"LOGS" DOLLARS IN KIWANIS SERVICEWriter Royce Hilliard, 1993 ©
The LaBelle Kiwanis Club is continuing to make history in "Brown Tiger's" historic sawmill on the busiest street in town. The U.S. flag proudly flies 24 hours a day atop the long, narrow building on Bridge Street as loaded trucks and cars zip by.
It wasn't that way when "Brown Tiger" had his sawmill on the site. This pioneer businessman would be proud of the thrift shop because, like the members of the Kiwanis Club, he was a dedicated worker. It wasn't that way when "Brown Tiger" had his sawmill on the site. A barber...who wasn't a barber...gave him the name that is now part of the history of LaBelle. You see, Oscar Luckey was cutting Schnider Jackson Ridgdill's hair one day. He had straight black hair, a dark complexion, and looked like some of the Seminole Indians that came to trade in LaBelle. Residents tacked on the "Brown Tiger" and history was made. "Brown Tiger" was born in North LaBelle. His wife in Felda. She went to school here. Married the famous businessman when she was 18. Like many of the Kiwanis Club's present day members, "Brown Tiger" was involved in a varied and extensive list of business activities. He was a building contractor. Built many houses in LaBelle, Alva, Ft. Myers Beach. He and his sister, Charlotte Fitzsimmons, drew the plans, built the houses, sold them.
He cut piling for telephone poles. Had them hauled to Miami, treated, sold them. Built dragline mats. Had a shell pit, sold fill and dirt. Was involved in the cattle business. Stocked two sections of land south of Clewiston with Herefords. Put cattle on land along the river to Ortona. Built the sawmill about 1952. His widow, Della says he bought the site from Ernie Messer. Paid for it by trading work on the dragline. Ham Smith was the sawyer. They sawed logs into lumber. Used a planer mill to plane the lumber. During the 15 years that the mill operated, Ham Smith, Jessie Williams, and George Gray were the three sawyers at the site. George says he remembers 13 men who worked there. Melvin Goldwire. Thomas Miller. Joe L. Townsend. Arthur Kitchen. Boy Macon. Wardell Fagan. Louis Tanner. Jim Adams. Allen Bo King. George worked for 'Brown Tiger" for 7 years. Rented the machine shop when the mill closed in 1967.
What happened to the parts when the mill closed? That's a mystery. Do we have any pictures of the mill? One, Della loaned it to us for this sketch. It is part of LaBelle's rich, colorful history...just as "Brown Tiger" was. If he were living today, the Kiwanis club..., chartered in 1979...would have brought him into the club membership. He was a go-getter. He loved to work He loved to make money. He got things done.
Well, Royce Hilliard was serving the club as president in '84-'85. He visited the thrift shops operated by Kiwanis Clubs in Cape Coral and Lehigh Acres. He was impressed. Why not one in LaBelle?
So, he gave space in back of his real estate office on Ft. Thompson Ave...back of Flora and Ella's Restaurant...and the club started collecting stuff. His wife, Rosalie, rounded up several volunteers Jim Harrison and Royce took a huge trailer load of used books to Miami to set up a new Library for the Kiwanis Club in Trinidad. The club bought a huge, metal container to put in the alley. It overflowed. Something had to be done.
So, on Feb. 27, 1987, the Club set up the LaBelle Kiwanis Foundation and voted to buy the old sawmill site. On 6/12/87, First Federal Savings loaned the new foundation $120,000 and the first Thrift Shop began to take shape. Daryl Cox was president of the new chartered foundation; Ted Miller was vice president; Royce Hilliard was secretary, Dan Fatzinger was treasurer, and Lawrence O'Ferrell was director.
The work began. At night and on weekends, the members of the Kiwanis Club began to renovate the old sawmill. Painted the interior. Installed new doors and windows. Put up partitions. Made shelves to store goods.
The club bought a used pickup truck from Pres. Cox to make deliveries. Members moved the heavy steel shed from Ft. Thompson to the new shop and Rosalie Hilliard manned the front office for a time. Volunteers took up work every day.
The club picked Ted Miller from Ortona to be the manager. He was paid the small sum of $100 a week and served for two years. He made pickups and deliveries with help of other men from the club. Collected the days receipts, supervised the shop. Ted brought in Vince Ruble to do a lot of woodworking inside. They saved everything. The shop was open 5 days a week, 8 hours a day. Kiwanian Bud Rawls helped out in making bank deposits and with the bookkeeping.
Club members and volunteers sorted the contributions and marked them up for sale. For a time, the shop operated a food pantry in the room behind the front doorway and strangers to LaBelle were given food donated by the churches.
At Christmas time, club members set up trees at the north end and used this space for the annual fund-raising event. One year, Ted Miller supervised the building of a big outdoor kids playhouse which attracted a lot of attention and was auctioned off as a fund-raiser.
In 1987, attorney Jay Watkins had a big, tall colorful outdoor thermometer sign that he had used in a civic campaign. He gave it to the new shop. It was needed then because the club was collecting pennies for a try at the Guiness Book of World Records. Royce put the sign up outside and the penny collection figures began to crawl up to the top.
Word of the new project got out. News Press columnist Joe Workman featured the penny project in his column. WINK TV provided on site coverage. Planes photographed the penny collection ~ at Barron Park. The club collected 200,000 pennies. We didn't quite make the Guiness book but all of them went to club service projects.
Today, retired businessmen and women Kiwanis Club members could be seen daily in and around the site. Repairing electrical equipment. Picking up stuff. Throwing not-for-sale objects in the dumpster. Giving lady volunteers a hand with "heavy" equipment. The thrift shop could not operate without its volunteers.
Since it opened, Elmer and Verna Otto have served. Jim Tuitt, Joe Ramos, George Blythe, James E. Veal, Ernest Ford, Ed Kroll, Milred & Howard McQueen, Leotis Troutman, William and Jackie Duignan, Joe Benson, A1 Stolzenfeld, Maxie Richardson, Stephen Truvels, Pat Cazores, Edna Hall, Thelma Mosier, Louise Buckner, Edna Stolzenfeld, Ada Wehrwen, Jaclde Foster, Violet Richardson, Isabell Tuitt, Sylvia Richardson, Jim Robinson, Sylvia Gonzales, Olga Zedrykowski. Lisa Klein. Michel Benson. Jim Harrison, Daryl Cox, Jean Crites, Ada. and Jim Higgins. Aggie Saddlemire, Mary Young, Carol Sullivan, Sandi Brantle, Laverne Young. Alice Wright. Ted and Joan Miller. Kendell Capper. Theresa Sitterling. Art and Kara Rice. Jewell Cox. Bud Rawls. Lawrence and Peggy O'Ferrell. Mort Sorosky. Bill Sells. Barbara Evans. Sharon Darby. Harold and Mable Pewterbaugh. Stella Whidden.
The thrift shop could not operate without these volunteers. One of them, Alice Wright, received the A.A.R.P. National Community Service award for her thousands of hours of work at the site. All of them are honored each year when new Kiwanis Club officers take on their duties at the installation dinner.
No more small hundred dollar deposits from receipts like it was when the shop opened. The LaBelle Kiwanis Thrift shop now "logs" thousands into the bank...and they are then given to community service projects.
"Brown Tiger"....you would be proud of what is now happening at your old sawmill site. The club works just as hard as you did.