New owner is reviving the Edna Pearce Lockett Estate

FORT BASSINGER — When the South Florida Water Management District auctioned off the historic Edna Pearce Lockett Estate on U.S. 98 and County Road 721 in February 2017, Lake Placid resident Paul “Butch” Thompson knew immediately that he wanted the 16.77-acre property, which is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

The Edna Pearce Lockett Estate, seen here, was built in 1897; it is located in Fort Bassinger in Highlands County. Photo courtesy of Highland News-Sun.

Thompson and his wife Donna, who own Ole South Auto Salvage, also own property in Venus, where many Pearce family members live. Minimum bid was $160,000, the appraised value of the property. A $20,000 deposit was also required. Thompson’s sealed bid was $265,000 or $55,000 more than the next highest bidder.

The Edna Pearce Lockett Estate is steeped in Old Florida history and natural beauty, and that is part of why Thompson wanted to bid on it. Located on the banks of the Kissimmee River, it’s the site where Gen. Zachary Taylor and his troops built Fort Basinger during the Third Seminole War in 1837.

It’s where Lockett’s great-grandfather, the Rev. Levi Pearce, homesteaded after falling in love with the land while serving as a soldier in Taylor’s army.

Lockett, a distinguished cattle rancher and the third woman to be elected to the Florida state legislature, spent most of her 82 years at the home, until her death in 1991.

Buildings on the property include a 4,050 square foot, wood-frame, two-story house built in 1897 by Lockett’s father, William Sidney Pearce; a one-story schoolhouse, where Lockett taught for several years, built in 1900; a one-story wood frame cottage built in 1940; and a garage detached from the house, built in 1976.

The property also has a family cemetery where John Mizell Pearce, Lockett’s grandfather, and other Pearce family members are buried; a gazebo, a dock, a boat house, lots of giant oak trees covered with Spanish moss, a formal entrance with a wrought iron gate facing U.S. 98, and a pathway from the entrance to the house, which is lined with lampposts, called Lockett Lane.

The Pearce Family Cemetery is on the grounds of the Edna Pearce Lockett Estate in Fort Bassinger. Photo courtesy of Highland News-Sun.

Neglect and age have taken a toll on many of these buildings. In 2017, the main house badly needed a new roof and a new porch, the horse barn was near collapse, the boat house had come off its foundation, and the grounds were overgrown with weeds and brush.

Some people might want to demolish such old buildings and build anew, but Thompson wants to save as much of the property as he can and let the public enjoy it too. That’s what Miss Edna, as she was affectionately called, also would have wanted.

Butch Thompson, owner of the Edna Pearce Lockett Estate, stands next to bricks saved from an early Pearce family home. The bricks were used in the construction of a fireplace. Photo courtesy of Highland News-Sun.

Thompson has made extensive improvements to the property in the last year and a half. He rebuilt the decaying porch on the front of the house. He removed the yellow, stained carpeting inside the house, exposing the much more attractive oak floors.

He was about to replace the roof when Hurricane Irma hit. Fortunately, he had patched and sealed the roof, so the house didn’t suffer any water damage or mold, but it was a year after Irma before the roof could be replaced.

The electrical system now runs on 110 volts instead of 220 volts, and the lights work in the house. The plumbing in the house is in bad shape, so Thompson does not plan to run water in the house.

Thompson demolished the collapsing horse barn, but he used the wood from the barn to construct a new outhouse. He bought a new gazebo and built a new roof over the pavilion, because both were destroyed by Hurricane Irma.

The boat house and the pump house are enclosed buildings, which were sitting on SFWMD property next to the Kissimmee River. SFWMD does not allow enclosed buildings on property it owns, so Thompson moved both buildings to higher locations.

Since the buildings are on the National Register, the moves had to be approved by the Florida Department of State, Division of Historical Resources.

Unfortunately, Irma destroyed a number of giant oak trees that were a tremendous expense to cut up and remove. Thompson now has his own bucket truck, so he can trim the trees periodically himself. He also cleared away a lot of the brush covering Lockett Lane. As part of the bid, Thompson agreed to maintain the Pearce family cemetery and to give visitation rights to relatives and friends. He has cleaned the gravestones and sometimes he and his wife place flowers on the graves. Thompson recently hired Burke Marine Construction to rebuild the deck on the dock. Since SFWMD maintains a flowage easement on the part of the property that borders the Kissimmee River, Thompson had to get a permit from SFWMD in order to have the work done. Thompson has won praise for his accomplishments. SFWMD spokesperson Randy Smith said, “It’s nice that the owner has respect for the property and its history.”

“Butch is our hero,” said Loisa Kerwin, manager of the Riverwoods Field Lab, who has partnered with SFWMD for the last 20 years on the Kissimmee River Restoration Project. “He lets us dock our Kissimmee Explorer pontoon boat, which I use for Student Field Studies and Eco-Tours at his property, and lets me bring my guests across the property to access the boat … He’s also doing important work fixing up the homestead.”

Dan Johnson Jr., Miss Edna’s great-nephew, spent many summers at the property when it was a working ranch and he is eager to see what Thompson has done. Rancher Brad Phares, fourth great-grandson of Capt. John Mizell Pearce, is delighted with Thompson’s enhancements, which he sees when he periodically lays a wreath at his relative’s grave to honor him and his service as a member of the Cow Cavalry during the Civil War. The riders who re-enact the Florida Cracker Trail Ride each February have stopped at the Pearce Homestead for lunch for more than 20 years. Thompson has encouraged them to continue the tradition.

Riders stop for lunch at the Edna Pearce Lockett Estate in Fort Bassinger during a recent Cracker Trail Ride, an annual cross-state ride held each February. Photo courtesy of Highland News-Sun.

One might ask … why wasn’t more done to preserve the Lockett Estate in the 26 years between Miss Edna’s death and 2017? To answer that question, one has to know the history behind SFWMD’s acquisition of the estate and what its mandate was during those years. In 1993, SFWMD expressed interest in obtaining part of the Lockett Estate for the Kissimmee River Restoration Project. Trustees worked out a deal whereby 423 acres of land, including Miss Edna’s residential property, were donated to SFWMD and 615 acres were sold to SFWMD. The Circuit Court of Highlands County approved the transaction, on the condition that SFWMD commit in writing to transfer the Lockett property to a Florida agency that would preserve the historic site and keep it open to the public. At the time, SFWMD was in negotiations to lease the property to Highlands County as an agricultural museum. The deal fell through, and for the next 23 years, SFWMD tried unsuccessfully to find another agency to take over and maintain the property. Florida Atlantic University, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Commission, and the Florida State Park System all declined SFWMD’s overtures. Highlands County was offered the property a second time with a teaser of $500,000 to administer it. It still turned down the offer. The property was put up for auction only as a last resort.

An earlier article, published by the Okeechobee News, recounts the sale. See it online at https://lakeokeechobeenews.com/government/sfwmd-sell-lockett-estate/.

By Ingrid Utech, Highland News-Sun
Reprinted with permission

Reporter for the Highland News-Sun.

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