Despite cloudy skies and distant rumbling thunder, old- and young-timers attended the 125th annual Fort Ogden May Day Picnic on Sunday at King Park.
This longtime tradition may be older than the “logbook” indicates. First published in 1939, Florida: Guide to the Southernmost State was compiled and written by the Federal Writers’ Project of the Work Projects Administration. It noted even then that the picnic was “held annually for more than a half century,” so it may have begun in 1889 or before.
The book’s writers also noted: “The picnic is a favorite with seekers of public office, who come to orate and distribute cards among their possible supporters.”
James Westberry on Sunday recalled politicians at the event a time or two. “We didn’t care,” he said of his childhood. “We went swimming.”
No swimmers at Sunday’s picnic, not on the banks of Peace River where the May Day picnic was established. Named in honor of cattle baron Ziba King (1838-1901), King Park was donated to DeSoto County by his descendants. The King Family Cemetery is at the center of the five-acre parcel. Sunday’s cover-dish buffet was at the pavilion on Georgia Street.
Edward “Ed” Williams has lived in Fort Ogden for 26 years. He married Jean Boggess (1941-2003), a descendant of Capt. Francis Calvin Morgan Boggess (1820-1903), a first settler. The annual picnic is “always real enjoyable,” Williams said.
Another Fort Ogden resident, June Reynolds Fulton, was with her daughter Helen “Missy” Sparks and her son, Jimmy. Across the table was her brother John Reynolds and his wife, Forest. Fulton said, “I remember the fresh black-eyed peas. I always ate real fast, so I could get a second helping of them!”
Fulton and John Reynolds are cousins to David Daughtrey and his brother John Daughtrey, who also attended the event. David said that the picnic has always been “a family thing.”
John Daughtrey showed a black-and-white photograph of himself, his sister Mary and John Reynolds on a sled pulled by Nellie, an old U.S. Army horse owned by the Reynolds family. John Reynolds explained that the sled was used for hauling various items, including barrels that he “dipped water from” to irrigate his family’s citrus grove.
Frances E. Pooser at the picnic recalled that when her brother Jack Pooser was learning to fly, he flew over the picnic to symbolically join the family. She remembered how her mother loved the picnic because she grew up in Fort Ogden. She often took Frances—who was born in Fort Ogden—as well as her brothers Jack and Mike—out of school in Arcadia to attend the picnic held then on May 1. Later, the date was changed to the first Sunday in May.
Frances’s mother—Frances Michael “Mikey” McLenon Pooser (1886-1981)—had moved to Fort Ogden in 1891, and Frances thought her mother may have attended the first May Day Picnic. “That was when the picnic was by the river, and the kids went swimming,” Frances said.
Her cousins Bebe McLenon and Russell McLenon remembered those days. They were children when the picnic was in that location, although “we didn’t know you back then,” the pair told Frances.
Russell recalled many people traveling great distances to join family members at the picnic. He said that his Uncle Charlie Martin, for instance, drove from St. Petersburg.
Once an incorporated town with a mayor, Fort Ogden declined during the Great Depression. Sometime after the town was unincorporated, locals began calling the picnic coordinator “the mayor of Fort Ogden.” The current organizer, Trish Howard, happily accepted that title.
In her opening remarks, Howard asked for volunteers to form a committee to plan next year’s picnic and “to give it the honor it deserves,” she said. “I’m a team player.”
Howard has lived in Fort Ogden for five years, although her husband’s family is deep-rooted in DeSoto County. “This is your picnic. I am a steward, ” she told those gathered on Sunday. “We need to honor and celebrate the old-timers, and invite our neighbors.”