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Surveying change

Two brothers, no longer ranchers, look out their windows and see construction where they once lived their lives on the land in Lutz.

By BILL COATS
Published November 24, 2006


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LUTZ - They have survived wild dogs, wild cats, wild hogs and the Great Depression. They have bought thousands of acres, worked them for scores of years and sold them for millions of dollars.

And now, brothers Earl Diez, 90, and Bobby Diez, 86, are back together, next-door neighbors in Lutz, ranchers no more.

They are compact men with white hair. The faintest traces of Spanish, their childhood language, slip through the Cracker English they have spoken ever since. But they have aged differently.

Earl, the earnest investor, is stooped now, caring for his ailing wife, Louise.

Bobby, wry and spry, has managed to retain the run of his rural surroundings even though he and Earl sold them a year ago. Bobby has become pals with developer Lance Ponton, who is building a 286-home equestrian community across the 1,000 acres.

They ride horses, smoke cigars and slip away for Cuban breakfasts. Bobby attends Ponton's development meetings as an unpaid consultant.

The earthmovers rumbled in this year. They have created a spectacle along the oldest road in Lutz, Livingston Avenue, which carried stagecoaches in the 1850s. The 1,000 acres comprise the biggest construction site in Lutz since Cheval went up, starting in the 1980s.

Earl and Bobby Diez can watch all this through their back windows.

"It doesn't feel good," Earl said. "If it wasn't for our age, I wouldn't have taken anything for our property."

Instead, they took $12-million. They show no outward signs of having touched a nickel of it. Together, their houses are assessed for tax purposes of less than $400,000, and more than a fourth of that is their final 5 acres of ranch land. There are no fancy cars or boats.

"I live just like I always have," Earl said.

* * *

They were born and raised on a dairy farm, sons of Fernando Diez, who immigrated from northern Spain, and Teresa Diez, who came from Cuba. Fernando located his dairy in Belmont Heights because the land was cheap, Earl said. But he sold his raw milk in Ybor City because people there spoke his languages, Spanish and Italian.

Earl was the 12th of 15 Diez children. Bobby was the 15th. He had nephews and nieces at birth.

Teresa fed her children, plus the farm workers, at a 25-foot table. Nothing was fried, which was too time-consuming.

"It looked like she was cooking for hogs," Earl said.

Earl was 13 and Bobby 9 when the stock market crashed in 1929, triggering the Great Depression.

"When the banks closed the doors, my father had to start a bank account inside the house in a cigar box," Earl said. "He never put another dollar in the bank."

Yet the Diez kids fared well. Bobby wore shoes to school.

"If there is such a thing as a heaven, I think we lived through it," Earl said.

The boys milked cows. Occasionally, their dad gave them a newborn calf to raise.

Nobody objected in those days to a cow roaming free. Thus Fernando's 10-acre farm spilled into the surrounding forests. But little Earl urged his dad to buy more land. It was selling for 25 cents an acre.

The father didn't want more property taxes. He replied, in Spanish, "Why should I buy it, when I can use it for free?"

"Daddy, it won't always be free," Earl responded.

"You're a kid," Fernando answered. "What the hell do you know about that?"

* * *

Eventually, the family sold the dairy and started Seminole Ice Co. on Hillsborough Avenue.

Bobby worked there and at other family businesses. He sold furniture in a brother's store for 10 years.

"Those were the most miserable years of my life," he said. "I thought I wanted to be a town dude, but I couldn't get the country out of me."

Earl never tried. He joined Lykes Brothers, one of Tampa's biggest conglomerates, as a cattle buyer.

"I didn't have any money, but I had a lot of things on my mind that I wanted to do," he said.

Earl and Bobby wanted to buy land of their own. In 1950, it fell into their hands.

They had hunted for years on nearly 3,000 acres of wild, swampy forest in Lutz owned by a friend, Robert Worthington. Mowing one day, Worthington drove his tractor under a tree limb. It knocked him under the tractor, injuring him so severely that he could no longer manage his property.

The Diez brothers leased it for a year, then borrowed enough to buy it for $25 an acre. Prime pasture land by then was selling for $100 an acre, Bobby said.

But this land was dominated by swamp and forest, with huge stumps left from pine harvesting. The brothers' newly bought cows could disappear for weeks.

"A lot of times you wouldn't see them, and they'd come out with a big old calf," Bobby said.

The scale of the place didn't faze them.

"I worked for Lykes Brothers, and they owned over half a million acres of land," Earl said. "That 3,000 acres didn't seem like a lot to me."

* * *

Bobby eventually realized milk cows weren't money cows.

"I've enjoyed it, but you can't make money out of it," he said. "You survive."

Land was a different matter. The first indication came when road officials bought some of their swampiest land for Interstate 275 in the 1960s and for Interstate 75 in the 1980s.

"We were happy because they paid a little something for it," Bobby said. "It wasn't worth too much."

Since then, the brothers have consummated more than $20-million in land sales, including a 125-acre cattle ranch in Riverview where Earl lived half of his life.

The big sale was to Ponton.

Bobby had ignored previous offers or hadn't liked the buyers, or both.

Like the Diezes, Ponton had grown up on a Tampa dairy farm. As a developer, he had prowled for land among the area's old ranch families. Joe Garcia, the Diezes' longtime attorney, told Ponton about the 1,000 acres in Lutz. He arranged a meeting.

Ponton, 59, didn't know Bobby. The introductions occurred five years ago in a tack room, which doubled as an office for Bobby.

Intent on nailing the biggest deal of his 28-year career, Ponton described his hopes for a rural ranch-style development. Bobby led a tour of the property. Ponton began envisioning a Spanish-style equestrian community.

Then the conversation began drifting - to hunting, to dairy cows, to horses. Bobby's crusty charm lured the developer off course for nearly two years.

"I don't know too many people who spent two years going after something and forgetting what they were going after," Ponton said. "I loved Bobby's sense of humor."

When they finally returned to negotiations, the two men vowed their friendship would survive any outcome. There was give and take, and a deal emerged. The final Diez ranch sold.

Bill Coats can be reached at (813) 269-5309 or coats@sptimes.com.

[Last modified November 24, 2006, 00:44:37]


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