Son of Henry
Jackson Whidden and Julia Tyler Whidden
The History of the "Ridge"
by: Mary Alice Alligood Moser, reprinted from The Daily Highlander, 28 February 1982
edition (Lake Wales, Fla.).
It's really quite sad that I never got interested in "Family History" until I
was "pushing 50", but I've tried to make up for that in the last seven years. What
piqued my interest was an article in a Polk County newspaper. Dated Monday, October
28, 1974, the article stated: "Although (V.P.) Simmons is accredited for making
Midland what it was, a settlement of about 24 houses averaging six persons each,
(Willis) Rhoden says his wife's family, the Stokes, should get credit." My sister,
Gertrude Richards' nature is such that she literally "blew her top". I took a
more "wait and see" attitude.
Not having known Grandpa (V.P.) Simmons and his wife, Gertrude, I became a Charter
Member of the Polk County Historical Association and began monthly treks to the Polk
County Historical and Genealogical Library in Bartow. There on microfilm, I began my
search through old records dating back to 1885, since that was the year V.P. and
Gertrude settled in central Polk County.
Progress was slow at first, and I was ignorant of where to begin. By February of
1975, I had found special 1885 census records listing Grandpa, Grandma, their four
children and his aging father. This was to be my only record of Varnum Simmons,
V.P.'s father, who died that November there at Midland, where he is buried and whose
tombstone was the only thing I found at Midland to indicate that a civilization had
ever existed there. I am told the gravestone of the wife and child of John C.
Burleigh (brother to Gertrude Simmons) also stands there, although I did not find it
during my visit there.
Since both my maternal grandparents died before I was born, my story - with one
exception - must of a necessity begin with the migration of Varnum Paine Simmons and
Gertrude Elizabeth Burleigh Simmons to central Polk County.
For the sake of clarity, I will hereafter call my grandfather "V.P." and his
Family tradition has it that V.P. and Gertrude met on her 16th birthday when he went
to her home to deliver ship's papers to her father, Lucien Burleigh. Tradition
further states that the first single man to enter your home on your 16th birthday
would become your husband. You can imagine the chagrin of Gertrude Burleigh to find
this bearded stranger standing under the mistletoe when she opened the door. She ran
and hid -- but exactly 13 years later, on her 29th birthday, they were married. He
was 37 at the time.
Back to my research: By January of 1976, things were beginning to look up for me. As
I became more proficient in my search, I began to find articles that Grandpa and
Grandma wrote for the Bartow Advance Courier, the Polk County News and the Courier-
Informant - all Polk County newspapers based at Bartow.
Suffice it to say that I owe a debt of gratitude to Willis Rhoden for his statement
about the Simmons, for it gave me the spur I needed to get started. I found, as I had
always been told, that the Simmons family was one of the first families in the
Midland neighborhood. Although Dan Stokes had owned property in that vicinity, it was
nearly the turn of the century before he moved his family there from the Ute area on
the Kissimmee River in southeastern Polk County, this just four or five years before
the Simmons family made their move from Midland to Lakemont (Frostproof) in March of
1903. I would not want to take anything away from the Dan Stokes family, but neither
would I want anything concerning the Simmons family diminished, as they spent some 18
years there at Midland.
But back to the Simmons family migration: Leaving Danielsonville, CT., with their
family of three children and his aged, widowed father, they moved to Atlantic
Highlands, NJ in October of 1884 to live with his sister, Waity Simmons Frizelle
Hammond and her family. There my mother, Mary Burleigh Simmons, was born on the 29th
of December, 1884. About six weeks later, they sailed from New York City "in a cold
northeast snow storm, with ice upon the steamer and a cold sleet upon everything not
sheltered from the weather." They landed at Fernandina in Florida in February, 1885.
They came to Orlando and stayed two weeks and then V.P. went on to Lakeland, where he
arranged with a man for a homestead sight-unseen in Polk County. It was located about
seven miles northwest of Frostproof.
Starting life over on the 5th of March, 1885, in the flat backwoods of Central
Florida, at the age of 49, V.P. brought his wife, Gertrude, aged just five days short
of 40, and his children, Ernest, 11; Justin, 9; Alice, 5 and Mary, two months and
five days, and his 80-year-old father, Varnum, who died the following November and is
buried there. The 1885 special census is the only proof I found of Varnum having
lived in Florida.
V.P. named the place where he settled "Midland", because it lay about the middle of
the state in all directions and because it was found by counting townships that it
was the central one north, south, east and west.
They lived that first summer in a tent that Gertrude had sewn with her own two hands
until they were able to secure lumber to build a home. Gertrude began teaching school
almost immediately. Her brother, John C. Burleigh, came down a year or so later and
put up a sawmill and built a store - later purchased by V.P. Fort Meade was the
nearest post office when they came, so a little later V.P. circulated a petition,
which was generally signed, and Midland post office was established on the 29th of
April, 1887, the first post office east of Fort Meade, with J. C. Burleigh as
postmaster. As well as being a minister of the gospel, V.P. became the first Justice
of the Peace east of Fort Meade. He married many of the old timers in the area.
Midland remained a post office until June 15, 1907 - some 20 years later. By April of
1888, Midland was getting the magnificent sum of two mails per week.
Indians of Chief Tallahassee's tribe, camped on Lake Rosalie, came to trade with both
Burleigh and Simmons - and Billie Buster took a liking to Simmons' youngest towheaded
daughter, Mary, my mother, and brought her a young fawn on one of his trips. The
Indians insisted on receiving silver for their skins and other wares. They then would
spend the money in the store, paying for each article as they purchased it. Simmons
had tacks along the counter to measure yardage of goods, but the Indians didn't trust
the tacks and insisted on measurement by yardstick.
In November of 1893, Mrs. Simmons was named as Midland Agent for the Courier-
Informant, a Bartow newspaper from which I've gleaned much of my information.
Newspapers in those days would print nearly anything printable to fill up space and
Simmons family was very verbose.
In November of 1895, Midland and Lake Buffum families traveled to Frostproof for a
Thanksgiving outing on Silver Lake. Quoting Mrs. Simmons: "Well, we were at last all
fed - 31 hungry souls - and yet there were twelve baskets full of fragments
The 15th of December, 1895, saw a Sunday School organized at Frostproof with 24
present at the first session, which assemble in V.P. Simmons' new barn. Mrs. Simmons
wrote: "We thought the place not appropriate for so Christlike a work, since our
Saviour first saw the light of day in a manger, and the initial lesson there studied
will be on that blessed theme, the birth of Christ." Still further she wrote: "The
day was delightful, the surroundings charming and thoroughly in harmony with the work
in hand. As we gazed over the mirror-like lake, we thought of Jesus as he taught on
Lake Gennesaret, and it is our prayer that the lessons he taught by the sea may be
repeated here and find an echo in the hearts of all learners."
Following the Sunday School organization, a Christian Endeavor Society at Frostproof
was organized at a meeting held at B. M. Hampton's on Silver Lake.
On the first of February, 1896, Gertrude Simmons addressed the Polk County Teachers
Meeting at Fort Meade with a speech on "Obedience to Law". These 86 years later, it
is still as relevant as it was then, and could have been written yesterday for the
In 1896, a Literary and Debating Society was established at Lake Buffum, a few miles
from Midland, and the Simmons family became an integral part of that Society. Some of
the subjects for debate included: Franchise of vote for negroes; Whether there is
more pleasure in pursuit or possession; Which is greater, moral or physical courage;
Whether steam or electricity has done more to advance civilization. Mrs. Simmons was
elected President of this organization in December of 1896, and in June was presented
with a president's gavel. Presentation and acceptance speeches were very flowery, one
of my most prized finds in the Courier-Informant of that day.
In January of 1899, Midland had what was called a "Protracted Meeting", led by a Rev.
A. J. Poulson, who called for purity of heart and life from professing Christians.
Excerpts from V.P. Simmons' article note: "This doctrine, so repulsive to a worldly
church and a sin loving world at Midland, as everywhere else, roused the antagonism
of the carnal hearts." When asked "Do you believe anyone ever gets holy in this
life?", V.P. replied: "Those who strive after such an experience come much nearer to
it than those who fight the doctrine of holiness." He further stated: "If our
theology rules out holiness, it is best to change our theology and seek the necessary
Ernest Simmons and his sister, Alice, were teachers in several schools throughout
Polk County. As a new bride, the wife of Joseph Madison Langford, Alice was the first
teacher at Frostproof in January of 1901.
But, back to life in Midland: Life there had its comic moments and mother told me of
one she experienced as a young girl. Polk County, in those days, was "open range",
and animals were fenced out, not in. There was an old mangy hog that used to come to
here father's store and sleep under the house. She tired of seeing him there and
decided to kill him with arsenic, but gave him such a large dose it cured him rather
than killing him.
At the time of their move to Frostproof (or Lakemont, as it was known at that time),
in March of 1903, the Simmons family had established a grove, a barn and a home,
which Mrs. Simmons had named "Lantana Cottage". V.P. also grew pineapples for the
market and shipped his fruit under the "Golden Rule" brand.
My brother, Ray Moser, tells of the time V.P. took him to an orange tree at the
corner of the house in Frostproof and told him that he reckoned more bud wood had
been cut off that one tree than any other in the State of Florida.
Frostproof was established as a post office in December, 1892, changed to Lakemont in
February, 1898, and once again became "Frostproof" in August, 1906. In June of 1899,
J. W. Carson (of the first family of Frostproof) wrote: "A thousand other places have
names beginning with 'Lake'. There is but one Frostproof in the known world. It is
between Lakes Clinch and Ystopogayoxee in southeastern Polk County".
But that's another tale for another time...