PARRISH -- A dense forest of moss-shrouded oak trees stands guard along the northern flank of River Wilderness, offering little hint of what lies within.
What the casual motorist driving along Old Tampa Road sees is a long sidewalk winding through sunlight and shade under those big oaks, but no rooftops and no golf course.
Not that they don't exist. They do, along with a vibrant community of 800 families. But all that is hidden, elegantly set far back from the road.
That was the intent of original developer Lloyd Sheehan, a millionaire from Naples who began buying up farm and ranch land in the 1970s for the aptly named River Wilderness.
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Back then, there were few homes along Old Tampa Road, and no planned neighborhoods. River Wilderness would be the first.
Other than ranchers and farmers, hunters and anglers, it was a place few went. The rough dirt road, miles from anywhere, was anything but inviting.
But Sheehan had a dream, which would eventually translate into a 1,400-acre community, stretching from Old Tampa Road to the banks of the Manatee River.
In 1992, a bemused River Wilderness resident told the Herald he saw Sheehan walking around the development and pulling dead limbs off a tree.
"Here's a guy worth $50 million doing gardening. He's trying to hold onto the development. It's his baby," the resident said.
Unfortunately for Sheehan, beset by legal and financial problems and a recession in the early 1990s, he would be unable to complete River Wilderness. But other developers carried his dream forward.
Sheehan would undoubtedly be proud of the results.
River Wilderness Golf and Country Club turns 30 this year, preceding by one year the construction of the first homes in the community.
Today, where the neighborhood expanded to the banks of the Manatee River, the Islands of River Wilderness are being developed.
The three islands, formerly pasture land, are connected to each other and to the mainland by a series of six small bridges. Members of the Manatee River Boat Club once held cookouts on the undeveloped islands with a giant-sized barbecue pit and a spit as large as an I-beam, recalls Rich Sporl.
Today, River Wilderness has a boat ramp and park facing onto Fort Hamer Park, the county's training facility for rowing.
Sporl, sales manager for the project in 1984, said he met with postmasters from Ellenton and Parrish to figure what postal address River Wilderness would take.
"It was a toss-up," Sporl said.
The nod went to Parrish, and River Wilderness residents would eventually put their energies into improving not only their own neighborhood, but the historic village of Parrish as well.
"It started off a little slow and then begin to kick in," Sporl recalls. "We had folks moving in from Bradenton, from St. Pete, from Sarasota, and from our seasonal residents. (Professional golfer) Paul Azinger was our touring pro, and he certainly put a face on the community."
With the success of River Wilderness, other neighborhoods followed along Old Tampa Road, including River Woods, Parkwood Lakes and Kingsfield.
Ben Jordan retired from a career in sales at IBM and fell in love with River Wilderness.
"I just loved that drive down Old Tampa Road. We see foxes, bob cats, deer and wild turkey," Jordan said.
He was content to spend the early days of his retirement on the par-72 championship golf course.
"It's a great course. You could play it every day and not get tired of it," Jordan said.
Eventually, he decided it was time to begin giving back and got involved with several organizations, including the Parrish Civic Association.
As such, he became one of the most visible leaders of the Parrish community, helping with everything from the Parrish Overlay District, designed to guide commercial development, to chili cookoffs, to helping put a spotlight on the proposed Florida Railroad Experience.
"If you are willing to work for nothing, there are plenty of people willing to hire you," Jordan said.
Jordan credits the community-spirited Joan Hodges, who passed away recently, with getting him involved in the Parrish Civic Association.
Hodges was one of the leaders who started the annual Parrish Christmas party for children in the community, particularly those who are underprivileged. River Wilderness residents assist in collecting gifts for every child, and baking 100 dozen cookies each year.
"That party helped bind River Wilderness to Parrish," Jordan said.
Also from River Wilderness were the late Clarence Troxell and his daughter, Amy Stein, both of whom in the mid-1990s played prominent roles in successfully battling Florida Power & Light's plans to burn the tarlike Orimulsion in its Parrish power plant.
Eventually, the governor and Florida Cabinet denied FPL's request to burn the controversial fuel.
Stein later won election to the Manatee County Commission, helped by her role in the Orimulsion fight.
River Wilderness today
River Wildness is a mature community of winding streets and a diversity of homes and architectural styles.
Residents tout the safety and friendliness of their community and a wealth of activities.
The River Wilderness Golf and Country Club and the homeowner association each has its own board of directors, yet they work closely together, says Mike Ruffino.
Homeowner fees are about $1,000 a year.
River Wilderness residents are not required to join the country club. Nor do members of the country club have to be residents of River Wilderness.
Pat Walsh and Gary Geiger are co-head PGA golf professionals.
"This is a passion for them," country club board member Larry McCarthy said.
The Great Recession was tough on golf course operations at River Wilderness, but the operation is rebounding.
The club gained 60 members in 2013, and is looking to add 100 more in 2014, McCarthy said.
The club is also going through a refurbishment and has raised $60,000 from its members.
"We're looking at raising $100,000 and we'll get there," McCarthy said.
Residents can be as busy as they want with not only golf and tennis, but bocce ball, mah jongg, the art association, poker, Bible study and the Voices in the Wilderness singing group, now practicing for their Swing into Spring concert at 7 p.m. April 6, among others.
"This is our home. We love it here. It's peaceful, it's quiet," Ruffino said.
James A. Jones Jr., East Manatee reporter, can be contacted at 941-745-7053 or on Twitter: @jajones1.