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Down-home living in Myakka

Ask anybody in Myakka City what makes the rural town the ideal place to live. Here’s the likely answer: the peace, the quiet and the people.

Traditionally the home of farmers, growers, ranchers and country folk, Myakka City’ s recent growth, caused by the housing boom, spawned the most change the small town has seen in years.

Compared to neighboring urban areas, the town generates very little hubbub with just a restaurant, the post office and a lone gas station, despite the traffic sign warning motorists of the “congested area.”

Richard Kersey, a resident of Myakka since the 1950s who enjoys the area free of a city’s typical sirens, night life and crime, didn’t care much for the growth spurt.

“Don’t get me wrong. That’s called progress, but I think progress actually showed up too fast,” he said.

Kersey, now a manager of MJ Ranch, was just a young boy when he moved to the area with his parents. His dad worked as a ranch hand and his mom drove a school bus and worked in the school cafeteria.

Back then, the farmers, ranchers, grove owners and working people had few modern conveniences, save the phone in a local store.

“You’d go to visit somebody. You wouldn’t call them up on the phone because nobody had a phone,” he said.

Most of the leisurely activities revolved around church and school in the community where everybody knew each other.

“It was a way of life and the whole community raised a kid,“ he said. “You couldn’t do something wrong without it getting back to your parents. It didn’t take long for news to get around.”

Resident Irene Carlton moved to town in 1948 after she got married. Carlton, who attended school at the old schoolhouse, built in 1914, grew up where she was born on a farm at Myakka Head on State Road 64.

Her senior year, Manatee County consolidated the high schools, sending the students to Manatee High. She traveled 50 miles to school one way on a bus to go to school, where she learned about life outside of Myakka.

“We were from the country and we didn’t have any other way of living so we thought that everybody lived like we did,” she said.

Carlton lived on the farm with her family where she took care of her two younger brothers, freeing her parents to work in the fields. Students went to school in the summer so the winter could be spent working on the farm.

Progress eventually came to the small town when people began to install phones in their homes. But even then, people only used phones for emergencies because they shared a party line.

“We didn’t have much money, but we always had a house to live in and food on the table and we were happy kids and didn’t have anything to worry about,” she said.

A frugal man, her father was leery of tapping into electricity for about $4-$6 a month because he feared going in debt and losing the land. Though he later replaced kerosene lamps and a stove with electrical appliances, it wasn’t until Carlton moved to a home with her new husband that she began to use modern conveniences of refrigerator, an electric iron, and lights.

“It helped give us in a modern way of living. It gradually progressed to where we think we’re as modern as in town now,” she said.

Carlton who raised three sons with her late husband, Brian, a World War II veteran, attends Myakka United Methodist Church in Myakka and is loving it.

“It’s always in my life and I couldn’t think of anything else in my life I have friends that I’ve had for years and years and everything that I’ve needed so it’s just been a wonderful time out here,” she said.

Like any town, modern technology and growth has brought change, but in Myakka some things haven’t changed. People are always there to lend a helping hand, said Pam Green, owner of Myakka Country Clippers. A resident of Myakka since the mid-1980s, Green believes Myakka to be a good, safe place to raise children.

“It’s still small enough that everybody knows everybody,” she said. “I like being a face everybody knows, not a nameless face.”

Myakka residents are known to stick together, too. The Myakka City Action Committee, a non partisan, non-profit organization was started to give residents a voice.

“We’re not really a politically motivated organization. We want to be a support system to help the community accomplish whatever the community wants to accomplish,” Green said.

The group recruited about 40 people at its membership drive in October. About 200 people attended the barbecue, featured a chance to meet politican candidates.

At organizational meetings, the group has identified potential long-term and short-term projects that may aid the community. The next meeting is planned for 7 p.m. Feb. 9 at the Myakka City Family Worship Center. A survey is also being sent out to members about some of the services they would like to see in the area, from organized sports to a town hall.

One project already in the works is an effort to spruce up the landscaping at Myakka Community Park on Wauchula Road with a trust account established by Mosaic Fertilizer. The project can be finished once a well for irrigation is installed, likely this spring or summer, Green said.

A serene area with many wide-open spaces, Myakka is home to Char-O-Lot Ranch and the famous Royal Lippizan Stallion Ranch. The late Ottomar Herrmann helped rescue the rare breed during World War II and later started the Myakka ranch, where his family still trains white stallions for performances across the country. Myakka’s countryside offers a haven for animal sanctuaries and other organizations like Von Asgard K-9 Center, which boards and trains dogs for pets, search and rescue and police work. Vast farmland is also part of Myakka’s heritage. Hit with the rising cost of doing business, farmers are looking for ways to offset cost and keep agriculture in Manatee County.

Dakin Dairy Farms this fall opened agri-tourism activities to the public. Activities at the dairy include a 9-acre corn maze, racing pigs, cow-train ride, feeding goats at the goat walk, and a corn cannon.

Once completed, a 12,000-square-foot milk plant will eventually open, adding an extra dimension to the tour. Under construction is the facility that will allow visitors to view milk processing and cheese making and purchase drinkable yogurt and ice cream. The gift shop will promote items grown, canned and crafted in Florida. Some items include soap, candles, stuffed animals and other gift items.

Myakka’s simple lifestyle and sprinkled with its unique character attracts dedicated, loyal people who have settled in for life.

Marilyn Coker has enjoyed the people and the quiet country life in Myakka since 1945, save the years she lived in other cities in the Tampa Bay region.

“That’s all I know. I’ve lived in the city, but I don’t think you ever call me a resident of the city. I did live there a while, but I came back here,” she said.

Coker lives in the home she moved into with her late husband, Joe, in the early 1960s. Though the home has been remodeled, it home features signs of its age like the original pine wood floors.

Coker has stayed busy since retiring as post master in 1999. She has homeschooled her granddaughters and played the piano at Myakka United Methodist Church.

Though she never expected to take the position of choir director, she accepted the opportunity to serve God and other people.

“You still have surprises, even at 72,” she said.

Taking on the job as choir director left one problem: the church didn’t have a piano player. An enthusiastic young student has stepped up to take lessons from Coker with hopes of one day taking the post. More children have become interested in her lessons which she gives every Wednesday.

“I plan to wear out not rust out,” she said.

Coker, the president of the Myakka City Historical Society Inc., has also set out to help raise funds to remodel the old Myakka schoolhouse built in 1914. The school received a recent grant of $297,818 to restore the exterior of the schoolhouse and construct ramps for handicapped access and steps. A spacious porch with two bathrooms, new windows and doors were also a part of the construction.

Another $350,000 will finish the interior of the building, which includes air-conditioning, dry wall, electrical wiring and finishing of the floors, she said. For the past 17 years, the Myakka City Historical Society, has worked restore the original grandeur of the schoolhouse to benefit the community.

“The major goal of the project is to provide a meeting place for the community,” she said.

Coker envisions a building with a screened porch, two new classrooms and offices for the Historical Society and the Myakka Community Center and a library equipped with reference materials for the schoolwork and computers to access high speed internet, she said.

Myakka Elementary students who will benefit from the opening of the renovated old schoolhouse have had a part in raising funds for the project. Change from the kids’ soda or candy often lands in a donation glass jar in the school media center. The jar along with money raised from book fairs and coin drives so far have mounted to $1,500 over the past few years.

The schoolhouse has benefits to the children beyond the library and computer access. It’s a reminder of a rich history of Myakka City, said Roy Shaw, the principal of the school.

“It’s a culture that we don’t want to forget. It’s part of our history and it’s very important to remember it,” he said.

Myakka Elementary School is seeing its own need for construction on campus. The school will be renovated to upgrade the technology and structure of the classrooms and about eight new classrooms will be built in a separate building. Shaw would also like to install technology to allow movies and information to be projected on a wall in a newly covered courtyard.

As a school that earned an A on the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test, Myakka Elementary kids have smarts. The kids have also worked toward other efforts like raising money for Myakka’s first Relay for Life in March.

“It’s a community effort. I’m hoping all of our focus and energy goes into raising funds for that,” Shaw said. “I’d like to see it do well here.”

It’s a cause that has affected someone in their lives whether it was a family member, friend or student at the school.

Student Leah Riggle who suffered from a rare form of cancer known as Wilms tumors, has been a survivor for the past 3 1/2 years. Her mother, Rose, has organized the Relay for Life event, which has garnered support from 15 teams and three sponsors: Mosaic Fertilizers, Myakka City Grocery, Myakka Tech. So far, about $4,000 has been raised for the event, which will be held 6 p.m. March 6 - 7.

“It’s a great opportunity for the community to come together and work together to teach our children to be responsible and do something for others, even people they don’t know,” she said.

Jessica Klipa, Herald reporter, can be reached at 708-7906.