Plant City was first chartered in 1885, and as Plant City historian, David E. Bailey, Jr., wrote, it was an “instant town.”
By 1902, the town had progressed to the point that Philander Allen Merrin, then editor of the Plant City Courier, wrote, “Plant City’s future was assured.” Merrin wrote of the many different businesses in town and said, “Among the lodges were the Knights of Pythias and the Masonic Lodge.”
So, what is the Knights of Pythias? It is a fraternal organization — some refer to it as a secret society — founded in 1864, during the Civil War. The name is derived from the Greek legend of Damon and Pythias, in which Pythias offers to be held hostage for four hours so his friend Damon, who has been wrongly sentenced to death, could visit his family one last time. When Damon returns to face his sentence, the king is so impressed with their loyalty and trust that he frees both of them.
The letters “FCB” are part of the society’s code and stand for “Friendship, Charity, Benevolence.” Notable Americans who have been members of the Knights of Pythias include U.S. presidents William McKinley, Warren Harding and Franklin D. Roosevelt, along with individuals such as Louis Armstrong, William Jennings Bryan, Nelson Rockefeller, Hubert Humphrey and W. G. Brorein, who founded the Peninsular Telephone Co., in 1901, in Tampa, and brought the lines to Plant City in 1902. Florida governors who have been members of the Knights of Pythias include William Haydon Burns, Millard F. Caldwell, Doyle Elam Carlton, Cary Augustus Hardee and Park Trammel.
In our photo of the Plant City Lodge of the Knights of Pythias, taken in 1905, are 28 men, many of whom were in leadership positions in the young town named after railroad magnate Henry Bradley Plant. We’ll soon meet some of them. We were not able to gather much information on some of the men pictured, but, if any readers have any information or photos, please contact us.
The men in this photo are seated, we believe, in front of the Wells Building built, in 1904, at 114 N. Collins St., the third floor of which held the meeting room used by the Knights of Pythias, Independent Order of Odd Fellows, Patriotic Sons of America, Woodmen of the World and others. The members in the photo include, seated from left: George Benjamin Wells (G.B.), John Walworth, Bob Head, D.J. Parks, Samuel Edward Mays (S.E.), John T. Lowe, William Lee Lowry (W.L.) and Charlie Burkstresser. Standing, from left: Sam Tyner, George Wilson, Charlie Burdette, Dwight Crum, O.D. Pemberton, Henry B. Wordehoff, Dave Hall, Ellis Holloway, Joe Thomas, John A. Barns, John Kennedy, W.V. Griffin, George W. Foster, John Graham, Daniel L. Robinson, Mr. Stevens, Oscar Stone, unidentified, W.A. House and Sheldon Cornelius Wells (S.C.). Among those not pictured is Charles Evan Barnes, who was perhaps the photographer.
A charter member of the Knights of Pythias, Barnes was born in 1875, in West Virginia, and moved in about 1896, to Florida. He established himself quickly as a business, civic and political leader. Barnes rose to a major position in the state Republican Party and, in 1908, was appointed postmaster by President Theodore Roosevelt. He was reappointed in 1909, and served until 1913, when President Woodrow Wilson replaced him.
Barnes was the manager of the Barlow Land Company and a successful businessman in land development and insurance. He was the only Republican elected to the Plant City Council and was a leader of the Plant City Boosters and Board of Trade. He was married to Mary Ellen “Mamie” Whitehurst Barnes, who served as postmaster from 1922 to 1934, being appointed by presidents Warren G. Harding, Calvin Coolidge and Herbert Hoover.
Another leader of the group was John Augustus Barns, (not related to Barnes), another charter member of the Knights of Pythias. He is pictured here in the center with raised ceremonial sword.
Barns was born in 1861, in Arkansas, to a dentist, Dr. Augustus Mitchell Barns, and at age 21 moved to Shiloh and began his career in agriculture. An orphaned cousin, George Foster, also in the subject photo, joined the other members of the Barns family as they followed young John to Florida the following year.
Barns became a community leader and joined with William L. Lowry in the firm of Lowry and Barns, which sold seeds, crates and fertilizer. He also was manager, then owner of the Plant City Courier, a member of the Plant City Boosters Club and a director of the re-energized Board of Trade. Buying out his citrus grove partners, W.L. Lowry and W.B. Herring, Barns and his wife, Ida Pemberton, moved permanently to the citrus grove in about 1920, in Pinellas County. Their son, Judge Paul D. Barns, served on the Florida Supreme Court from 1946 to 1950.
George Foster and Robert J. Head were successful in the packing and shipping business. John T. Lowe entered politics and was elected to the Florida State House of Representatives and served from 1927 to 1928, 1929 to 1930 and 1931 to 32.
William Lee Lowry (W.L.) and older brother, Charles S. Lowry (C.S.), were born in Louisiana and moved with their family in 1883, to Plant City, where their father, Soloman Lowry, established a lumber business. Charles and William married sisters — Sallie A. Allen and Mary G. Allen.
C.S. Lowry was the proprietor of the City Drug Store and was active in civic affairs, being elected alderman and chairman pro-tem of the city council. He later became a medical doctor and moved to Miami.
W.L. Lowry was in business with John A. Barns both in real estate and with the seeds, crates and fertilizer firm of Lowry and Barns. Like Barns, Lowry was an organizer of the Knights of Pythias and also a member of the Plant City Boosters. Active in politics, he was elected as alderman, town clerk and clerk-treasurer and served as treasurer/tax assessor until his death, in 1922. He was the developer of Forest Park and a partner in the Lowry and Barns subdivision.
Samuel Edward Mays was a remarkable man in Plant City history. In 1908, the Plant City Courier published an article that stated, “Mr. Mays is the largest individual real estate owner of the city.” Mays was born in 1864, in Greenville, S.C., to Professor Samuel Elias Mays and Katherine Mosley Mays. The family moved to Hillsborough County and settled in 1876, in the Alafia River area.
From 1882 to 1887, Mays worked as a clerk in the mercantile business of J.M. Boyett in Peru (Riverview). When he moved in 1887, to Plant City, he took charge of C.J. Yates’s general store. He started his own business in 1892 and launched into merchandising, banking, farming, fruit growing and real estate. He was one of the organizers of Hillsboro State Bank in 1902, and in 1907, he helped organize the Bank of Plant City.
Mays was elected to the City Council and served from 1907 to 1915. He was a member of the Plant City Boosters, a director of the Board of Trade and in 1908, built the largest single brick building in Plant City, later becoming Black’s Department Store. He was instrumental in writing and passing the new city charter of 1927 and was the first mayor under that charter. He continued to serve as a city commissioner until his death in 1932.
George Washington Wells (“G.W.”) was born in 1843, in Georgia, and moved to Plant City sometime after his marriage in 1864, to Mary Jane Drew, of Tampa. Their children were George Benjamin Wells (“G.B.,” 1868), Walter Charles Wells (“W.C.,” 1870), Mary Jane Wells (1873), William Jason Wells (1876) and Sheldon Cornelius Wells (“S.C.,” 1878).
W.C. Wells and father, G.W. Wells, started in about 1884, Wells hardware and furniture store. Sheldon Wells ran the S.C. Wells & Co. Pharmacy but gave that up to join the hardware operation, as did former teacher William Jason Wells. G.B. Wells became an attorney and also provided service to the hardware firm. Mary Jane Wells married Dr. John Clarence Knight.
G.B. Wells had his law office on the second floor of the Wells Building, 114 N. Collins St., just one floor down from the meeting room where the Knights of Pythias met. Interested in civic affairs, G.B. succeeded his father in 1900, as town clerk. He was elected mayor and served from 1902 to 1911. He was also elected to the Florida State House of Representatives and served two terms, 1903 to 1904 and 1905 to 1906.
As were some of the others, G.B. Wells was one of the Plant City Boosters; he was also secretary of the Board of Trade. After serving as mayor, Wells served as city attorney until his death in 1934. His wife, Veronica Kimsey Wells, of Tennessee, was active in the Woman’s Club and is one of the founders of the Plant City Public Library.
Henry B. Wordehoff, born in 1866, has an interesting background as the son of Antoine Wordehoff, a Prussian immigrant who homesteaded in about 1842, in Alafia. By 1850, 42 soldiers were garrisoned at Fort Alafia, and Antoine Wordehoff was one. He met Martha E. Moody at the fort and married her. In 1855, he established a post office at Alafia and became the first postmaster. By 1863, Antoine Wordehoff had become a county commissioner and had built his farm to a plantation of 300 to 400 acres. Sometime after the death of his father in 1887, Henry Wordehoff sold the land he inherited and relocated to Plant City. He was a guest at the Robinson House hotel and married Frances “Fannie” Robinson in about 1896.
Wordehoff was a businessman and ran a one-stop store that sold buggies, wagons and more. He prospered and invested in land in and around Plant City. He was one of the organizers of the Bank of Plant City, in 1906 to 1907. When some of his buildings burned in the calamitous fire of 1907, Wordehoff was one of the first to rebuild with brick.
Wordehoff was also a member of the Plant City Boosters and made the promotional trip in 1910, to Chicago and also was involved with the Board of Trade. He built one of the grandest residences in Plant City, on the northwest corner of Wheeler and Reynolds streets. It was later moved and for years served as the Wells Funeral Home on the southwest corner of Mahoney and Wheeler streets.
This group of young members of the Knights of Pythias was very much in the lead in the development of Plant City. Over the years, things changed, and although many of this group spent their lives in Plant City, many of the men went different directions. We don’t know the subsequent history of the Knights of Pythias, but we do know the society continued to meet in the Wells Building until the mid to late 1960s. And we know that these men shown here in 1905 were more than just “Boosters” of Plant City; they were some of the individuals who made the city what it is today.
Sources: Quintilla Geer Bruton and David E. Bailey, Jr., Plant City; Its Origin and History, 1984; U.S. Federal Census records; Hillsborough County Historic Resources Survey Reports; Ancestry.com; The History of Florida: Past & Present, The Lewis Publishing Co., Vol. III, 1923; Political Graveyard.com; Knights of Pythias websites; oral interview with Mary Barnes Harrell; Plant City Photo Archives and History Center collections; and various websites.
Gil Gott is executive director of the Plant City Photo Archives and History Center.