Monday, February 17, 2014

WHAT HAPPENED TO OCHOPEE?


In this 2012 file photo, students from Everglades City School, along with the help of others, paint the Ochopee Post Office on for Breast Cancer Awareness Month. The post office, which is considered the smallest one in the United States, has been open since 1953.

 Jeff Whichello is a friend, and was the leader of the first writing group I ever attended in Pennsylvania. I still miss those meetings, but even though he left PA, Jeff remained supportive as we both struggled to write and publish our first books. I'm honored to be able to introduce you to his debut novel, a nonfiction masterpiece 

WHAT HAPPENED TO OCHOPEE? 

This is an article on What Happened To Ochopee? 
by Brent Batten for the Naples Daily Newspaper.

Perched alongside U.S. 41 east of Everglades City sits the “America’s Smallest Post Office,” an attraction that draws people to Ochopee if for no other reason than the opportunity to have a picture taken next to the novelty.

What visitors don’t realize is that the tiny converted storage shed is a remnant of a much larger history. 

It is a story of free spirits and adventurers who once populated Ochopee, supporting a motel, restaurants, bars, industry, a general store and sundry tourist attractions. It is also a history of ambitious plans to carve a national preserve out of thousands of acres abutting Everglades National Park and of how those plans ran headlong into the aspirations of the locals, mostly to the detriment of the latter.

Jeff Whichello, whose family ran the Golden Lion Motor Inn, has chronicled the stories in a book, “What Happened to Ochopee?”

In it he describes a childhood spent getting to know the characters that populated the village; the hunters, fishermen, Miami Dolphins fans fleeing television blackouts imposed by the NFL and even the occasional movie star who would come and go.

Whichello, now a computer programmer living in the Tampa area, where his family settled after being forced to sell the motel, will be at the Everglades Seafood Festival this weekend signing copies of his book.
 As hard as it may be for this weekend’s visitors to rustic Everglades City to believe, a trip there was considered “going into town” by Ochopee residents in the 1960s and 1970s. Driving all the way into Naples was an even bigger deal — “going to the city” — where one might find exotic items such as ice cream.


The slow demise of Ochopee began in 1968, when work began on a jetport envisioned to serve the growing Miami market. The FAA had plans to build six runways on 35 square miles near the Dade-Collier county line smack in the middle of the Everglades. It was to be the biggest airport in the world, capable of handling the supersonic passenger jets of the future. 

Work was already underway when environmentalists rallied to put a stop to the project. Influential politicians came to their aid and in the end the jetport idea was scuttled.

The political pendulum swung the other way and a report from the National Academy of Sciences suggested preserving land around the national park would minimize the impacts of development.

Thus began what Ochopee locals deemed a land grab that resulted in residents being forced from their property and the Golden Lion, once a motel, restaurant and bar, converted to the headquarters of what is now the Big Cypress National Preserve.

Whichello details the hearings and meetings that constituted a battle between the locals and the political interests, many of them with little connection to Florida.

Whichello was just a teenager as the drama unfolded and his family lost its business. They moved to Brandon where they mostly still live, “just getting by,” he said.

“What Happened to Ochopee?” has the tone of a lament, retrospective of a simple time when neighbors sat on the docks behind their homes and caught their supper or communally boiled crabs and played cards to while away the evenings.

An aspiring writer, he says he felt the need to get the Ochopee story off his chest before he could move on to other subjects. “After the traumatic experience, I couldn’t get over it. When I was 19 I started collecting information. A year ago I started writing,” he said.

Seafood Festival visitors might wander a few miles east of State Road 29 to see the almost comical post office and giant skunk ape statue that stand as visible remains of the Ochopee that once was. To the former residents and the few still hanging on there, the story is anything but comical.
This was originally published in the Naples Daily News 
written by Brent Batten. 



 
Like a tall palm tree growing from a single seed, the community of Ochopee emerged from one man's solitary dream. In 1928, twenty-eight-year-old James Gaunt saw undiscovered potential in the swamp that lay on either side of the new road that connected Tampa to Miami. His love of farming and community fueled his actions to build his own world.

One of the top producers of tomatoes in the country, Ochopee earned its place on the Florida map but when the market dropped, other adventurers joined. Only people with a certain creativity, work-ethic, and talent succeeded in this mucky land. An airboat and a swamp buggy venture, animal exhibits, real estate businesses, a water company, a mining operation, restaurants, a motel, bars, a general store, a campground, movie makers, and a skunk-ape followed Gaunt to the grassy field he first declared his home. A small twentieth century pioneer town prospered on the open plain where children were born and families lived in peace.

Then, the takers came. These big-picture people were unconcerned about the details of their actions while staring at a map of Florida from their government offices. They were unable to imagine or realize the activities of this unique community living free in the wild. When environmentalists and developers collided on the Ochopee battle ground, it was the common person, the one who scrambled every day to feed their family who suffered in this war. The only one with a stake in it, they had something to lose.

This is a true story. Story quotes were taken from newspapers and other sources and feelings, thoughts and emotions were taken from interviews with eye-witnesses. The book has 50 images.



From birth, the author spent his childhood alone in the Florida Everglades keeping company with the animal life while his parents worked to build a motel and restaurant business in the tiny community of Ochopee. Once his sister was old enough they set out on combined adventures, discovering the advantages of a simple and quiet existence of catching fish in the afternoon sun. The American dream which his parents constructed alongside his father's five siblings came to a sudden close with the intervention of government forces, but the author never forgot the anguish he witnessed as his home town fought to survive against the land acquisition of the Big Cypress swamp. He later moved away to Brandon near Tampa where life commenced but with the first act in the back of his mind he continued to dwell on the topic of government abuse against families. Through the years he returned to the Everglades in order to maintain friendships and the original connection to the land. He continued to invent a host of stories and writings while pursuing a career in computer science. He travelled to New York City and worked in Manhattan for 3 years and then in Alabama before returning home to Florida having left the state for over six years. In current times he works part time writing a handful of books the first of which is for Ochopee.


Buy Here:

"What Happened to Ochopee?" on AMAZON




"What Happened to Ochopee?" on FACEBOOK




"What Happened to Ochopee?" on GOODREADS




Personal Website

JFLU.ORG


23 comments:

  1. Wow, that is one tiny post office. People get screwed over every time when stupid land grabs and big business try and swoop in

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    1. The whole land grab thing is ongoing and never stopped. The American Land Rights Association has been fighting it since the mid 70's until today. My family's motel is now the headquarters for the national park and the house I grew up in is a ranger station, both in Ochopee.

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  2. Land grabs are more or less un-defeatable if that's a word. What a tiny post office.

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    1. Actually they can be stopped in small amounts, but you really have to know the law and you have to know some people I think. It sucks losing everything you worked for your whole life like my father and his father did.

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  3. Progress is never pretty, but even worse when it's big businesses and politicians taking over a community. Congratulations to Jeff.
    And yes - that is one tiny post office.

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    1. When I was a kid I could step into the post office with my mother and get our mail, but today it's full of electronic machines, wall to wall. When you slid open the little peep-hole door to talk to the post master, there's there face. They can barely fit in there. It's kind of funny. size: 7' x 8'. It was supposed to be temporary in 1953 but it lasted until today. The book is long look and journey into the interesting past of a community rich with character.

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  4. It seems it is always the "common person" who gets caught in the middle and loses everything. This sounds like such a powerful read. Kudos to Jeff! I will be adding this one to my TBR list.

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    1. Thank you so much for your comment Julie! It's more than just a story, it's the start of my way of fighting back. I plan to dedicate my life to the task.

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  5. Quote from the book where taken directly from newspapers, for example:

    One of the attendees then said,
    “Why do the government officials listen to bird watchers before they listen to us?”
    Moore looked at him and said,
    “It’s unfortunate that one of those bird watchers has the weight of about one hundred of us.” He looked around the room. “Let’s see if we can’t get one hundred of us to every one of them!”

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  6. Quite a story, Jeff! History is full of heartbreak and unfairness. Your story will give a personal view of the situation since it comes from the sweat and tears of those who built and then lost all.

    sheesh, and I thought our original post office was tiny...

    Sia McKye Over Coffee

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    1. Someday I hope to have some satisfaction for the injustice I keep in my heart. I'm still healing from the trauma of my childhood experiences of losing my home. My family has never fully recovered. The book is just a way to show them, my aunts, uncles, and parents, that it wasn't for nothing.

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  7. ARGH. I had a comment on here and it was funny and it was about Florida and how I want to live there and how poodles would probably volunteer to be harassed by alligators to help me reach that dream, it all made sense in context, and then for some reason my internet went crazy and it ATE MY COMMENT and now I had to reload the page and I am NOT going to try to recapture the magic that went into that first comment.

    Suffice to say, IT WAS MAGIC.

    It's probably for the best, though, as now nothing will distract me from saying this book sounds really great and I am going to put it on my wishlist.

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  8. That is an amazing story. Congratulations Jeff. A tale worth telling.

    .....dhole

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    1. I'm finding that hundreds of people were like me, they lost it all in Ochopee. Thanks Donna for your interest in this project!

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  9. Sadly, the tale of communities being swallowed up by big business and sacrificed in the name of progress is a much too common one. Those rare occasions when locals win their cases against bogus eminent domain claims is cause for celebration.

    Good luck with your book! I'll bet it felt really good to get your town's story out there.

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    1. It took me most of my life to finally finish a book about my lost community. I'm finding so many people who were also hurt by the experience as well. Many have passed away, the old-timers, and that is a big motivation for me. To tell the story before everyone is gone who remember what happened.

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  10. Book excerpt:

    1976. America celebrated its bicentennial, an acknowledgement of two hundred
    years since the signing of the Declaration of Independence and its support of individual
    freedoms protected by the government, thought to be seldom found in
    other countries. Many Ochopee residents felt somewhat at odds with the concept,
    considering their situation.

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  11. It sounds like a brilliant exploration on one of the sad victims of political tug of wars. It is a very small post office alright.

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  12. Hi Yolanda and Jeff,

    Jeff, my human and I wish you all the very best with your book. The tale of a community lost and yet relived with the compelling words. Yes, that post office would be way too small to transfer the huge amount of post I get from my adoring fans :)

    Pawsitive wishes,

    Penny the Jack Russell dog and modest internet superstar!

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  13. A story about old Florida. My folks live in Tampa and I've watched how built up that area has become over the years. My stepkids all either attended or do currently attend FSU. I've experienced my share of FL tourist attractions, but my favorites have always been the old FL ones like Cypress Gardens, Weeki Wachee and the FSU Circus. Love that old post office. Good luck with your book, Jeff!

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    1. Thanks Kim for your support. I really do need it. Starting from the ground up on this book. It's tough to know which way to go. I just know that this little story is important because it represents to me, Justice for small places so that they will never be forgotten.

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  14. Thank you Jeff! Your book is amazing and I'm so thrilled to be able to share What Happened to Ochopee? - your first book and your personal journey here on my blog. I wish you all the best with your debut launch and all your future writing goals! Please, visit again, soon!

    The comments were amazing and heartfelt and I know very appreciated by Jeff - thank you, everyone!

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Would love to hear from you, say hello and leave your blog address - I'll visit, but please take with you my undying gratitude that you stopped by for a read. Be well, be happy, and may your blog surfing bring you joy!