Seffner Historic Report
Lake Hooker, Lake Thonotosassa, Lake Weeks
The following is an excerpt from:
HILLSBOROUGH COUNTY HISTORIC RESOURCES SURVEY REPORT
Florida Department of State
Bureau of Historic Preservation
Hillsborough County Planning & Growth Management
601 East Kennedy Boulevard, P.O. Box 1110, Tampa, Florida 33601
* These excerpts have been taken from the Historic Resources Survey Report with permission given by the Hillsborough County Historic Resources Review Board on December 15, 2003. The intention is to help provide targeted historical information on the water bodies in Hillsborough County.
Seffner (Simmon’s Hammock & Lenna City)
Seffner’s history can be traced back to before the Armed Occupation Act of 1842,
making it one of Hillsborough County’s earliest communities. Just southeast of Lake
Thonotosassa and consisting of the present-day communities of Seffner and Dover, the
area was originally known as Simmon’s Hammock. Reverend Daniel Simmon migrated
from Savannah, Georgia, in 1829 to establish a Baptist mission to convert Seminole
Indians living near Lake Thonotosassa. During the next seven years the Howard and
Sanders families followed in the preacher’s footsteps, establishing farms in Simmon’s
Hammock. This era of Simmons Hammock was cut short with the beginning of the
Second Seminole War in late 1835. Reportedly, a group of Native Americans warned
Reverend Simmon that war was imminent because many Seminoles did not want to be
pushed off their land south of Tampa Bay. The members of the three households in the
hammock fled to the protection of Fort Brooke. Several months later, Rev. Simmon, his
wife, and their daughter moved to Mobile, Alabama. They were fortunate, for on
December 28, 1835, Major Francis Dade and 110 men marching from Fort Brooke to
Fort King were attacked by Seminole Indians and their maroon allies. Only three of
Dade’s command survived the attack. In February 1836, Major-General Edmond P.
Gaines led approximately 980 soldiers through Simmon’s Hammock on their way to
investigate the Dade massacre. Gaines reported that the three homesteads were burned
to the ground.i
The Second Seminole War effectively stopped people from moving into the region.
However, the Armed Occupation Act of 1842 breathed new life into the hammock, with
several people either claiming or homesteading property including John Parker, Laburn
Burnett, William Hooker, Thomas Weeks, John Weeks, Edmund Lee, James Goff, Seth
Howard, James Glasgow, John C. White, and James White. Settling near present-day
Dover, Captain John Parker moved from Sampson County, North Carolina, to Alachua
County, Florida, in 1831. After fighting in the Second Seminole War, Parker
homesteaded 160 acres in 1843 in Township 29 South, Range 21 East, Section 8.
Besides raising cattle, Parker served as sheriff and was elected to the Board of County
Commissioners. In 1850, Parker was listed a 32 year old farmer owning $500 worth of
property. Eleven people resided in the Parker house, ranging in age from two to 60, with
four classified as having attended school in the past year. Six years later, Parker moved
to Manatee County. By 1860 approximately 50 homesteads had been established
between what would become Seffner and Lake Thonotosassa.ii
The Civil War brought tremendous changes to Simmon’s Hammock. Many of its White
residents left, leaving the newly emancipated slaves behind. One such example was
Samuel B. Todd who in the 1850 Census was listed as a 30-year-old recently married
minister that owned $250 worth of property. After the Civil War he left his former slaves
his cotton plantation who went on to farm the land. Occupying the abandoned land,
many of the former slaves became successful farmers. More African Americans moved
into Simmons Hammock as racial violence escalated throughout surrounding counties in
the 1870s and 1880s.iii Whites also moved onto the recently vacated lands, but in some
instances did not fare as well as their African American counterparts. Despite the influx
of new settlers, much of Simmon’s Hammock remained sparsely settled. Mrs. Mary
Catherine (Barnwell) Williams moved from Alabama to Hillsborough County with her
family in December 1868. She was just a young girl at the time, but she recounted the
experience with great detail providing a glimpse into rural Hillsborough County life.
Leaving Alabama because of W.K. Barnwell’s, Mrs. William’s father, health, the family
arrived in Tampa and began looking for a home:
My father went out the next few days and looked for a farm. So he found
a small place of only sixty acres. He thought that was enough to start with
until he could get better acquainted with the country. So he moved out ten
miles from Tampa to what they call Selfner [sic.] now. There was no one
within four miles of us except one negro family. They were called the
So father took Mr. John Robison, the family he had brought from Alabama
with us, and hired five negroes to help us on the farm. The doctors told
my father and mother they would be compelled to work out in the sun and
air. So father got one of the men to hitch a horse to the plow and bring
him up to the house. So that was the first time I had ever seen my father
in common clothes and at the plow handles. So my mother had a light hoe
and her and father went to their first work, which was for their health. So
their health got better and they were getting along fine and making very
fine crops. He had a very fine two horse team, two oxen, and a wagon in
which our cotton and other produce was hauled to Tampa to sell. He got
very good prices for his crops.
We farmed on until in 1872 we had a fine crop, but the houses on the farm was so old and
rotten we could scarcely live in them; and I had to walk three miles to school with no
houses between by father’s house and the school. I was frightened most to death on the
road, and when I saw a bunch of cattle or any wildcats it would scare me most to death.
Father sent my sister to Tampa to board as there was better schools in Tampa. There was
not much chance to buy books or anything else as the country was most uncivilized.
Most all over Florida was the same way at that time I guess....There was a very dry spring
and our house was most rotten. There was no lumber to build so father thought times
would get better and probably a saw mill might be put up so he could build. But my
mother had given one our negro men a hen that was sitting under the house. She told him
he could have the hen and her biddies if he would watch and keep the wildcats and other
varmints away from her chickens.
As it was very dry weather in May, it caused us a lot of trouble. The man took a torch of
fat-wood and went under the house to see after his hen, and some sparks of fire caught in
the dry rotten wood, and, as the wind was high, it caught fire. But we didn’t know it for
some time. Father got up about two o’clock in the morning and seen the house was on
fire. He woke my mother, sister, and me. We were so frightened we could hardly live.
The house had begun to fall in at the doors, so everything we had got burned except two
featherbeds and a few other things. So we were left flat. Father never even had pants,
shirt, shoes or a hat. So a negro man, Bob Golson, seen the fire and came over to help,
but we could do nothing as we had no water. We had to haul all the water we used one
mile on a sled with a horse, so it was very bad for all of us.
So Bob Golson told father, “Mr. Barnwell, I is a negro but if you will wear some of my
clothes, I will lend you such as you need.” For the yellow fever was raging in Tampa at
that time, so poor father could not help himself. So he told Bob that he was almost a
millionaire, and now almost a pauper. It most killed my dear parents that he had to wear
the negro’s clothes until the quarantine was taken off of Tampa.
So we had a terrible time camping in old outhouses that was on the farm until father
could do better. So when the quarantine was lifted off of Tampa father went in to see
about getting some clothes and other things we all needed so badly. He wanted to see if
he could get some of his Mason friends to help him ro lend him money to build another
house. Mr. Crane and Mr. Wall was the men. They said to my father: “We are sorry to
tell you, Mr. Barnwell, but that land is not yours. We didn’t know you was going to buy
that place or we would have told you. But you was a stranger when you came to Tampa,
and you bought the place before we knew anything about it.” So they told father that the
place belonged to a widow woman, a Mrs. Post, and she was an invalid and had sold that
place twice before to get money to raise her children on. And the place could not ever be
sold because her husband, before his death, had deeded it to their great-grandchildren. So
they said he had just as well leave the place for he could never get it.iv
The Barnwells moved to Fort Odgen in Manatee County in December, 1872. Others
began to trickle into Simmon’s Hammock, but it was not until Henry Plant completed the
South Florida Railroad through the area in 1883 that area witnessed dramatic changes.
The railroad spurred the growth of the region by having a Mr. Gordon plat the soon-to-be
community of Seffner in the spring of 1884. Plant made Seffner the railroad
headquarters on March 4, 1885, with all of his railroad employees residing in the village.
Prior to platting only Frank Mathews and his family and J.E. Tomberlin and his family
lived in what would become Seffner proper. Sometime between 1883 and 1885, Seffner
was known as Lenna City, christened by Frederick P. Seffner, an Ohio immigrant, who
named the community for his daughter Lenna. Mr. Seffner established a post office on
September 26, 1884, and he was told that people would confuse the name Lenna City
with that of Lemon City in Dade County. Therefore, Mr. Seffner named the post office,
and consequently the community, after himself. Enough people moved to the area for
community members to petition the county for a school. On September 18, 1885, Seffner
was granted a school with J.E. Tomberlin, John Carney and John J. Evans serving as
trustees. Miss Burts of Plant City served as the first school teacher, and in 1886 J.M.
Branch donated an acre of land for the first school building to be erected.v As residents
celebrated their academic achievements, the Hillsborough County Real Estate Agency
gave a glowing description of the community:
Situated twelve miles from Tampa, on the South Florida Railroad, is the
new and thriving town of Seffner, a town destined to be one of the
important points on that road, from the fact of its being the right distance
from Tampa and on accounts of its admirable location. A commodious
depot building, erected by the railroad company, with the usual adjuncts of
telegraph and express offices, proclaim it a ‘regular’ station, an advantage
over temporary and flag stations at once seen. The town is alive to the
advantages of educational facilities, and through the efforts of the
inhabitants has secured the establishment of a public school, soon to be
taught in a building belonging to the community. There are already a
number stores, boarding houses, one newly finished hotel and two others
in prospect to cost $20,000, which will soon furnish all the
accommodations the traveling public can wish. Although there are as yet
no church buildings, services are held in a private hall, and we understand
that a suitable house will soon be built to accommodate the church-goers.
Two magnificent lakes–Hooker and Weeks–lying just east of the town,
afford all the piscatorial sport one wants and give boating and bathing
facilities. Around their margins can be found as fine grazing for stock as
is to be had anywhere. Luxurious orange groves, here to be seen on every
hand, give evidence of the superior quality of the land, which, by the way,
is not be spoken of simply as an orange growing country, but one will
grow almost anything–in fact, everything that can be raised in semitropical
Florida. Among other timber plentiful in this section may be
mentioned oak, hickory and pine, and two saw-mills are daily converting
the latter into building material. The Bowering Soap Manufacturing
Company is also located here, with a capital of $25,000, owned and
controlled by parties from Toronto, Canada.vi
Seffner had become a railroad boom town, one of the only unincorporated communities
throughout Hillsborough County that could claim “town” status because of the number
and type of businesses. In 1886 Seffner’s population reached 75 with four stores, three
steam saw mills, two hotels, and the soap factory. Josiah Yates operated a billiard and
pool hall, Charles W. Spooner worked as a butcher, L.B. Cullen bred white Leghorn
chickens, and John P. Hill sold real estate and notarized official documents out of his
general merchandise shop. Bruce Stone was a man of many trades. He owned Stone’s
Hotel, served as Seffner’s lawyer, and also sold real estate. Prospective residents could
purchase unimproved property at $10 an acre while improved land went for $30 an acre.
Like other communities throughout the region, citrus was an important crop with 24
people listed as growing anywhere from three to 15 acres of oranges.vii
Between 1886 and 1887 many Tampa residents were struck with yellow fever, a deadly
ailment in 19th century Florida. Seffner became a place of refuge for fearful Tampans
trying to escape. Like their constituents, members of Hillsborough County’s Democratic
convention fled to Seffner, holding their meeting in Charles Spencer’s post office. Even
T.C. Taliaferro, Tampa’s banker, left the stricken town, setting up a branch office in
Seffner.viii John P. Wall, a Tampa resident and one of the state’s most experienced
yellow fever doctors, submitted the following description of Seffner to the Supervising
Surgeon-General of the Marine-Hospital Service of the United States shortly after the
epidemic had subsided:
Seffner is a railroad station on the South Florida Railroad, 12 miles from
Tampa, and Mango is on the same road 2 miles nearer Tampa. Both last
year and this there were a few cases of fever at Seffner in persons who had
left Tampa in the incubation stage, but no spread of the disease followed.
It was quite a refuge station last year and there was no restriction on
intercourse between Seffner and Tampa at any time. It was, moreover, the
change station for the railroad during last year, no trains coming nearer
Tampa. This year all of a family of seven went out to Seffner and were
sick except one, within a few days after removal. In the course of a month
this family returned to Tampa, and the one who was not sick at Seffner
was sick in Tampa, the remainder of the family escaping it in Tampa after
their return. There are several stores, two boarding-houses, with a
population of seventy-five or a hundred people at Seffner. The place is on
elevated ground, with fair natural drainage into a large savannah some 300
yards to the east, yet as before stated, notwithstanding the fact that persons
contracting the infection in Tampa were sick at Seffner there was no
spread and not a single indigenous case in the place. Seffner is 12 miles
this side of Plant City.ix
The yellow fever crisis passed and Seffner continued to prosper. W.H. Beckwith
established Seffner’s first packing house in 1887, marking the beginning of Seffner’s
fruit packing industry. A year later, community members organized the Seffner Baptist
Church of Christ and the Seffner Methodist Church, both in existence today. Enough
people lived in the region for a Mr. Bennett to establish Seffner’s newspaper the South
Florida News in 1891, and reportedly, Seffner even had a cigar factory. Beyond oranges,
farmers also grew corn, Irish potatoes, grapefruit, strawberries, and cabbage. The freezes
of 1895 wiped out most of Seffner’s orange trees, and it would be several years before
the citrus industry rebounded. Because of the cold snaps, most of Seffner’s businesses
were forced to close their doors forever. Many newcomers to the area returned to the
North after the freeze, and others moved to Tampa.x
This citrus setback did not stop people from moving into the community for 672 people
celebrated the new century in Seffner. By 1910, the population dipped to 549, caused by
the redrawing of precinct boundaries in the 1910 census, but by 1930, Seffner’s
population nearly hit the 1000 mark with 931 residents. As Seffner grew so did its
businesses. The impact of the 1895 freeze upon local commerce is readily witnessed by
only two businesses, both of which were general stores, operated in Seffner in 1911.
With the involvement of the United States in World War I, Tampa’s ship building
industry went into full swing. Consequently, many Seffner residents commuted by cars
and bicycles to Tampa to work on the ships. In response, new Seffner businesses opened
up by 1918. Seffner had a new weekly newspaper, the Seffner Eagle, a physician, a
justice of the peace, two general stores, a lumber mill, a barber, a garage, a racket store, a
real estate agent, and a notions and confectioner establishment. By 1925, the newspaper
appears to have gone out of business, but two general stores still served the community as
well as a grocery company, a bus line, three real estate agents, a barber, three notary
publics, a lumber company, a justice of the peace, a dairy, and a tourist camp. Seffner
benefitted from the land boom with the platting of four subdivisions to the west, north
and south of town, which added approximately 50 new families to the community.xi
The prosperity would not last. According to Lee Longstroth, a long time resident in the
Seffner/Mango area, everyone was impacted by the bust of the Florida land boom and the
stock market crash that followed: “We all hit the bottom in a hurry -- none of us
including thousands of others were no longer rich in lands or goods any longer...the
banks failed and took little savings small folks had into oblivion and ours went along
with that of others.”xii Even churches teetered on the brink of financial ruin. To make
ends meet, women would gather together and can fruit and vegetables and learn other
ways to stretch a dollar. Area businesses also joined forces and organized the Seffner
Board of Trade to try to improve the economic welfare of the region. Due to such efforts
and to the agricultural livelihood of many of Seffner residents, they were able to survive
the Great Depression.xiii Things began to look up during the second half of the 1930s
when Seffner was described as a:
“a pleasant rural town once known as Lenna City....Today Seffner is a
prosperous town and shipping point for the farming and citrus industries
of the locality. The neighboring towns of Mango, Dover, Thonotosassa
and Valrico are represented in the Seffner Board of Trade.
Numerous lakes nearby, such as Lakes Hooker and Weeks, on the east,
and Lake Locarno, on the south, are favorite fishing grounds. The show
spot of Seffner is Spencer Park, located east of town. It is the assembly
point of the Confederate Veterans in Hillsborough and adjacent counties
during their reunion each year.”xiv
With the U.S. entry into World War II, nearly all of Seffner’s residents became involved
in the war effort. By 1945, the town’s population grew to 1329, consisting of 1078
Whites and 251 Blacks. Agriculture still dominated the community including a rabbit
ranch, a poultry hatchery, stock farms, citrus groves and plant nurseries. Other
businesses also existed including two garages, several stores, a restaurant, a barbershop,
an electric shop, a canning plant with 75 employees, and a tourist camp where political
rallies were held. Seffner also had a regional airport. With such amenities and proximity
to Tampa, Seffner continued to grow, and its agricultural dominance declined. By 1990
Seffner’s population reached 5371 residing in 2095 houses. Seffner had suburbanized. xv
i. Bruton and Bailey, Plant City, 22; Covington, The Story of Southwestern Florida, Volume I, 82; Major General George A. McCall, Letters From The Frontiers. Facsimile Reproduction. (Gainesville, FL: University Presses of Florida, 1974), 299-307; D.B. McKay, Pioneer Florida, Volume II, 486.
ii. Bailey, “A Study of Hillsborough County’s History, Legend, and Folk Lore, with Implications for the Curriculum,” 259; Covington, The Story of Southwestern Florida, Volume I, 134,422-451; Department of the Interior, Bureau of Land Management, Eastern States, "General Land Office, Automated Records Project, Pre-1908 Homestead and Cash Entry Patents;" Leland Hawes, “Cattle Owner Hooker was a Civil, Military Leader,” Tampa Tribune August 26, 1990, 4H; Hillsborough County, Florida, 1850 Census, 15; Spessard Stone, “Profile of Capt. John Parker,” Sunland Tribune 17(1)(November 1991), 21-23.
iii. Canter Brown, Jr., African Americans on the Tampa Bay Frontier. Tampa Bay History Center Reference Library Series No. 3 (Tampa, Fl: Tampa Bay History Center, 1997), 42,58-60.
iv. Kate Barnwell Williams, “This is the Story of my Life,” Tampa Bay History 9(1)(1987), 52-54.
v. Ibid., 55-56; F.B. Akard, “Seffner History,” Literary Florida January, 1950, 35-37 (reprint of Charles H. Spencer, “Growth and Development of Seffner as Revealed by Tampa History Writer,” Tampa Tribune June 20, 1925); Bailey, “A Study of Hillsborough County’s History, Legend, and Folk Lore, with Implications for the Curriculum,”265; Bradbury and Hallock, A Chronology of Florida Post Offices, 76; Deed Book S, page 236, Clerk of the Circuit Court of Hillsborough County; Leland Hawes, “Looking Back at Seffner,” Tampa Tribune September 29, 1984, 1D; Morris, Florida Place Names, 220; Robinson, History of Hillsborough County, Florida, 78; Mrs. Alva J. Rowell and Mrs. Annette Lee, “History of ‘Lenna City’ Now Seffner and First Baptist Church of Seffner,” (unpublished manuscript, on file Seffner file, Planning and Growth Management Department of Hillsborough County); When History was in the Making, 9.
vi.Hillsborough County Real Estate Agency, Descriptive Pamphlet of Hillsborough County, 33.
vii. Florida State Gazetteer and Business Directory, 1886-1887, 405-406.
viii. Akard, “Seffner History,” 36; Hawes, “Looking Back at Seffner,” 1D-2D; Robinson, History of Hillsborough County, Florida, 79.
ix. Wall, “The Yellow Fever in Tampa, Plant City, Manatee, and Palmetto,” 68-69.
x. Akard, “Seffner History,” 37; Hazel Coleman, “First Baptist Church of Seffner Founded in 1888,” Brandon News March 30, 1977; Covington, The Story of Southwestern Florida, Volume I, 199-200; Hawes, “Looking Back at Seffner,” 2D; Annie Jamie, “Seffner–Past & Present,” Pony Express April 7, 1970, 4; Lee Longstroth, “Recollections of the Seffner Presbyterian Church and Community History,” (Hillsborough County–Seffner clipping file, USF Special Collections), 4; Cynthia D. Merritt, “Church Celebrates 100 Years of Service, Change in Seffner,” St. Petersburg Times September 4, 1988, 1; “Seffner Methodist is 89 Years Old,” Brandon News March 30, 1977; “Seffner Items,” Tampa Weekly Tribune April 18, 1893, 2; “Seffner News,” Tampa Weekly Tribune July 13, 1893, 1; “East Seffner Items,” Tampa Weekly Tribune September 28, 1893, 6.
xi. Mrs. T.J. Beaty, “Seffner–From the Days of the Seminoles–Up to the Present,” Plant City Courier September 27, 1927, 6; Florida State Gazetteer and Business Directory, 1911, 404; Florida State Gazetteer and Business Directory, 1918, 540-541; Florida State Gazetteer and Business Directory, 1925, 889; Longstroth, “Recollections of the Seffner Presbyterian Church and Community History,” 2; Robinson, History of Hillsborough County, Florida, 79; U.S. Bureau of the Census, Census reports, Volume I, Twelfth Census of the United States, Taken in the Year 1900, Population, Part I, 93; U.S. Bureau of the Census, Thirteenth Census of the United States, Taken in the Year 1910, Abstract of the Census, 549; U.S. Bureau of the Census, Fifteenth Census of the United Sates, 1930, Population Bulletin, Second Series, Florida Composition and Characteristics of the Population, 51.
xii. Longstorth, “Recollections of the Seffner Presbyterian Church and Community History,” 6.
xiii. Ibid.; Margie Bradford, “At 79, She Reflects,” Tampa Times July 30, 1970, 10A; Hawes, “Looking Back at Seffner,” 2D.
xiv. Federal Writers’ Project, Seeing Tampa, 132.
xv. “History of Seffner,” Pony Express December 1, 1970, 1; The Seventh Census of the State of Florida, 1945, 31; The Planning Commission, 1990 Census Population and Housing by Place, 2.