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Saving Gamble Mansion

ELLENTON -- Karyn Hillary of Brandon brought her two daughters to the Gamble Plantation on Saturday to show them a park she’d grown up with as a child in Sarasota.

She didn’t realize they’d be among about 2,000 other visitors to the annual Plantation Festival Arts and Crafts Show, which she hadn’t known was going on.

She also hadn’t realized this might be her last chance to see the park, which could be closed as part of a cost-cutting proposal from the Department of Environmental Protection.

“We got a little bit upset when we saw that,” Hillary said. “That’s really sad ... There are no historic things for kids to see around here that are of this nature.”

Visitors to the festival, which ran from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Saturday and continues from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. today, braved afternoon rain to peruse the booths and artwork offerings.

But for many, it was also an effort to support a local piece of history. Proceeds from the festival, put on by promotions company M.Y. Promotions, went to the Gamble Plantation Preservation Alliance, a volunteer organization established in 2000 to support the park’s upkeep. The group now finds itself working against possible closure.

Judah P. Benjamin Confederate Memorial at Gamble Plantation Historic State Park, along with Terra Ceia State Park Preserve in Palmetto, are two of 53 state parks the DEP proposed for closure Jan. 26 as part of department-wide mandated budget cuts.

Those closures aren’t approved, yet, but the plantation’s defenders are already up in arms.

June Hartlieb, president of the preservation alliance, spoke to visitors waiting in line for free tours of the mansion, a popular activity as the day wore on and guests looked to avoid the rain. More than 600 people had been through the house Saturday, she said.

Hartlieb was hopeful that petitions circulating around the festival would help keep the Gamble open -- by noon, one petition had 250 signatures. There was more at stake than saving DEP money, she said.

“Your great cathedrals and castles of Europe ... they operate in the red,” she said. “You don’t want to close your history parks because that’s your kids’ heritage.”

Festival vendors, many fromout of town, said they were impressed by festival attendance, especially with the rainy weather. Doreen Ragle of Bonita Springs, who was selling prints and framed art at her booth, said even though she was shutting down an hour early, she had made enough money to justify the trip.

She was surprised by the hardiness of the visitors.

“A lot of times, the first drop of rain, everybody hits their cars,” she said.

Miriam Vigoa and Kristi Linebaugh of Winter Haven’s Vigoa Cuisine said they’d also done well at their booth, giving out recipe samples and selling custom olive oils.

Linebaugh and Vigoa said they were impressed by the venue. Linebaugh had even gotten away from the booth for a few minutes to take a tour of the mansion.

“It’s sad it might be closing, but some people are very passionate about saving it,” she said.

Jerry and Merry Hagan, eight-year residents of Bradenton, decided Saturday they were newly passionate about saving the park as they left the mansion tour to find a petition.

They had driven by the park many times, they said, but this was their first time visiting.

“It’s just like a lot of things,” Jerry Hagan said. “You think it’ll always be there.”