His story is epic. Perhaps no one in Orlando was more universally loved than this charismatic pioneer from Lockhart.
Gather ‘round and let me learn ya something about the most knee-slapping old pioneer this side of Lake Monroe. Up until now his legend has been long forgotten, but back in 1910 every soul in the county knew his name.
Once upon a time, there was a farmer by the name of David Codie Hill — but you can call him “Code.” He was born in 1845 and raised deep in the heart of cotton country near Lumpkin, Georgia. Code didn’t hold any slaves and wasn’t much into violence, but as a teenager he was conscripted into the Georgia Calvary for the Confederate States of America.
Fortunately he came through the Lost Cause alive and unmaimed. But being as the economy of western Georgia was in tatters, Code reckoned he’d start over somewhere unaffected by Reconstruction. Word spread about the prospects of Florida’s citrus industry south of the supposed frost line. So Code and his wife Alice headed down to Orange County at the edge of civilization.
The couple packed up everything they could carry and traveled by train to Jacksonville, which was as far south as any line went in 1872. From there a steamboat took them down the St. Johns River, winding its way past Palatka and Lake George. A full 24 hours later they arrived at its southern terminus.
Code and Alice stepped out on to Doyle’s Dock and gazed at their new hometown. Wasn’t much to look at! Mellonville was really showing its age. Only a few stores were in sight, along with some rickety old buildings left over from the Seminole Wars. Fortunately things were more promising in the brand new village of Sanford, just a mile west.
They surveyed the surrounding territory for promising tracts. But with one glance upon the sandy shores of virgin Bear Lake, the search was over. This unspoiled landscape was the homestead of their dreams.
The Hills had no neighbors. There was no Longwood, nor Altamonte. No Lockhart, nor Forest City. The closest town to their sprawling estate was “The Lodge,” or Apopka as you new-timers would know it. But even that was a half day’s wagon ride away, over the curving sugar sand trails.
But it was home, and they couldn’t imagine anything more perfect.
Living at Bear Lake was pure joy to Code Hill. He thought it was the finest place in the country to lead a pleasurable life, for those willing to work hard.
“It has never dawned upon our people yet what a grand and glorious state we have,” he praised Florida, “(it is) so easy to make a living. My horses, cows, hogs, and chickens are a continual source of revenue outside of the orange business.”
The southern half of their land was devoted to all types of citrus, mainly oranges and grapefruit. However, Bear Lake Farm became most widely known for its chickens. The game roosters were prize-winning fighters — at a time when the practice was commonplace — and the blue ribbon hens produced the finest eggs and poultry.
One day a friend came over to visit the plantation. Looking out at the large flock of healthy fowls, he was mightily impressed. Code beamed at his buddy with a sort of fatherly pride for his brood and grinned wryly.
“Yes, they sure is fine. And you know, all they ever get to eat is what they can pick up off the ground!”
The friend observed the sandy lot and oak thicket, and his mouth hung open in pure amazement. How was it that such wonderful hens could grow so fat with only what God gave them here? A few minutes later, he noticed a particularly plump hen pecking at a mess of corn kernels on the ground.
He immediately took Code to task about his obvious fib. “I thought you didn’t feed these chickens!”
“All I said was they only got what they picked up!” Code laughed himself almost to the point of falling over. “I throw it down and they pick it up!”
The Haircut Heard Round the World
It was no secret that Code was a staunch Democrat. He had no love lost for the northern Republicans moving into these parts. So when the 1896 election put William McKinley ahead of William Jennings Bryan for the presidency… well that was a very prickly bur in his crawl.
Sitting with some friends at a Lockhart general store, Code made a vow to one and all. “Gents, I will neither cut my hair nor shave my beard until a Democrat once more sits in the White House!”
At first they snickered, but after they realized his oath was sincere no amount of talk would dissuade him. Although, of course, none of them realized just how long a commitment Code had just made. He gave his word, and he was going to keep it. And for the next 16 years the farmer grew out his hair!
His mane (by then almost pure white) poured far past his shoulders. His scruffy beard hung nearly to his waist. Some said he looked like Rip Van Winkle or perhaps a vagrant Santa Claus. Others insisted he favored a disheveled Buffalo Bill. Regardless, he was recognized everywhere he went in Central Florida by his honorary title Colonel Code Hill (though he was only a private in the CSA).
Finally in 1912 democratic candidate Woodrow Wilson was the beneficiary of a three-way battle against William Taft and Teddy Roosevelt. Neither of the men got to 50% of the popular vote, but Woody easily clinched the electoral college and secured a long overdue haircut for Code.
Not one to pass up good-natured fun, the showman announced a public ceremony. Colonel Hill reserved a bandstand on downtown Orlando’s North Orange Avenue. The whole county was abuzz with the news; in fact, the spectacle gathered attention from newspapers across the country.
“Ladies and gentleman: For many years I have been growing these locks and giving all my strength toward the election of a democratic president, and if it had not been for my hair he never would have been elected.” Code announced tongue and cheek to the hundreds gathered, before suggesting that perhaps he would run for president himself in 1916.
Code sat center stage in front of what might be biggest crowd to ever watch a man get shorn. Two barbers tag-teamed the job: one on his head and one on his face. It took sixteen minutes to remove sixteen years of growth. The last of the wavy wisps fluttered to the ground, delighting spectators.
After the task was finished, the colonel arose with nary a hair on his head nor a whisker on his face. The crowd gawked at the gray-eyed stranger before them, but after a few ad-libbed punchlines all were thoroughly convinced the bald-headed humorist was the one and only “Sage of Bear Lake.”
A clown but not a fool, Code commissioned a photographer to take before and after photos. Folks queued up to pay $1 a piece for a photo souvenir, which he quipped would benefit the Code Hill-Woodrow Wilson 1916 campaign fund. Doctor Phillips, the famous local philanthropist and citrus magnate, was said to have been the first in line!
After shaking hands with the sum of adoring on-lookers, Code mounted his sorrel horse and traversed the clay road back to Lockhart. But there was trouble when he arrived back at Bear Lake Farm.
Although Alice recognized him by his signature wide-brimmed tall silk hat, which appeared to be a throw back to the 1850s, the animals… not so much.
“That gol darn dog of mine,” Code said “objected to my very presence… in a snarling kind of way he growled a few times… (but) after sitting on the fence and having a heart to heart talk with that canine, I finally persuaded him.”
The horses also had some trouble believing their ears, but after some calm talking to finally came around. “But alas, my poor game chickens,” Code sighed, “took around the barn at the sight of the stranger and for several days stood back when I attempted to feed them!”
A couple of years later Code’s hair again flowed past his shoulders and his beard sagged down low. Friends asked why he had again refused to shave. With a wide grin on his face, the true blue democrat proclaimed: “I’ll not deprive myself of the pleasure of wearing long hair and a beard until the country once again passes under Republican rule!”
A Horse Named Possum
There was plenty of work to be done around Bear Lake Farm, but every once in a while Code got an itch to venture out. Or maybe he was just running short on money. Either way, he’d take the show on the road, and perhaps go and visit with some family in Tampa along the way.
His favorite horse was a scrawny gray named Possum. Any time Code went on a trip, the plain-looking cow pony was always with him. Bulging saddlebags, a rolled up mattress, coffee pots, pans, and other camping equipment made Possum look all the more pathetic. But that was all part of the tactic.
The duo casually rolled into Kissimmee, Haines City, Bartow, Arcadia, or some other South Florida town. And what a sight they were! Old Code with his cascading white beard and this loaded-down, ornery-looking range horse… they must have appeared half crazy.
The sly Colonel hastened to the first wealthy chap he could find (perhaps one the Englishmen flooding into the area) with a healthy looking thoroughbred. Soon a conversation was struck about the “Sport of Kings,” and old Code upon Possum would challenge the prideful gentleman to a race.
Glancing at the sleepy looking horse, the sucker without fail would accept the bet. The pioneer laid down the rules of the race: to yonder pole and back, a quarter mile in all. Other gamblers scrambled to get in on the action. The confident contender mounted his pedigreed equine and glared over at the chump atop the clumsy gray.
Against the odds, Possum never failed to jolt awake once the gun was fired. Shooting out like a bullet, he infallibly led by several lengths by the turn-around point. Before the other rider could yell “Whoa!” to reverse course, Possum nimbly circled the pole. And by the pureblooded racer’s return the skinny cuss was already munching on a green sprig of sod!
Code collected his winnings and grinned all the way to the next town.
The Sage of Bear Lake Goes West
An Orlando fraternal order once rented a Pullman train car to attend some convention in San Francisco. Since they all enjoyed Code’s company, they invited him to come along as their guest. Upon their return all circulated stories of Code’s non-stop exploits, which had all the makings of a five-star vaudeville show.
At one particular depot in a small western town, Code got out to stretch his legs on a short stopover. A group of wide-eyed boys trailed behind him, which was not all together unusual given his distinctive appearance. But the lads seemed to be pondering something else.
The whistle blew signaling its last call and Code headed back to the iron horse. At that moment, the posse’s intensity grew. Mustering his courage, the bravest of the bunch asked the long-haired old pioneer: “Mister, are you really Buffalo Bill?”
Code contained a chuckle and thought for a split second before answering. “Well, son, that’s what a lot of people call me.”
The boys’ clamor rose to a fever, as Code hung off the steps of the train as it started to pull out of the station. He shook hands with the enamored crowd, waved goodbye, and saluted with his high-crowned silk hat until the station faded into the distant horizon.
Later on at a larger city, the train sided another depot for a ten minute respite. Once again Code wandered out to get a bit of exercise. This time he caught the eye of some grown men, who studied him intently.
Just then one of his travel buddies called out to him, “Cody, you better get aboard before you get left!”
That was all they needed to hear. With outstretched arms the enamored fans of the great cowboy encircled Code. “Well well, Mr. Cody!” They greeted him enthusiastically. With plenty of back slaps and howdy-dos to go around, they begged him to stick around for a while. The stand-in celebrity graciously refused their offer and moseyed back to the sleeper car.
After climbing into the Pullman as it rolled away, Code was now convulsing with laughter. One of his companions asked, “Did you really let those people believe you was the real Bill Cody?”
Overcome with the hilarity of the charade, Code struggled to even reply. “It wasn’t my fault,” he feigned a protest, “and, anyway, they was such a friendly lot I could not bear to disappoint them!”
County Division? Code says Semi-NOle thank you!
As the year 1913 wore on there was a rowdy debate brewing around Orange County. The folks in Sanford, for years jealous of Orlando’s prominence, were fed up and demanded a county of their own.
They traveled to all stretches of the northern half of the county — from Oviedo and Maitland, to Lockhart, Clarcona and Ocoee, to Forest City and Apopka — campaigning for support in their effort. There was great debate upon, if the bid for a new county was successful, where the borders would be drawn.
Code made no bones about it, he was a firm “nay.” A newspaperman asked the Sage of Bear Lake for a prediction on what he thought would happen. Code peered out at the lake, as if the answer was out there on the waters.
“I can see the county divided now,” he replied, “with me over in the new county, and it does not suit me at all. I prefer living in Orange County. There are only five or six people in Sanford who really want county division and those are the ones who expect to hold the offices.”
A few months later the division passed in Tallahassee, and Seminole County was carved out of Orange. The border ended up running right through the middle of Bear Lake Farm. The house Code and Alice built sat just fifty feet north of the line, but their citrus groves fell to the south.
The same reporter asked Code what he would do now that he found himself in the new county.
“Well, this does not mean that I am to vote in Seminole County by any means.” He said with a cunning twinkle in his eye. “I am sleeping in Seminole, but having my washing done… at a lake in Orange County. The law says where a man has his washing done there is he presumed to live, so on this basis I will continue to vote in Orange!”
Fervently faithful to his home county of (at that time) 42 consecutive years, Code threatened to pick up and move the cabin fifty feet south should officials compel him to shift his registration. Supposedly one Seminole politician promised (perhaps in jest) to build him a brick road directly from the courthouse to Bear Lake Farm if he’d shift his allegiance. Code declined.
A stage coach life in an automobile world
By 1922 the snowy locks had fully returned, but Alice had long since passed away. The legendary settler had entered his 50th year living on the Central Florida farm. Unknowingly on the brink of the Great Florida Land Boom’s kickoff, Code had watched new towns intrude upon his seclusion.
The curving dirt paths were being replaced with straight hard roads. Train tracks cut through his property. Neighborhoods and industry began to encroach on his plat from all sides. Automobiles zoomed about from place to place, and the use of horse-drawn wagons dwindled precipitously.
However, Code refused to adopt the motor car and insisted that he would forever travel by horse and buggy. Like always Code kept his promises. So on his frequent visits with cousins in Tampa, his wagon clippity-clopped over the Tampa Highway on the multi-day trip. With the brick road being only nine feet wide, the car-goers weren’t too thrilled as they flew into the shoulder to pass the old fashioned conveyance.
On one such trip he discussed the matter with his family over dinner. “Of course the old dirt roads are gone, and I have to drive over the highway. I give those cars as much room as I can,” he chuckled, “but I guess they’ll pick me up one night, somewhere along that dark road.”
A few months later, Code was crossing the Orlando-Apopka Road at 7PM near a filling station in Lockhart when one of those automobiles struck him. The reckless driver was speeding at 40 miles per hour, and Code was thrown on to the hood. The car didn’t stop.
Code was deposited 200 yards from the collision, finally rolling off as they rounded a corner. Witnesses rushed to his side, but the pioneer was already gone. The assailants were arrested later that night in Sanford, the cracked windshield and other evidence on the Ford left little doubt of their guilt.
The Sage of Bear Lake’s prediction had come true. And he once again had kept his word about not giving up his frontier ways. Code’s son Joseph continued to reside on the family plantation for a few more years, but offered much of he acreage for sale in 1925.
Code lived a clean and honest country life, shunned alcohol, shared sincere friendship and good natured humor with all he met, and was beloved by the entire populous. His legend deserves to live on in our collective memory.
This narrator will leave you with a fitting tribute that the Orlando Sentinel offered to the hero of our story: