By PENNY FLETCHER
Daniel W. Houghtaling trekked from Michigan all the way to south Hillsborough County sometime in the mid-1800s.
According to the Atlas of the Historical Geography of the United States, the average travel time for that era meant Houghtaling and his family would have been on the road about eight weeks, unless they came by rail, which for settlers the atlas shows, is rather unlikely.
The great-great grandfather of Mike Houghtaling, who, with his wife Diane, now run Dooley Groves U-Pick and store, started a family farm that has carried through five generations.
Mike and Diane say they hope one of their grandchildren will decide to carry it forward, making it a seven-generation farm.
Once, the area now known as South County was referred to as “the Salad Bowl of the South” just as Plant City was (and still is) “Strawberry King.” In the last 30 years, however, with the explosion of major sports teams and high-profile events in Tampa Bay, many citrus groves and much farmland have given way to development, filling South County with a myriad of communities that serve as bedrooms for businesses and workers in larger towns and nearby cities.
Through it all; the chances to sell; fruit tree diseases; and tiring days and months that turned into generations; the love for the land and its fruit kept the family going, Diane said.
In the 1960s, Julius F. and Edith Houghtaling (grandparents of Mike), had so much fruit they started giving it away to the people in their church, and then opened their groves for “U-Pick.”
“Finally, they decided to start selling it,” Diane said. “Dooley Groves was actually started under the carport of the original homestead with tangelos and temple oranges and tangerines.”
Before that, Daniel (South County’s original Houghtaling), had a son, Frank, and then a grandson, Julius F., who was the first one in the family with the nickname “Dooley.” The family said that is because his little sister couldn’t say “Julius.”
Julius F.’s eldest son, Dooley, left the farm after seven years and became a nuclear physicist, living in Pennsylvania, and Mike’s grandfather Dooley was operating the business practically alone.
“Mike was only 16 when he and his parents came for a Christmas vacation. He stayed and helped his grandfather and never went back,” Diane said.
Grandfather Dooley’s children settled here in Sun City and other parts of Florida. In 1971, Dooley — the nuclear physicist — returned and retired in Sun City.
By then, they were also growing tomatoes and onions and other vegetables down the coast on land around Sarasota and Fort Myers, all the way down to Immokalee. Julius F. (Mike’s grandfather) grew these crops in south Florida in the ’40s and ’50s, before planting the original grove on Stephens Road in the early 1960s that would become Dooley Groves.
Meanwhile, Diane also moved from up North at 16.
“I came from New York. I lived in Queens,” she said. “My dad was working for Leisey & Todd Farm (that later became Speedling), and I met Mike at East Bay High School.
“We’ve lived and worked on Stephens Road (in Sun City, just south of the Little Manatee River) for 45 years,” she said. “In 2005 we felt like the pioneers. We were completely burned out with citrus canker, and in 2010 we started all over again from scratch.”
Canker is a blight that spreads rapidly, and there are state regulations to burn all trees within certain distances from the ones that are infected.
“We could only afford to replant 25 acres with 8,500 trees,” she continued.
Failure was not an option.
“We started back with 6,500 honeybells and 2,000 other trees with 13 other citrus varieties. We have varieties you can’t find other places,” she added.
At one point, there were four generations of Houghtalings living on the land in a kind of family compound, she said. “We had siblings, aunts, uncles and cousins. Since Julius F. (Mike’s grandfather) and (his wife) Edith, there has been a Houghtaling in the grove every day at Dooley Groves, and there still is today.”
Mike and Diane’s children were raised and married on the farm and bring their children back each week.
“I’d like to see another generation of future farmers in one of our grandchildren,” Diane said. “They love the grove. They know it’s their land. We’ll just have to wait a few years for them to grow up.” She paused and added wistfully, “Maybe…”
Over the years, various generations of the family have also cut timber and raised bees; but mainly concentrated on developing and growing specialty varieties of oranges, like the ortanique, a Jamaican temple orange.
The U-Pick they now run is guided, and tours are also given.
“We especially enjoy having groups of students come from the schools to see how things are grown and how the land must be cared for,” she said.
Just recently, more than 100 students came from Progress Village Middle Magnet School.
“They asked intelligent questions, and it was obvious most had never seen how it was to just reach up and pick a fruit from a tree and eat it right there. It definitely showed them the difference between a farm and a grocery store.”
More about Dooley Groves, which is located at 1651 Stephens Road, (old) Sun City, may be found on its website, www.dooleygroves.com.