By Charlie Nelson
In 1894, a group of young friends enjoyed a picnic at Alderman’s Ford on the Alafia River. From this small gathering, pioneer families of Eastern Hillsborough County launched an annual, much-anticipated reunion that lasted nearly a half-century.
Alderman’s Ford Park, on County Route 39 in Eastern Hillsborough County, between Pinecrest and Alafia, memorializes the spot where James Alderman built a ford across the Alafia River in 1848 and includes the original picnic site. Today’s park-goers enjoy picnics, camping, canoeing and hiking along well-maintained nature trails. However, they are most likely unaware of the spirited political history of Alderman’s Ford.
From 1894 to 1942, the annual Alderman’s Ford Picnic attracted hundreds of East Hillsborough residents who re-encountered old friends, met new ones and enjoyed shared picnic baskets. From the picnic’s beginning, old-time friends often huddled together to engage in spirited debates on the issues of the day.
In 1904, seizing on that lively tradition, the Hillsborough County Democratic Executive Committee invited County and State office seekers to kick off their primary campaigns at a political rally coinciding with the Alderman’s Ford Picnic. During even-numbered years, until 1942, energetic crowds would swell to thousands to hear speeches from eager candidates seeking votes in the rough and tumble world of Hillsborough County Democratic primary politics. The largest crowd in 1928 exceeded 7,000, witnessing gubernatorial candidate Sidney Catts discuss his merits as a candidate.
Few local, state or national issues were off the table and candidates used their positions to pry votes from those in attendance. As one listener observed, “the candidates kept the sky blue” in stating their positions and attacking those of their opponents. From reported accounts, picnic-goers were very receptive to the verbal fireworks.
In 1924-1925, candidates debated the proposed creation of a new Plant County by dividing Hillsborough County east of Brandon. Good roads, government corruption and cattle dipping were also hotly debated. In the Depression years of the 1930s, economic issues were at the heart of the debates.
By the late 1930s, the importance of this biennial political event began to wane. Attendance at the 1937 “off year” picnic dwindled to under 300 as organizers wanted an old-fashioned picnic and declared politics as a “taboo” subject. In that same year, reporters noted “thinning ranks of old timers.” Just how much longer they could attend was a question being asked. On the other hand, young people were more likely to hear political news from the radio, not political rallies.
The biggest blow was the 1938 decision to reschedule the Democratic Primary to early May. Suddenly, the picnic at Alderson’s Ford, on the 4th Saturday of April, was too late to be a factor in the upcoming political season, further reducing its significance.
The political rally was canceled by the Democratic Party in 1942. The stated reason was a shortage of tires due to the war rationing effort. In reality, rallies across the state were being very poorly attended. No rally reported more than 400 attendees, and one local Tampa area rally reported a mere 26 in attendance.
Also, in 1942, the land was sold to Hillsborough County and was no longer privately owned.