Reminiscences of a 1950’s Terra Ceia Childhood
Or, Granddad Is Only A Shell Of His Former Self ‘Cause The Sand Gnats Sucked Him Dry
by John Leps
 
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Aerial view of Terra Ceia, 1968. Center Rd is in the middle, US Hwy 19 leading to the old Sunshine Skyway Bridge is near the top.
The Leps Family

The Leps family moved to Terra Ceia Island, in August of 1952, from Camilla, in southwest Georgia. To those of you who have heard my voice, this will come as no surprise. My Dad had decided to return to the teaching profession from a government job. He and my Uncle Ted Burns had bought the old Tebbs place, a sixty-five acre truck farm, in the late 1940’s. This farm was located to the west of Bayshore Road, from where it makes the right angle turn and becomes Terra Ceia Road down to where it curves to the left, along Tillett’s Bay. Leps Road, Burns Road, and Miguel Drive access the property in its current configuration of canal-front residential lots and five-acre residential parcels.
He secured a job teaching science at Wimauma High School (later, East Bay High School) in Hillsborough County. We moved down here, to the farm, just in time for me to start seventh grade at Palmetto Junior High School (where the current Palmetto Elementary is located). We; my parents and the four brothers Leps, descended upon my Uncle Ted, Aunt Mary Ann, and my cousin, Mary Ann, then starting fifth grade.
The two families lived in the farm house, which had three bedrooms and one bathroom, for about six months, while the adjacent tractor barn was being re-modeled to accommodate human habitation. We moved into this remodeled barn roughly fifteen minutes before the farm house flew apart at the seams from the double occupancy which included five kids on the cusp of adolescence. The remains of this farmhouse stand on the current Hemmel property, at the west conjunction of Terra Ceia Road and Bayshore Road. The tractor barn, over a period of thirty years, became the house currently at 20 Leps Road.


Uncle Ted and the farm

My Uncle Ted worked for Rome and Haas Chemical Company, which made agricultural insecticides. When we moved here, the farm had been operating with the help of the Wadsworth family. My Dad had always been a wannabe farmer and heretofore this agricultural instinct could be manifested only via the family garden.
My brothers and I spent large chunks of our childhood slaving away in the family vegetable garden. At that age we were oblivious to the benefits derived from a table laden with fresh produce and chafed mightily at the outrageously brutal and inhuman rigors of hoeing weeds, shelling peas, shucking corn, digging potatoes.
My Dad jumped into this opportunity to be a real farmer with great relish. Green, bell peppers had brought a premium price the year before we moved here so every available square inch of space on the farm was blanketed with them.
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 Girl gathering gladiolas on Terra Ceia Farms. Photo courtesy of State Archives of Florida, Florida Memory, Joseph Stienmetz, May 1947.

TCFarmsAirport Of course, every other farmer in the area did the same thing and there were green peppers hip deep everywhere; they couldn’t be given away. At one point we tried raising several hogs for our own consumption. Alas, these porcine omnivores seemed to have an insatiable appetite for fiddler crabs, which were in abundant supply all over the island. The flavor these crustaceans imparted to the pork was not remotely akin to “honey-baked”.
Photo courtesy of State Archives of Florida, Florida Memory, Joseph Stienmetz, May 1947.

We were a bit more successful with chickens and never had to buy eggs or chicken to fry. The raccoons were totally down with our poultry raising endeavors, finding the chickens and eggs a tasty addition to their nature-provided diet. Frequently I would have to bolt out of bed at some uncivilized hour, to the sound of a chicken in its death throes, grab the 20 gauge and rush to the chicken coop. Fortunately, at that time, there were no coyotes among the indigenous creatures of Terra Ceia Island.

Terra Ceia Estates

My Dad and uncle realized that farming was not a part-time job and that, coupled with their uncanny knack for planting the crop that no one would want that year, brought them to the conclusion that some less financially depleting use must be found for the property. The idea for Terra Ceia Estates (what a catchy name!) was hatched.
Fortunately, the working capital for Terra Ceia Estates was limited. I say fortunately because had it been available in sufficient quantities, there would have ensued an environmental disaster of staggering dimensions. The master plan included the dredging of a deep water channel from Tilletts Bay out to the shipping channel of Tampa Bay. The dredging spoils were to be used to fill in all the mangrove swamps on the property, said swamps comprising roughly one-quarter to one-third of the total sixty-five acres. At that time in Florida’s history mangroves were considered a valueless nuisance to be gotten rid of at the first expeditious moment.
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Although this dredging never occurred, a deal was negotiated with the dragline owner/operator, and the two canals which currently run from Leps Road to Tilletts Bay were dug. They were originally dug sixty feet wide, but were later enlarged to eighty feet in width, as it was felt that sixty feet would make it a bit tight for the yachts of the expected influx of high-rollers to execute a come about maneuver, necessitating that they back down the canal to Tillets Bay. This would have been entirely unseemly, especially for a sailing vessel.
Canal on Burns Court today. Photo courtesy of George Waller, April 2013.
There was no money for seawalls along the canals, which was another environmental windfall caused by the shortage of working capital. The dirt from digging the canals was used to raise the grade of the lots along the canals somewhat above mean high tide. This was fortuitous, as the original grade level of the farm was negligibly above mean high tide and the six-foot dike that encircled the whole property was leveled in the “development” process. These lots were finally placed on the market along about 1957. They were priced at $750 each. The market responded with thundering indifference the likes of which would not be seen again until late in the first decade of the next century. Folks just didn’t recognize the charm of rural, sand- gnat/mosquito- infested, dirt-road, sulfur-water, party-line-phone- service, un-air-conditioned, bury-your-garbage, ten-miles-to-the-grocery-store living.

Winn-Dixie

I should qualify the ten-miles-to-the-grocery-store statement. The nearest chain supermarket, Winn-Dixie, was in Bradenton, on 9th Street West, at about 9th Avenue West. There was, however, a splendid, full-service grocery store, including a butcher shop, in Rubonia, run by Quinton and Lou Perry. They delivered grocery orders to Terra Ceia residents. They, and their children, Lou, Quinton, Jr., and W.D., lived at Bayshore Road. Lou is a current resident of Terra Ceia Island. Then general public’s lack of interest in canal-front living, on Terra Ceia Island, resulted in the Burns and Leps families being the sole inhabitants of Terra Ceia Estates through the rest of the fifties and the beginning of the sixties. While the lifestyle failed to approach the thresh-hold of “rich and famous”, it was idyllic.

Fishing on Burns Court

My brothers and my cousin, Mary Ann, would frequently get up on a Saturday morning and, from the banks of the canal between Bayshore Road and Burns Road, catch, with a cane pole and live shrimp, in less than thirty minutes, several large speckled trout. They, along with grits, eggs, and biscuits made a breakfast fit for kings. There were no kings available, so we ate it. Of course, there were no houses along that canal then. With a mullet head tied onto the end of a line and thrown into the roadside tidal ditches, one could, with practiced dip-net technique, catch two or three dozen large blue crabs, in two or three hours. Through the fifties and sixties these things seemed of no interest to those who didn’t already live here.


Cisterns

I said that the lifestyle was idyllic. It was if one could ignore several facts of life on Terra Ceia Island in the 1950’s. For one thing, all drinking/cooking/bathing water came from wells or rainwater cisterns. Our cistern was full of mosquito larvae so we used well water. To say this water had a high content of undesirable “amendments” would be wildly understating it. It had the faint, but unmistakable, “bouquet” of rotten eggs.
When we arrived here I would go thirsty until I could no longer stand it, then hold my nose and guzzle a belly full so that I could go as long as possible before having to tank up again. Any container this water sat in, such as a water jug, in the refrigerator, turned a dull brown. Bathroom fixtures would corrode away and need to be replaced every five or six years. My Mother, aunt, and cousin used rainwater for washing their hair, after, of course, straining the mosquito larvae from it. Any water softener available at the time (we tried several) would throw up its hands in despair when faced with Terra Ceia water.
Dr. George Cajoleas, my dentist through the seventies and eighties, claimed this water was responsible for my near indestructible dentition, saying ruefully that if everyone was raised on well water it would be hard for a dentist to earn a comfortable living.


Sunday Driving

The only paved roads on Terra Ceia were Bayshore Road, from the old Haley property (now the headquarters for management of the Terra Ceia Aquatic Preserve) around to Sunset Lane, and Terra Ceia Road, from the old Haley place to the Post Office at Center Road, which was on the opposite side of Center Road from where it is now. Center Road and Sunset Lane were paved. During a rainy period the unpaved roads would turn to mudbogs. Our old Ford tractor rescued a few cars from being swallowed up by the quagmire of the unpaved sections of Bayshore Road/Terra Ceia Road. I’m not sure the side roads had names back then; there were no road signs. Many of these side roads on the island first acquired names when the 911 emergency call system was set up in Manatee County, sometime in the 1980’s. If there was only one house on a road, it was named after that resident, in most cases.


Sand Gnats

The water and the roads and the inconvenience of having no garbage pick-up nor 7/11 type stores nearby was less than trifling compared to that monstrous scourge of Terra Ceia living; that miniature flying piranha that swarms into one’s hair, ears, nostrils, eyes; ripping micro chunks of flesh from their hapless victims and lapping the resulting blood seepage (much in the fashion of vampire bats, only on a smaller scale): the SAND GNAT. If you’ve ever seen an enlarged photo of a sand gnat you know they resemble nothing so much as a tiny, flying bear-trap. Air-conditioning in private homes was virtually non-existent in the 1950’s which meant that windows were kept open in case a wayward breeze happened through to offer brief respite from summer temperatures and humidity levels in the mid-to-high nineties. These creatures from Hell, the sand gnats, poured through window screens as easily as if they were made of chicken wire. Back then we thought they were attracted to lights so we would try to use as few lights as possible after dark. There was a product one could paint onto window screens which would deter their entry. I think it must have been a mixture of Malathion and Karo syrup. Within a week of applying this sticky stuff to screens, there would be so much dust occluding the mesh that it would become opaque and impervious to summer breezes. For residents of this “heavenly land” the primary benefit of air-conditioning was/is the providing of refuge from sand gnats, temperature control being merely a gratuitous side benefit.
Editing and photos by George Waller.