Influential father-son judges loom large in Orlando’s past

The 1904 John Cheney House stands on the north side of West Colonial Drive. It originally faced Garland Avenue and now sits directly adjacent to the eastbound ramp onto Interstate 4 from Garland. (Joy Wallace Dickinson)

It’s often easy to confuse generations of the same family as time marches on, and so it seems that John Moses Cheney, who died in 1922 after an extremely influential career in Orange County, often gets confused with his son, Donald, who died in 1983 at the age of 94.

Donald is remembered as the father of efforts to preserve Central Florida’s history; an award presented each year at the Orange County Regional History Center bear his name.

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But it’s John, the father, who played a role in the story of the Ocoee Massacre of 1920, approaching a centennial observance next year. That’s bringing his name into news stories again as someone who encouraged African-Americans to vote. So it seemed a good time to sort out the two Judge Cheneys. We’ll return to John Cheney’s role in 1920 in future Flashbacks.

Links to Rollins

The confusion is compounded by the lack of good photos of the father, John Cheney; if you google his name, a picture of Donald, his son, pops up at the right of my screen, at least, pulled from an online article about both men from Rollins College, where both Cheneys were trustees.

In their lifetimes, both men were also called Judge Cheney. Donald (1889-1983) was a juvenile court judge as well as Boy Scout leader and active volunteer in many civic causes, including the founding of the Orange County Historical Commission in 1957.

He led the group until about 1980, through its transition to an independent society in 1971 — efforts that ultimately led to the current Orange County Regional History Center, which opened in 2000.

Law, politics and electricity

Donald’s father, John, was born in Milwaukee in 1859 but moved to Orlando in the boom year of 1885 after practicing law in Boston, where he had also studied law. In 1886, he married Elizabeth Alexander of New Hampshire. The couple eventually had three children.

John Cheney also formed a law partnership in 1886 and, in 1889, became city attorney for Orlando. In 1890, he supervised the United States Census for the 2nd Congressional District of Florida. He ran for Congress in 1900 and 1904 as a Republican — a rarity in Florida politics then — and lost both times but continued as a stalwart of the party in Florida.

Cheney was busy on another front as well. In the early 1890s, he took over the defunct Orlando Water Co., reorganized it and became the utility’s manager. In 1897, it became the Orlando Water and Light Company, which also added gas and ice plants.

Cheney built Orange County’s first electric-generating plant on the shore of Lake Highland. Although it expanded service somewhat, the small company didn’t have the resources to provide water and electricity to a rapidly growing Orlando. In 1922, Cheney persuaded city leaders to pass a bond issue to buy the utility and finance its expansion.

The city paid Cheney $600,000 for the company in 1922 and approved a second bond issue in 1923 to build a water plant and a larger generating station on Lake Ivanhoe. The state Legislature also created the Orlando Utilities Commission in 1923 to take over operation of utility services.

Cheney served as U.S. attorney for the Southern District of Florida from 1906 to 1912, when President Taft appointed him a federal judge for the same district. He left the bench in 1913 and resumed his law practice. He also ran for governor as a Republican in 1908 and for the U.S. Senate in 1920.

John Cheney was a strong promoter of better roads, which was recognized when the Cheney Highway, Orlando’s first paved link to the Atlantic Coast, was named for him. It opened Dec. 31, 1924 — the precursor to State Road 50.

The John Cheney home, built in 1904 for A.J. Adams and purchased by Cheney in 1907, was named an official Orlando landmark in 1987; it still exists near West Colonial Drive at Garland Street and is probably one of the first residences wired for electricity in Orlando.

Joy Wallace Dickinson can be reached at jwdickinson@earthlink.net, FindingJoyinFlorida.com, or by good old-fashioned letter at the Sentinel, 633 N. Orange Ave., Orlando, FL 32801.

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