Since before the Civil War, the Harn-Mathis Family has intertwined itself into the fabric of the LaBelle and the South Florida area. One member, Ray Harn, says with a smile that they must be related to just about everybody in the area.
The road to Florida
The SCF Pioneer Family for 2017 originally came to the United States some time in the 1700s. Family lore has it that that original ancestor may have been a man of means and a favorite of King George. It is said that he first came to Maryland with 16 indentured servants. It is believed that he received some land grants and eventually made his way to South Carolina and then Georgia.
Coming to Florida
Ray is not sure when the family came to Florida, but there were five brothers who ended up living in forts in the Alachua area in 1824 during the Seminole Indian Wars. The Second Seminole War lasted from 1835-1842. At some point, the brothers split up and went to various sections of Florida. Ray thinks that might have been a reaction to the Armed Occupation Act in 1842, which was intended to encourage people to move into South Florida. According to the act, any single male 18 years or older or a head of family could apply for 160 acres or more. They were required to establish a home within one year, clear and enclose at least five acres and live on the property for five consecutive years in order to get free title to the land.
Ray’s great-grandparents William Hardee Harn and Sara Webb Harn came to Bermont (Manatee County), located near what is now the intersection of CR 31 and 74, before the Civil War. Ray points out that, at that time, there was no Glades or Hendry or even Lee County. (Lee County was carved from Monroe in 1887; Hendry became a county in its own right in 1923; and Glades in 1921).
His ancestors, indeed, did their part to populate Southwest Florida. William Hardee and Sara had ten children, including Ray’s grandfather, William Washington Harn. It was William Washington who moved to that Monroe County property. Eventually, that area became DeSoto County and is now Glades County. William Washington continued to homestead there, like his father before him.
That’s really where the Harn’s history in this area begins. He and his wife, Willie Agnes Mathis Harn, homesteaded that former DeSoto land that today is at the intersection of SR 74 and CR 736, south of Rainy Slough (on Farabee Road near the old one room schoolhouse in what is now a deserted area known as Tasmania.
Both are buried at Fort Denaud Cemetery. The couple had 14 children – all married into local families, so the claim that the Harns are kin to just about everybody in the area has good standing.
Julian Harn was their first born and he married Mildred Stewart. Second child, Lula, married Sam Farabee (who served as a Glades County commissioner at one time); As with so much that happened in the “old days,” verification is difficult, but Ray said family stories include encounters with Seminoles.
Ray remembers his Great Grandmother Willie Agnes sitting in her front yard recounting old family stories. According to one her husband, worked far away and was gone all week long, returning only on the weekends, so she was left alone at home in Rainy Slough with just her children. Keeping a gun in the house to guard against many dangers was an absolute necessity in those days. She recalled for her family that often a group of friendly Indians would come by their place. She would have one of her boys take the gun and stand at the window within view of the visitor while she went to the door to see what they wanted. It was most always salt, she had told them.
Over the years, the Harn family has contributed to the area and the region in many small and big ways.
Regionally, branches of the Harn family have supported education.
One of the family branches, the family of Samuel Peeples Harn, raised funds to establish the University of Florida Harn Museum of Arts in Gainesville.
Liza Harn was the first public school teacher at Cedar Key. She donated property to the school board and a family graveside there is maintained in front of the school.
Louis Harn owned Harn’s Marsh in Buckingham in Lee County, which he sold to LeHigh Corporation in the ‘80s. He also donated land for an Harn’s Marsh Elementary and Middle Schools located there now.
In the ‘50s and ‘60s Gene and Ray worked in the heavy equipment business in addition to Gene’s service as a county commissioner. There was a lot of land clearing going on in those days. Timber was a big draw to this area. Gene also served as a Hendry County Commissioner.
Ray’s mother Mag worked for the family as well. She worked at Ella Mae Harris’ dress shop (located at that time in the old Flora and Ella’s building) and many will remember her from her years in the school lunch room.
Ray himself worked with kids through Caloosa Baptist Church during the mid ‘80s, taking 5-6 kids to U-Save and Winn-Dixie parking lots to sell many a fundraiser ticket. That community spirit and easy generosity displayed by local folks continues to run deep in LaBelle hearts and Ray can’t help but compare it other towns. Those are “cut flower” communities, he said, but in LaBelle people have roots. When you grow up here, you establish it as your home, he said. “That’s all there is to it.”
Living in this area, Ray is sure that he “hasn’t missed a thing.”
“Modern” family stories
Family stories often reflect the changes in society.
According to Ray, his grandmother decided she wanted an indoor toilet – a luxury his grandfather thought was the most “indecent” thing he’d ever heard of. Still, all the other folks around had one and grandma had her heart set on one. So they compromised. Grandpa put a bathroom in out on the back porch – and he continued to use the old outhouse.
There are times when communities require a lot of personal sacrifice. Such was the case for families throughout the country during World War II. When Lonnie was drafted he became a member of the famous Darby’s Rangers. Captured by the Germans with many members of his unit in Italy, Lonnie became a Prisoner of War. After escaping several times, his captors threatened to kill him if he tried it again, so he laid low for a while. When the Allies were finally approaching the camp, the German guards ran off. Lonnie and his fellow captives left their prison and found the Allies.
Back home, his family believed he was dead.
One day Grandma Willie Agnes was rocking on her front porch on Calhoun Street when she saw a very skinny man walking toward the home. Noticing he was wearing an army uniform, she finally realized that it was her boy, coming home. WW was in the back hoeing weeds in his “chewfers” (grown for horse feed).
Jumping up from her rocker, she hollered, “Pa! Lonnie’s home – and he’s alive!”
It turned out that after he returned to US forces, he was quickly discharged and a letter sent to his parents – but Lonnie made it home before the letter did.
Today’s Harns are heirs to the pioneer spirit that led them to this area in the first place.
There are so many connections to the past and the community in Ray’s family. The Captain Hendry House is the only remaining structure in the county linked directly to the man whose name the county bears. It now belongs to the City of LaBelle, but for years the property it lies on belonged to Caloosa Baptist Church. Ray and other church members - the late Tommy Woosley and the late Mildred Sherrod (herself a member of the pioneering Roberts family) restored the Hendry House porch the first time - probably since it was built circa 1914. Unable to agree on an appropriate color to paint the porch, they decided to paint it whatever the first color sandblasting revealed. That turned out to be an “ugly” shade of yellow that none of them liked, but they stayed true to their agreement anyway.
Many of our ancestors left little documentation of their lives. People didn’t have time to document their lives, they were too busy living them. But families like the Harns have preserved memories, passed on their strong work ethic and their connection to the land. As Ray Harn says, “It’s just home.”