Archbold Biological Station in Lake Placid, the site of some of the most valuable scientific research in the country with over 1,000 acres of land, was not always a research center.
That same land was intended to be a magnificent estate for the nationally prominent financier, John A. Roebling and his wife Margaret Shippen Roebling, from New Jersey (the Roebling family had built the Brooklyn Bridge).
The millionaire couple were naturalists and especially loved primitive nature. Wanting a winter residence in Florida, they hired the services of an internationally known civil engineer and conservationist to manage and supervise the buildings and to preserve the land. No expense was spared.
The Roeblings hired dozens of people and made extensive – and expensive – plans for building what some would describe as a “castle.” They even purchased fire trucks to protect the estate.
Unfortunately, they never lived to see their dreams come true. The “castle” was never built.
“It really would have been something, had they finished it,” remembers N.H. “Hatcher” Edgemon, who worked on the Roebling estate from 1930 until 1942.
In preparing for the house, workers forged many improvements out of the wilderness. The employees built drainage ditches and lined them with rock and cement, built circular driveways, installed a water system and erected a large warehouse.
Roebling imported elephant manure to fertilize exotic vines. “There were no power mowers, so we had to do it all by hand,” recalls Edgemon, “even mowing the grass on the road shoulders.”
As part of his duties as a 20-cents-an-hour worker, Edgemon was also part of the fire-fighting team. Roebling had better equipment than most of the surrounding cities, and donated trucks to Lake Placid and DeSoto City.
After the Roeblings died, their son used the wilderness land to develop an amphibious troop carrier that later wound up in combat in World War II. According to Edgemon, Donald Roebling used Lake Annie for testing the troop carrier. “I got drafted into World War II and saw several of them being used in the Philippines.”
In the late 1940s, Donald Roebling, like his parents, a conservationist/naturalist, wanted the land to be preserved. He sold the estate to Archbold for a token payment. Archbold has maintained the land as a research center. It is now a branch of the prestigious American Museum of Natural Science.
The Roeblings would have liked that.
Elaine Levey is director of the Avon Park Depot Museum and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.