For half a century this tiny community in the Florida citrus belt tried to forget about the most famous thing that ever happened here.
It was almost as if the short, plump woman with the hillbilly twang and her devoted son had never moved into the tidy cottage on Lake Weir. And it was almost as if 15 Federal Bureau of Investigation agents and dozens of local lawmen had never surrounded the house at daybreak Jan. 16, 1935 -- the beginning of a four-hour shootout, the longest in FBI history.
When it was over, more than 2,000 bullets had been pumped into the house. Arizona Donnie Clark, alias "Ma Barker," 63, lay dead in an upstairs bedroom, shot seven times, a machine gun cradled in her arms. Her son, Fred Barker, 32, died in an adjoining bedroom, shot 11 times, a .45-cal. automatic at his side.
For a few weeks afterward, Oklawaha was swamped with attention. FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover, whose agents had been battling gangsters throughout the early 1930s, said the shootout "marked the end of an era of violence." But even in that era, the Barker Gang stood out: $2 million from bank holdups, three kidnapings and 10 murders, including seven law officers and Ma's boyfriend, according to police historians.
Hordes of sightseers swarmed to Oklawaha to get a glimpse of the place where Ma Barker and her son made their last stand. But the commotion died and Oklawaha went about its business. No historical markers were erected; no signs pointed to the "Barker House." Still owned by the family that built it, the cottage was kept closed to the public.
Had it not been for the weather, things might have remained that way. On Christmas Day 1983, Florida suffered its worst citrus freeze of the 20th century. Oklawaha was forced to cancel its annual Citrus Festival.
The festival had been the big moneymaker for this community of 500. Founded nearly 100 years ago, it had never seen the need to incorporate. Thus, there are no city taxes. Faced with no Citrus Festival, Oklawaha knew it was in trouble. So it turned to the only other thing it could hang its hat on.
Oklawaha decided to hold "Ma Barker Day."
"We didn't want to glorify Ma Barker for any of the things she and her gang did," said Grant Houston, president of the Lake Weir Chamber of Commerce and the person who came up with the idea. "But we needed to do something to raise money and we figured it would be appropriate to recognize an entire era, as well as the 50th anniversary of the most famous thing that ever happened here."
So today Oklawaha was filled with 10,000 sightseers. Some bought reprints of "Wanted" posters or "Ma Barker Day" plaques cut out of planks of the house's boat dock. There were T-shirts emblazoned with machine guns and the words, "Ma Barker vs. FBI." A local police team reenacted the gun battle with local politicians portraying Ma Barker and Fred. Thousands of people paid $2 and stood in line for up to two hours for a tour of the Barker House, opened to the public for the first time.
"We'd always turned down any request to open it up in the past," said Betty Ann Good, an owner of the house. "But we figured this could really help Oklawaha, plus, there are people who have been living here for decades who deserve a chance to see it."
Good's grandfather, Carson Bradford, a Miami dog-track owner, built the house as a vacation cottage. A real estate friend told Bradford that he had met a nice lady and her son who wanted to do a little fishing. So Bradford let them rent the house for $75 a month, having no idea it was Ma and Fred Barker. When the Barkers arrived here in November 1934, they told people that their name was Blackburn.
Ma went to church every Sunday. Her son -- who called himself "Blackie" -- went hunting and fishing with the locals. The only thing peculiar, neighbors recalled, was that Blackie, carrying a machine gun, sometimes would stroll down to the lake and open fire on ducks.
When FBI agents knocked on the door that January morning 50 years ago and asked the Barkers to surrender, it was Fred who answered with machine gunfire from an upstairs window. Still, no lawmen were injured in the ensuing battle, which left numerous scars in the cottage's woodwork.
In the 1940s the Bradford family was able to persuade the federal government to provide $5,000 to repair the house that the agents and other lawmen had shot up. Most of the original furnishings remain and tour guides today can point out a few bullet holes. Willie Woodberry, 78, who worked for the Barkers in Oklawaha as a cook, held court near the front steps.
"After the shooting was over, those G-men ordered me to be the first one up to the door to see if they were dead inside. Sure enough, they were plenty dead," Woodberry said. "But that Ma was better to me than my own mama. I just couldn't believe she'd done all the awful things they said she did."
There are no plans to hold another Ma Barker Day, Houston said, and it's doubtful the Barker house will be open again.
"This is going to raise more money for Oklawaha then we ever dreamed of," Houston said. "Ma Barker has done her job."