Who Was Orlando P. Rooks?

The Founder of Fruitland Park changed its name and its future

Fruitland Park’s official web site, www.fruitlandpark.org, offers an “elevator pitch” of the city’s history under the “Visitors” tab. Here’s what the city’s official history proclaims:

Horticulturist Major Orlando P. Rooks and his wife built their first home on Crystal Lake in 1877. It was here that the first child, Frederic Rooks was born in 1882. The Fruitland Nurseries of Augusta, Georgia, was owned by J. P. Berckmann, friend of Major Rook. Major Rook named the town Fruitland Park for the nurseries, and the main street Berckmann Street for this friend.

Alas, that’s a myth. Not one created on purpose—there aren’t any villains here. You know how a camel is a horse designed by committee? Fruitland Park’s official history is a camel.

The horse is much more interesting.

Orlando P. Rooks and Capt. Kendrick arrived in Silver Springs in December, 1875 and leased a hack in Ocala.

Orlando P. Rooks and Capt. William Kendrick arrived in Silver Springs in December, 1875. They leased a hack in Ocala and didn’t stop until they reached Leesburg.

Orlando P. Rooks was born about 1840, the fifth of 10 children of John L. and Delila Rooks, a farming family in Bingham, Pennsylvania, a mile or two from the New York state line.

Picture the Rooks family farm, circa 1840, nestled in the foothills of the Alleghenies, golden lamplit glow in the windows, a barn and a stock pen out back, a half-acre vegetable garden. So quiet you only hear animals outside, so dark you see all the stars at once swirling off into the heavens.

A century before Norman Rockwell, America didn’t need him.

Farms were mostly small then. Family members and hired hands did the work. It was hard work but they could eat well, and they ate real food—fresh eggs with rich yolks the size and color of oranges, a plank of bacon with a crackly golden rind, thick, soft fresh churned butter and oven-hot biscuits, slathered with a thick cane syrup that tasted darkly of sulfur and soil.

Yankee homesteads in 1840 were mostly small farms. Farm families worked the fields with occasional hired hands.

Yankee homesteads in 1840 were mostly small farms. Farm families worked the fields with occasional hired hands.

Breakfast came before dawn, but not until the cows were milked, the pigs fed, eggs gathered, water drawn, and youngsters roused for their walk to the school house a mile down the road, and long before that the wood stove fired up, biscuits mixed, bacon sliced.

It wasn’t always so idyllic in the 1840s, not everywhere. America was growing and dividing. The fault line—the famous Mason Dixon Line—formed Pennsylvania’s southern border.

By the 1840s anti-slavery sentiment was widespread in the north, but it flowed from Pennsylvania. Farmers who worked their own fields thought slavery repugnant. Farming was the principal occupation in Pennsylvania and almost all farms were family farms.

Pennsylvania’s strong Quaker tradition—the City of Brotherly Love—and fundamental role in America’s founding—Independence Hall, the Continental Congress, the Liberty Bell—created fertile fields for the cultivation of anti-slavery zeal. The Pennsylvania Abolition Society—first in the nation—was formed in Philadelphia two years before some of its founding members signed the Declaration of Independence.

By the time Orlando Rooks was born, slavery was an issue everyone thought about. The Rooks homestead was one of a growing population of pious, hard-working small-farmer families who were largely sympathetic to the abolitionist cause.

When Orlando P. Rooks died in 1875 he was interred at Lone Oak Cemetery in Leesburg.

When Orlando P. Rooks died in 1875 he was interred at Lone Oak Cemetery in Leesburg.

Perhaps because of their proximity to the southern border, Pennsylvania abolitionists took a bit more pragmatic approach than the ideological firebrands in New York and Boston. A radical wing of the movement opened its doors in 1833—again in Philadelphia—and demanded immediate emancipation.

Washington elites were just as battered by the special interests then as they are today. In the 1840s, no interest was more special than slavery. Slavery powered the southern economy when almost every southern family farmed.

Only about 10 percent of them owned slaves, but the wealthiest ones who owned the most slaves—the plantations—powered Southern politics just as their industries fueled the economy. In the 1840s, slaves were more highly valued as capital assets than the land itself.

By the time Orlando Rooks was born, opposing sides facing off across the Mason Dixon Line were pretty evenly balanced. The Washington elites wanted to keep it that way.

New states were admitted to the Union in pairs, one slave state to one free state. Florida was admitted as a slave state in 1845, paired with Iowa.

Eli Thayer, founder of America's first women's college, launched the Massachusetts Emigrant Aid Society in 1854 to recruit farm families to move to Kansas and vote against slavery. The Rooks family took up the offer.

Eli Thayer, founder of America’s first women’s college, launched the Massachusetts Emigrant Aid Society in 1854 to recruit farm families to move to Kansas and vote against slavery. The Rooks family took up the offer.

By the time Rooks was 14 years old, the Kansas-Nebraska Act put the slavery question up to a vote—white males in both of the new territories were to decide how they would enter statehood.

Nebraskans largely opposed slavery, but Kansas was a tossup.

Southern slave interests imagined the Kansas-Nebraska compromise would work to their benefit. Land-hungry immigrants had been venturing south for more than 30 years to stake out homesteads. They crowded out the Native Americans, many of whom fled south to Florida and came to be called Seminoles, and 10 years after the Indian Removal Act and the Trail of Tears, homesteaders wanted more land.

Southerners gambled that the grassy plains of Kansas would soon be filled by pro-slavery migrants from the south.

Eli Thayer of Boston thought differently. Well-educated and wealthy, Thayer was widely respected as the founder of America’s first women’s college—Oread Institute.

He called himself a “progressive” but on the slavery question he was an ideological firebrand.

Thayer organized the Massachusetts Emigrant Aid Society in order to recruit and support settlers who would claim Kansas homesteads and vote against slavery there.

Eventually, word found its way to Bingham, Pennsylvania, and the Rooks family took up the challenge.

John Rooks sold the family farm and packed the youngest kids with the family’s farm tools and necessities in wagons.

The oldest kids—Orlando among them—would have to walk 1,000 miles, first to Springfield, Missouri and then down the Santa Fe Trail.

The Rooks family stopped in Kansas Territory, Osage County, fifty miles south of Topeka, just then incorporated as a Free State town. They staked out a claim and headed for the Land Office.

kansasmassacre

The Marais des Cygnes Massacre of anti-slavery homesteaders took place about 40 miles from the Rooks family homestead when Orlando was 18 years old.

Homesteading in Kansas in the 1850s was dangerous business. All the Rooks boys knew how to ride and shoot, at men if they had to. Just 40 miles from the Rooks family homestead, pro-slavery Border Ruffians from Missouri rounded up 11 unarmed Free State homesteaders, herded them into a gully and opened fire. Five men were killed, five more injured and one feigned death to escape harm—and tell the story.

The Marais des Cygnes Massacre—named for an old French trading post there—made headlines all across the country. It was the last major atrocity during the “Bloody Kansas” years before the Civil War, it was a direct result of what Eli Thayer and his colleagues called the Kansas Crusade, and it sparked violence by both sides.

When Civil War broke out Orlando Rooks was 21. In September, 1861 he enlisted in the 2nd Regiment of the Kansas Volunteer Infantry. Oddly, he enlisted as a corporal. Without prior military experience—and none is recorded anywhere—his rank may have been based on service in the local militia, for which records are nonexistent.

During the Bloody Kansas years, local militias were known as Jayhawkers. During the war Jayhawker bands committed more than their share of atrocities across the border in Missouri, a slave state.

A month after Rooks enlisted in the 2nd Kansas, just outside Springfield, Missouri, Corporal Rooks charged bravely up Bloody Hill in the Battle of Wilson’s Creek.

Badly outnumbered, 2nd Kansas took the hill and held it against three murderous Confederate counter-attacks. When Gen. Nathaniel Lyon was shot in the chest and killed, 2nd Kansas withdrew.

Three months later, the regiment’s enlistment was over. Rooks returned home to Osage County a war veteran. He may have joined the Jayhawkers.

Rooks enlisted again just before the war ended. He was garrisoned with a New York regiment sent to guard Washington, D.C. He was promoted to sergeant, mustered out at the end of the war in Washington and returned home to Osage.

For William H. Kendrick of Tampa, the war had a different end. Kendrick came to Florida a decade before the war began to fight the Seminoles. When Florida seceded from the Union in January, 1861, Kendrick was commissioned a Captain in the 10th Florida Infantry Regiment.

The 10th Florida saw action at the Battle of Cold Harbor in June, 1864, then in the Petersburg siege and finally in the Appomattox Campaign.

The 10th Florida was surrendered with Lee at Appomattox.

After the war Kendrick returned to Tampa, where he dabbled in real estate and politics. He made friends easily, and he had a lot of them.

By 1870, Rooks was 30 years old and living on the family homestead in Osage. He wanted more, but most of the best farmlands were already claimed.

Opportunities for a 30-year old single man were few, but with the Civil War ended, America was eager to expand.

The Washington elites had proclaimed America’s Manifest Destiny. Congress had passed a series of homestead acts that offered “free” land to settlers who would build farms. Settlers meant growth and prosperity.

Florida wanted a share.

With millions of acres of farm and ranch lands at its disposal, the Florida legislature commissioned representatives to recruit homesteaders from northern cities—to speak at churches and auditoriums, wherever they could attract a crowd, about the wonderful opportunities to be had here.

Kendrick was an ideal commissioner. He had traveled extensively throughout the state. He knew the land. He was friendly and debonair, a good speaker, and a war veteran.

He toured the northern cities, concentrating on the Midwest, where the second and third generations of pioneer families were being eclipsed by newcomers. The lure of free homestead lands was powerful.

Florida Governor Marcellus Lovejoy Stearns greets Harriet Beecher Stowe on the steps of the capitol in Tallahassee.

Florida Governor Marcellus Lovejoy Stearns greets Harriet Beecher Stowe on the steps of the capitol in Tallahassee. Stearns was governor when Orlando Rooks came to Florida.

In 1875, Kendrick met Orlando Rooks. The Yankee sergeant and the Confederate officer hit it off from the start. Kendrick told Rooks of a magical land, “God’s Country,” where rich farm land was cheap and citrus trees could make a man rich in as little as five years.

That was what young Mr. Rooks wanted to hear. He married Josephine Willard in Indianapolis, Indiana in May, and after a brief honeymoon, the newlyweds began making preparations to move south to Florida.

In December, 1875, Kendrick accompanied Orlando and his younger brother William, first to Jacksonville, then by boat up the St. Johns River to the landing at Silver Springs.

They leased a hack in Ocala.

Just before midnight, after an arduous, 18-hour haul down a rutted sand road that was more quagmire than solid ground, they stopped in Leesburg.

They were exhausted, but Rooks couldn’t hide his excitement. He was arrived in God’s Country.

Next: Orlando Rooks Turns Tanner Town into Paradise

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