The Winter Garden businessman was mayor from 1933 to 1939 and in that time brought a quarter of a million dollars and many jobs to the city.
In the 1930s, the city of Winter Garden was so broke that at one point the remaining money in the treasury would either cover payroll or keep the streetlights turned on — but not both. One man made it his mission to lead the city out of the financial slump by bringing in much-needed dollars and jobs to the small West Orange County municipality.
George Walker, a World War I veteran, hesitated when he was asked to run for mayor of Winter Garden during the Great Depression. He was content being a husband and father, managing his citrus groves and running his business, Walker Electric Co., in downtown Winter Garden. He agreed to run, and after being elected mayor, he applied for President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal.
The New Deal was a series of programs, public work projects, financial reforms and regulations designed to boost financially failing cities across the United States. The Works Progress Administration, in 1935, was “an ambitious employment and infrastructure program” that enhanced communities with civic projects and provided jobs to millions of Americans.
Jim Crescitelli, operations and program director with the Winter Garden Heritage Foundation, sat down with Walker’s granddaughters, Lynn Wright and Amy Bekemeyer, for a Facebook Live session Nov. 23. They discussed old images from the WGHF archives and shared Walker’s legacy in Winter Garden.
“You could apply and get hundreds of thousands of dollars to revamp your city,” Crescitelli said. “He got the program right away, and projects came to this town like you wouldn’t believe.”
Walker obtained more than a quarter of a million dollars in federal aid for his projects, many of which were along the shores of Lake Apopka.
The lake’s shoreline was undesirable before the WPA projects made their debut. There was nowhere to dock or put in boats to take advantage of the large-mouth bass that filled the waters.
Wright said her grandfather and several other businessmen got together to create drawings to be submitted via telegraph for approval.
“I remember our grandmother telling both of us, Franklin Cappleman … and Granddad sat there at the kitchen table and drew what the fire station would look like and they sent it off and got the money for it,” Wright said.
When the projects were funded, residents began seeing real changes in the city — and especially by the lake — and were eager to try out the new amenities in the Winter Garden Recreational Park.
Through this program, Walker built a popular waterfront destination with a pier, swimming pool, yacht basins, boathouses, a seawall and a 12-acre tourist camp named Trailer City. All of these projects remain except for the boathouses, which were razed in 1980. The current pier is one of several that replaced the original, which burned down in 1961. The pool, later renamed Farnsworth Pool, was connected by two wells that provided 100,000 gallons of fresh water flowing through the pool every 24 hours.
“That pool was the hottest spot to go to in the summer,” Wright said. “All the moms would drop us off, and there was a little store … they had all the little bubble gums and candies, and it was the best day ever.”
There also were tiki huts by the yacht basin for families and friends wanting to enjoy a picnic by the lake.
To the east, Trailer City was established as “temporary housing for well-heeled travelers who came to Winter Garden to spend money on Plant Street in the shops and go to the restaurants,” Crescitelli said. “And now it’s permanent.”
A postcard that has survived nearly nine decades since it was issued depicts an aerial of the lakefront park, which included an orange grove in addition to the recreational amenities. Such postcards were sent by the hundreds of thousands in an effort to bring new visitors to the city and the large-mouth bass-fishing capital of the world.
Public structures were built near the lake, too: a community center for small gatherings and a larger city auditorium, later renamed Little Hall and Tanner Auditorium (now Tanner Hall).
Walker also built a fire station (now SoBo Art Gallery on South Boyd Street), a city hall building (on downtown Plant Street) and a sports complex (on Park Avenue) named Walker Field in his honor.
Walker Field was designed to seat about 800 people and featured a sodded gridiron and 40-athlete locker room with showers. It was expected to draw interest from baseball clubs seeking spring training facilities, and it played host to several ball teams and baseball schools, including the Washington Senators and Chattanooga Lookouts.
“Granddad loved baseball,” Wright said. “We’ve always been told Granddad loved Mamma, he loved baseball and he loved his grandkids. … Even on his lunch break he would be on the fields.”
An avid sportsman, Walker was the director of the Lake-Orange County semi-pro baseball league and served as the manager of the Winter Garden League in 1924.
ASIDE FROM POLITICS
Walker, a native of Savannah, had come to Winter Garden with his wife, Mattie, in 1919 and in the following year opened Walker Electric Company and Appliance Store on Plant Street in the space now occupied by Attic Door.
“From what we’ve been told, he used to tinker with different electrical items, before he was in the war even, and he invented some radio tubes,” Wright said.
He also was active in civic affairs as a member of the First Baptist Church of Winter Garden and the Lions and Rotary clubs.
“She was his biggest cheerleader,” Wright said of her grandmother.
“And he treated her like a queen,” Bekemeyer said. “She was his queen.”
After his death in 1955 at the age of 61, she remained in their home on South Boyd Street until her death in 1989.
“Neither Amy nor I were alive when Granddad Walker passed, and we sit here as though we walked, talked, knew him, hugged him, ate with him — because she made sure that his grandchildren knew exactly who he was,” Wright said. “And we both have many, many items of his that she made sure to provide to us so she could make sure we knew the history.”
(Photos courtesy of Winter Garden Heritage Foundation)