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Lona Harris, 102, kin of pioneer

By BETSY BOLGER-PAULET

© St. Petersburg Times, published March 2, 2001


Another member of an endangered species -- the Florida Cracker -- was lost Wednesday (Feb. 28, 2001) when Clearwater native Lona Barnes Harris died at Mariner Health Care of Belleair. She was 102.

A strongly independent woman cut from the cloth of a true pioneer, she was born July 29, 1898, in south Clearwater. She lived on her own until 1998, when two months short of her 100th birthday, she moved into Oak Manor Nursing Center in Largo. Four months later she moved to Mariner Health Care.

According to her niece, Dorothy Dupper of Largo, Mrs. Harris remained active until about six months ago.

"Her driver's license was still valid," said her niece. "She actually drove her car to the age of 97 and thought nothing of crossing the Sunshine Skyway bridge to visit her brother in Englewood."

Mrs. Harris came by her tenacity naturally. She was a descendant of Pinellas pioneer William H. Williams, who brought his family here in 1874 by covered wagon from Burnt Corn, Ala., and settled in what was then called Clear Water Harbor, a part of Hillsborough County.

Mrs. Harris will be buried in the family plot at Clearwater Cemetery, part of the land that Mr. Williams donated before he died to establish the original Clear Water Baptist Church and Cemetery.

Her father, William Nathaniel Barnes, a son of William H. Williams, was a sailor and the first groundskeeper at the Belleview Biltmore. She and her brothers Harry and Dwight grew up in a house on the grounds of the resort hotel in what is now Belleair.

Her parents met in the Caribbean while her mother was on vacation and he was a crew member aboard the schooner Sophie Burnam. Her mother, Emma Theresa Savage, was originally from New York. The couple married in Salisbury Corners, N.Y., and returned to Clear Water Harbor.

Mr. Barnes quit sailing shortly later, after the schooner nearly sank.

In 1895, he went to work on the grounds of a brand-new hotel being built by railroad tycoon Henry Bradley Plant on a bluff overlooking the harbor. He soon became chief groundskeeper for the Biltmore, a job he held for 43 years.

Mrs. Harris and her brothers played where Morton Plant Hospital now sits and often walked along the shore to gaze at mansions in the exclusive Belleair area.

On the occasion of her 100th birthday two years ago, Mrs. Harris related fond memories of those early days .

"Mr. Plant's train would back up right beside our little house to unload passengers and luggage," she recalled. "My brothers and I would stand beside the track and wave at all the fine ladies and gentlemen."

And she remembered many friends and moments from that simpler time.

"There were clear springs all around. The hotel got its water from them," she said. "Mother and some of her friends who lived in the houses near the hotel would scrub clothes in the creek."

She remembered that her mother's best friend's name was Coachman and that her own best friend was Doris Plumb.

One of the first youngsters to enroll in first grade at South Ward Elementary, Mrs. Harris had her first experience with indoor plumbing when she entered school.

She married Rupert Harris, a commercial fisherman from Blakely, Ga. The couple spent many summers at Montauk, N.Y., where he was a captain at the Devon Yacht Club, and she worked in the bathhouse. In that job, she met Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy before she became the first lady. Every winter, the couple returned to this area, and for several years Mrs. Harris worked with her husband at his fish market on Clearwater-Largo Road. Her husband died in the late 1970s.

She was a member of Belmont Park United Methodist Church.

Survivors include her two nieces, Mrs. Dupper and Lois Barnes Wellhoner of Silver Springs; a nephew, George W. Barnes, Ocala; four great-nephews; and seven great-nieces.

Graveside services will be at 2 p.m. Saturday at Clearwater City Cemetery. Rhodes Funeral Directors, Druid Chapel is handling the arrangements.

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