From Early Days Lawyers Have Led
written and submitted by: Roger Landers
this article appeared in the Hernando Times Edition of the St. Petersburg Times Monday, April 30, 2007.
Several years ago, members of the Old Hernando History Roundtable had the pleasure of hearing Joseph E. Johnston Jr. speak of old times in the Hernando legal profession. Joe was the first full-time lawyer in town. Sure, there have been many lawyers before him, but he was the first to earn a living solely from the practice of law. The story of those early lawyers starts when the first attorney in the county, Byrd M. Pearson, began his practice. Born in Union District, S.C., in 1803, he arrived locally by 1845 and purchased a large tract of land at the top of a hill now known as Chinsegut Hill. He sold the plantation to Francis Edrington in May 1851 and moved to Jacksonville. Later Pearson became a justice on the Florida Supreme Court. Another early attorney was Perry Green Wall. Arriving in the early 1845, he farmed and practiced law. Wall served as county judge from 1848 to 1864. His son, Joseph Wall, followed into the legal profession, as have three succeeding generations. Theodore S. Coogler is one of the better-known early lawyers. Coogler, of South Carolina, taught school in the late 1850s for the Lykes family. After two terms of school, he returned to South Carolina. He came back to Hernando after the Civil War and began the practice of law. He also was a merchant, citrus grower and the first superintendent of public schools. The early attorneys had a significant impact on the county. Often referred to as "colonel," they commanded respect and served in roles of leadership. In 1873, the young attorney Charles E. Harrison arrived in Brooksville. At that time, only one other attorney, W.J. Barnett, practiced locally. In his first case, Harrison defended a local farmer on allegations of breach of contract. To the trial went Harrison, armed with his text, Parsons on Contracts. Before Justice of the Peace Rubin Wilson, he successfully defended his client. The losing party immediately attacked Harrison's client. Justice Wilson came from behind the bench and declared: "Harrison, you hold back that side. They had a fair trial and by God they can have a fair fight." By 1889, Elliott's Florida Encyclopedia reports that Brooksville boasted 11 attorneys; Barnett, O.C. Butterwick, Coogler, W.S. Jennings, T.P Floyd, G.C. Martin, T. Palman, J.C. Phillips, J.C. Preston, G.V. Ramsey and T.M. Shackelford, who later served as a justice of the Florida Supreme Court from 1902 to 1917. One of the more colorful attorneys of this period was George C. Martin. In 1906, Harry A. Peeples, a Tampa municipal judge, penned a memoir of his early experiences in Hernando, and he chronicled several stories about Martin. In one he writes: "On my way to Tampa, I stopped in Brooksville and spent the night. The next morning there was some excitement near the courthouse ... Colonel George C. Martin, the famous Hernando lawyer, was to argue a 'pint of law' and old man Tuck told me that George Martin was the best expectorator before a judge in the whole State of Florida." So Peeples decided to stay for the trial. At trial, the issue was fraud, and the defendant, known to be a rough character, usually carried a weapon. Martin, knowing the defendant's reputation, placed a pistol in his hip pocket before entering the courthouse. As Martin rose from his chair, the pistol caught on the back of the chair and flipped onto the floor near the judge's bench. It was a spectacle watching Martin as he tried to pick up the pistol without the judge seeing him. At one point, Martin almost knelt down with a finger raised in the air as he was making his "pint of law" and retrieved his errant property. In 1895, Francis B. Coogler became the second member of the Coogler family to enter the legal profession. Three later generations of this family also became attorneys. In 1899, there were three members of the Florida Bar Association in Hernando County: George C. Martin, William Sherman Jennings and Francis B. Coogler. Just after the turn of the 20th century, Fred Lykes Stringer returned to Brooksville to practice law. In 1927, he became a circuit judge. The 1920s and '30s saw some new blood come to town. Herbert Smithson became the attorney for the city of Brooksville. He was murdered in 1930. W. Clyde Lockhart opened a practice in Brooksville, as did the Whitehurst brothers - James, John, Leon and Onan. In 1931, Edward S. McKenzie of Leesburg moved with his wife, Romie Daniel, to her home county. Marion L. Dawson, after three terms in the Florida Legislature, relocated to Brooksville and began his practice in 1934. Following World War II, Joseph E. Johnston graduated from law school and returned to Brooksville. Until that time, Brooksville lawyers supplemented their livelihood with income from such endeavors as real estate, ranching, citrus and farming. Determined to make the practice of law his full-time vocation, the young Johnston opened his law office in 1947. In 1952, Johnston placed a bid to become School Board attorney. His uncle, Alvin Coogler Sr. the board's attorney at the time, remarked to the School Board: "Give the boy the job before his family starves to death." So began a new era in the full-time practice of law in Hernando County. In the early 1950s, Richard McGee returned home to practice. Shortly after McGee's return, Frank McClung joined the local ranks of attorneys. By 1962, Joseph Young moved to Brooksville from Clearwater and established his practice, and Hernando boasted about a half dozen attorneys. As each successive generation of lawyers returned home and with the rapid growth of the county in the mid 1970s, the attractiveness of Hernando became apparent. New partnerships and alliances formed and dissolved. Some of the lawyers elected a career in public service. Some never returned, yet have left their marks in professional circles, including Florida Attorney General William McCollum and Lynn Thompson, a public defender assigned to the Ted Bundy defense team. Some have blazed trails, including Brooksville's Hazel M. Land, the first African-American female to graduate from the University of Florida Law School. Linda J. Treiman graduated from law school in 1976 and soon became Brooksville's first female lawyer. The career of Joseph E. Johnston served as a benchmark in the development of the Hernando Bar. When no assistant state attorney was assigned to Hernando, Johnston stepped in to serve. He insisted on the maintenance of an up-to-date law library and adequate court facilities for the county. As sons joined their fathers, brothers joined brothers, and daughters followed fathers into the profession, new attorneys began practice and others retired. This year, the Florida Bar reports 156 attorneys now reside in Hernando County.
Roger Landers is retired from the Hernando County School District, where for nearly 33 years he was a teacher, principal and district administrator. He is the historian for the county's Heritage Museum, historical adviser to the new Hernando County Historical Advisory Commission and a member of the Florida Historical Society. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.