LaBelle, “the belle of the Caloosahatchee,” had its beginning as a settlement in the 1880s when the Caloosahatchee River began to play a part in Philadelphia entrepreneur Hamilton Disston’s dream of Everglades Reclamation, and had the double advantage of being on the western edge of Captain Francis A. Hendry’s vast ranch holdings in Monroe County. According to the 1885 Florida State Census, William Byrd Fraser and Francis A. Hendry were the last household heads to be listed for “Monroe County Exclusive of Key West” with the Hendry household including 16 year old daughter Carrie Belle as well as several of Captain Hendry’s other older and younger children.
Captain Francis A. Hendry, a force in the creation of Polk County in 1861 at the onset of the Civil War, was instrumental in a new county being carved from northern mainland Monroe County in 1887; this new county was named Lee County in honor of Hendry’s hero General Robert E. Lee. It is entirely possible that some members of the Hendry family including 18-year-old Carrie Belle thought the new county was also named for an older Hendry daughter, Virginia Lee.
“Belle”, “Belle City”, and “LaBelle” began to be used as names for the tiny new settlement populated by cattle drovers and trappers straddling the banks of the Caloosahatchee River in both Lee and DeSoto Counties as early as 1889. The F. A. Hendry family tradition is the small settlement “LaBelle” honored sisters Laura June Hendry, wife of Waddy Thompson, and Carrie Belle Hendry, wife of Edward L. Evans. Laura Hendry Thompson died in 1895; however, Belle Hendry Evans saw her namesake community become the seat of Hendry County named after her father, Captain Francis Asbury Hendry, and Florida enter into the Space Age before she and her older sister Lee Menge, the last surviving children of Captain Hendry, both died in 1966.
By 1891 LaBelle had its first school, probably a one room palmetto thatched building, located on the grounds of what became home to the white columned LaBelle School built in 1915, one of the 18 accredited schools in Florida in 1921, and most recently the campus of Edward A. Upthegrove Elementary School on Main Street north of Fraser Street, named for one of LaBelle’s original two families.
Francis A. Hendry subdivided and recorded a Plat of LaBelle, Florida in the Lee County Courthouse in 1909 and can truly be called the “Father of LaBelle”. However, if Captain Hendry was LaBelle’s father, E. E. Goodno was the “Godfather of LaBelle”. Goodno began purchasing land in the LaBelle area from Francis A. Hendry in the early years of the 20th century and eventually purchased the majority of the Hendry holdings. Goodno’s replats of blocks in Hendry’s original subdivision of LaBelle as well as his various additions to LaBelle soon grew to be at close to twenty times the size of that original subdivision called “LaBelle”.
In keeping with the Hendry family’s Christian tradition and reverence for John Wesley and Bishop Francis Asbury, LaBelle’s first church was a Methodist Church established in 1891 soon absorbing the older Methodist Church in Fort Denaud several miles downstream. By 1912 LaBelle could also boast a Baptist Church soon followed by churches of other denominations with mass baptisms in the Caloosahatchee River held well into its 1930s channelization by the U S Army Corps of Engineers.
The 1910 U S Census shows 42 households and some 174 residents in the Lee County part of LaBelle south of the Caloosahatchee River; census records do not indicate the DeSoto County population of the growing Caloosahatchee River community. Citizens concerned with cattle and hogs running at large as well as hunters, fur trappers, and cowboys “coming to town” after solitary months of hard work going on “sprees” that rivaled those of the Wild West decided the only way to control these problems was to form a local government. Therefore, in 1911, the Florida Legislature chartered the Town of LaBelle in both Lee and Desoto Counties, and D. A. Mitchell became the first Mayor of LaBelle.
The 1920s saw the creation of new counties in Florida, and a number of citizens in eastern Lee County from newly formed Clewiston on Lake Okeechobee, Felda south of LaBelle, the area’s oldest settlement Fort Denaud, and the Upper Caloosahatchee River’s major community – LaBelle – started a campaign for a new county. A Board of Trade was formed to emphasize LaBelle and the surrounding area’s business community and a weekly newspaper, The Caloosahatchee Current, was established to show the area could support a newspaper and merited having its own county. Finally, in May 1923, the Florida Legislature listened to the area campaign and created a new county named for early resident and “Cattle King of South Florida” Captain Francis A. Hendry with LaBelle as its county seat.
LaBelle became the County Seat of Hendry County in 1923, and many residents felt it was more in keeping for the County Seat to be a City rather than merely a Town. In 1925, the Florida Legislature chartered the City of LaBelle, which replaced the Town of LaBelle in both Hendry and Glades Counties.
A campaign was begun to get a spur of the Seaboard Air Line Railroad to come to LaBelle. In keeping with its status as both County Seat and newly created City, it was decided that offering the railroad a free right-of-way would be a great way to entice SAL to build a spur from Fort Myers to LaBelle. Therefore, the City of LaBelle floated a bond issue with the sole intent of buying land for a right-of-way to entice the railroad. The practice at that time was to place bonds with the county governments as well as to sell them to the public to raise funds. Seaboard Air Line Railroad thanked the City of LaBelle for its offer but declined any donated right-of-way; they purchased their own right-of-way and began to build tracks from Fort Myers to LaBelle.
The railroad was coming to LaBelle without the City needing to buy and donate right of way! There was no longer a need for a bond issue; so, the City Commission voted to retire the bonds. Only a few bonds had actually been sold, and repaying the investors was an easy task. Hendry County turned over the bonds that had been entrusted to it without any problem. However, Glades County was an entirely different matter; Glades County insisted that the City of LaBelle pay them the face value of the railroad right-of-way acquisition bonds entrusted to them. The Seaboard Air Line Railroad came into LaBelle in 1927; yet, the City of LaBelle and Glades County had still not resolved the problem of releasing those Railroad Bonds.
Finally, in 1929, an agreement was reached wherein Glades County would release those City of LaBelle Bonds it had been holding since 1925 if the City of LaBelle would adjust its limits and surrender all that portion of the city lying in Glades County. In keeping with the court order, this action had to be approved by a public referendum of those LaBelle residents affected by the outcome. The voter turnout was extremely low but did ratify the court’s decision. Therefore, LaBelle was no longer a city in both Hendry and Glades Counties but only a city in Hendry County. Some eight years later, part of North LaBelle voted to annex itself into Hendry County as residents felt Glades County government in Moore Haven was ignoring them. Joining Hendry County in 1937 by no means meant North LaBelle was anxious to unite with the City of LaBelle.