Margaret Cantrell

Santa Claus and his reindeer bring Christmas spirit to St. Lucie Gardens when Margaret Cantrell’s sons-in-law set up the display for the family reunion. GREG GARDNER PHOTO


Pioneer matriarch Margaret Cantrell remembers when there was literally nothing in Port St. Lucie but a two-lane U.S. 1.

It was 1957, there were no bridges across the St. Lucie River and her husband, Bill Cooper, was building the third home in Port St. Lucie for his wife and growing family. They would raise five daughters and their eldest daughter was the first baby born to a Port St. Lucie family.

“People would say, ‘You live where?’ ” says Cantrell, who remarried after her first husband’s death. “It was country living. You had to go to Fort Pierce or Stuart if you needed something. We lived in the boonies and the sand fleas were bad. We had rattlesnakes and alligators who would sun themselves.”

Cooper was a general contractor “who could build a house from scratch.” The family home was built on Arbor Street in the River Park subdivision off Rio Mar Drive, east of U.S. 1. The mortgage was $12,000, but the bank initially didn’t want to loan the money for a home in the River Park area. Cantrell also owns the first house built in the city, which an elderly woman whom she cared for gave to her.

Before General Development Corp. ramped up a massive campaign to sell 80,000 lots to people from the Northeast, Port St. Lucie was a very quiet place in the late 1950s. GDC was going to use the Cooper girls for advertising, but it didn’t work out. Four of the five daughters completed college.

“They never liked to pay their bills,” Cantrell says, remembering when she sat in a GDC office all day waiting to be paid $1,800 for cabinets her husband had built. Her husband did the same thing in a Miami GDC office and they cashed the checks, she says.

“Our girls went to White City Elementary School and Fort Pierce Central High School,” Cantrell says. “General Development had a van and they would take the children shopping or to the Sunrise Theatre for a show. There were families here and the children played together and rode bikes. They used to swim at the pool next to the marina. Our neighbors liked one another. All of my daughters have lived here and never lived anywhere else.”

Today, Cantrell lives comfortably in her St. Lucie Gardens home and drives for her friends who can no longer drive. “They won’t let me drive to Miami anymore, but I drive everywhere around here,” she says. For many years, Cantrell cooked dinners residents enjoyed at the clubhouse across the street.

“She is a very thoughtful, friendly person who would help anybody,” Bertha Russo says. “When she was able to she set up the menus and did a lot of the cooking. She has been helpful to me.”

Every Christmas season, about 30 of Cantrell’s descendants descend on her home to set up the huge yard display of Santa Claus with reindeer and enjoy a family reunion.

In her late 70s, Cantrell says she was “in the hospital more than out.” She has had five pulmonary embolisms and back surgery, wearing a turtle-shell brace for her back. “I’m beginning to feel my age,” she says.

“I enjoy this area and always have,” Cantrell says. “You can take Yankee land and you can take that cold weather. There are too many cars and too many people here. I liked it the way it was, but I don’t dislike it the way it is today. St. Lucie County is a very nice place to raise a family.”

Hometown: Port St. Lucie
Occupation: Retired bookkeeper and homemaker
Family: Daughters Celeste, 65; Gale, 64; Karen, 61; Mary, 52; Lisa, 48; 13 grandchildren, nine great-grandchildren
What inspires me: “My children and grandchildren. I live for them.”
What most people don’t know about me: “I was a very sports-minded person. I rode horses, I swam, played soccer, basketball and did water ballet. I was a good bowler. I never stuck with anything that I couldn’t do well.”