A political cartoon from the Highlands County News showed that public improvements, tourism and housing were key issues as 1957 arrived in Sebring.
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published: Friday, August 10, 2012
1950s: Division under the surface
By CHRISTOPHER TUFFLEY
SEBRING -- Sebring in the 1950s is difficult to write about today. There is a huge gap in the Sebring Historical Society's newspaper record. There are no editions until December of 1957.
In Sebring, 1950 opened in sorrow with the death of Orville Sebring, the co-founder of the town.
By December of 1957, there was a new newspaper in the city, the six-page Highlands County News. Still in the large format, the News dealt almost exclusively with Sebring and Highlands County news. Most of the photos were of individual faces, or groups standing together. Fisherman and their catches often appeared on the front page, as did photos of wrecked cars.
As 1957 ended, a new city council was being seated. Mayor J.D. Hunt had not been opposed for re-election, Ben Eastman was serving as council president, and Jack Stroup was elected city clerk for the first time.
A burst of activity occurs in 1958, beginning with a proposal to four lane U.S. 27, then State Road 25.
Six million dollars were needed to fund the project, but work didn't begin right away.
The highway upgrade was only one of several projects funded or begun in 1958. County Road 621 connected Lorida with Lake Placid, and a road was built from the Highlands-Hardee county lines to State Road 700 in DeSoto City.
It was at this time State Road 64 was extended from Avon Park to the Bombing Range.
In response to the nuclear age, Sebring was chosen as the site of the control center for the civil defense Southeastern Command. Special equipment was sent in by the federal government, including litters, cover-alls, blankets and gloves.
At the local Kwik Check, sugar was 39 cents for a five pound bag, bacon was 49 cents a pound, and lean ground beef was selling for 45 cents a pound.
January 1, 1959 the News printed a front story by Ray Caldwell reporting that the winning of the Ridge Grid Title was the highlight of 1958. "All the Blue Streak teams, basketball, football and baseball had winning seasons," he wrote, "and the gridders put their school on the map with the first Ridge Conference Championship in 21 years."
There were two controversial municipal issues in 1958 and 1959.
One was the proposed sale of the Sebring power plant and a transfer to the Florida Power Company.
The controversy came from the power company bypassing the Sebring Utilities Commission and making its $2.25 million bid to the city council.
Critics of the sale also argued that the utility made a profit and should not be sold in the first place. In any case, they said, the utility commission by charter had the policy-making power and as such had sole control over the utility.
Proponents responded that as city assets, the power plant belonged to the people and as such should be under the control of the council.
On March 5, 1959, the issue came down to a city council vote. The members voted 3 to 2 in favor of the utilities commission.
On April 30, The Highlands News reported a state bill providing for a relief and pension protection for firefighters. The issue went to a referendum. Voters approved the new fund, to which the city would contribute a tax not to exceed three tenths of a mil.
A board of trustees, made up of the mayor, the fire chief and three firefighters, was selected to oversee the new fund.
In June, the Florida Power Company tried again to get the city to sell its electric utility, but the commission again refused. It began an expansion program of its own.
In its response to the power company, the News quoted the utility commission telling the company, "We will not be interested in any proposition from Florida Power Company except for the sale of power at wholesale rates."
In July, a small historic moment occurred when three Cuban helicopters made a fuel stop at the Sebring airport during the small window of coexistence. They were a part of the Cuban Revolutionary Government under the command of Fidel Castro.
In August of 1959, work was well underway on C.R. 621 on the east and south of Lake Istokpoga. Fifty-five parcels had been bought for the SR 25/US 27 widening project. The parcels cost a total of $270,649.
Gone were three service stations, a restaurant, a fruit stand, a novelty shop, an ice house and the Walker Memorial Sanitarium, plus a several churches.
Efforts to create a community hospital in Sebring met with obstacles and resistance, with increased taxes being the major concern.
A special public hearing to gauge resident opinion was held on Oct. 1. Only 92 people turned out. They voted 40- 31 against building a hospital.
According to the News, "'I'll gladly make a donation, but don't put your hands in my pocket and take money from me,' said a bespectacled gentleman."
In November, a hospital tax levy was killed during a city council meeting in a 2-2 vote.
Growth during this time shows up in additions to several schools and the building of Fred Wild Elementary School.
The total number of students was 4,319. Schools, however, were still segregated. It shows in the student count -- listed as 631 white high school students and 517 Negro high school students -- and in other ways.
For example, on Jan. 8, 1959, the newspaper ran a item announcing, "A workshop for white teachers during the 1959-60 school year was approved."
In October of 1959, a white man and a black woman in Venus were arrested on charges of cohabiting. She was also charged with contributing to the delinquency of a minor.
Passing into the 1960s Sebring was no closer to deciding what to do about building a hospital and who should provide city electricity.
As the News wrote in front page editorial "One thing is certain ... (the city) will have difficult problems to solve, because of the city's rapid growth and the increased demands for services."
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