BASINGER — If you’ve ever driven past the old Edna Pearce Lockett Estate on U.S. 98, on the Highlands County side of the Kissimmee River and wondered what the historic home behind the iron gates looks like inside, this is your chance.
The 2021 Highlands County Heritage Festival will be held at the Lockett Estate on April 17 and 18, from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. each day.
The festival will celebrate Highlands County’s 100th year. It will also celebrate the restoration of the historic home that was almost lost to the elements, estate taxes and government bureaucracy.
The story of the estate
John Mizell Pearce, founder of the homestead, settled with his parents in the Peace River Valley around 1846. In 1858, he married Martha Lanier. John left his business to serve in the Confederate Army in 1863, returning to Fort Meade at the conclusion of the Civil War. After the death of his father, Levi in 1874, John moved his family and business to the homestead site on the Kissimmee River.
As John increased his acreage, he expanded his cattle herd into what was to become the Pearce Cattle Empire. In addition to running the cattle business, John operated a ferry, the Mary Belle, across the Kissimmee River. He also served as a deputy sheriff for the eastern part of what was then DeSoto County. John and Martha’s nine children were all familiar with the family’s cattle business and some settled on the homestead property.
In 1894, William “Sid” Pearce married Meroba “Mellie” Hollingsworth of Arcadia. They had four children. When John Mizell Pearce died in 1897, leaving the estate to his family, Sid assumed management of the business. At his mother’s death in 1911, Sid purchased the main house and surrounding land from the estate and managed the business. Mellie died in 1932. Sid’s son, Clifford, died in a car crash in 1934.
Sid had donated the land and building for the Fort Basinger School house in 1910. His daughter, Edna Pearce Lockett taught school there from 1934 to 1944. After her father’s death in 1944, Edna took control of the ranch. 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. 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.
She was re-elected to the Florida Legislature in 1950 and 1952. She retired from the Florida Legislature in 1953, after her marriage to English wool importer William James Lockett.
"Miss Edna" was a founding member of the Highlands General Hospital and served on the board for the Youth Care Home in Highlands County.
William James Lockett died March 15, 1977.
Edna Pearce Lockett died on May 17, 1991.
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.
Buildings neglected for decades
The original deal with Highlands County fell through, and for more than 20 years, SFWMD was unsuccessful in 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, gave 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.
Thompson couldn't bear the thought of the old home being bulldozed
When the South Florida Water Management District auctioned off the historic Edna Pearce Lockett Estate in February 2017, Lake Placid resident Paul “Butch” Thompson had the highest of the four bids placed. Butch and his wife, Donna, own Ole South Auto Salvage in Highlands County.
In a 2017 interview, Thompson just couldn’t stand the thought of someone bulldozing the old homestead to build a new home on the Kissimmee River. He had driven past the estate many times and thought it was a shame that the SFWMD didn’t do something to preserve it. When he saw the notice that the land was for sale, he decided to take on the project himself.
“It’s a money pit,” he laughed. “But I like fixing things up.”
His first project was to fix the roof and the windows on the main house to make sure it would not be further damaged by the elements.
“The more I got to thinking, the more I realized that as much as I wanted this place, I didn’t want it as much as the place needed me,” he said.
For the past four years, the estate has been restored with loving care. On the main house, the rotting porch was replaced and a new roof keeps the interior dry. The old carpet has been pulled up to reveal the original wood floors. A ramp has been put in for handicapped access.
The old schoolhouse, built in 1900, has a new roof and a new floor. Rotting, termite-damaged timbers and boards were replaced throughout the building, while any undamaged wood and the original doors and windows were preserved.
The Thompsons were unable to save the old horse barn. Some of the wood salvaged from the old barn was used to build a new outhouse, with an upgrade.
Thompson points with pride to the “formal entrance way” with wrought iron gates that open to a path lined with old-fashioned street lamps. When he first surveyed the property, there was so much brush he could not even see the lamp poles. He was surprised to find them when he started mowing. He likes to imagine how, in the 1920s, Model T’s might have come down that drive carrying guests to one of Miss Edna’s parties. Cowboys on horseback used the back entrance, he explained.
Edna Pearce Lockett’s law books are still on the bookcase in the family home. A mural can still be seen on an inside wall. The living room still has the original window swags and light fixtures as well as the fireplace.
Visitors to the heritage festival April 17 and 18 will be allowed to tour the estate, including going inside the main house and the old school house.
The Heritage Festival will also include:
• Color Guard presentation,
• Food vendors,
• Antique cars,
• Craft vendors,
• Educational exhibits,
• Quilt displays and quilt turning,
• Pontoon boat tours of the river,
• Information speakers,
• Cow camp,
• Pow wow dancing, and more.
Festival admission is $5 per car. Tickets for the boat cruise can be purchased at the boat dock.
For information on vendor booths, see the website HeritageAssociation.org
Some information for this article came from the Highlands County Heritage Association.