News-Sun photo by KATARA SIMMONS Modern day North Ridgewood Drive still very much resembles the way it looked circa 1946 in downtown Sebring.
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published: Friday, August 03, 2012
The 1940s: As war raged, Sebring exploded
By CHRISTOPHER TUFFLEY
SEBRING -- Of course, the 1940s were a decade dominated by World War II.
Because Sebring was home to Hendricks Field, an Army Air Corps combat crew training school, it was affected much more broadly and deeply than most other communities -- especially because in 1940 it was agricultural and rural with a county population of under 10,000.
By May 6, 1943 the population had doubled -- going from just over 9,000 civilians in 1940, to more than 14,000 civilians and 7,000 military personnel including those assigned to the Avon Park Bombing Range.
While the war grew more intense in Europe, North Africa and Asia, in 1940 Sebring was still a sleepy town.
The Sebring American reported on local galas, high school marching band concerts and the doings of the city council.
While the newspaper followed the war, its violence was muted and seemed far away. In the day-to-day of 1940, Sebring was more concerned about an early, killing frost and an alarming drop in the fish population.
That fishing problem was considered so urgent, in fact, that a private group of citizens got together creating the Fish & Game Association and built a fish hatchery for a lake restocking project.
Well before the attack on Pearl Harbor, the War Department began to expand the armed forces.
Seeing this, a group of city leaders and businessmen anticipated American entry into the war.
Early on, they traveled to Washington D.C. to lobby for the city and the county to be sure that when new military installations were created -- as there were sure to be such installations in the near future -- one would be built in Sebring.
The Army Air Corps did choose a site seven miles of the city on which to build a training base. Originally planned as a basic flying school, it opened for combat crew training instead. The men were taught to be a team on B-17s, otherwise known as Flying Fortresses.
The Sebring Historical Society has a copy of "A Brief History of Hendricks Field" in its collection. It was written in 1942 by an unknown author.
He described what the area looked like before the first bulldozer lowered a blade.
It was "a huge prairie tract ... sandy, palmetto-covered, marshy, almost surrounded by lakes and a creek ... filled with herons, cranes, quails, snipe, and other game birds; and deer, rabbits ... rattlesnakes and moccasins."
On June 13, 1941 work began on the training school. The first B-17 landed at 2355 (11:55 p.m.) on Jan. 29, 1942.
Those seven months were a rush of contract bidding and activity.
In an anonymous piece at the Sebring Historical Society written in 1979, the author described what it was like as power lines, access roads, runways and permanent structures were built.
Wages were excellent, he said. Journeymen made $1 an hour; apprentices made 50 cents.
The influx of people was great and so quick that there was a severe housing crisis.
The author said that beds and stoves were put into "the most unbelievable locations, even in such out-buildings as those which had been used for housing chicken flocks."
The situation was so out of control that an Area Rental Office was created to oversee landlords and tenets, and the federal government instituted rent control to stop price gouging.
World War II had arrived.
Sebring residents soon became used to the sight of the large bombers as they flew overhead, although there were a few incidents -- like when a Flying Fortress buzzed the whole length of Ridgewood Drive.
Mostly people looked at the air field, its men and its planes with pride.
In "A Brief History of Hendricks Field," the author is almost poetic: B-17s are "huge planes of graceful lines, things of beauty, yet probably the most destructive aircraft that has ever been visited upon our enemies."
Hendricks Field was named for 1st Lt. Laird Woodruff Hendricks, a Florida native from Ocala, who died in 1941 during an airplane crash while serving on temporary duty in England as a flight instructor.
At home, city residents practiced black-out procedures. Rationing was in affect.
By the end of the war, residents felt no regret when Hendricks Field was de-activated Dec. 31, 1945, and most of the servicemen and their families left town.
What the city should do with the field became a major controversy.
On one side there was a group led by the Chamber of Commerce and the city council, which thought acquiring the field a farsighted, sound business decision providing an airport and industrial site.
Another group, however, made of residents and other business people, considered the field a "white elephant." They worried that the city would become responsible for the estimated $50,000 it would cost in maintenance every year.
When the government gave the city a Right of Entry document, and substantial discounts on government properties not directly connected to aviation, the city council and chamber moved to take advantage.
The President of the Council, Floyd Schumacher, and Sebring Mayor M. F. McGee, were instrumental in the deal.
To reassure the doubters, the agreement included the stipulation that no city money could be involved. The airport must be self-sustaining.
As we know, Hendricks Field became the Sebring Municipal Airport, and then grew beyond that.
Some of its runway was used for car endurance races that have grown into the world class 12 Hours of Sebring.
The transition from military to civilian, however, was not with challenges. Initially, swarms of scavengers went through the unprotected buildings, taking everything that wasn't nailed down and much that was. Security had to be brought in.
But peace settled quickly back into Sebring. There was an excitement and sense of the future.
By 1947 dozens of committees had formed, each lobbying for a particular new road, or extended utility lines or dial telephones and private lines.
The state government was thinking in terms of creating east-west and north-south transportation corridors, while the federal government was thinking about connecting the states.
Halfway through the century, it seemed as if nothing was impossible.
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