William Sherman Jennings was born in Walnut Hill, Illinois. After attending public schools near Marion County, he attended Southern Illinois University and graduated in 1883. He then went on to study law at Union College of Law in Chicago. The school is now known as the Northwestern University School of Law. While in law school, he also studied under his brother Charles E. Jennings, who was the State Attorney for Marion.
After he finished law school, Jennings settled in Brooksville, Florida in 1885. He was appointed circuit court commissioner in 1887 and became a Hernando County, Florida county judge in 1888.
Near his Brooksville home, he met and began a courtship with May Mann. Austin Mann, May’s father had been a Florida Senator and had just won election to the Florida House of Representatives. In January of 1891, May went to Tallahassee to serve as her father’s aid. Her duties included her father’s appointments, correspondence, and hosting social events. After following May to Tallahassee, he married her on May 12, 1891. They were escorted down the aisle by the full legislative membership. After their wedding, they moved into the William Sherman Jennings House in Brooksville and had one son, Sherman Bryan Jennings.
In 1893, he resigned his office as county judge to serve in the Florida House of Representatives. He eventually became the Speak of the Florida House of Representatives in 1895. When his term ended, served as a Colonel in the Florida militia, and was president of the Brooksville town council and chairman of the Democratic committee.
In 1900, Jennings campaigned for governor, was elected and took office on January 8, 1901. One of his first undertakings was to introduce a statewide primary election system. He wanted to replace the method of nominating candidates for a political office at a convention so everyone would have a voice. The state held its first primary election in 1902.
During his term, he was one of the primary designers and spokesperson for draining of the Everglades along with Governor Napoleon Bonaparte Broward. The idea was to drain and develop the Everglades by cutting the natural rock dams in the rivers of South Florida.
Early conservationists were alarmed at the potential loss of the Everglades including May Mann Jennings and began pushing for the preservation of portions of the Everglades. Even though she was in support of the drainage program. It may seem strange that she supported the drainage project, but in this era, many conservationists were able to reconcile seemingly conflicting positions
May went on to be a leading member of the women’s club movement and an influential social reformer in Florida and nationwide. In 1915 she was president of the Florida Federation of Women’s Clubs and spearheaded the effort to establish the Royal Palm State Park, the precursor to the Everglades National Park.
Jennings term ended on January 3, 1905, and they moved to Jacksonville, where at the time, it was the largest city in Florida. He established a successful law practice and divided his time between the home in Jacksonville and a farm and timber holdings in Clay County near Middleburg.
Governor Broward appointed him General Council for the Internal Improvement Fund in 1905. This was the agency responsible for administering public lands. He held the position until 1909 and was able to continue leading drainage activities in the Everglades.
Jennings died on February 27, 1920, in St. Augustine, Florida and is buried in Jacksonville.
The photograph is in the public domain.