How Collier County Got Its Name

Several Florida counties bear the names of great leaders in state or national politics, such as Jefferson, Washington, Pasco, and Duval counties. Others are named for fallen soldiers, such as Bradford and (Miami-)Dade counties. Barron Gift Collier, for whom Collier County in Southwest Florida is named, was neither a war hero nor a great statesman. He did, however, have an inspiring vision for Florida’s southern Gulf coast, which he worked to make into a reality.

Barron Gift Collier (1873-1939), for whom Collier County is named (photo circa 1920s).

Barron Gift Collier (1873-1939), for whom Collier County is named (photo circa 1920s).

Barron Gift Collier was born March 23, 1873 in Memphis, Tennessee. He quit school at the age of 16 to go to work, and in ten years’ time had made his first million. Advertising was Collier’s specialty. He started out convincing freight shippers to use the Illinois Central Railroad between Chicago and New Orleans. Before long, he had moved on to producing advertisements for the interior and exterior of streetcars. He made his money by obtaining franchises from the streetcar companies to do all of their advertising. At the zenith of his career, Barron Collier had 70 offices in cities across the United States managing these franchises.

It was one of these deals that helped introduce Collier to South Florida. After the advertising mogul signed a new contract with a streetcar company president in Chicago named John Roach, Roach invited Collier down to Florida to visit his vacation home on Useppa Island. Collier was instantly smitten with the island, and ended up buying it from John Roach for $100,000 in 1911. Roach had developed a tarpon fishing resort on the island called the Useppa Inn; Collier expanded the facilities and made the inn into the anchor point of a new chain of luxury resorts on Florida’s Gulf coast.

Useppa Inn on Useppa Island off the coast of present-day Collier County. The inn was developed originally by John M. Roach of Chicago, and later bought by Barron G. Collier (photo circa 1910).

Useppa Inn on Useppa Island off the coast of present-day Collier County. The inn was developed originally by John M. Roach of Chicago, and later bought by Barron G. Collier (photo circa 1910).

Collier envisioned much more than coastal luxury for Southwest Florida. He began buying up the holdings of several large land companies, and by 1924 he owned more than a million acres. He turned his attention to the Tamiami Trail, which had been under construction for several years by 1922 when the State of Florida ran out of funds to finish the section crossing the Everglades. Collier offered to finance the road’s completion, so long as the State Legislature would move forward with plans to divide the vast territory of Lee County and create a new county for the Naples area. The Legislature complied, and named the new county Collier in honor of Barron Collier’s contributions to the development of the region.

Workers busy constructing a section of the Tamiami Trail between Naples and Miami across the Everglades. Pictured in the background is a

Workers busy constructing a section of the Tamiami Trail between Naples and Miami across the Everglades. Pictured in the background is a “walking dredge” used to lift limestone fill onto the roadbed. This dredge is now on display at Collier-Seminole State Park (photo circa 1920s).

When the Great Depression arrived, Barron Collier’s fortunes took a dive like so many others, although he still believed in the growth potential of Southwest Florida. In the 1930s, Collier struck oil at Sunniland, 12 miles south of Immokalee. In a few years Sunniland and neighboring oil fields were producing millions of barrels of oil annually.

Experts inspect oil well #1 at Sunniland near Immokalee (1943).

Experts inspect oil well #1 at Sunniland near Immokalee (1943).

Barron Collier died in New York in 1939 following an illness. His legacy in Southwest Florida is captured in the stretch of Tamiami Trail (now U.S. 41) that still uses the same path to cross the Everglades, as well as in the many developments he initiated in Naples and other nearby communities.

This is just one of many local Florida stories extracted from the collections of the State Library & Archives of Florida. If you’re interested in local history, consider searching our catalogs for relevant information, and then plan a visit! Go to info.florida.gov to learn more.

The Lewis Plantation

With summer on the way and the school year coming to a close for many districts, Floridians can expect an uptick in the number of tourists coming into the state to enjoy its many natural and man-made attractions. Over the years, Florida has been home to a wide variety of tourist attractions, some beautiful, some exotic, and some that would be quite shocking if they were around today.

The front gate of the Lewis Plantation (1930s).

The front gate of the Lewis Plantation (1930s).

The Lewis Plantation, a tourist stop just south of Brooksville on U.S. 41 in Hernando County, falls squarely into the last category. After operating for a number of years merely as one of Florida’s many turpentine distilleries, its owner, Pearce Lewis, hit upon a scheme in the 1930s to tap into the booming tourist industry. After making a few adjustments to the buildings and adding a few vintage objects, Lewis rebranded the distillery as an “authentic” antebellum plantation, and invited visitors to come see what life had been like in the South before slavery was abolished. So far, this may not sound too different from most other historic plantation sites and museums, but with the Lewis Plantation there was a twist. Because Lewis already had dozens of workers, mostly African-American, operating the turpentine distillery on the site, he decided to incorporate them into the tourist attraction, so that his employees doubled as reenactors of antebellum slavery.

The Lewis Plantation turpentine still near Brooksville (circa 1930s).

The Lewis Plantation turpentine still near Brooksville (circa 1930s).

For a nominal fee (fifteen cents in the early days) visitors to the Lewis Plantation could take a tour of the grounds in a mule-drawn wagon. Along the way, they could see the actual homes where the African-American employees lived, which were mostly without electricity or running water. Newspaper accounts of the tour commented cheerily on the quaintness of these scenes, noting how closely they resembled what life must have looked like in the slave quarters of the South’s antebellum plantations. Although it was something of an anachronism, the tour usually included a trip to the distillery, where the people who lived in these ramshackle houses carried out the tedious process of extracting turpentine from the sap of nearby stands of pine trees.

Employees of the Lewis Plantation on the porch of a home on the grounds (circa 1940s).

Employees of the Lewis Plantation on the porch of a home on the grounds (circa 1940s).

Along the way, the tour guide would often stop and have one of the African-American employees tell a story to the visitors. “Uncle Doug” Ambrose, born into slavery in 1860 just before the outbreak of the Civil War, was one of the more popular storytellers, and was at one time featured in the popular Ripley’s “Believe It or Not” column. The entertainment also sometimes included singing from some of the employees, some of whom were organized into a “harmony quartet.”

“Uncle Doug” Ambrose, born into slavery just before the Civil War, at the Lewis Plantation (circa 1940s).

The Lewis Plantation had other amenities, including overnight lodging and a restaurant called “The Plantation Kitchen.” Blanche, an African-American woman who did the cooking during most of the attraction’s lifetime, was described in advertisements as being the “personality” of the kitchen, dressed as a typical antebellum African-American “mammy.” In the souvenir shop nearby, visitors could purchase tradition plantation handicrafts, as well as “pine perfume” and miniature barrels of rosin, a by-product of the turpentine distillation process.

“The Plantation Kitchen,” the restaurant of the Lewis Plantation (circa 1930s).

Blanche, the cook at

Blanche, the cook at “The Plantation Kitchen,” the restaurant located at the Lewis Plantation. Blanche is standing outside the main building that housed the restaurant and gift shop (circa 1940s).

Although the Lewis Plantation did very well for a number of years, its days were numbered as the tides of history continued to shift. The labor-intensive process of extracting turpentine from pine sap gave way to other methods, and the idea of reenacting slavery as a tourist attraction was increasingly disturbing to Floridians and visitors alike. By the 1960s, the Lewis Plantation had faded away. Some of the buildings still remain at the old site, although they are overgrown with weeds. Only a handful of postcards, placards, and photographs remain to remind us of the vibrant if somewhat unusual institution that once operated there.

Did you ever visit the Lewis Plantation? How about another “unusual” roadside tourist attraction in Florida? If so, we want to hear about it. Leave a comment, or email us your story.