SFWMD history started in Okeechobee County

Posted 10/15/21

Okeechobee County welcomed the South Florida Water Management District Governing Board on Oct. 14.

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SFWMD history started in Okeechobee County

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OKEECHOBEE — Okeechobee County welcomed the South Florida Water Management District Governing Board on Oct. 14. To accommodate the SFMWD schedule, the county commission moved their regular meeting to Tuesday. Farm Bureau provided a barbecue lunch, with Okeechobee County Commissioner David Hazellief as the chief cook and members of the Yearling Middle School Future Farmers of America serving the food.

“Welcome to Okeechobee. I always tell people this is the real Florida,” said Okeechobee Mayor Dowling Watford. He asked the board to keep the importance of water supply in mind.

The Historic Okeechobee County Courthouse is an important part of the history of the SFWMD, explained Libby Pigman of the SFWMD Okeechobee County office. The courthouse was built in 1925.

“The hurricane happened in 1928 and there was quite a bit of damage in the City of Okeechobee,” Pigman said. Most of the wooden structures in the city were destroyed. In the City of Okeechobee, 22 people were killed in that hurricane. South of the lake, thousands died.

After the hurricane, President Herbert Hoover came to Okeechobee to view the damages. After his visit, construction began on the Taylor Creek Locks.

1928 President Herbert Hoover visits Okeechobee. The building in the background is the Southland Hotel,
1928 President Herbert Hoover visits Okeechobee. The building in the background is the Southland Hotel,

Taylor Creek Locks construction 1934
Taylor Creek Locks construction 1934

In 1947 there was a terrible flood in most of South Florida, Pigman continued. In the City of Okeechobee, most of the roads were under water for about four months, she said. “This was a very significant event for Okeechobee.

As a result of the flooding that occurred, a group of 300 people came together and met in 1947 in the Historical Okeechobee Courthouse to talk about the terrible flooding and how it could be prevented, she said. They recognized the need for flood control. They started lobbying Congress and state legislature for the formation of the Central and South Florida Flood Control System (C&SF).

The plaque about the establishment of the C & SF Flood Control District which would later become the South Florida Water Management District is in the Historic Okeechobee County Courthouse.
The plaque about the establishment of the C & SF Flood Control District which would later become the South Florida Water Management District is in …
A crowd of about 20,000 celebrated the establishment of the flood control district.
A crowd of about 20,000 celebrated the establishment of the flood control district.

In 1950 there was a celebration of the establishment of flood control with about 20,000 people in attendance, she continued. About 1,500 people lived in Okeechobee County at the time, so this was an impressive crowd for the area. The plaque commemorating the establishment of the C&SF Flood Control District, which would later become SFWMD, can still be seen in the historic courthouse.

Board members expressed appreciation for the welcome they received from Okeechobee County officials, and for the community.

Cheryl Meads called the green open fields of Okeechobee County “the most beautiful place in the world.

“This is the most incredible community. I just love it here,” she said.

Jay Steinle said the cattle leases of SFMWD land is a good partnership. The cattlemen pay rent and also manage the land, which would otherwise be overrun with exotic nonnative vegetation, he explained.

Ron Bergeron said his own family has roots in Okeechobee County. “You are blessed to still have your culture, your roots, your identity,” he said. Bergeron complimented the ranchers who “manage the land and have protected God’s creation because you love the land.”

Jacqui Thurlow Lippisch spoke about the incredible wildlife habitat on the cattle ranches and the pioneer spirit of the people. She said it’s important to remember the history of the area, referencing a copy of the book “Strolling down Country Roads: Okeechobee County, a pictorial history,” by Twila Valentine and Betty Williamson.

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