End of an era: Burgess Supply closing

OKEECHOBEE — Walking in to Burgess Supply is like walking into a paint store and historical museum all in one. Bob Burgess has many interesting pieces of local history and artwork at his fingertips in the store, which will close on Thursday, Nov. 9.

Bob’s dad, Robert A. “Red” Burgess, moved to Okeechobee to manage the local A&P grocery store. It is here in Okeechobee that Red met his wife, Nina Boromei, a native. They married and had three children: Robert Jr., Richard and Patty. Robert “Bob” Burgess, the eldest of the siblings, never knew that a childhood of being a shopkeeper’s son would turn into a life of devotion to our community.

The Burgess family opened Burgess Supply in 1945 on Southwest Osceola Street (aka Fifth Avenue). When the store first opened, they carried all the necessities of farmers and locals, such as feed, hay, fence supplies and chickens.

Enjoy more historical Burgess photos at the end of the story.

Bob recalls that it was his job to tend the chickens, at the tender age of 8. Little did Bob know at that time, this store would be his lifeblood for the next 60-plus years. Bob recalls living near the store, a few blocks to the east of the current CVS, near the Southland Hotel, which was situated at the corner of State Road 70 and U.S. 441. It was easy for Bob to ride his bicycle to the store.

In 1955, the family decided to add saddles, leather products and paint to the store. Bob still has the original records from those sales.

Bob remembered he really disliked going to school, much preferring to be out and about.

He recalled one day running out of school and hiding. Lo and behold, Gil Culbreth’s mom saw him as he emerged from the ditch he had been hiding in, picked him up and took him home to find the local sheriff parked in the yard. With a twinkle in his eye, Bob said, “I really didn’t like school!”

He notes that at that time, he had to go in front of Judge Conely, who invited him to come over and play with the judge’s sons. He recalls that he also joined Cub Scouts. Bob credits this with helping him mature and said, “It was minor compared to what kids are going through today.” Bob later graduated from high school and worked with his father at the business. Bob purchased the business from his father in 1971.

Bob’s father established the relationship with Benjamin Moore Paint, and the store has continued this relationship since the 1950s. When asked why he has paintings in the paint store, Bob responds that it was so he didn’t have to look at paint cans all day. He notes that the only painting he ever purchased was from Robert Butler, but his collection also has paintings by other Highwaymen.

Bob credits longtime employees for keeping the store open as long as it has been and his loyal customer base for always supporting him. He fondly recalls many school boys coming after school to work at the store, with one growing up to be the superintendent of schools.

“They were a blessing,” he said. Of his customers, Bob said, “I think I have treated everyone as fair as I could.

“Okeechobee then and now still is like a family, with its ups and downs over the years,” he added.

Bob gives full credit to Dick Markham and Becky Hornick for their many years of loyalty to him and the business. He notes when asked about owning his own business all these years, “Some people are cut out for it, some people are not.”

For many years, Bob slept on a cot in the store, and later with help built an upstairs apartment at the back of the store, where he resided for 35 years. He notes the apartment is very small and he really doesn’t know how he did it. Bob never married or had children, a decision he says he does not regret because, in essence, he felt “married” to the store. Even when taking short vacations, Bob felt that he needed to get back to the store, saying “I have worked all my life.” Bob noted that he really doesn’t know how he did all that he did, noting softly that “God must have been with me.”

As Bob reminisces about the way things used to be in a one-sheriff town, with ambulances coming from out of town, telling this writer all the changes in these few city blocks, he said,

“It hasn’t been easy work and I wouldn’t say I’d do it again, but it’s in my blood.”

On Nov. 9, Mr. Burgess will have the doors open to Okeechobee for the last time. He is not quite sure what he will do with his time after that.

Mr. Burgess, enjoy your well-deserved retirement.

Leah Suarez is a freelance writer.

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