A Tour of the “Ma” Barker House

Tucked away in a clearing of the forest at the Carney Island Recreation & Conservation Area is a local Marion County gem that is hard to find and not very well known. It is known as the Bradford-Barker House and was the center of the longest shootout in FBI history. Want to know more? So did I and why I went on the tour of the home to learn more.

Our guides for the tour were volunteers Wayne and Terry. Both terrific. Wayne has a virtually encyclopedic knowledge of American Gangster History and Terry has a patented folksy way to lead you to an amusing and delightful observation. I got a good picture of Wayne below and now we’ll start the history.

In 1892 Miami resident Carson Bradford purchased property along the shore of Lake Weir in the small town of Oklawaha in Central Florida (very close to where I live now). In 1930 his son built the lovely home you see above. It was a three bedroom, two bath vacation home and a very comfortable 2,100 square feet. The Bradford family used it as a summer retreat to escape the scorching seasonal heat in Miami. I can confirm that Central Florida is cooler, especially if you are facing a lovely, moderating large lake. They used it only for the family and did not rent it out the rest of the time.

After they were done with the summer season of 1934 a real estate broker approached the Bradfords and offered to arrange a family to rent their home. They declined but the broker came back with the inevitable offer they could not refuse. The broker offered $75 dollars per month, paid in cash, in advance when the going rate was $15 to $20 per month at the time. They couldn’t resist and approved the use by “a sweet little old lady” named Mrs. T.C. “Kate” Blackburn. She was recently widowed and wanted to get away from the cold north and spend quiet time with her son in an out of the way place.

In reality they were members of the Barker-Karpis gang who were one of the most blood-thirsty and monetarily successful gangs then terrorizing the Mid-West. (Wayne can spin some graphic and detailed tales of the gang and the era for you.) They were feeling the pressure from recent high profile kidnappings and wanted it to fade from the front pages of the newspapers.

But the G-Men were closing in. In January 1935 the actual name of the organization was the Bureau of Investigation but soon later J. Edgar Hoover would change the name to the Federal Bureau of Investigation and we’ll use the FBI here for simplicity. Mr. Hoover had assembled a group of agents known as the Flying Squad who traveled around the country helping local FBI offices track down high profile gangsters. The agents knew that the Barkers had fled from St. Paul but lost their trail.

In early January 1935 they got the break they needed. They came into possession of a correspondence from some of the gang members that included a map of the state of Florida with big circle drawn around Central Florida. It was too large an area to search but it came with a letter promising to catch a certain “Old Joe” and that they had rented a home under the pseudonym “Blackburn.” Recognizing the known pseudonym belonging to Ma Barker they confirmed that Old Joe was the name of famous large alligator in Lake Weir.*

*Quick diversion.

There is an eatery founded in 1926 on the site that is now known as “Gator Joe’s Bar and Grill”,
then known as Johnson’s Beach. Old Joe was famous in the area though the Barker’s never got to kill him.
Gator hunter Vic Skidmore finally killed Old Joe in 1952. I like to think that Old Joe got the last laugh
by outliving one of the most bloodthirsty gang of gangsters by nearly 2 decades.

The FBI did not know how many members were present but they knew they needed to hurry. Before sunrise on the morning of January 16, 88 years ago this month, they assembled surrounding the house. There were 15 agents taking shelter behind out buildings and trees. At first light the lead agent called into the house demanding that Fred Barker (one of Ma Barker’s four sons) walk out with his hands empty and over his head and any others in the house follow suit one at a time. Silence. Then another call out. A woman’s voice was heard to ask “What are you going to do?” Remember the agents did not know who exactly was in the house and did not know who the question was addressed to. In a moment they got their answer. All hell broke loose.

Machine gun fire tour through the black-out shaded windows and even through the walls themselves. The wood framed house had exterior shingles and interior gypsum board (the forerunner to our dry wall). There is only one instance of reported fire from the house that was simultaneous to the machine gun. Several shots were fired from the kitchen window, which were most likely from Ma Barker herself. The wood framed house and glass windows were no match for the machine gun inside and the agents with long guns and side arms outside. Bullets just poured through in both directions. Fred Barker used constant motion as his defense, dashing through both levels and throughout every room, spraying machine gun rounds and quickly moving on.

The agents maintained their defensive position for nearly two hours of the onslaught, getting off a shot when they thought it safe. The FBI incident reports indicate 641 shots poured into the house and 250 were shot from the house. Finally one of agents realized that all of the shots seemed to be coming from the second floor front left bedroom and directed all fire to be directed toward that target (140 shots alone were recorded in that room). Soon after came a lull in the shooting. What is described as a five hour shoot out was actually a two hour shootout (plenty enough for me thank you) and a three hour stand off. Finally the FBI agents convinced an African American caretaker of the property to venture into the home who found Ma Barker and her son Fred to be dead in that bedroom and no one else there (ask the guides for fun details of that transaction).

There is much more fun details from the two hour tour that I do not have room for here. But walking through that home, with many of the same furnishings from that time was thrilling and chilling.You can find some rooms with holes still in the wall from that shootout. You can stand on the very floorboards where the Barkers met their end, though not on the same patch of earth. Allow me to explain.

As well as a chair from that time with bullet holes.

How do we know this is all original and not some mock up? Well, the Bradford family never rented the house out again. Can’t imagine why after such a wonderful first experience. Finally after several generations (each generation had only one or two children so it stayed a tight knit family) the great great grandson decided to sell it off. It did not attract interest by anyone to turn it into a museum, but there was considerable interest by developers of the now rare lake front property. Pressed by interested citizens the developers agreed to allow the home to be saved and transported to another location if they did it quickly. Marion County government stepped in to make it happen.

Turns out the best option was across the lake at the the Carney Island Park. So with amazing speed and infinite care the home was lifted on jacks, rolled down to the lake, loaded onto a barge and moved across Lake Weir to a newly cut clearing and deposited the home into a new place, facing a different direction but the same distance and alignment to Lake Weir.

These pictures were photographed in the house but there are better photos and even video at the URL link below

They are fundraising to create a more integrated experience and disability visitor access. Until that becomes possible there are quite limited tours and spots available with a long waiting list. The staff was kind and I was fortunate to be granted a suddenly open slot to commemorate this anniversary on my blog. To plan a visit or learn more online, please visit this website:

www.mabarkerhouse.org

So check it out, learn more and visit the website. Thanks so much to the Marion County Parks & Recreation, the wonderful tour guides Wayne and Terry, and all of the support staff that made this magical visit possible.

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