Flag tells world Okeechobee is proud to be part of USA

Lake Okeechobee News/Cathy Womble

Editor’s note: Judge Jerry Bryant shared the following thoughts at the Dec. 12 dedication of the new flag in Flagler Park, which he calls the “Hamrick Flag.”

OKEECHOBEE — “It is a genuine honor and a privilege for me to be asked to address you folks on this special occasion. Thank you, Gil and Marie and the Culbreth Family for this opportunity. As you know, our nation’s flag is something I have great respect for, and I welcome any chance to speak about it and all that it represents. Today is also special because I get to talk about two of the prominent citizens in Okeechobee history, Col. Richard E. Hamrick and his wife, Annie.

You know, bigger cities have their large parks. Some are massive, like Central Park in NYC, Millennial Park in Chicago, and Golden Gate Park in San Francisco, to name a few. But, many small towns across this nation have parks or town squares that are often the centerpiece of their downtown area. Most are surrounded by government buildings and commercial activities. In years past, these parks were the site of picnics, barbecues and games, as well as public events, political campaigns and welcoming of dignitaries to the town. These parks were important to the life of the community, especially before the age of telephones and mass communication.

Okeechobee is fortunate to have one of the largest, most beautiful parks you will find in a town of our size. And, the credit for that is owed to Col. Richard E. and Annie Hamrick. Any discussion of the history of Okeechobee will, of course, include Peter and Louisianna Raulerson, Judge Henry Hancock, John Hardy Walker, E.M. Meserve, and Drs Roy and Anna Darrow and others, but it would be incomplete if it did not include Col. R.E. Hamrick.

Picture this: 1902. Theodore Roosevelt was President. Okeechobee did not exist. The Lake did, but not the City or the County. Where we are standing was part of St. Lucie County. Some of our pioneer residents decided it was time for this community to have mail service, so they got a post office built. They named the post office after a local school teacher — Tantie Huckabee. The community was then known as “Tantie.”

Now, the Florida East Coast Railroad played a big part in the beginning of our town. Have you ever wondered how Hwy 441 became known as “Parrott Avenue” in town? We are not really known for our exotic birds. And, why do they spell it with two Ts? Well, in 1910 the FEC railroad executives announced the creation of a branch rail line coming to our area, to develop farmlands and to help the cattle, timber, and catfish industries here. They had dreams of a “great metropolis” arising right here at the end of that rail line. The name “Tantie” didn’t fit their vision, so the post office was renamed “Okeechobee.” That’s how we got our City’s name. I imagine it was a rough day for students in Ms. Huckabee’s school when that was announced.

The FEC hired a civil engineer to lay out and survey the new City of Okeechobee. The map of the city showed the main road running north and south to be “Parrott Avenue,” named after the president of the FEC Railroad, J.R. Parrott. Now you know how that came about, but more importantly for us, the map showed the main east-west roadways as North and South Park Streets, separated by a park that ran from near the railroad on the west to Taylor Creek on the east. The park was named “Flagler Park” after Henry Flagler, the founder of the FEC Railroad. Woodrow Wilson became our president in 1913. The war in Europe began in 1914. The City of Okeechobee was established in 1915 by the State legislature. The City existed before the County did.

In April 1917, the United States entered the War in Europe by declaring war on Germany. About that time, a young lawyer came to town from Monticello, Florida, about 30 minutes outside of Tallahassee. When he arrived, there would be only a handful of structures near where we are today. The old bank building where we now stand. Meserve’s Okeechobee Hardware to the south a ways. The Raulerson Building was just recently completed, but he quickly became involved. Later, in August 1917, the State Legislature created Okeechobee County from parts of St. Lucie, Osceola and Palm Beach Counties. Though a relative newcomer to the county, 28 year old R.E. Hamrick was appointed as the county’s first Superintendent of Public Instruction. He successfully ran for reelection to that office in 1918 and served until 1921.

During his tenure as Superintendent he oversaw the first graduation from Okeechobee High School in 1920. Though R.E Hamrick was not a military man, he was called “Col. Hamrick” by the townspeople. I am told that the title came from “Cracker Colonel” and was a way of referring to lawyers back in the early 1900s. As a lawyer, I can tell you that attorneys are not exactly called by those names today. After leaving the School Superintendent office, Col. Hamrick remained actively involved in the legal profession, real estate and cattle for the rest of his life.

The Colonel and his wife, Annie, had three sons, R.E. Jr., David, and Harvey. In addition to the task of caring for her husband and three sons, she received her degree in education from the Florida School for Women, now known as Florida State University. She established the first kindergarten in Okeechobee in the two-story building on Southeast Third Avenue, where for 14 years she started hundreds of children off on their educational journey and the wonders of learning.

Now when the FEC railroad laid out the City of Okeechobee, they formed corporations to sell the farmlands and building sites. The Okeechobee Company was one of those, and that company ultimately held the rights of dedication of the original plat of the City, including Flagler Park. Sometime before 1947, that company went bankrupt and those rights came to be controlled by a West Palm Beach attorney. Col. Hamrick was successful in purchasing those rights in 1947. The Colonel and Annie Hamrick intended that Flagler Park would remain dedicated for public use as a park forever to the benefit of the citizens of Okeechobee, free from commercial use. Their purchase of the rights to this area may well have saved us from having to pay for the use of the park over the years or, worse, having the park turned into commercial use by the prior owner of those rights. Over the years, Colonel and Annie Hamrick have granted public uses for areas within the park. Most notably, the Chamber of Commerce was granted the use of the park area at the 70-441 intersection, where, as a young fella I played tennis on the court next to the original Chamber building and played on the playground east of that.

That playground later was allowed to be replaced by the public library, a tribute to Annie Hamrick’s devotion to the education of the children of Okeechobee. Col. Hamrick continued to support the library after Annie’s death in 1970. The City Police Department is now housed in the old library building. Some of us may recall that prior to the library being built, we had to check our books out from a bookmobile that came to town periodically.

As a very young child, I recall going with my dad to watch men’s softball games on a ball field located in the park just west of City Hall. Later, the Hamricks permitted the county to build a public swimming pool on that area of Flagler Park and I had the pleasure of spending many hours in that pool as a member of the swimming team. The pool is gone, but a City park is there now.

Annie Hamrick died in 1970. Col. Hamrick passed away in 1990, but through the work of the original FEC planners, coupled later with the foresight and generosity of Col. R.E. and Annie Hamrick, we have had the benefit of Flagler Park for innumerable functions and events over the past 100 years. For years, travelers through Okeechobee have remarked about the beautiful park we have. Today, we add something that will make our park even more grand.

It is common, if not mandatory, that government buildings and offices display the American flag on a pole out front. That does a couple of things: t reminds the world that we are part of the United States, and it helps us find the post office in strange cities.

But, a community that flies a huge flag proudly atop a 70 foot pole in the center of its park does much more. Our Veteran’s Memorial Park just three blocks east of here has a beautiful flag mast with the American flag and flags for each branch of our military. It is a wonderful display and a tribute to our veterans we honor there. The flag we raise today will be a magnificent complement to the Veterans’ Memorial. And it will do much more. Today in our nation we have some troubling trends. There is a political civil war going on with a complete loss of civility and common sense. There is a lack of respect for any form of authority. There is a lack of gratitude for the good things done and accomplished by our ancestors, for the sacrifice of our military, law enforcement, and first responders, and for the “benefits” provided at taxpayers’ expense. Greed has replaced community spirit. Few still ask “What can I do for my country?” Schools and local governments are banning the display of the flag because it may offend someone, and national pride is being eroded by “free speech,” by kneeling athletes, by undisciplined students, and by ignorant protesters who can’t tell you how many stars are on the flag that they now disrespect. This flag we raised today will send a different message. It will be lit so it will fly 24 hours a day. It will be visible to travelers through our town from nearly Hwy 98 to the west, the overpass to the east, the railroad track on North Parrott, and for many blocks south. This flag will tell the world that Okeechobee is proud to be part of this country, the greatest nation on the planet. It will tell the world that regardless of our background, we share common values and common desires. That we are all the same under the flag.

In Irving, Texas, “The Great Flag Caper” was started by one woman who placed a flag on her home and then on the homes that surrounded hers. This patriotic effort was the catalyst that resulted in 40,000 flags being placed on every home, business, and church in that town in 2018. Okeechobee does not have 40,000 flags to display, but we have the next best thing. We now have a 30 by 20 foot flag that says our 40,000 residents love this country and respect all that our Star Spangled Banner stands for. The Hamrick flag is a symbol of our nation’s values and our belief in those values. It lets the world know that the citizens of Okeechobee don’t just live in America, but that America lives in us. Long may it wave.

This afternoon the new flag was raised by military veteran employees of the City of Okeechobee. These individuals have served under our nation’s flag and it is fitting that they have the honor of raising our flag today. Because of the unfortunate and senseless deaths of three of our servicemen at the hands of terrorists in Pensacola recently, flags across the nation have been ordered to fly at half-staff, so today our flag was hoisted to the top of the pole and then lowered to a half-staff position, where it will remain until the mourning period is ended.

In closing, let me express my personal gratitude to the Culbreth family for letting me be part of this special event, and thank you for honoring Col. R. E. Hamrick and Annie Hamrick and their contributions to our community. But more than that. Thank you for your love of our community and our nation and your willingness to show it so publicly.

And to all of you, thank you for your presence today and your kind attention.

God bless you all and God bless the United States of America.”

Judge Jerry Bryant

Lake Okeechobee News/Cathy Womble

Lake Okeechobee News/Cathy Womble

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