Sheriff Frank B. Tippins, 1919-23
Gov. Sidney Johnston Catts appointed Frank B. Tippins to his old position as Sheriff in December 1919, but it turned out to be a temporary assignment: He resigned again less than four years later.
Sheriff Tippins nearly quit in 1921 after coming to the conclusion that he was alone in his campaign to keep Lee County clean and that the community was not supportive of his efforts to curb illegal liquor traffic during the prohibition. The Fort Myers Press reported that his departure would have been a calamity to the county. “Sheriff Tippins has consented to retain the office and carry along its work in response to the wishes of the masses of the people, knowing that he has the moral support of all substantial citizens, and whatever other support he may need, at any and all times.”
It appears he needn’t worry. Lee County was the most law-abiding county in Florida in 1921, and among the best in the nation, according to State Attorney Watt Lawler and reported in the Fort Myers Tropical News. Lawler also stated that he believed Lee to be the driest county in the state despite its large coastline and proximity to liquor operations. This he attributed to the vigilance and watchful eyes of county officials to prevent bootlegging and liquor smuggling.
The Women’s Christian Temperance Union (WCTU) was one of Sheriff Tippins strongest allies in the fight to keep Fort Myers “dry.” A vote was required to determine whether the county should be “wet” or “dry” when the county formed in 1887, and an election was called for that October. The WCTU knocked on every door in town and pled to residents to remove temptation from the sinful drunks. When the votes were counted, the drys won 117 to 67 and the town’s two saloons were forced to close. From the initial vote to the repeal of Prohibition in 1933, the WCTU held its ground.
That didn’t mean that Fort Myers was completely dry. Moonshiner Billy Clay, born in the mountains of Tennessee, was known for his bootlegging. He rented a small shack behind Nancy Allen’s livery stable, and the Blind Tiger was open for business. He set up a small still on a creek several miles west and started selling his goods to passing cow-hunters and Seminole Indians who wandered into the settlement – in a short time the creek became known as “Whiskey Creek,” according to “The Story of Fort Myers” by Karl H. Grismer.
Poor jail conditions became a recurring problem for commissioners. Although the Lee County jail passed with a good inspection by the State Prison inspector in June 1910, by March 1922 commissioners decided to investigate a site for a new jail because the jail was found to be unsafe and unsanitary. Commissioners urged Sheriff Tippins to have the jail cleaned and remove the dog being confined there.
Agricultural efforts flourished during this time: Pine Island grew citrus and tropical fruits, while Alva boasted the state’s largest grapefruit grove. Buckingham and Iona became major truck farming areas, where peppers, eggplant, tomatoes, cucumbers and other vegetables were grown. The population grew as well, increasing more than 50 percent to 9,540 by 1920.
Sheriff Tippins regularly traveled to the Ten Thousand Islands by horseback or by boat to bring back fugitives. Reports vary on the reason for Sheriff Tippin’s second resignation from office and include poor health. He convalesced on a farm in Georgia before seeking another run two years later. Recollections of Sheriff Snag Thompson claim Sheriff Tippins left to operate and run a two-masted schooner to South America for Fort Myers resident Med Kellum.