Gordon Barnett’s Fern Park was riding high until Hibbard Casselberry incorporated a new town smack dab in the middle.
Ask your average Seminole County resident: Where is Fern Park? If they have even heard of it, they’ll probably tell you: South of 436 and north of Maitland Boulevard on 17–92. Long-time residents may reference the former line of strip clubs that made it notorious.
But skipping back a few decades, an orphaned piece of Fern Park used to be north of Casselberry and south of Longwood. Rewinding the tape further, we encounter a surprising coup d’etat that created the town of Casselberry smack dab in the middle of downtown Fern Park. It was an anything-but-civil war for the very right to exist.
For more background, see the previous articles I have shared on the earlier history of the area:
- Casselberry’s Concord settlement is the oldest in south Seminole County
- Fern Park, Florida and the Largest Industry Under One Roof
Today we’ll pick up where we left off, starting in 1940 when the battle began to heat up…
As you’ll recall from the last article, Fern Park founder Gordon Barnett’s popularity was riding high. While friend-turned-rival Hibbard Casselberry lost his race for school board in 1932, Barnett easily won the Florida House of Representatives election in 1936.
However, Barnett’s golden boy status didn’t last long. Public opinion quickly turned against him in 1937 after a failed attempt to incorporate Fern Park. The widely unpopular measure was blocked by frantic locals who rushed to Tallahassee to prevent the governor from signing the bill.
Barnett had no hope of being reelected. Hibbard Casselberry was delighted. The power vacuum was just the opportunity Hibbard had been waiting for!
With Barnett established as the villain, Hibbard eagerly cast himself as the hero. And while early on Casselberry seemed like the populist savior, over time, his authoritarian tilt would dwarf that of Barnett.
Hibbard Casselberry was born in 1893. His father was a successful surgeon and university professor from Chicago. His mother was heiress to one of the largest hardware brands in the nation, which has corporate lineage to True Value. Her maiden name was Lilian Hibbard, lending her son his distinctive first name (and eventually her first name to Hibbard’s youngest child, Lilian Casselberry Selph, who today is still a well-known resident).
Hibbard came to Central Florida in 1926, first on vacation to Winter Park. After a while, he fell in love with the area (and the opportunity for wealth) and decided to stay. He was popular about town, known as a personable yet flashy socialite. For example, in the 1930s, he loved cruising around in a British-style right-hand drive car; he ate up the attention it brought him.
The Illinois native was famous for his big smile but even more for his business acumen. He had a nose for opportunity. The shrewd entrepreneur usually found himself thinking three steps ahead of the competition.
In 1937 Hibbard convinced the Atlantic Coast Line Railroad to add a flag station at Plumosa Avenue. Beside the depot, he also negotiated a spur to link the line to the Casselberry Packing House (where Target is today). The stop was welcomed by locals; however, there was consternation when the station was dubbed not “Fern Park” but instead “Casselberry.”
What the heck?! Other local ferneries thought. Why would the sign say “Casselberry?” For two decades, the area had been called “Fern Park.” Casselberry was the name of one business in the town of Fern Park. The audacity of Hibbard Casselberry! The ego!
While the move frustrated business rivals, most wrote it off as a branding play. But in reality, it was just the opening move of Hibbard’s long game. Three years later, his actual plan would be revealed, and the identity war for the town began in earnest.
The next chapter began in April 1940: Hibbard petitioned the County Commission to re-plat much of the southern half of the unincorporated Fern Park precinct as “Casselberry, Florida.” That plat included property owned by arch-rival Gordon Barnett… who, you can imagine, was not thrilled!
While Barnett was the leading voice of the resistance, many residents and businesses joined the protest. They insisted the designation of this new town in the middle of Fern Park was confusing to visitors and harmful to local businesses. Most of the population stated they had no desire to rename their locality to suit Casselberry’s vanity.
The Seminole County Commission took up their appeal but sustained the original decision. Perplexingly, at the same meeting, they adopted a resolution suggesting the Casselberry designation should be dissolved:
“Therefore be it resolved by the Board of County Commissioners of Seminole County, Florida that because of the intermingling of the names of the locality known as Fern Park, Fla. and that as Casselberry, Fla. and incorporating of certain parts of Fern Park Estates in the plat of Casselberry, Fla. will cause great confusion it would be advantageous to the public welfare that said plat in its present form be removed.”
Parsing their apparent contradiction, the Commission believed it was not in the public interest to create this duality. It would be better to continue to call the area Fern Park, as it had been known since the 1920s. However, they were unwilling to strike it down because it was completely legal. Hibbard Casselberry’s expensive attorneys had done their job well!
Gordon Barnett had one last card to play. He and his wife Mell filed a lawsuit against the Commissioners, the Casselberry family, and the Casselberry’s various corporations. The suit requested the new plat be vacated entirely.
On September 5, 1940, Judge Millard B. Smith ruled the plat was legally proper, except for the part relating to Barnett’s own property. Hibbard responded by resubmitting the plat to the Board — minus Barnett’s land. That measure passed unanimously, and Gordon Barnett had no legal standing to file further injunctions. “Casselberry, Florida” was officially on the map.
Just a month later, an emboldened Hibbard Casselberry was ready to take the next step in his hostile takeover. He met with his attorneys, G. W. Spencer and Herschel Moats, to ensure every letter of the law was followed. They mapped a wandering boundary snaking through the heart of Fern Park, painstakingly including just the properties of Hibbard’s employees and allies.
Gordon Barnett’s fernery to the west, along with the homes of Barnett employees, were excluded. Frank Vaughn’s Standard Fernery and his friends and staff to the north were likewise left outside the boundary. Only the Casselberry loyal around the southern half of Lake Concord were included.
On October 10, 1940, a hand-crafted audience gathered intending to incorporate the municipality of Casselberry, Florida. Barnett was tipped off to the proceedings and rushed to intervene.
The uninvited guest repeatedly offered objections; however, the battery of lawyers shot down Barnett’s every attempt. Since the proposed town limits excluded Barnett’s property, he not only had no vote but was told he had no right to speak at the meeting at all.
“When he tried to make motions and impede the proceedings, we sat on him,” Hibbard told a newspaper reporter.
Besides Gordon Barnett, three-fourths of the 196 registered voters within the Fern Park precinct were similarly left out of the meandering corporate boundaries. So with only friendly faces in the voting body of 46, the measure easily passed with only one voting against it. The town of Casselberry was incorporated, and Hibbard Casselberry was appointed its first mayor.
If only that was the end of the story: Casselberry was born, and Fern Park faded into the sunset. But that’s not how it happened. Instead, it went from a couple of feuding families to an all-out war.
The Tax-Free Town
The unique thing about 1940 Casselberry was that it was a “tax free town,” meaning it charged no property taxes. This boast was a major selling point to home buyers. It would retain that status until 1976 when the voters agreed to levy municipal taxes — seven years after Hibbard Casselberry’s death.
How did the city carry out any of its responsibilities without taxes? Everything was accomplished by volunteer labor, state refund from the cigarette tax, covered by one of the Casselberry family’s many business enterprises, or they’d simply pass the hat and ask for donations from residents.
No taxes! It is tempting to laud Hibbard Casselberry as a benevolent saint, creator of an Eden. And that is how many residents saw him. The founder deeded numerous parcels of his vast acreage for local civic, religious and social needs. He kept town finances viable by donating his corporation’s money and services toward government operations.
But, to be sure, this tax-free banner was a calculated move. For one, he got rich on the brisk real estate sales of those eager to live in a tax free zone. Secondly, the Casselberry’s lack of a real budget made it effectively beholden to Hibbard. Consequently, in its first few decades of life, Casselberry was essentially a company town. Hibbard earned the title “King of Casselberry.”
The Casselberry family owned the majority of the land: residential lots, business district, and thousands of undeveloped acres. They owned the utilities, water, garbage collection, construction, and road building. Most businesses were tenants in Casselberry owned buildings. The Casselberry family occupied many positions of power in government, religious and social groups. Those that they didn’t hold directly were controlled by proxy.
But besides all that, the tax-free status made Hibbard Casselberry the exact opposite of Gordon Barnett — who had intended to tax residents in his failed incorporation of Fern Park. By agreeing to annex into Casselberry, owners were told they were protecting themselves against annexation by Longwood or Altamonte Springs… or the “inevitable” incorporation of Fern Park.
Town Rivalry Heats Up
Fern Park’s unincorporated borders were vast. The district extended on both sides of the New Dixie Highway (17–92) from Longwood-Oviedo Road (434), all the way south to the Orange County line.
So at that point, Fern Park was the behemoth, and Casselberry was merely this annoying cut-out in its center. This crazy map confused customers and visitors alike. Drivers along 17–92 passed through Fern Park, Casselberry, and then Fern Park again.
In short order a rivalry erupted between those identifying as Casselberry against those claiming Fern Park. The Casselberry faithful felt inadequate about the size of their mini-town. Not only were they determined not to be merely a subsection of the larger district of Fern Park, but their ultimate goal was also nothing short of complete annihilation of their older rival.
One of the first shots fired was a spat over highway signage. Fern Park residents hand-painted “Welcome to Fern Park” signs and placed them along 17–92. These placards sandwiched the town of Casselberry, positioned at its northern and southern town limits.
Whether the Fern Park settlers intended it as an insult to the sovereignty of the town-within-a-town or not… you decide. But one thing is for sure, Casselberry folks took it as such. They fumed.
On multiple occasions, unknown Casselberry assailants pilfered the signs under cover of darkness. Ads in the local newspaper sought their return after the 1948 and 1951 incidents. Despite the reward money, the signs were never located. The perpetrators were never charged.
Reportedly, the town marshal of Casselberry privately admitted to taking one of the signs in 1948. Supposedly he was ordered to remove the aggravating marker at the command of Hibbard himself.
In the reward advertisement for the signs below, one can’t help but think the reference to the “vacant Casselberry Garment Factory” was meant as a direct jab at Hibbard. His clothing factory, which manufactured parachutes during World War II, closed up shop in 1946.
Gordon Barnett Surrenders, Moves On
With the decorative fern industry on a downward spiral and Hibbard seemingly beating him at every turn, Gordon Barnett was weary of the fight. He began to look for his exit from Fern Park in the early 1940s.
Although he did not sell his fernery until 1954, Barnett left Fern Park in 1944. The family (wife and two children) purchased a corner-lot home in Edgewater (College Park) from J. Neal Greening, former president of the Florida Bank at Orlando, for $14,000. Today the corner-lot residence (built in 1940) is valued at over a million dollars.
From that west Orlando vantage point, Barnett scouted for new real estate frontiers to conquer; and found it. In 1945 he closed on 2,100 acres of pine woods, well past the western edge of town. Back then, Colonial Drive stopped at Orange Blossom Trail, and not even a dirt road touched Barnett’s parcel. However, perhaps learning from Hibbard’s success, the entrepreneur heard rumors of a future cross-state highway.
Five years later, Highway 50 was built directly through his land. His bet had paid off, and Barnett opened up the booming subdivision of Pine Hills. With its country club and reasonable prices, it was the preeminent suburban locale for the white working class during the 1950s and 1960s.
Hibbard the Don
With Barnett in his rearview, Hibbard Casselberry could extend his monarchy virtually unchecked. Operating with all the swagger of a mafia boss, Hibbard demanded absolute loyalty from constituents.
At first, his charisma, booming tax-free town, and goodwill from his civic generosity carried his approval ratings. However, over time cracks in his reign began to develop. In 1949 former town officials, including R. J. Bevan (two-time Casselberry mayor), began to speak out about Hibbard’s autocracy. The battle was waged both in newspaper print and in personal confrontations.
Bevan, a World War I veteran, told the Orlando Evening Star: “I went to war 32 years ago to stop just what is going on in Casselberry at this time.”
It was April 1949 when Hibbard strolled into Bevan’s service station, ordering him to refuse service to Arthur Labb. The reason? The Labb family operated the Pollyanna Tourist Court in Fern Park. Despite Hibbard’s fervent behest, Labb rejected annexing into Casselberry. Motel advertising already said Fern Park and Labb saw no compelling reason to change.
Bevan informed Hibbard that he would not turn away a good friend and customer. In response, Hibbard, who owned the building, told him to turn in his keys at the end of the month. It was no idle threat. Bevan continued to sell gas to Labb, and Hibbard put him out of business that same month.
Grocery store owner Cletis R. Lowdermilk found himself in a similar predicament. The king of Casselberry paid him a visit, ordering him to turn away customers that refused to annex their properties into Casselberry. Lowdermilk refused. Hibbard opened a new grocery across the street and directed everyone under his influence to shun Lowdermilk’s market.
Even the church could not escape the fray. Arthur Labb and Tillie Fuller of Fern Park were appointed to the board of stewards at the Community Methodist Church in Casselberry. Hibbard fumed and told Reverend Russell D. Shaw to have them removed immediately.
The pastor, a WW2 veteran and American Legion chaplain, informed Hibbard that he did not take kindly being told how to handle church business.
“I am in Casselberry to preach the Gospel,” he said, “Even if I were so inclined, I have no authority to dismiss (them)… Furthermore, we will not accept a dictatorship. Neither am I fearful of any (of your) threats to ruin the Casselberry Church and my future ministry.”
As a result, Hibbard informed the pastor he had 30 days to vacate the parsonage (which the church rented from Hibbard). Additionally, the sanctuary was virtually emptied; Casselberry, a church member who had donated the land where Community Church still sits today, ordered the return of all of the items he had loaned them: more than 100 chairs, the minister’s pulpit, and the sacrament table.
Two years later, Hibbard hand-picked a slate of candidates in a hotly debated 1952 town election. He expected no opposition. However, a new faction, calling itself the Citizen’s League, rallied to support an alternate list that was not under Hibbard’s thumb.
Harmon Rice was the editor of the town’s weekly newspaper, called The Floridian. Feeling it was his objective duty, the paper published the complete list of candidates with editorials representing both sides. One night on his way home from the Casselberry print shop, Rice saw headlights closing in on him. The vehicle sped beside him, swerved, and forced him to the side of the road. Out stepped Mr. Casselberry.
According to Rice, Hibbard informed the publisher that he was required to support his ticket and insisted the names of opponents should not be printed in future editions. Before returning to his vehicle, Hibbard reminded Rice that his print shop was housed in a Casseberry-owned building. Hibbard recalled Rice might be behind on his rent. He wasn’t.
Rice, a journalist for 30 years, replied that journalistic ethics obligated him to share both sides. Hibbard grimaced and made some not-so-veiled remarks about the publisher’s well-being. According to Rice, he took the threats seriously enough that he rearranged his desk to face the door and, for several weeks, carried a handgun in his belt at all times.
The election came and went. Hibbard’s candidates won by a dominant margin, but the vendetta with Rice was not done. A flurry of lawsuits and accusations flew in both directions. Hibbard had Rice arrested on libel charges (based on a letter to the editor), but the charges were ultimately dismissed. Within a year, Rice closed his newspaper and print shop; he died of a heart attack weeks later at age 55.
Those loyal to Hibbard Casselberry insisted all of the accusations were unfounded. They suggested these folks were simply jealous rivals or busybodies; however, it’s hard to dismiss the volume of similar reports, of which those listed here are just a subset.
To those in his favor, Hibbard Casselberry was without equal in the county. In their estimation, Hibbard was an always jovial hero. He built the city of Casselberry out of pure determination and was always quick to step up for any worthy cause in his namesake city. In their eyes, anyone who thought otherwise was either jealous or delusional!
But those that disobeyed the town founder found him ruthless and vengeful. Hibbard and his army would use every tool in the chest to punish opponents: discriminatory zoning, denying access to utilities, refusing garbage collection, canceling leases, banishment from town activities, threats and intimidation, numerous lawsuits, tearing up roads leading to their property, or running rivals out of business. Maybe even violence.
After a controversy-filled city council meeting in March 1952, Hibbard rushed toward a particularly vocal adversary named Sam Gerson, who owned an antique shop in Casselberry. The two exchanged verbal jabs at City Hall, and (not liking Gerson’s tone) Hibbard got in Gerson’s face and gnashed his teeth.
“You don’t scare me!” Gerson replied. In front of over a dozen witnesses, the town founder lunged at his rival and squeezed both hands around his neck. Mayor Herman Joyce and others pried loose the choke, leaving deep scratches on Gerson’s neck.
Hibbard insisted that Gerson had it coming after obscene comments about him and his wife. Regardless of the justification, Gerson did not strike back and Hibbard was found guilty of assault and battery.
“I was doing by best to hit him a haymaker,” Hibbard told the jury, “when somebody grabbed my right arm.” As a result of the 1954 civil trial, the plaintiff was awarded $500 in damages — he was seeking $16,000.
Whatever your stance — whether you think Hibbard was a saint or a tyrant… or more likely somewhere in between. It was indeed much easier to be his friend than a rival! Hibbard was a charismatic and resolute visionary. But he was also unapologetically cutthroat.
Casselberry, Florida: The Only Municipality Without A Post Office
Perhaps nothing annoyed devoted Casselberrians more than not having their own post office. But actually there was a post office in the heart of their city limits. The only problem was the words on the outside said “Fern Park, Fla.”
Fern Park was granted a post office way back in 1928, initially located in the Barnett Fernery; it moved to the New Dixie Highway (17–92) in 1930, just south of Lake Concord. After Casselberry’s incorporation in 1940, this put it smack dab in the middle of downtown! Hibbard and his faithful considered this the most grievous insult to their sovereignty.
Hibbard Casselberry petitioned the postal service to rename the office to reflect its location properly as “Casselberry, Fla.” They refused.
The United Postal Service claimed they had a policy against naming a post office after any living person. That explanation, of course, is demonstrably untrue. There is plenty of precedents otherwise (such as this author’s hometown of Sebring, Florida).
Regardless, the fight continued. Hibbard wrote back to the postal service, declining to die just to get the correct name on the door.
It was insulting enough that Casselberry was the only incorporated town without post office representation. But, before zip codes, letters addressed to “Casselberry” would be returned as “undeliverable, no such post office.” People instead had to address mail to “Fern Park,” which was not only agitating given the rivalry but downright confusing to all involved!
After nearly two decades of battles, the residents of Casselberry were finally given their own post office. Kind of.
On October 1, 1957, a Casselberry branch opened just fifty feet from its parent Fern Park post office. Effectively it meant those desiring to keep their Fern Park address could do so; those set on having the “Casselberry, Fla.” postmark would head two doors down to the substation.
The majority of locals still identified with Fern Park. Around 300 boxes remained registered at the older office after 200 switched loyalties to the new Casselberry contract station. However, the ratio started to shift with a little help from the mailbox mafia.
Around that time, Johnson Electronics was opening a new manufacturing facility in Casselberry, located in the closed Casselberry Industries building (where Target is today). This meant dozens of jobs and new homeowners moved to the area. Job applicants were told in no uncertain terms that they should consider using Casselberry as their mailing address if they wanted the best chance at being hired.
Longtime Fern Park residents received visits at their homes from Casselberry brass. They were greeted by threats veiled as suggestions that they might want to switch their affiliation if they wanted uninterrupted civic services. Gradually the pressure worked, especially with newer residents.
Not content with the voluntary option of the dual office, the Casselberry faithful began to lobby the postal service to merge two offices — and rename the combined facility “Casselberry,” of course. Political favors were called in, and in May 1958, the newspaper announced that in 30 days, the Fern Park post office would be no more.
Outrage, political counter-lobbying, petitions, and newspaper letters to the editor ensued from the Fern Park majority. The pressure worked. Two weeks later, national postal officials rescinded the order. Both offices were to remain open indefinitely. The stalemate continued.
Three months later, postmistress D. T. Warren announced the Fern Park office would relocate south to the new Fern Park Shopping Plaza at 17–92 and 436. This put it outside of the Casselberry corporate limits for the first time.
A year later, Casselberry celebrated when, at last, it was granted its own independent third-class mail office in November 1959. Both offices quickly expanded into more extensive facilities. Casselberry’s office got a boost as it took over responsibilities of delivering to the new town of North Orlando — later renamed Winter Springs — which did not get its own substation until 1980.
Fern Park Fights to Survive
In the decades since, Casselberry’s relentless ambition and aggressive annexation have made it the Goliath. It is no longer a small cutout within the larger town of Fern Park; its residents now vastly outnumber its rival. The city limits of Longwood and Altamonte Springs, as well, have systematically erased piece-by-piece hunks of what was once considered Fern Park.
From the fifties through the seventies, every few years, a campaign launched trying to build support for an incorporated municipality of Fern Park. Each time the measure failed miserably due to independence-favoring homeowners, strong-arm tactics by Casselberry, expansion of Casselberry Utilities into Fern Park, or intentionally annexing businesses along 17–92 to take away the commercial tax base needed to make a Fern Park municipality viable.
The once mighty Fern Park has slowly faded into obscurity. Although there has been some revival lately, in recent decades, the stretch of highway has suffered from poor lighting, meager county support, and blighted or vacant storefronts. None of which has helped its image.
Businesses to the north and east claim Casselberry, while those on the west are now Altamonte Springs. Many closer to the Orange County line self-identify as Maitland. Just ten years ago, the northern section of Fern Park still welcomed visitors to town heading south on 17–92 at the Wildmere Avenue intersection.. until Longwood’s expansion deleted North Fern Park.
Just a tiny section of a couple of square miles is left. The last territory of Fern Park is bounded by Lake Prairie and the railroad to the west, 436 to the north and east, and the county line to the south.
But some persist in the resistance, like rebels battling against the Empire. The Death Star of Casselberry looks unstoppable, yet they persist. They continue the fight against being absorbed by hungry municipal neighbors. They act on behalf of history to preserve the legacy of the once mighty Fern Park.
How much longer can the shrinking town last? Will there be a Fern Park at all two decades from now? As someone who always roots for the underdog, I sure hope so!
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