July 28, 2014

Florida's Oldest Private Companies

Survivors

Some of Florida's oldest businesses are still doing what they did 100 years ago; others changed successfully with the times.

Florida Staff | 5/1/2005
Who lives to be 100 in Florida business? More enterprises than you'd expect.

One hundred years ago, Florida was a rural agricultural state best known for cattle, citrus and climate. Among those contributing to the transition from frontier to economic front-runner: Land speculators, railroad builders, phosphate miners, tourism investors, immigrants and, yes, entrepreneurs.

Many of today's business centenarians were just getting started in 1905. But dozens more were already years into meeting consumer demand for hardware, funerals, printed and legalized documents, holiday lodging and even the thrill of a few moments with (confined) alligators. Over the past century, Florida pioneers have outlasted storms, citrus freezes, the 1930s Depression -- ushered-in early in Florida by a devastating 1926 hurricane -- and even a few family spats.

Some snapshots from 1905
-- Lebanese immigrant Elias Deeb, after a year of selling jewelry from a card table in Quincy, had earned enough money to open a general merchandise store in downtown Tallahassee. He was around 18.

-- Lykes Bros. forebear Dr. Howell Tyson Lykes was shipping cattle from Tampa to Cuba aboard a three-masted wooden schooner.

-- Bicycle shop owner and horseless carriage tinkerer Fred Ferman was gearing up a Tampa auto business as a pioneer Oldsmobile dealer.

Personal service, hard work and adaptation helped those startups endure, say their inheritors. Buster Makinson owns the Kissimmee hardware store founded in 1884 by his grandfather, W.B. Makinson: "Years ago we used to sell a lot of horse-drawn wagons; today we sell zero-turn lawnmowers that you drive with a joystick.

"People come in and say the store doesn't look old; it looks modern,'' says Makinson. "My answer is that maybe we wouldn't be the oldest if we weren't modern."

Lewis Bear Co., Pensacola
Northwest Florida's lumber business and Pensacola's port were booming in tandem in 1876 when Alabama transplant Lewis Bear opened his grocery store and began provisioning vessels in port -- collecting payment in gold from ships captains at day's end. In the decades since, the company -- today a beer distributor, and Anheuser-Busch's oldest continuously operated, since 1892 -- variously has been a wholesaler and retailer, handling groceries and appliances. "We found demand, found supply," says Lewis Bear Jr., great-grandson of the founder and company president.

Citrus/Cattle

1847 Nichols Ranch, Oxford
William R. Nichols moved from South Carolina.

1860/70s Bronsons Partnership, Kissimmee
Some 10,000 acres of the Bronson holdings were sold to provide the last piece of land needed for Disney World.

1892 Manatee Fruit Co., Palmetto
The main business is cut-flower production and distribution through Cortez Floral Co., also operated by the company's owners, the Preston family.

Late 1800s Neukom Properties Inc., Zephyrhills
Forebears on both sides of George A. Neukom Jr.'s family were early settlers and orange growers. Grandfather Brantley E. Smith served on the first Florida Citrus Commission in 1935.

1900 Lykes Bros. Inc., Tampa
Descendants of the seven Lykes brothers operate businesses grown from that established by their father, Dr. Howell Tyson Lykes. Now spread over 340,000 acres in Highlands and Glades counties and more than 250,000 acres in Texas, the operations incorporate sugar cane, citrus growing, cattle ranching and land development, in addition to an insurance business.

1905 Tucker Ranch, Christmas
Ancestor William Andrew Tucker migrated to Florida with herds of cattle in the 1790s.

Printing/Publishing

1884 Times Publishing, St. Petersburg
Publisher of the St. Petersburg Times and Florida Trend.

1886 E.O. Painter Printing Co., DeLeon Springs
Edward Okle Painter, an agricultural fertilizer manufacturer and publisher, moved the business he co-founded from Jacksonville and gave it its current name. Probably Florida's oldest continuous printing company, it's owned and operated by third and fourth generations of 1903 buyer Sydney Weller Johnston.

1889 Perry News Herald, Perry
Today's weekly originated as the Taylor County Banner, published under numerous names, including Taylor County Topics, before merging with the Perry Herald in 1954 and taking its current name. President and Publisher Don Lincoln bought it in 1984.

1900 Lawton Printers, Casselberry
With the fifth generation of Lawtons at the presses, this firm could well be the state's longest-running, family-owned printing company.

1905 Mayes Printing Co., Pensacola
Founder Frank Mayes, who also owned the local newspaper, hired Henry Herbert Jeudevine to operate Mayes' print shop, owned today by Jeudevine's grandson, John F. Phelps.

Hospitality/Tourism

1870 Old Marco Lodge Crab House, Goodland
The original lodge on Marco Island is today a waterfront restaurant on the Marco River, serving every variety of
local crab.

1877 St. Augustine Transfer Co., St. Augustine
It's said Florida newcomer Henry Flagler took a tour in one of these horse-drawn carriages, saw possibilities and began building his Florida dynasty.

1883 Lakeside Inn, Mount Dora
Early-day guests could join organized snake hunts, fish on the lake or just puff cigars on the wrap-around veranda.

1885 The Island Inn, Sanibel Island
Original island settlers Will and Harriet Matthews decided to turn their home into a boardinghouse, establishing tradition for today's Island Inn.

1893 St. Augustine Alligator Farm Zoological Park, St. Augustine
Possibly Florida's oldest continuously operating attraction, it's listed in the National Register of Historic Places and boasts a collection of all 23 species of crocodilians.

1896 The Breakers, Palm Beach
Twice destroyed by fire, twice rebuilt, Henry Flagler's second Florida hotel is modeled after an Italian villa.

1905 Columbia Restaurant, Tampa
Founded by Cuban immigrant Casimiro Hernandez Sr. in historic Ybor City, the restaurant is said to be Florida's oldest and the world's largest Spanish restaurant. Locations also in Celebration, Sand Key, Sarasota, St. Augustine, St. Petersburg and West Palm Beach [see "League of Its Own"].

Retail

Before 1851 Pensacola Hardware Co., Pensacola
Started by A.L. Avery, the store has changed hands, names and locations several times, but business was never interrupted. Brothers Jimmy and Martin Coe are third-generation family owners.

1869 L.S. Pender Co., Greenwood
Today's store, operating in the same location since 1896 and selling hardware, plumbing and feed supplies, is owned by Laurence Pender II, grandson of founder Laurence Pender Sr.

1881 Pelot's Pharmacy, Bradenton
In 1894, John Crews Pelot, the great-grand-father of current owner Robert L. Pelot,
purchased the business.

1881 Royal Palm Nurseries, Bradenton
Established by Pliny Reasoner and later joined by brother Egbert, both among the first inducted into the Florida Agricultural Hall of Fame.

1884 Makinson's Hardware, Kissimmee
Located at 308 Broadway for 115 years.

1885 Travis Hardware, Cocoa Village
Established by Col. S.F. Travis as a sailboat operation, today's store is operated by his great-grandson, Travis "Mac" Osborne.

1890 Jacobs Jewelers, Jacksonville
Founder V.E. Jacobs rebuilt and relocated after the city's devastating 1901 fire, then moved the store again in 1930 to the current location.

1894 H.W. Davis Clothing Co., St. Augustine
Started as H.W. Davis Men's Store, it expanded into women's apparel and resort wear under ownership since the 1950s of the Lichter family.

1895 Ferman Motor Car Co., Tampa
Family members of the third, fourth and fifth generations serve on the board of directors.

1899 Bailey's General Store, Sanibel
Founded as a place to buy beans in bulk, plows, seeds and overalls, the store today offers merchandise from diving masks to fancy foodstuffs.

1902 East Coast Lumber & Supply Co., Fort Pierce
Locations also in Cocoa, Melbourne, Vero Beach and Stuart.

1904 W.S. Badcock Corp., Mulberry
The furniture retailer was one of the first companies to offer furniture financing.

1905 Bruce Watters Jewelers, St. Petersburg
Reportedly Pinellas County's oldest business.

1905 Deeb's Hats, Tallahassee
Founder Elias Deeb emigrated from Lebanon in 1904.

Insurance

1895 Reiter Insurance Agency Inc., Crescent City
Royal insurance of England was the first company represented by founder Marian LaBree. Separate-family owners followed, including today's owners, Stuart Reiter and Laura Turner.

Transportation

1885 Merrill-Stevens Dry Dock Co., Miami
During World War II, the company's Jacksonville-based operation repaired and refitted more than 2,000 commercial and military vessels.

1903 Apalachicola Northern Railway, Port St. Joe
Renamed AN Railroad, the short-line railroad is now one of 14 owned by Rail Management Corp.

Funeral Homes

1851 Beggs Funeral Home-Madison Chapel, Madison
T.J. Beggs Jr. & Sons also operates funeral homes in Perry, Monticello and Tallahassee.

1890 Vinson Funeral Home, Tarpon Springs
Established by Levin D. Vinson, the business evolved from a dry goods store selling coffins to a funeral and chapel facility operated today by fourth-generation family owner Daniel D. Vinson.

Industrial/Distribution

1876 The Lewis Bear Co., Pensacola
This Anheuser-Busch distributor kept the brewer's products flowing through Prohibition with sales of Bevo grape drink and ginger ale.

1884 Sunniland Corp., Sanford
Formulates fertilizer, specialty growing formulas.

1889 Needham Enterprises, Ocala
English immigrant Thomas Needham founded the business as Needham & Sons Plumbing.

1893 Adger Smith Wells, Melbourne
Deep-well drilling.

1901 Dozier & Gay Industrial Coatings, Green Cove Springs
John Gay and Henry Dozier started a paint business after the Jacksonville fire of 1901, giving free paint to help people rebuild.

Attorneys

1883 Beggs & Lane, Pensacola
Quite possibly the state's oldest law firm.

1905 Rogers Towers, P.A., Jacksonville
Founders Col. William M. Toomer and J. Chandler Reynolds also started a Law Library Association.

Century Family Farmers
The Florida Department of Agriculture recently recognized 61 "Century Pioneer Family Farms.'' Here's a sampling of those farms.

NORTHWEST
Don May Jr., Quincy
Great-grandfather Fountain May established May Farm in the 1850s as a tobacco farm, where he developed a shade tobacco for cigars.

Oleta T. Lawhon, Sopchoppy
Lawhon tree-farms 600 acres originally tilled by great-grandfather Edward Miles Houston starting in 1854 or earlier.

NORTHEAST
Alton M. Henderson, Jasper
Great-grandfather Daniel Bell, Hamilton County's first white settler, migrated from North Carolina
in 1825.

John Finlayson, Ashville
The Finlaysons' 950-acre cattle farm, now managed by John Finlayson's son, sixth-generation Mac Finlayson, continues family farming operations started by two branches of the family, settling there to raise cotton in the 1820s and 1830s.

NORTH CENTRAL
Billy G. Dees, Hatch Bend
The farm was deeded in 1885 under the Homestead Act to Henry W. Clements, an ancestor of Dees' grandmother.

Frederick W. Wood Jr., Ashley M. Wood, brothers, Evinston
Their great-grandfather, William Drayton Evins, bought a half-section in the 1870s, founding the town of Evinston as well as a farm. Frederick and Ashley Wood raise cattle on their two parcels totaling about 240 acres.

SOUTH CENTRAL
Christopher Blommel, Dade City
Blommel raises citrus and hay on his Jessamine Farm, land handed down from his great-great-great-grandfather, Joseph Nathe, who settled there in 1887.

Milton Lanier, Zolfo Springs
Grandfather David Lanier arrived in 1874 to homestead a citrus and cattle operation, being continued today by descendants.

Merrill-Stevens Dry Dock Co., Miami
Capt. James Gilman Merrill's blacksmith shop, opened on the
St. Johns River in Jacksonville in 1866, grew to a large ironworks, prospered through the Spanish-American and world wars and expanded into shipbuilding for the Navy and Maritime Commission. Its second location, opened in 1923 and the sole location since the 1950s, is today a repair, refit and launch facility for yachts and mega-yachts. Miami businessman Hugh Westbrook, who grew up two blocks from the original dry dock, and his wife, Carole, bought the company last year.

Tags: Around Florida, Agriculture, Business Services

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