What is now the Cultural Center campus was part of Arthur C. Frizzell cattle range and timber tract until 1949. At that time, he sold 80,000 acres to Yellowknife Bear Mines, Ltd., of Canada for $3.6 million. A prominent stockholder was Harold Ickes, former U. S. Secretary of the Interior under President Franklin D. Roosevelt. Yellowknife formed a partnership the following year with the Mackle Brothers Construction Co., prominent land developers of Miami, Florida. For the next five years, the Mackle brothers built community developments on the East coast.
The Mackle brothers, Frank, Elliott, and Robert merged with Chemical Research Corp. of Delaware in 1956 to form General Development Corporation. (Recently re-organized as Atlantic-Gulf Communities) The aim was to convert Frizzell's vast ranch into an entire city named Port Charlotte.
Twenty-five thousand lots were laid out. A national advertising campaign was launched to sell home sites to winter-weary Yankees. The price of lots was attractive, $600 with $10 down and payments of $10 per month.
Historian U. S. Cleveland, a Charlotte County resident nearly all his life, recalls that four model homes were built in 1957 on Sunrise Trail at Elkcam Waterway -- the latter a twist of Mackle. Home costs ranged from $5,900 to $17,990. The first private home was built near the corner of Tamiami Trail and Easy Street, a tribute to a location made famous by factory workers; Great Depression dreams of living.
A thousand homes had been built the following year. However, Jim Ball, local General Development supervisor, reported that newly retired people were having difficulty adjusting to idle time without friends or family nearby. Their letters back home were discouraging.
According to contemporary accounts in the Charlotte County Herald, Frank Mackle, board chairman of General Development, solved this threat to sales by starting an adult education school.
Ball was instructed to rent a store on Easy Street near Tamiami Trail and hire a couple of retired teachers to conduct classes in literature, art, sewing and other subjects of interest to older folks. James H. Baldwin, a new resident and formerly an educator in Indiana, was put in charge.
Hurricane Donna delayed the start of classes in September 1960. Immediately after the storm, a group of five men began clearing away debris around the school. During a coffee break they discussed upcoming adult classes and thought a library would be an important facility also.
Mrs. Wanda Jaques, a new retiree, heard of the idea and gave $100 to start a library. Mrs. Goodsen (Hortense) Wright was appointed librarian, a post she held for many years.
Within a few months, residents donated 2,000 volumes. Proud possessor of Library Card Number 1 was Mrs. Lydia Ann Kennedy.
Elizabeth Cole, of the state public library system, inspected the little library. She wrote a letter of Mrs. Wright commending her for organizing the Port Charlotte facility “according to proper library procedures.” Mrs. Wright used the compliment to plead for an up-to-date encyclopedia.
The first classes of PCU opened a little late, but offered 13 subjects to 250 enrollees for a registration fee of $2.
The first graduation exercises were held in June 1961 for 29 students in caps and gowns. Their average age was 64. The event was featured in Life, the largest circulation magazine in America, and shown on television.
The adult school and the public library were so successful; General Development formalized the project as the non-profit Port Charlotte Adult Education Association, Inc.
Mission of the association was set forth in the articles of incorporation adopted August 11, 1961:
"For the instruction of students in a variety of liberal education, literary, scientific, art and ornamental courses, with authority to confer degrees and grant diplomas to such persons as shall in its judgment merit the same.”
The incorporators were Frank, Elliott and Robert Mackle. Four other Miami men were listed as trustees: H. A. Yoars, A. J. Fay, W. H. O’Dowd, Jr., and H. W. Gregory.
Because of the emphasis on serious learning, the classes were referred to popularly as Port Charlotte “U.”
The classes were moved to larger quarters on the second floor of the Sunny Dell Plaza across the street in October 1963. Forty-three courses were offered, four of them accredited by Edison Junior College. Among the most important was that for nurse aides, which were much needed for aged folks.
Director Baldwin resigned at this time for reasons of health. Col. Floyd Pfeiffer succeeded him.
Drive For Own Building
The population of Port Charlotte was exploding at the rate of 30 homes a day. The little school and library were nearly overwhelmed.
Residents petitioned General Development for assistance in building a larger combined facility.
General Development readily agreed to turn over its Adult Education Charter to a completely local
organization. The non-profit charter was transferred to the Adult Education Association of Charlotte County, Inc. on March 29, 1965.
The new board of trustees was Dr. Hugh Adams, James H. Baldwin, Donald Birrell, Dr. Esther Cushnie, Russell M. Fodness, L. W. Mobley, Warren G. Payne, Col. Floyd Pfeiffer, Clarence Phetteplace, Carleton I. Pickett, Dr. Malcolm P. Price, Edward Safron, Joseph Shaw, Col. Ronald Smith, Fred Waters and Don Hicks.
The board elected officers, Pickett, president; Fodness, vice-president; Myrtle Burnett, secretary; and Birrell, treasurer. Baldwin was in poor health and declined to continue as director of PCU. Dr. Price, a retired president emeritus from the University of Northern Iowa, consequently was elected director. He had been instrumental in establishing the curriculum of PCU and recruiting faculty. Dr. Price had drawn a pencil sketch of a proposed “Cultural Center,” which boosted the enthusiasm of local residents and General Development. Architect Raymond Griffith of Charlotte Harbor town was hired to prepare working drawings. Attorney Leo Wotitzky prepared legal documents without charge.
Planned were a 418-seat theater, 10,000-square-foot library, and 16,000-square-feet of classrooms. Estimated cost was $555.000. General Development escrowed three acres of land on Aaron Street between Gertrude and Stillwater to be deeded when a building fund reached $325,000.
The project gained momentum in July 1967 when the county Board of Public Instruction agreed to assume complete operational control of all adult education in Charlotte County and to help underwrite the proposed building.
Col. Pfeiffer had been elected chairman of the Board of Public Instruction in May and resigned as co-director of PCU to avoid any perception of conflict of interest. PCU trustees continued to work with the Board in an advisory capacity.
Private donations were small despite citywide donations of Green Stamps, then a popular cash-rebate promotion on purchases from many retail stores. In all, $30,000 was collected.
The pot of gold at the foot of a rainbow materialized in 1967. The state legislature authorized all Florida counties to issue bonds to be redeemed by racetrack pair-mutual betting. Charlotte County commissioners appointed Warren Payne, a trustee of PCU, to head a committee to recommend how the windfall should be spent.
The Payne committee selected four projects: build a county health complex at Punta Gorda, buy 500 feet of Gulf beach at Englewood, build a memorial auditorium on land leased from the city of Punta Gorda for $10 a year, and allocate $200,000 to PCU’s proposed building.
Shortly thereafter, PCU received a Federal library grant of $87,000. General Development increased its contribution of land to five acres having an appraised value of $100,000 and donated $1,000 worth of furnishings from discontinued model homes. The school board allocated $4,000 for desks and chairs. Requirement for escrow money was reduced to $250,000. A final, anonymous gift of $25,000 put the fund drive over the top.
The county commission advertised for construction bids and awarded a $414,350 contract to Rowe and Mitchell Co. of Sarasota.
The building site was cleared in late 1966. Construction continued throughout the next year and the property deeded to the county. Finally, the complex of classrooms, library and theater, officially named Cultural Center was dedicated January 6, 1968. Thousands came for a grand opening ceremony and tours through the buildings.
By Lindsey Williams