By PENNY FLETCHER
As someone who has moved around the country and overseas as a military dependent; made homes in six different states and has family scattered all over the country, interviewing Wanda Simmons Westbrook last week was a real change of pace for me.
Oh, I knew some families stayed in one place for generations, and I even have several old friends back on the Jersey Shore I see at school reunions who have done just that. But I still find it hard to understand how circumstances can allow people to stay in place for someone’s whole lifetime — let alone longer than that!
At 86, Westbrook’s memories seem as clear as that of a young girl, yet the experiences she has had living in this one area all her life are rich and peaceful, compared to people who have had to adjust to so many new homes.
Westbrook’s great-grandfather Marshall Simmons settled acreage around Riverview in the 1800s, with his first residence being in Bloomingdale, then moving south as far as the Parrish area.
Her father, Herman, was one of seven Simmons siblings who lived first in Parrish and then along what is now known as “Big Bend,” one of the busiest places in South County.
“My father married in Tampa in the late 1800s and built a house on what is now Simmons Loop Road, near where the new (St. Joseph’s) Hospital (South) is,” Westbrook’ said. “Our family owned all the land along Big Bend west of U.S. 301, to Bullfrog Creek, and we (she and her siblings) divided it up as we grew up.”
First her father married a woman from Lithia, but she died having Westbrook’s only half brother. Then he married Mildred Long, Westbrook’s mother, who had come to the area from Tennessee, and they decided to use their 60 acres as a dairy farm.
While some of the siblings, including her uncle George, father of the late county commissioner Ellsworth Simmons, chose other uses for their land, Westbrook grew up watching her mother and brothers milk about 65 cows twice a day after her parent’s divorce.
“Mother raised me, my four brothers and two sisters and my half brother from his first wife, and ran the dairy farm. She was a really hard worker,” Westbrook said.
“I can remember being 15 or 16 going in Dad’s car, some kind of Model A, down Big Bend Road when it was two-lane dirt. People lived far apart then, and sometimes we would go as far as Fort Lonesome to see friends. But mostly our lives revolved around family and church.”
“Hancock’s was the only store we went to. It was a general store in Riverview and had just about anything we would need. It had one gas tank and I could get a Coke for 5 cents.”
But life was slower “back in the day,” and Westbrook felt they were blessed to have electricity because of the dairy, when most of the area did not get electric service until 1932. Also, she said, before I-75 was extended through South County, the creek was wide and clear.
“It was beautiful,” she said, and they had a swimming hole right on their own property. “When they built I-75, it did something to the water,” she said. “It was never the same after that.”
She also remembers when she was growing up that family members would haul milk in stainless-steel 10-gallon cans to a Tampa co-op that was later bought out by Sealtest Dairy, a division of National Dairy Products Corporation of Delaware.
“Then as my brothers got older, we did our own deliveries to homes though,” she said.
After graduating from Wimauma High School, which was the only school in the South County area at that time, Westbrook got a job at Margaret Ann’s Grocery, which later became Quik Check and finally Winn Dixie. “That’s where I met my husband of 36 years,” she said.
Westbrook’s husband, Charles, also worked at the grocery store. “He died at 62 of colon cancer,” she said. Wanda and Charles raised four children on the land where she grew up; two boys and two girls.
Her memories also include a bad hurricane in the mid-1930s that caused water from Bullfrog Creek to come nearly into their house, but it was spared.
“We had to walk to my aunt’s after that, and there were many big oak trees down. We had to walk around them. It took us hours.”
If they needed medical attention, they would go to Ybor City, where the closest doctors were, she said.
Her earliest memory however, was when she was about 3 years old.
“My mother made most of our clothes, and I remember I was in a dress she had just made. I fell in the creek, and my sisters took me home all wet to get changed.”
Westbrook is looking forward to the family reunion scheduled for March 25 at Simmons Loop Baptist Church in Riverview.
“There used to be more than 300 that went (to the reunions),” she said. “Now we have about 150. Everyone brings the foods they make the best.”
The invitation from two of the family members to stop by (and eat) and interview other old-timers from the South County area is just too good to pass up. So hopefully, I’ll be able to do just that.