Sebring and Avon Park Battle for County Seat

Highlands County CourthouseSebring, Florida. March 3, 2007. Public Domain

When the Florida legislature formed Highlands County from DeSoto County in 1921, it kicked off a heated campaign to decide which town would become the capital city.

In the early 1900s, south-central Florida was dominated by mega-county DeSoto County, itself having been carved from the even bigger Manatee County in 1887. With the population steadily increasing after the turn of the century, the geographically disparate citizens fervently demanded to be split into smaller localities.

In 1921 the state legislature finally passed the measure, breaking the behemoth into five counties: DeSoto, Charlotte, Glades, Hardee, and Highlands. In most new divisions, the presumptive governmental seat was clear-cut. Elections (if held at all) were a mere formality.

Not so in Highlands County. Four towns vied for consideration: Avon Park, Sebring, DeSoto City, and Lake Stearns (later called Lake Placid). Sebring was given the initial leg up, being named the temporary capital at a public meeting in Avon Park on March 11, 1921.

For the next year and a half bitter contest began. Each town coveted the political and economic influence that being the new county’s headquarters would yield. Every possible tactic was used to sway voters; accusations of election fraud and dirty tricks were rampant.

The special election was finally scheduled for November 21, 1922. At the time, Avon Park had a slight population edge over Sebring, each topping 1,000 citizens. The much less populated towns of DeSoto City and Lake Stearns had no realistic shot.

On the eve of the election, the two also-rans pulled out of the competition. It was a given that Avon Park and Sebring voters would, in effect, cancel each other out. Therefore, the fate of the county seat was mainly in the hands of the southern half of the county, with Venus and Hicora also being relevant constituencies.

A reported state record 96.8% of the county’s eligible voters showed up at the polls that Tuesday. Avon Park residents voted 697–15 for their municipality; Sebring citizens 594–5 for theirs. However, once the other precincts reported, the pendulum swung back to Sebring, with 78% of those 351 votes going toward their closest neighbor. The total vote counts were 884 for Sebring to 778 for Avon Park.

After the announcement, parties erupted in the victorious Sebring streets. Celebratory bonfires were lit and rabble-rousers made treks to Avon Park to agitate their defeated rivals. The wounds from this affront and the assaults from both sides in the campaign leading up to it would take years to heal — and in some ways, perhaps have never been fully cured.

Hainz Building was completed in 1923 and was the temporary Highlands County seat of government.

For the next four years, the courthouse offices were located on the second floor of the Hainz Building at 134 Ridgewood Avenue. Meanwhile, trials were held at an open-air courtroom at a pavilion in the Japanese-themed Tuscawilla Park on Commerce Avenue, where City Hall is today.

In August 1925, voters approved a $175,000 bond to begin the construction of the permanent courthouse. After county commissioners’ exhaustive survey of courthouses around the state, well-known Virginia architect Fred Bishop was selected to design the building. Construction began on June 15, 1926, and was completed in March 1927, costing around $250,000.

The massive structure was much larger than actually needed at the time. It represented a changing mindset in Sebring from a rural agricultural community to a sub-urban regional center of power.

It has truly stood the test of time, still serving with distinction as the county’s judicial headquarters nearly 90 years later. It was located at 430 Commerce Avenue and added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1989.

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