Old Lee County Courthouse Celebrates 100 Years

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Just before the regular meeting of the Board of County Commissioners on Tuesday morning, Chairman Frank Mann led a special celebration in honor of the Old Lee County Courthouse’s 100 anniversary. After a rousing rendition of ‘Happy Birthday’, Mann led people inside to see the contents of a time capsule that will be placed inside the courthouse later this month. They also checked out what was inside of a capsule that had been buried in the courthouse’s cornerstone when it was laid in April of 1915, prompting us to delve into the history of this majestic building that has graced the corner of Broadway and Main Street in downtown Fort Myers for a century.

When the Old Lee County Courthouse was built in 1915, it wasn’t referred to as ‘Old’, of course, and Fort Myers was still very much the cow town it once was. At that time, Lee County had grown from a population of 2,000 residents when it was carved from Monroe County on May 13, 1887 to about 8,000. The Board of Lee County Commissioners met in an old wood-frame courthouse that had opened in 1894, and one of them, William Towles, was so hell bent to get a new one built that he would end up resorting to tactics reminiscent of the Wild West…

“The land where both the original and current Lee County Courthouse sits was sold to Lee County by Jane and Charles Hendry for $2,250 in 1889,” said Joanne Iwinksi Miller, a deputy county clerk and board member of the Southwest Florida Historic Society. “When the original wooden courthouse was built, Towles – one of the first County Commissioners – lobbied hard to have a grand 3-story concrete house built instead. But there was so much opposition to it that he lost. He later complained bitterly about how dingy the place was and how it had no bathrooms.”

At the turn of the century, Lee County also included the land that would become Collier County and Hendry County in 1923.

“People lived hard in those days,” Miller said. “There were no roads, no bridges. No one wanted to spend all this money on a big courthouse when there was no infrastructure.”

But Towles, not so affectionately known as ‘Wild Bill’, bided his time.

“He left office, then became county commissioner again where he was turned down two more times before finally – on October 24, 1914 – the BoCC voted 3-2 to build it.”

By this time, the county had grown a bit and other local leaders – including Captain F.A. Hendry, a fellow commissioner who originally opposed the idea – supported it.

“But not everybody,” Miller said. “A local businessman who had butted heads with Towles for years – Harvie Heitman, along with a couple of others, continued to protest the price of the new courthouse which had now gone up to $100,000.”

It should be noted that Heitman built three solid brick buildings for himself during this time period, something which no doubt egged Towles on.

Towles  – no dummy – added into the resolution to build the new courthouse permission for the builder to do ‘whatever was necessary’ to make sure it got built.

“Two days after the vote, Heitman and his friends boarded a train to Arcadia to get a judge to issue an injunction against the construction,” Miller said. “As soon as he left, Towles got a crew and they began tearing down the old one. There was a huge crowd, and when they tore down the steeple everyone cheered. Towles sat on the steps of the building next door presiding over everything with a shotgun.”

By the time Heitman and his pals returned the next day, court order in hand, it was all over.

“He went back to Arcadia, but the judge said give it up, and the new courthouse was built,” Miller said. “It was beautiful then and it still is.”

The courthouse was restored in 1989 and placed on the national register of historic places, so it’s likely that Towles’ legacy will live on well into the future.

Keri Hendry Weeg