to gather up in their arms the stacks of courthouse records.
The demolition, lit by bonfires, continued into the night. Just so nobody objected or attempted to intervene, Commissioner Towles sat out on the steps of the county clerk’s office feet away from the dwindling courthouse with his shotgun across his lap.
When the train from Arcadia pulled into the station the next morning, it may be supposed that Harvie Heitman was there to meet it. He may have walked with Johnson and Perry to the scene of the destruction across the street where they stood in silence for long minutes, until Francis Perry, a fastidious little man, a music professor wearing round, wire-rimmed glasses, pulled the order granting their injunction from his breast pocket and, without even turning, handed it to Heitman.
Professor Francis Perry
Perry blasted the county commissioners in the Fort Myers Press with the following condemnation: “Might and brute force never make right….the Court House, which was so wantonly and viciously destroyed, was not the property of the County Commissioners, but it was your property and my property, Mr. Taxpayer…It was a valuable building, and an examination of its timbers, which can now be easily made [we can hear Towles snickering as he reads this aloud to his wife over breakfast] shows that it had many years of usefulness…”
Incredibly, they went back to Judge Whitney in Arcadia for another injunction to prevent this wasteful and illegal expenditure of the taxpayers’ money, but the judge just shook his head, stating words to the effect that “that horse had already left the barn.”
ALL OBJECTIONS NOTWITHSTANDING…
Lee County Courthouse
By December of 1915, there it stood in all its neoclassical splendor of solid brick and granite, porticoed with towering Doric columns and opening to a sweeping lobby of marble and carved wood, of wide hallways gleaming with geometric tiles.
It was simply astonishing.
A CENTURY PASSES
Over the next 69 years, the physical and legal infrastructure to support Lee County’s phenomenal growth flowed from this majestic courthouse as from the arteries of a great, beating heart. But this heart, over-worked, grew tired.
By 1984, the population of Lee County was well over 200,000 and the old courthouse and its annexes were so packed with courtrooms and county offices that the juvenile court and some of the clerk of court offices were relegated to the basement.
So everybody in the courthouse packed up and moved into the new, 5-story, $32.5 million Lee County Justice Center across Monroe Street (where the ACL railway station had been).
Lee County Justice Center
But what of the venerable old courthouse left behind? Deserted, decaying and now off-limits to administrative personnel, it stood empty for the next 4 years, its broad hallways and imposing courtroom shut up like a marble tomb.
And then, in 1988, the workmen came back. Masons and carpenters, construction engineers and architects mounted the high, granite steps, pulled open the heavy doors and stood gaping at forgotten grandeur.
Over the next year, at a cost of $5 million, the Lee County Courthouse was restored and renovated, and in 1989, the U.S. Department of the Interior placed it upon the national register of historic places. Towles’ dream courthouse was now under the protection of the United States government.
Today, our state house and senate representatives have their offices in this building, as do, ironically, the Lee County Board of County Commissioners. In fact, the courtroom is their meeting chamber.
“ONWARD, CHRISTIAN SOLDIERS”
The April 13, 1915 issue of the Fort Myers Press tells us that the community’s school children, assembled for the dedication of the new courthouse, sang “Onward, Christian Soldiers.”
Surely, in some heavenly scenario, the echoing voices of those children drift across the lawn of the Lee County Courthouse to where ham-fisted Commissioner Towles lounges in his open buggy, one foot dangling lazily over the dashboard, his cheeks rosy with pleasure.
For more information about the 100th anniversary celebration scheduled for Tuesday, December 1, at the courthouse, please visit https://www.leegov.com/100.