Story by Jeff Klinkenberg
Photos by Scott Keeler

Jeff Klinkenberg on the food found on the Trail
Scott Keeler on the Scrub Jay, an endangered bird found on the Trail
Scott Keeler talks about Warm Mineral Springs
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Bill Butler works the phones at the Ruskin Vegetable Corp. Hungry folks all over the country want to know when he's going to have Ruskin tomatoes to sell.

Ruskin is to tomatoes what the Indian River is to oranges. A Ruskin tomato is not a special variety; it's a tomato grown in a region: the fields adjacent to the Tamiami Trail in southwest Hillsborough County.

"Do you know why Ruskin is a perfect place for growing tomatoes?" asks Butler, who has toiled in the food business for most of his 67 years. "We have two growing seasons, fall and spring. We have loose, sandy soil, which means the plant roots get wet without drowning. Just underneath the sandy soil is good, hard soil, and under the hard pan are a bunch of natural wells. Ruskin does okay in a drought."

Ruskin long has been blessed with hard-working people to grow, nourish and pick the tomatoes. African-Americans and Hispanics do most of the back-breaking work in the fields, loading trucks that rumble up and down the Trail to the packing centers. There, tomatoes are packed into 25-pound boxes and trucked to wholesalers and retailers.

Tomato sandwich season on the Tamiami Trail is just around the corner. Locally, tomato fanciers already are hunting along the Trail for "U-Pick" signs. Harvesting their own, they often eat tomatoes on the spot, juice running down their chins. As April turns to May, Kim's Produce Stand in Ruskin is jammed with dozens of retired folks from nearby Sun City Center. When sales clerk Linda Richardson has trouble sleeping, she counts not sheep, but Ruskin tomatoes.

In Sarasota, motorists don't brake for tomatoes. They brake for the masterpieces at the John and Mable Ringling Museum of Art on the Tamiami Trail.

John Ringling's first job was as a clown. Later, he and his brothers started the famous circus that still bears the family name. A millionaire, Ringling and his wife, Mable, settled in Florida as the Tamiami Trail was under construction. They built a mansion and filled it with their collection of Baroque and Renaissance paintings.

Today it's the state's art museum and a major tourist attraction. Patrons stand murmuring in front of Peter Paul Rubens paintings tall enough to be movie theater screens. In an atmosphere so hushed and reverent, talking loud would be considered a vulgarity. Chapter 3

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