Home' The River Weekly News : RWN 012017 Contents Historic Downtown Fort Myers, Then And Now:
The Great Commoner
Comes To Town
by Gerri Reaves, PhD
On January 18, 1912, Fort Myers was plunged into a flurry
of preparations and anticipation. A telegram received by
the Fort Myers Press that very morning announced that
politician William Jennings Bryan would pay the town a visit that
He had visited Fort Myers at least once before, late in the Royal
Palm Hotel’s (then named Fort Myers Hotel) first winter season,
early in 1899.
On that day in 1912, school children were given a half-holiday
to honor the occasion.
The man was known by
several illustrious monikers,
such as the Peerless Leader
and the Silver-Tongued Ora-
tor. He was also called the
Great Commoner because
his “agrarian” slant appealed
to the economically dis-
farmers of the midwest and
By 1912, the Populist
Democrat had served as a
U.S . senator from Nebraska
and had run unsuccessfully
three times for U.S . Presi-
He arrived by train for
a jubilant three-hour visit.
Mayor Louis A. Hendry met
the esteemed guest at the
Atlantic Coast Line Railroad
passenger station on Mon-
roe Street, accompanied by
a citizen delegation and the
Fort Myers Military Band.
The entourage included
Mrs. Bryan and the politi-
cian’s first cousin, William
Sherman Jennings, who had
been the governor of Florida
from 1901 to 1905.
Bryan told the public that
politics had nothing to do
The afternoon’s itiner-
ary included an hour’s tour
by car, which proceeded
east on First Street to Billy’s
Creek, with later stops at
the Royal Palm Hotel and the grounds of the Edison Estate.
Then, from the porch of the modest 1894 Lee County Courthouse on Main Street,
Bryan addressed the crowd in his much-loved conversational style.
In the historic photo, Bryan stands informally (left center), with dignitaries seated
behind him. Other photographic evidence suggests that the man seated directly behind
him is Mayor Hendry.
The celebrity did not speak of politics, as expected, but emphasized his thanks to
In fact, he mainly addressed the many school children and stressed the importance of
The weather must have been chilly, for he wore a fur-lined overcoat and soft hat
pushed down to this ears. However, he took them off to speak and be photographed, lest
the town’s tourism image suffer.
When interviewed after the address, Bryan was reluctant to talk about whether he
might run again for U.S President.
He shied away from all but the general comments on the political scene, but he and
his wife heaped praise on the town’s balmy climate and tropical foliage.
After a bit more sightseeing, the party departed by car for LaBelle, where they
planned to go by boat to the Everglades and observe dredging work.
Months after this visit to Fort Myers, U.S. President Woodrow Wilson appointed him
Secretary of State.
A few years later, he settled in Coconut Grove, near Miami, and maintained a political
and personal interest in the state for many years.
His speaking skill and fame served him well, for he was a highly paid spokesperson
during the Florida boom, promoting real estate development, most notably Coral Gables.
Even in his day, the larger-than-life orator was something of an enigma, espousing
what some voters would call contradictory positions. Some people considered him a dem-
agogue and others a champion, but he didn’t neatly fit into a political category, except
For example, he advocated women’s suffrage, Prohibition, and the gold standard and
had a tolerant attitude toward the Ku Klux Klan. He is perhaps best remembered for the
infamous 1925 Scopes Monkey Trial and his opposition to the teaching of evolution in
The family’s political endeavors continued into the next two generations. In 1928, his
continued on page 4
The present courthouse opened in 1915 on the same site
photo courtesy Gerri Reaves
The first courthouse was built in 1894 and stood on the west-
ern half of Courthouse Square facing Main Street
In 1912, Populist Democrat William Jennings Bryan, the
Great Commoner, speaks from the porch of the Lee County
photos courtesy Southwest Florida Historical Society
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Gerri Reaves, PhD
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THE RIVER - JANUARY 20, 2017
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