John and Ellen were of the Baptist faith. Maple Branch Baptist Church was organized September 29, 1866, and John was chosen as church clerk. Ellen was baptized by Rev. J. M. Hayman on September 30, 1866 at Maple Branch. After moving to Joshua Creek, they became members of Mt. Moriah Baptist Church. John was a delegate from Mt. Moriah to the South Florida Baptist Association meeting at Oak Grove Baptist Church in Hernando County in 1875. At the Fifth Annual Session of the Manatee Missionary Baptist Association, convened at Mt. Moriah in November 1880, J. W. Whidden, R. C. Hendry, I. A. Redd, Maxwell Whidden and Henry Langford were appointed an executive committee.
John W. Whidden, a member of the Democratic Party, served in influential positions. He represented Manatee County in the Assembly (House of Representatives) in 1866 and in the sessions of 1881 and 1883. He was a member of the Senate from the 27th district 1885, 1887, 1893, 1895, 1901, 1903. In 1887, he was President pro tempore. On June 15, 1878, Governor Drew appointed him Lieutenant Colonel of the 5th Brigade of the State Militia. Senator Whidden sponsored the bill creating DeSoto County from Manatee County on May 19, 1887. On December 12, 1888, he was appointed by Governor Perry as a delegate to represent Florida at the Southern Interstate Immigration Convention held at Montgomery County, Alabama.
Florida Times-Union, April 29, 1886, p. 3, col. 1, reported that the RR has been in operation to Arcadia as of March 4 and “at Arcadia, J. W. Bailey has a general merchandise store. T. J. Herndon is Postmaster and D. S. Williams keeps the village school of thirty-five pupils. Religious services are held in the school house. Within a radius of a mile are sixteen families. There are also thirty-two families in the Joshua creek country, from three to eight miles to the east, who have a postoffice, church and school house, but will come to Arcadia for their supplies…”
John was a founding father of Arcadia, Florida. The DeSoto County Times Centennial issue of May 14, 1987 stated:
"The accepted origin of the name Arcadia is attributed to the Reverend James 'Boss' Hendry, a Baptist lay minister who built a store and began a sawmill near the Peace River ferry in 1883....In addition to his sawmill Hendry operated an open air store near the ferry crossing at Peace River. In late 1884, he sold the stock in his store to Captain John W. Whidden, who had moved to Arcadia in 1883 and purchased a 120-acre tract of state land that extended north from what today is Gibson Street to Oak Ridge Avenue and west from North Manatee Avenue to the city limits. Prior to purchasing Hendry's stock, Whidden contracted with John S. G. Kabrich for the construction of a wooden store at the Peace River ferry crossing. Upon completion the store was reportedly the largest on the Peace River between Ft. Meade and Ft. Ogden."
The Whidden store was sold after two years to J. W. Bailey.
On December 6, 1886, at the time Arcadia was incorporated, J. W. Whidden, James D. Haywood, and T. J. Herndon were chosen by the 31 qualified voters present as the managers of the election. Previously at a meeting at the Whidden store, it had been decided at the suggestion of Col. C. D. Douglas to officially rename Tater Hill as Arcadia. (Rev. James M. Hendry had unofficially named the area in honor of Arcadia Albritton Coker in the summer of 1883.) It was necessary to legalize the name as it had been promised a post office, and the postal officials had requested the name of town.
The Fort Myers Press of February 5, 1887 in "Dots from Arcadia, January 21, reported: "One of the finest dwellings we noticed is being erected for Capt. J. W. Whidden, it is a large two-story house and will be a great improvement to the town."
After the formation of DeSoto County, most of the people felt that a new county seat should be chosen in place of Pine Level, the old county seat of Manatee County. J. W. Whidden, L. Parker, J. N. Parker, and W. E. Daniels on July 7, 1888 gave bond to the county commissioners for $3,000, which provided for the completion of a courthouse if Arcadia was elected as a permanent county seat. Arcadia was selected in the October 1888 election, and the county appropriated an additional $3,000 and awarded a contract to construct a courthouse to Peyton Read. J. W. Whidden was a member of the committee that accepted the completed courthouse June 5, 1889.
After his retirement from cattle ranching, John spent most of his time in his bay head garden (now Lake Katherine) near the river. Florida Times-Union of January 12, 1888, p. 2, col. 3, noted: "Captain Whidden has some fine Cuba tobacco growing in his hammock near Arcadia. It is between five and six feet high and was grown from seed furnished by the Arcadian." He walked to town to get his mail, and there he would take a seat under the "Tree of Knowledge" and discuss the topics of the day. He remained involved in politics and actively encouraged the development of churches, schools, good roads, and all other improvements for the county. Capt. Whidden was a member of DeSoto Camp 1403, United Confederate Veterans.
On July 17, 1902, John Whidden applied for a pension based on his service in the Seminole Indian War. He gave his address as Arcadia. Maxfield McClelland of Zolfo, James M. Manley of Fort Meade, and Ephraim W. Thompson of Hull gave affidavits that they served with him. The pension was granted and when he died he was receiving $8 per month. In October 1907, he applied for a pension from his service as Capt., Co. E, Seventh Florida. He gave his address as Arcadia. Supporting affidavits were given by William H. Johnson of Bartow, Wright Carlton of Nocatee, and James H. Murphy of Lily, all soldiers of Company E. Capt. Whidden was approved for $100 per year.
In January 1909, the officers of the DeSoto National Bank were: W. G. Welles, president; John W. Whidden, vice president; B. F. Welles, cashier; L. A. Stroud, assistant cashier.
Capt. John Wesley Whidden died December 13, 1910 at his home in Arcadia and was buried in Joshua Creek Cemetery. The Tampa Tribune carried the news of his demise:
"Arcadia, Dec. 13, 1910 - Capt. John W. Whidden, one of the oldest and most prominent citizens in the State, died at his home here this morning at 9:30 o'clock, after a short illness. The funeral services will be conducted at the house Wednesday morning and one of the largest funerals in the history of the city is expected.
"Capt. Whidden was known to more South Florida people, perhaps than any other man in the State. He was universally loved and respected. Starting out as a boy over fifty years ago, he devoted the younger years of his life to the strenuous pursuits in cattle raising. He retained this hardihood up to the time of his last illness and was unusually vigorous, although over seventy years of age.
"His arduous labors and honest conduct of his business affairs were not without their reward, for he accumulated a large estate and was one of the wealthiest men in this country at the time of his death. He was a man of unusually generous impulses, and many a widow can testify to the goodness of his heart, and the liberality of his hand.
"Capt. Whidden was one of the first to respond to the call of his beloved Southland in the dark days of the sixties, and soon won a Captain's commission for his bravery. He was prominent in the affairs of the Democratic party in South Florida, and for several terms represented DeSoto County in the state hall of legislation with credit to himself and benefit to his constituency."
Ellen Whidden on March 2, 1911 applied for a widow's pension from John's service in the Seminole Indian War. Wright Carlton, Andrew Green of Arcadia, John H. Treadwell, J. G. King, and Harley Watson gave affidavits that they were present at the marriage or were personally knowledgeable of it. The pension was approved and when she died Ellen was receiving $30 per month.
Ellen in August 1917 applied for a Confederate pension as the widow of Capt. John Whidden. Wright Carlton and Andrew Green gave supporting affidavits. She was granted a $180 per year pension.
Ellen Catherine Hendry Whidden died December 4, 1929. She is buried in Joshua Creek Cemetery.
The Whidden residence, built in 1887, was located at 516 West Oak Street, Arcadia. Although alterations have been made over the years, the house has remained in the family, and in 1989 was the home of Mrs. Marshall T. Whidden.
Issue of John W. and Ellen (Hendry) Whidden:
1. Robert Early Whidden, born July 15, 1866; died March 26, 1951; married on January 21, 1888 Mamie Maria Haygood.
2. Adella Adelaide Whidden, born November 14, 1867; died May 11, 1952; married (1) Benjamin Franklin Wood, Jan. 19, 1888; (2) William E. Robertson, Oct. 16, 1904.
3. Francis Solon Whidden, born January 11, 1870; died November 24, 1873.
4. Eliza Edmonia "Chink" Whidden, born January 8, 1872; died January 17, 1930; married on January 9, 1890 Charles Yancey Crawford.
5. Ellen Eugenia "Nellie" Whidden, born October 25, 1873; died June 9, 1898; married on April 1, 1895 Joseph Henry Peeples.
6. Carl Tilden Whidden, born August 22, 1876; died February 19, 1942; married on December 12, 1899 Irene Hays.
7. Daisy Lee Whidden, born December 25, 1879; died October 7, 1955; married on March 30, 1901 Claude Leonard Carlton, son of Henry Eli Carlton.
8. John Edward Perry Whidden, born December 10, 1881; died October 30, 1886.
9. Smoot Louise Whidden, born October 8, 1882; died January 1970; married on December 12, 1900 Clarence Leon Steele.
10. Unnamed infant.
References: Robert E. Whidden, "Life of J. W. Whidden," military and pensions records of John W. & Ellen Whidden, Florida and National Archives; Milton D. Wilson, The Hendry Family; Soldiers of Florida; "Arcadia's First Courthouse," South Florida Pioneers 6; The Tampa Morning Tribune, January 10, 1909, December 13, 1910; Jean B. Burton.
This is adapted from South Florida Pioneers 31/32 (Jan./ Apr. 1982) and John and William Sons of Robert Hendry, 1989.
Tombstone of Willoughby Whidden in Wauchula Cemetery
January 23, 2001, October 16, 2001, April 16, 2007, April 17, 2009