Florida to honor Bear Creek entrepreneur’s love of horses with historical monument

Last updated: September 14. 2013 11:07PM - 4154 Views
By - rdupuis@civitasmedia.com



Sheila Greenleaf stands next to a 1904 horse watering trough in St. Augustine, Fla., that was donated by Bear Creek resident Albert Lewis, a businessman who spent many winters in the Florida city a century ago.
Sheila Greenleaf stands next to a 1904 horse watering trough in St. Augustine, Fla., that was donated by Bear Creek resident Albert Lewis, a businessman who spent many winters in the Florida city a century ago.
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Meet Albert Lewis

• 1840: Born in Montreal to Abijah Lewis, originally of Maine, and his British-born wife, Alzare Romaine Lewis.

• 1840s-50s: Family moves to Maine, then settles in Buck Township, Luzerne County. Abijah and his brother Isaac buy large tracts of wooded land for lumber.

• 1860s: Albert takes a job with the Lehigh Valley Railroad, rising quickly as he earns praise for his work as a clerk and dispatcher.

• 1868: Enters the lumber business, ultimately amassing large tracts of land and 30 miles of railways connecting his properties to the Lehigh Valley’s lines.

• 1881: As lumber supplies wane, Lewis forms an ice company at Bear Creek, creating a massive operation that dams the creek so ice can be harvested in winter for storage and shipment across the region in the days before home refrigeration. The Bear Creek Ice Co. encompasses what is now Bear Creek Village.

• 1885: Albert’s first wife, Lizzie, dies. They have no children. She is buried in family cemetery at Bear Creek, beneath an elaborate monument.

• 1892: Marries Lily Westendert, a young British woman he met during a London business trip.

• 1890s: Begins wintering in St. Augustine, Fla., where his sister lives. Soon buys his own home and begins embarking on local road improvements and other charitable work, as he had in Bear Creek and Wilkes-Barre.

• 1900s: Invites guests to the Bear Creek estate including former Presidents Theodore Roosevelt and William H. Taft.

• 1923: Dies on Dec. 18 in Bear Creek and is buried in family plot.

Sources: “Albert Lewis: The Bear Creek Lumber and Ice King,” “Chapters in Wyoming Valley History,” Luzerne County Historical Society files.



BEAR CREEK — Albert Lewis’ mortal remains lie beneath the shady earth of a tiny family cemetery, amid the wooded hillsides that were his home and his livelihood.


Nine hundred miles away, a new memorial to Luzerne County’s lumber and ice baron, who died nearly 90 years ago, will soon rise beside a Florida highway, next to an unassuming gray horse trough at the edge of a defunct trailer park in St. Augustine.


By all accounts, a city historical marker proclaiming the “Albert Lewis Trough” will serve as a fitting tribute to the entrepreneur and animal lover, whose many acts of philanthropy and civic development still echo around St. Augustine, a 448-year-old community that blossomed at the turn of the 20th century thanks to the arrival of well-heeled Northern snowbirds such as Lewis. That marker will be dedicated on Saturday.


“He was evidently a connoisseur of great horse flesh,” said Sheila Greenleaf, a St. Augustine native whose love of local history and hours of volunteer research tied the worn old trough to Lewis, an essential step before the city would erect a marker at the site.


So much of a connoisseur, in fact, that Lewis headed south by rail each winter with his own horses and carriages in tow.


“Oh, yes, and the favorite cow, for milk,” granddaughter Ann Lewis said Thursday as she walked through the Lewis burial ground in Bear Creek.


Ann Lewis never met her grandfather, who died two decades before she was born. But his tender attitude toward all creatures was conveyed to her by her late father, Lewis’ son, Hugh Romaine Lewis.


“He always said, ‘take care of your animals first, before you take care of yourself,’” said the Wilkes-Barre resident, who works as a local real estate agent. “He was a gentle man. He truly was.”


In an era when horses were still widely used to move people and goods around America’s cities and towns, keeping the animals hydrated was both humane and necessary. It also made good business sense.


Lewis was a member of the East Florida Good Roads League, which advocated for improved roadways in the days before automobile ownership was widespread and paved roads were anything but universal.


Fascinated by palms


In addition to beautifying St. Augustine-area thoroughfares by planting greenery — Lewis was fascinated by palm trees, Greenleaf learned — he contributed significant sums toward upgrading the roads themselves, just as he did around Bear Creek.


So it was with what is now known as South Dixie Highway. A major artery between St. Augustine and outlying communities, the road echoed to the clip-clop of wagons filled with produce bound for bustling city hotels, as well as loads of lumber and turpentine eagerly consumed by the local building trade.


Lewis paid for a busy stretch of “the Moultrie road” to be resurfaced with crushed shells, taking advantage of a local commodity. In 1904, according to Greenleaf’s research, Lewis also built the trough, which was fed by an artesian well.


Ann Lewis said she learned about the trough from Greenleaf, but was not surprised to hear of it.


“My grandfather held horses in high regard, and when he observed that there was a need for a place for them to drink and refresh themselves, he stepped up to the task,” she said.


Lewis’ gift to the horses and mules of St. Augustine outlived the benefactor, who died in Bear Creek in 1923, and continued to function well into the automobile era. Greenleaf said local residents spoke of animals still watering at the trough as late as the 1940s.


After that, it took on a new role. The trough stood at the entrance of the San Juan Trailer Park, and the development’s name was painted on the back of the fixture. Its basin, meanwhile, became home to sprawling aloe plants.


“To most people going down the road, it does look like a planter,” Greenleaf said.


Preserving history


Indeed, the trailer park was more of a landmark to late 20th century locals, having occupied the property for 50 years. The park’s demise spurred Greenleaf into action about a year-and-a-half ago.


“My first thought was, someone is going to develop this property and tear it down,” she said of the trough, which is made of bricks covered in concrete or stone.


Greenleaf explained what she learned about the trough’s origins to the property owner, John Arbizzani. “He’s very much interested in local history,” and was sympathetic to her goal of seeking a local historical marker, she said.


So were city officials. Before they would erect a sign, however, Greenleaf needed to show proof of the trough’s historical significance.


Lewis’ name came up in initial research as a likely candidate, she said. Formally connecting him to the watering hole was another matter. Officials at the St. Augustine Historical Society Library were helpful, but gently cautioned Greenleaf that she might never find the missing link she so desperately sought.


“The historical society had lots about Albert Lewis, but they didn’t have anything about this trough, specifically,” she said.


As he was in Pennsylvania, Lewis was a generous benefactor during the years that he wintered in St. Augustine, from his road-improvement efforts to supporting hospitals and schools, according to local attorney F. Charles Petrillo’s 1998 biography, “Albert Lewis: The Bear Creek Lumber and Ice King.”


Lewis also was a significant landowner in Florida. Greenleaf learned how his name lived on in Lewis Point Road — which led to a popular picnic pavilion he constructed — as well as Lewis Boulevard, Lewis Speedway and a former baseball field. A title search revealed the trough hadn’t been built on Lewis’ land, however, but on an adjoining site owned by a Catholic church from which Lewis had purchased property.


With other records lacking, a date carved into the front of the trough left one obvious but time-consuming research option.


“I literally had to read the whole newspaper for 1904,” said Greenleaf, who took two days off her job with the St. Johns County Sheriff’s Office to do research. “I sat there from 9 in the morning until 4:30 in the afternoon and read all the microfilm.”


Midway through the year, a major break: On June 17, 1904, the paper reported that workmen had completed a 6-inch well for Lewis on the Moultrie road, and he “will probably have a trough put there for the benefit of travelers and their animals.”


But “probably” wasn’t good enough. As she scrolled through the months, laboriously scanning pages covered in oceans of tiny black type, 1904 slowly died away with no further mention of the well or a trough. Greenleaf was slogging through the final month’s papers at 4:15 p.m. on the second afternoon when her diligence was rewarded.


On Dec. 8, 1904, the paper reported among local tidbits at the bottom of Page 2 that Lewis’ crews were upgrading the Moultrie road south of a Catholic cemetery. A water barrel beside the road, “which was placed there at the direction of Mr. Albert Lewis, has been replaced by that gentleman with a brick trough,” Greenleaf read.


“I shrieked,” she said.


Greenleaf’s task wasn’t quite finished. She had to raise nearly $1,400 from donors to pay for the plaque, and she had to work closely with city officials on drafting wording for the marker.


Ann Lewis plans to attend Saturday’s ceremony.


“The passion she has for all that is historical, and for this trough in particular, is amazing,” Ann Lewis said of Greenleaf. “I can’t wait to meet Sheila.”


 
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