SFWMD to sell Lockett Estate

OKEECHOBEE — A piece of Florida history is for sale.

On Monday, the South Florida Water Management District posted the Edna Pearce Lockett property for sale as surplus land. The 16.77-acre property is on the Southeast corner of U.S. 98 and County Road 721 (116 Lockett Lane) in Highlands County.

Minimum bid price is $160,000.

SFWMD will maintain a flowage easement on part of the property, which borders the Kissimmee River.

According to the SFWMD bid packet, structures on the property include a 4,051 sq. ft. wood frame, two-story residence built in 1897, a 1,700 sq. ft. wood frame, one-story schoolhouse built in 1900, a 708 sq. ft wood frame, one-story house built in 1940, (a 1,008 sq. ft. CBS one-story detached garage built in 1976. The SFWMD bid packet warns, “It is likely that any demolition/dismantling activities will require review by the Florida Department of State, Division of Historical Resources due to the age of the structures and potential historical, architectural, or archaeological value.”

The property includes a private cemetery which is subject to Florida Statute 704.08: “The relatives and descendants of any person buried in a cemetery shall have an easement for ingress and egress for the purpose of visiting the cemetery at reasonable times and in a reasonable manner. The owner of the land may designate the easement. If the cemetery is abandoned or otherwise not being maintained, such relatives and descendants may request the owner to provide for reasonable maintenance of the cemetery, and, if the owner refuses or fails to maintain the cemetery, the relatives and descendants shall have the right to maintain the cemetery.”

Edna Pearce Lockett, who was named to the Florida Agriculture Hall of Fame in 1998, was a distinguished cattle rancher, a Florida legislator and a pioneer for women. Born in Fort Basinger, in 1908 to a Central Florida pioneer family, she grew up on the Pearce family’s ranch near the Kissimmee River.

Her days in ranching spanned from the last of the great cattle drives to the use of helicopters to spot stray cattle, an innovation she introduced, the Florida Hall of Fame notes. She was the third woman elected to the Florida House of Representatives, an officer in the Highlands County and Florida Cattlemen’s Associations and founding board member of Highlands General Hospital.

At the time of her death in 1991, Edna Pearce Lockett’s will put the property in a revocable Trust, specifying that her home, “insofar as possible, be set aside by the Trustees as a historical site.”

The estate included a portion of Basinger, Fishbranch in its entirety, and the cattle ranch located at Fishbranch, comprised of 7,741 acres south of Lake Istokpoga.

According to court records, at the time of Mrs. Lockett’s death, the cattle business was encumbered by mortgage indebtedness of approximately $200,000. Shortly thereafter, the trustees were faced with Federal estate tax liabilities in the amount of $3,402,530, and State estate tax liabilities in the amount of $888,356.The trust had only approximately $10,000 of liquid assets and approximately $68,000 in the form of a tax claim for a refund for the 1988 and 1989 tax years, available to meet the liabilities. Consequently the trustees decided it was necessary to sell the cattle and most of the land in order to pay the debts of the estate.

A real estate appraisal of the property found the Fishbranch parcel was landlocked and the estate had no legal access to the property. Since the 1960s, the ranch had used the roads along the Kissimmee canal, which were owned by the South Florida Water Management District, to travel back and forth between Fishbranch and Basinger. However, Mrs. Lockett had never obtained a permit to use these roads. The landlocked condition of the Fishbranch parcel impeded the Trustees’ efforts to sell it.

SFWMD had expressed interest in obtaining part of the property near the river. In 1993, the Trustees reached a deal with SFWMD. Approximately 615 acres were sold to SFWMD for $1,077,000, and approximately 468 acres were donated to SFWMD. The donated portion included the Lockett family residence, and the other historical sites. As part of the transaction, the Trustees obtained access to the canal roads that allowed entry into the Fishbranch property.

On April 7, 1993, the Circuit Court of Highlands County held a hearing on the proposed gift/sale transaction. The Court approved the transaction, on the condition that SFWMD commit in writing to transfer the Lockett residence and other historical sites at Basinger to a Florida agency that would preserve the sites and keep them open to the public. At the time, SFWMD was in negotiations with Highlands County to lease the historic sites to Highlands County as a museum.

The original deal with Highlands County fell through, and for more than 20 years, SFWMD has been unsuccessfully trying to find a state or federal agency to take over and maintain the historic site. Over the years, Florida Atlantic University. U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and the Florida State Park System have all turned it down.

A 2015 article on the “Abandoned Florida” website, gives the following description: “Neglect and age are starting to take a toll on the buildings of the estate. The main house has rotting floors and roof. The barn is barely standing and several other smaller building are beginning to fall from neglect. There are several concrete lamp posts lining the original drive, but some have fallen over and the boat house along the river is showing signs of the river’s rise and fall. One of the most important features is the Pearce family cemetery which is nestled under oak trees along U.S. Hwy. 98. While the property is not being maintained, the cemetery has been secured to prevent wild hogs from destroying the headstones and disturbing the plots.”

Publisher/Editor Katrina Elsken can be reached at kelsken@newszap.com

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