Robert Early Whidden
Robert Early Whidden

By Spessard Stone

Robert E. Whidden, a pioneer settler of Arcadia, Florida, was a general merchant, cattle rancher, and civic leader.

Robert Early Whidden was born July 15, 1866, Fort Green, Florida. He was the eldest child of Capt. John Wesley Whidden and Ellen Catherine (Hendry) Whidden. In the early 1870s, the family moved to Joshua Creek and in 1883 to present-day Arcadia, then occupied by only five families. The Whidden family played a leading role in the evolvence of the village into a thriving town.

Upon completion of the commercial course at the University of Kentucky in 1883, Robert, or Bob as he was generally called, returned home and entered business. In the fall of 1884 in Arcadia, his father had opened a general merchandise store, in which Bob owned a half interest. For about two years, Bob managed the store until it was sold to J. W. Bailey. The Fort Myers Press of October 23, 1886 in a dispatch, dated October 11, took note that R. E. Whidden's livery stable was about completed. He re-embarked into his own mercantile business, which he continued for many years, and at one time had the largest such enterprise in the county.

Bob was early involved in the cattle business, in which his father, a cattle baron, had ably trained him. The Fort Myers Press of February 5, 1887 in "Dots from Arcadia, January 21, reported: Rob't Whidden is in the woods marking cattle." Bob was, according to George H. Dacy, chiefly responsible for the cooperative fencing of a very large tract between the Kissimmee River, Fisheating Creek, Lake Istokpoga, and Lake Okeechobee. Eventually Bob absorbed the range where by 1910 he had 12,000 head of cattle and, reputedly, was the largest individual cattle owner in Florida. In 1912, he disposed of his cattle interests.

George H. Dacy in Four Centuries of Florida Ranching related Bob Whidden's pursuit of cattle rustlers:

"Cow thievery captured the headlines again in DeSoto County in 1896 when a handful of rustlers led by a pair of southern 'bad men' ran off a hand-picked herd of 300 fat steers.
"Bob Whidden, Buck King, and William Hooker, mounted on good horses, trailed the rustlers to Orlando, where there was a slaughter plant. Branded herds of some of the stolen cattle were found there, but there was just a small lot, possibly hijacked from the main herd.
"The enraged cattlemen raced their steads to Kissimmee, where they aroused the sheriff of Osceola County, and a couple of deputies. The party then rode hellbent for Canoe Creek, an extremely marshy and boggy terrain which nobody but a desperate horseman in a tremendous hurry would ever try to cross. The posse had to tie blankets on the feet of their horses to prevent them from miring and sinking into the mucky marsh. It was only after negotiating some of the most treacherous going which Florida cattlemen ever rode that these determined riders accomplished the crossing into Polk County.
"There they aroused the foreman and some of the cowhands at Dr. Lykes' ranch, who joined the party. Not far from the ranch the hunters met their quarry, the band of rustlers. The stolen cattle were captured, along with what rustlers remained after their gunfire ceased. A second posse of ten ranchers from Manatee County, which was also pursuing the cattle thieves, appeared just as the capture was affected.
“The brands of most of the cattle had been altered or defaced. That resulted in double penitentiary terms for the raiders who were captured-five years each for stealing cattle, and another five years for altering brands."

Bob also had other business interests. He had orange groves and real estate in Arcadia. He served a year as the first railroad passenger agent at Arcadia. One of the organizers and original directors of the First National Bank of Arcadia, he, after selling his stock in it, assisted in the organization of the DeSoto National Bank, of which he was an officer.

He took an active interests in local civic and fraternal organizations. He served for eight years as the first treasurer of DeSoto County and six years on the DeSoto County School Board. For twelve years he was a member of the City Council of Arcadia. Florida Archives' records show R. E. Whidden on the roster of "DeSoto Guards" militia company, dated August 28, 1891. He was affiliated with the Knights of Pythias and Woodmen of the World.

At Arcadia on January 21, 1888, Robert E. Whidden had married Mamie Maria Haygood, born January 28, 1872, daughter of James Dugan and Mary Ann Elinora (Gillett) Haygood. Bob and Mamie were members of the Baptist Church. She was a member and president of the Ladies Friday Musicale of Arcadia, past worthy matron of the local Eastern Star and a president of the Woman's Club of Arcadia. Mamie M. Whidden died March 16, 1930. Robert E. Whidden was invalided by paralytic strokes in 1903 and 1910 but lived to March 26, 1951. They are buried in Joshua Creek Cemetery.

Issue of Robert E. and Mamie (Haygood) Whidden:

1. Robert Morris Whidden, born September 6, 1889; died October 20, 1927; married on June 27, 1912 Jane Louise Worley.
2. Katherine Eleanora Whidden, born December 23, 1894; died August 28, 1962; married June 17, 1914 Edgar Carlton Welles, son of William Gaylord Welles and Ella (Carlton) Welles.
3. John Haygood Whidden, born March 3, 1896; died November 15, 1937; married on August 17, 1916 Bernice Tonkin.
4. Ruby Elaine Whidden, born May 10, 1900; died March 10, 1942; married on December 17, 1923 Pleasant Carrier.

References: Spessard Stone, John and William Sons of Robert Hendry, 1989; Harry Gardner Cutler, History of Florida Past and Present, Volume II (1923), pp. 277-278; The Fort Myers Press, October 23, 1886, February 5, 1887; George H. Dacy, Four Centuries of Florida Ranching (St. Louis, 1940), pp. 155-156.

This profile is adapted from the author's John and William Sons of Robert Hendry.

February 10, 2001 October 17, 2001, May 11, 2009