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Features

The love of his life

By JEFF KLINKENBERG
Published March 19, 2006


photo
[Times photos: Chris Zuppa]
The late afternoon sun begins to set on Freddie’s land in Evinston, which has been farmed by members of his family for generations. The community was founded by a great uncle in 1879.
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Freddie, right, hoes weeds from his okra. Helping is Pedro Patterson, left, and Harry Charles London Jr., who goes by J.R. Both have helped Freddie farm his land for years. “Pedro and I were children together, and I’ve known J. R. for over 50 years,” Freddie says.
 “It used to be from can to can’t,” says North Florida farmer Freddie Wood, which means working the farm from first daylight to sunset.

EVINSTON

Freddie Wood has been a farmer all of his life. He grows potatoes, sweet corn, collards, kale, lettuce, onions, broccoli, peas, cabbage, rutabagas, beans and okra on 200 acres about a half-hour from Gainesville. He especially likes okra. He eats it with sweet corn and peas, though he likes pickled okra just fine.

Lots of city people like the idea of farming, but they don't understand the work involved. They don't know about the nematodes and the aphids and the bud worms. They know nothing about hauling manure and getting the chemistry of the soil just right. They don't worry about black widow spiders.

They fantasize about owning a place in the country, with a big garden and maybe a few chickens and a horse and a yard big enough for a dog to roam free. At night, when they ring the dinner bell, the kids will come running, taking care to wash the dust from their bare feet before entering the house.

Of course, certain moneyed people have a different fantasy. They lust for rural land, lots of it, to sell to developers and get even richer.

Every time Freddie turns around these days, someone wants to buy his land. "Three, four times a week,'' he says. His community, on the Alachua-Marion county line, with its rustic barns, tin-roofed houses and cypress fences, could serve as the set of a movie about 19th century Florida. Sometimes, as Freddie arranges rutabagas in his general store, a neatly dressed stranger clears his throat and poses the question. Or else someone wearing a sports jacket confronts Freddie as he toils among his okra and asks whether he wants to be a millionaire.

Through the open door Freddie spots the Cadillac, looking for parking space among the pickup trucks. Perfectly coiffed, smelling of after-shave, the driver glides into the building. Freddie comes forward and wipes his hands on the back of his dungarees and extends a hand still dirty from harvesting pole beans.

"Do you own this land?'' the stranger asks, giving Freddie's hand a shake.

"Yes, sir,'' answers Freddie, who has tabbed the guy as a developer.

"It's worth a lot of money,'' the developer says. "Ever think of selling?''

"No, sir.''

"Are you sure? You could retire right now. You and your wife could afford to travel. Maybe go to Europe. You could get you a real nice car. Your wife, too.''

Freddie - who was born here 68 years ago and likely will die here - tries to be patient. He says he has no desire to be a millionaire. He lives comfortably. He says his 15-year-old pickup truck is still going strong.

"I just want my land to stay a farm forever,'' he says.

*   *   *

Freddie's daddy farmed the same land. So did his granddaddy, and his great-granddaddy and relatives before. A great-uncle, William Drayton Evins, who came to Florida from South Carolina, founded the community in 1879.

For a century, Evinston was a thriving hamlet, with a school, churches, farms, orange groves and a railroad depot. Now it doesn't merit a mention in U.S. Census Bureau records. The school closed years ago; the train tracks were relocated. The citrus business has steadily migrated south. But Freddie Wood perseveres.

He sells crops at his store, Wood and Swink, named after a relative and his partner. Built from floor to ceiling with yellow pine, dark as pitch inside, the store looks about the same as it did on opening day in 1882. It lacks air conditioning. It lacks plumbing. A wood-burning stove, anchored to the floor next to a couple of chairs and a checkerboard, provides the only heat. Sometimes, when frost covers the cabbages, little old ladies in bonnets knit next to the stove.

Florida's oldest post office, which stamped its first envelope on Feb. 28, 1882, is hidden in a little corner. Freddie's wife, Wilma Sue, has been the postmaster since 1979. Freddie's relatives have been running the post office since 1913. The post office occupies a space only somewhat larger than a tool shed. "Sir, that's a personal question,'' is Wilma Sue's reply to anyone rude enough to ask where she goes when nature calls.

Dusty shelves in the back of the store groan under the weight of just-harvested vegetables. A customer picks through cauliflower, collards and turnips and asks for cabbage.

Freddie says, "I think there's some back there, Veronica. Red and green cabbage. If you like it fried, I strongly suggest the red.''

That's what she buys. Freddie and Wilma Sue eat fresh produce with every meal. Vegetables accompany farm-produced beef, pig or chicken. "Wilma Sue makes the best chicken-and-dumplings in the world,'' Freddie says. Wilma Sue beams from behind the counter.

*   *   *

Last year, about 150,000 acres of rural Florida - an area only slightly smaller than Pinellas County - was lost to development. The figure is expected to go up by the year. In Marion and Alachua, developers crave land dotted by rolling hills, horse farms and oak-shaded two-lane roads.

In Evinston, cows low from pastures they share with sandhill cranes. The cranes, tall as a man's shoulder, croak incessantly, sounding like a rusty gate amplified a hundred decibels. Every fall, the cranes migrate by the thousands to pastures near Evinston - followed by tourists. "One year a couple of guys from Germany rented a motel and spent a month crawling through my pastures just trying to get close enough for a good picture,'' Freddie marvels. "I like it when the cranes show up, but I like it when they go, too. They eat my sweet corn.''

His land is bordered on one side by Lochloosa Wildlife Management Area, which swarms with turkey and deer, and on another side by stunning Orange Lake and its hungry bass, gators and great blue herons. Across the lake is the Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings State Historic Site. The place is something like Lourdes for folks who worship at the shrine of Miz Rawlings, who wrote The Yearling and Cross Creek. Freddie's Evinston neighbor, Jake Glisson, who lived next door to Rawlings as a boy, inspired the creation of The Yearling's Jody Baxter. Every afternoon at 3, he shows up to collect his mail and chat about modern Florida's attempts to absorb Evinston.

Twice in the last decade Micanopy, a town a few minutes away, has tried to annex Evinston. Micanopy is a tiny village with a stately bed-and-breakfast, tin-roofed cracker homes, antique shops and lovely magnolia trees. Freddie Wood, who has never visited Miami, calls Micanopy "the city."

"I know good people over in Micanopy,'' he says. "But we know what this annexation business is all about. It's about money. It's about development. I don't kid myself. They're going to try again. They won't give up.''

*   *   *

When Freddie was a boy, everybody in Evinston was land rich and money poor. Nobody starved. Freddie helped put squirrels and bream on the table with his .22 and his cane pole. He helped his grandma pick citrus and cut firewood. He hoed the beans. He milked the cows and plowed the fields, often behind a mule named Betsy. He has tractors now. He'd love to have Betsy back.

"You can take a horse and work him to death, you can plow him until he drops dead,'' he says. "But you ain't going to work no mule to death. When a mule gets tired, he'll stop. You can beat him or anything else but he ain't going no further.''

Finished with chores, farm boys waited for a passing train, hitched a ride on boxcars and jumped off a half-mile down the grade. They hunted arrowheads. Freddie has points in his collection that date back 10,000 years. He once found bricks on his land from a lost Spanish mission. In 1774, the famous traveler William Bartram marched through the territory,

Freddie lived in Arkansas for two years when he was in the Army. But he came back as soon as he got out. He and Wilma Sue married in 1963. They have two sons. When Freddie visits his sons, he is appalled by Florida's urban sprawl. "One boy lives in a place called Panther Ridge,'' he says. "It's like a big city out there, wall-to-wall houses.''

He sent both boys to college. One works in computers. The other is a preacher. They never took to farming.

*   *   *

Freddie drives a 1991 Ford pickup so covered with dust, outside and in, that he can't read the odometer. Wouldn't matter if he could: The odometer busted five years ago. "Old Joe,'' his name for his truck, has been subjected to every kind of indignity, especially manure. Freddie believes in working manure into soil.

He dislikes chemicals and uses them only when he has bud worms. In February, he plants tomatoes, which he calls "tomaters." In March, he plants "Icer tators,'' which turn out to be Irish potatoes once you understand his drawl. His corn is in the ground by April. In a dead pine, looming over the corn, bald eagles scold him from their nest. Biologists recently counted 40 eagle nests within 5 miles of his farm.

He is among the few North Florida farmers who still grow some citrus. If the temperature falls to 28 degrees or below for four hours, he will have to replant his famous Chinese honey tangerines and navel oranges.

"Everything is against you when you farm,'' he says.

Alligators eat careless calves that wade into the lake for a drink. Recently somebody saw a bear foraging for something to eat in the front of his store; Freddie thanked Jesus he has no beehives.

Freddie never wears snake boots. Usually he avoids even gloves - except when he harvests okra. Okra plants irritate the skin. After a day in the patch, he hangs his gloves on the fence to dry.

One morning he thrust his hands into the gloves without thinking. He felt something sting a finger. He picked for 30 minutes before asking Wilma Sue to take him to the hospital. On the way to Gainesville, he was sure he was having a heart attack. The emergency room doctor wanted to know more about that throbbing finger. He gave Freddie some kind of antidote.

"Sure enough I felt better right away,'' Freddie says.

Now he shakes the gloves before putting them on because of black widow spiders.

For Freddie, mortality is no abstraction. When he was 47, he was digging holes for fence posts on a sweltering summer day when he suffered a minor stroke. He was only 53 when he was diagnosed with polymyositis, an immune disorder that weakens muscles. Now he copes with psoriatic arthritis. Limping around, he hopes he can find a medicine that helps.

He loathes the idea of retirement. Wilma Sue looks forward to it, but she and Freddie worry that the U.S. Postal Service will retire ZIP code 32633 if she quits. "Where are they going to find someone who will work in Florida in a building that doesn't have a toilet or an air conditioner?'' she asks.

For a week starting on April 7, prominent North Florida artists will gather in Evinston for a fundraiser. They will paint pictures of the beautiful landscapes and auction off completed works at the Thomas Center in Gainesville on April 14 and 15. Proceeds will help pay for a restroom, air conditioner and handicapped ramp for Wilma Sue's post office in the general store. She is hoping the improvements will make the postmaster job more appealing.

Freddie worries about what will happen to his farm after he is gone. All over Florida, weary farmers who once vowed to keep their land forever, who promised to fight the good fight, are giving up and selling to developers. Not long ago, someone offered Freddie a half-million dollars for the 25 acres that include his modest home on a hill. He said no.

Recently, he made a decision regarding his largest parcel, 172 acres. He has been working with the Conservation Trust For Florida, an environmental group whose mission is to protect rural lands and a rural way of life. The trust is helping him put together a deal with Alachua County.

Though he could sell his land for $15,000 an acre or more to a developer, he hopes to sell development rights to the county for about $3,000 an acre.

In return, Freddie would stay on his land until the end of his life. His two sons could live there after him if they desire. If they didn't want to live on a farm, they could sell to a buyer who would have to agree to leave the land the way it is now.

The new owner couldn't turn Freddie's land into a housing tract or a golf course or a Jiffy Lube or a Wal-Mart.

"Maybe it's wrong to love the land, but I have always loved the land,'' Freddie says. "I like people, but people need open spaces. It gives them peace. I ain't no hero, but I want my land to stay like it is.''

A customer walks through the door and squints until her eyes adjust to the dim light. Freddie hauls his aching bones out of the chair next to the wood-burning stove.

"Got any kale?'' she asks.

Nope, not in the store. So Freddie pulls on his straw hat and limps out the back yard into the field and cuts her a nice bouquet of kale.

Jeff Klinkenberg can be reached at 727 893-8727 or klink@sptimes.com.

[Last modified March 22, 2006, 09:58:51]


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