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Telling Tampa Bay Stories: Plant City Part 2

The Florida Strawberry Festival in Plant City starts Feb. 28. With the festival just a couple of weeks away, Florida Matters is taking another listen to stories from our 2018 special series "Telling Tampa Bay Stories: Plant City."

The first installment featured a diverse group of Plant City residents. They talked about the agricultural landscape, revitalized downtown and African American history of the Hillsborough community.

This week's Florida Matters highlights some of the places and events that make Plant City special.

Since 2016, WUSF has teamed with University of South Florida student journalists to highlight communities in the area and the people who call them home.

One place we visit this week is the Plant City Photo Archives and History Center, which houses more than 120,000 images and countless other items that capture the town's legacy.

USF student journalist Alexa Ignacio interviewed the archives' founder, Ed Verner.

We also spoke to Owen Johnson, the owner of Johnson Barbeque. The restaurant, which is one of three his family owns and operates in Plant City, has fed generations of residents and people who travel from miles around.

USF student journalist Yara Zayas takes us to the restaurant and captures a bit of the interview with Johnson in this video overview of Plant City and the project (about 2:43 in).

We start this week’s stories with the event that Plant City is known for worldwide, the annual Florida Strawberry Festival.

Meet Our Storytellers

Gil Gott

Plant City Photo Archive and History Center Executive Director Gil Gott knows as much about the Festival as anyone, having co-written a 2017 book about it called The Florida Strawberry Festival: A Brief History.

“The Strawberry Festival is one of the largest and best events in the country and it could not exist at all if it weren't for volunteerism, and people in the city love it,” said Gott.

“Most people identify with the Strawberry Festival for numerous reasons: one, it's family-oriented. They don't have any alcohol there. It's also celebrating the fact that the strawberry is one of the biggest industries in this area,” he said.

Gil Gott, Executive Director of the Plant City Photo Archives and History Center, talks to a USF student journalist outside of the Archives.
Credit Jeanette Abrahamsen / USF Zimmerman School of Advertising & Mass Communications

“It brings in a lot of youth - they're growing flowers or raising pigs. We have an example of a 3-year-old girl bringing in her cow to show. So that's something that you'll find it touches almost all our lives in the community. And banks will actually just let almost all their people go out and volunteer, I mean all the companies do.”

One of Gott’s fondest memories of Plant City came in 1999 when the community decided to build the world’s largest strawberry shortcake. He said the effort drew hundreds of volunteers.

“The strawberry growers donated all those strawberries. We had Winn-Dixie help us. They brought in a refrigerated tractor trailer. We went to St. Clement and prepared all the strawberries, put them into a truck and backed the truck down the street. Tim Martin and Bill Parolini built this huge table, it was eight feet wide and 104 feet long. We built the world's largest strawberry shortcake. People didn't think that it could be done.”

“So it's just something that really brings everybody together.”

Plant City held that record for World's Largest Strawberry Shortcake until 2004, when it was broken in the Philippines.

Gott was interviewed by Mark Schreiner and USF student journalist Aldo Puccini.

Hannah Benton

The Strawberry Festival was started in 1930 by the Plant City Lions Club and has grown a great deal. One staple of the festival throughout its long history has been crowning a Florida Strawberry Festival Queen. Hannah Benton won the pageant in 2006 – but it wasn’t without its challenges.

“I really didn't do pageants growing up,” said Benton. “I did a few local pageants but never won anything. It was literally I enjoyed dressing up and it was something that my mom and I could do together. I would have never thought that I would have actually won Strawberry Queen.”

USF student journalist Becca Demski, left, speaks to Hannah Benton, the 2006 Florida Strawberry Festival Queen.
Credit Mark Schreiner / WUSF Public Media

In 2005, Benton was all set to compete. But a week before the pageant, she developed Bell's palsy, which paralyzed the left side of her face all the way down to her collarbone, forcing her to drop out of the competition.

“Of course it was hard to have to miss something that I had been looking forward to for so long.”

But Benton’s father – and the pair’s favorite country band – served as her inspiration to return.

“My dad looked at me and said, ‘Next year, you're going to be able to do it and 'Big and Rich' is going to come to the festival…and you are going to be able to meet them and represent our town.”

At the time though, the musical acts for the 2006 Festival hadn’t been announced yet. That changed in December 2005, when Big and Rich was named as the final headliner.

“It was just such a surreal moment because I was like, ‘Oh my goodness, this could really happen.’ And I just went out and figured, why not give this a whirl? And I felt so honored to be selected that night.”

Benton, 30, now owns RAOK (Random Acts of Kindness) Boutique in Plant City. She said her experience as Strawberry Queen helped her gain a lot of confidence.

“It makes you think beyond yourself and things usually don't do that at that age, but whenever you are Strawberry Queen, you do see a difference, little girls look up to you and you’re representing your community. I was not just Hannah Hodge at the time, I was like a symbol for Plant City.”

Benton said her time as Queen more than a decade ago gave her mentors and friends she has today – something that seems to still surprise her.

“We were not the typical (Plant City family). My dad's not a farmer, we weren't Plant City money,” she said. “We weren't anything like that but they embraced me even though I didn't know these people and now they are my family – the people that I met that year are the ones that helped me to have the support and the success at RAOK ten-plus years later.”

And as happy as the experience has made Benton, there may be one person even more excited about it.

“2006 made my grandfather's life,” Benton said, laughing. “We have a tradition, every year I take him polka dancing at Senior Citizen’s Day at the Festival grandstands, and before we polka, we have to go to the Hall of Fame and look at my picture. He's 81 now, and he'll introduce me as the Strawberry Queen – and it's been 12 years!”

Benton was interviewed by Mark Schreiner and USF student journalist Becca Demski.

Owen Johnson

Owen Johnson is one of the many vendors serving up food each year at the Strawberry Festival, but that's just a side job for this restaurant owner.

Johnson’s family has built a food dynasty in Plant City: his dad, Fred, co-owned the Buddy Freddys  restaurant chain with brother, former State Representative and Hillsborough County Supervisor of Elections Buddy Johnson. The pair sold the business in the late 90’s.

Fred then opened Fred’s Market in Plant City, and a short time later, Johnson Barbeque, right next door. Now, there are four Fred's locations, and Owen owns the barbeque restaurant.

USF student journalist Yara Zayas, left, interviews Owen Johnson, owner of Johnson's Barbeque in Plant City.

"I grew up in the restaurants a lot. The Strawberry Festival here in town, we worked that from the time I was very little, I mean six or eight years old,” said Johnson. “I still can picture the big stainless steel tables my grandfather had in his catering room with all of the pork butts laid out, getting those seasoned up and smoking those for the Festival.”

Johnson worked at his family’s restaurants growing up, even meeting his wife at Fred’s Market when she worked there as a host. He said that small town closeness is apparent to him when he looks at his “regulars.”

“We have a lot of customers that we see, if not daily, a couple times a day,” he said.

However, he added that more than a few people have come for lunch from out of town at least once a week for years.

“It has become a place where you know people go there from the time they're real little and they still see the same people in there working. I mean we've got servers that have been there as long as I've been around – our kitchen manager has been with us 20 years,” said Johnson.

And it’s more than a meeting place for the community: political candidates often stop by, as do the musical acts that play at the Strawberry Festival.

Johnson credits the food.

“We've got the traditional staples: the fried chicken, the collard greens, and mashed potatoes, macaroni. But we do have specials each day, so you can come to our restaurant and eat something different each day.”

“It’s the way everyone’s grandmother cooked normally. I mean they used a lot of butter or they used a lot of bacon grease. It wasn’t wheat non-GMO flour, they made biscuits. You know, it was real food.”

Johnson was interviewed by Mark Schreiner and USF student journalist Yara Zayas.

The Plant City Photo Archives and History Center is home to move than 120,000 images and other items from Plant City's past.
Credit Jeanette Abrahamsen / USF Zimmerman School of Advertising & Mass Communications

Gil Gott

Gil Gott talked about the work the Plant City Photo Archives and History Center is doing to preserve Plant City's history and how kids are getting involved. You can see highlights from that interview here.

Gott was interviewed by Mark Schreiner and USF student journalist Aldo Puccini.

Jayden Felix

When Jayden Felix, 9, isn't collecting Legos or playing with his two pet goats, he's helping keep Plant City history alive as a Junior Archivist, a group Gott started to encourage young people to learn about the past.

Junior Archivist Jaden Felix, left, poses with USF student journalist Sam Newlon, WUSF's Stephanie Colombini and USF student journalist Yara Zayas.
Credit Jeanette Abrahamsen / USF Zimmerman School of Advertising & Mass Communications

“A Junior Archivist is basically somebody that’s younger than normal archivists that saves photos for historians to figure out what happened in the past,” said Felix, who added that he’s learned a lot of things about his hometown during his time in the club.

“I learned that during World War II, they stopped the Strawberry Festival in case Germany or Japan or other countries attacked the United States,” he said.

Learning about the town he was born in makes Felix feel closer to it as well – even with its few shortcomings.

“I like how Plant City has sometimes warm and humid weather, which is my favorite condition. The only thing that is missing is the beach, but it’s pretty close,” said Felix.

Felix was interviewed by Stephanie Colombini and USF student journalist Sam Newlon.

Hannah Rice

The Junior Archivist club is a perfect fit for history buff Hannah Rice, 11.

“I like learning about old Plant City,” she said. “To me, history is actually cool 'cause you get to learn more about where you came from, what was stuff like before you got here, stuff like that. I like adventure and history sort of takes me through an adventure to look at new stuff.”

Rice lives on what she calls “sort of a ranch” with her family and a menagerie she and her siblings help tend to.

“Eight turkeys, two dogs, about eight cows and two pigs,” said Rice.

Rice showed one of her family’s pigs at last year’s Strawberry Festival, taking sixth place against teenagers. While her brother picked up first place honors, Rice said she turned the tables on him at the Hillsborough County Fair a few months later.

“I won second place for that one and my brother got third,” she said. “So I beat him after he beat me, so it’s fair.”

Rice was interviewed by Stephanie Colombini and USF student journalist Erica Cole.

Tracy and Jay Antle

The best way to find out what to do in Plant City is to ask people who have lived there their whole lives - like Tracy and Jay Antle. The two have been married 30 years, having met at Zayre’s Department Store.

“I worked there in receiving and she was a cashier and a lady that I worked with thought that we would be a good couple. So she pulled me from what I was doing and introduced me to Tracy,” said Jay. “And after about three months of asking her out, she finally went out with me and we've been together since.”

And they’ve been in Plant City ever since.

“It's grown so much since we went to high school. It seems like there's something new popping up every day and we're like some of the few that have lived here all our lives and decided not to move away and we're just going to stay here,” said Jay. “It's nice to go to places that are still around that were here when we were younger in high school. Some places that still hadn't closed down.”

But they also know a lot has changed – the Zayre’s where they met is long gone, as are a number of other important places in their lives.

“My first job was Burger Chef – it's no longer there,” said Tracy. “The Raider Room (a video arcade) when we were in high school is where the McDonald's is now.”

Jay pointed out that he used to work in one of the three Felton’s grocery stores Plant City used to have – now there’s only one. It’s just part of the changes to their hometown that they’ve had to live with.

It gets frustrating at times. Certain streets that you get on, the traffic is unbearable,” he said. “But I can understand why people would want to move to Plant City. It's a great location between Orlando and Tampa. It's close to I-4. Sometimes we get aggravated with how busy it is.”

“But then there are times where we’re like, “Come on, Chick-fil-A!’ You know, we're hoping that (Plant City) gets larger so that some of the things that we have to drive a little further to get to, we won't have to drive so far.”

The Antle’s said that family is what keeps them in Plant City – they have three sons and two grandchildren in town, plus Jay’s parents live there as well.

“I think it's just the pace. I mean the location is great. You can get to anywhere you want to go,” said Jay. “It still has a small town feel even though it's grown. It's the memories that when we drive by (Plant City) High School just looking at the water tower with the Raider (the school’s mascot) on it or the strawberry water tower over by the ballpark. Those are just symbols of Plant City.”

“Plant City is home for us,” added Tracy, before Jay summed up the couple’s feelings.

“We go on trips and it's always nice to see the signs saying, ‘Plant City – 20 miles.’ It’s like, ‘Almost home, we’re almost home,’” said Jay.

The Antle’s were interviewed by Stephanie Colombini and USF student journalists Chaveli Guzman and Josh Fiallo.

About The Project
Telling Tampa Bay Stories: Plant City is a collaboration with journalism students at the University of South Florida’s Zimmerman School of Advertising and Mass Communications. Together, we hosted an interview session in Plant City at the Plant City Photo Archives and History Center to collect the stories featured in this two-part series.

Special thanks to all those who shared their stories with us both on and off the air, and thanks to the employees at the Plant City Photo Archives and History Center for helping facilitate our interview sessions.

Much thanks also to USF journalism instructor Jeanette Abrahamsen and Plant City Photo Archives Executive Director Gilbert Gott for the important roles they played in this series.