Going Home to Fort Lonesome

By Mitch Traphagen  (mitch@observernews.net)

FORT LONESOME - The view from the wooden bench in front of the store suggests that this little intersection of two-lane state roads is the center of industrialized agriculture. A constant stream of trucks hauling who knows what passes by and one big honking pickup after another, mostly four wheel drives and caked with mud, pulls into the gravel lot of the grocery store.

It is an impressive stream of traffic for a corner in the middle of nowhere.

But digging just a little deeper it is easy to see that Fort Lonesome is not the middle of nowhere.

Fort Lonesome is an oasis.

"Whereís The Fort?"

The first thing to realize about Fort Lonesome is that there is no fort. There never was a fort. While the true source of the name may never be known, the most common story is that two Army National Guardsmen were stationed in the area in 1929 to maintain a roadblock to prevent a fruit fly infestation.

The story goes that one of the men hung up a sign with Fort Lonesome written on it.

Whatever the source, for some the name was appropriate. Not to mention that it was better than another name given to the area: Boogermanís Corner.

Fort Lonesome is defined by the Fort Lonesome Grocery on the corner of State Road 674 and County Road 39, about 15 miles east of Sun City Center.

Laurie Baird has owned the store for the past 18 years.

As the housing market booms just miles down the road, Fort Lonesome seems to be off the radar. For now, anyway.

"It hasnít grown in the 18 years that Iíve been here," said Baird. "I had visions of being a pretty successful businessman but that hasnít happened yet."

Research into the area suggests that Fort Lonesome experienced something of a boom in the 1930s when a steam powered sawmill was built on the corner across from the grocery.

The word boom, however, may be a bit strong.

When I asked about the "boom," Baird and a customer had a good laugh. It never really happened.

The evidence, of course, is that there are few abandoned buildings in Fort Lonesome. If there was a boom, where did the population live? Ghost towns usually have abandoned buildings, after all.

"There arenít any abandoned buildings because there never were any buildings out here," said the customer.

The sawmill burned down long ago and a large electrical substation now dominates the corner where it once stood.

I was not the first journalist to happen upon the place. Fort Lonesome has drawn its share of attention from the media through both metro daily newspapers and on local television.

According to Baird, people do come out after the stories run. "They ask, is this it?" he said. "They also ask, whereís the fort?"

An Economic Powerhouse

But that isnít it. Fort Lonesome is, in reality, an economic powerhouse. An electrical generating plant down the road feeds power to the Tampa Bay area. The Federal Aviation Administration maintains an air traffic control tower in the area to help safely guide flights over a couple of million people next door. Phosphate mining, cattle ranching and citrus and vegetable farming all provide for a population far beyond lonesome Fort Lonesome.

But even that isnít it. Fort Lonesome is far more than all of that.

Everybody Knows Your Name

It is Monday morning and there is a fairly respectable stream of customers moving through the Fort Lonesome Grocery.

Laurie Baird addresses most of them by their first name. The people he doesnít know are referred to as Sir or Maíam.

There are no radical terrorists here. The stock market is a long ways away. A slumping economy may be felt in store receipts but is not the main topic of conversation. The real world of bad news seems to be a long, long way from Fort Lonesome.

A truck driver comes out of the store and nods a greeting to me. Baird can be heard saying, "Hi Charlie!" as a customer walks in the door.

There is a small-town friendliness here that cannot be replicated in areas with higher population densities.

It is a small town friendliness - but it is definitely not a country bumpkin friendliness. The people here know their business. From Baird talking about the demographics of convenience stores to a local discussing plans for another method of farming that was so high tech it shot right over the head of this corporate systems analyst turned photojournalist, it is clear that rural does not mean ignorant.

But, in this case anyway, being rural means that things may be a bit more relaxed. No one seemed to mind that I was standing around asking questions and writing the answers down in a notebook, no one seemed to care that I had a giant camera out taking pictures. In fact, people in the store seemed to be eager to talk about their little corner of the world. That is becoming a rarity in todayís increasingly cynical world.

To the high-blood-pressure-fast-paced-world of modern tourism where people feel the need to hurry up and have fun so they can quickly move on to the next fun thing, Fort Lonesome may not look like much.

But therein lies its appeal. It doesnít matter if youíre a stranger, Laurie Baird is there to say hi, truck drivers nod a greeting and the locals seem to find the time to sit on the wooden benches in front of the grocery store to chat for a few minutes. When was the last time you saw a wooden bench in front of an urban 7-11 store?

Fort Lonesome Field of Dreams

The sign on State Road 674 advertises "The Coldest Drinks in Town," but then again the Fort Lonesome Grocery is not just the only business in town, it is the only building in town. But still, the drinks are most definitely cold.

The original grocery store was torn down twenty or so years ago.

While there is something to be said for preserving history, even old pictures of the original store suggest that tearing it down was probably in everyoneís best interest.

Area resident Anthony Gill drove the bulldozer over the original store. Years later, however, he set out to resurrect that portion of history from the debris. He set out to bring the store back.

As things go in Fort Lonesome, Gill happened to come into the store while I was there on my unannounced visit. He told me that he had built a replica of the store on his land just a short distance away. He also told me that I was welcome to go out to see it.

I drove down the country roads expecting a small scale model of the early 20th Century structure. My expectations were wrong.

In a scene reminiscent of the movie Field of Dreams, it was as if the road allowed time to slow and go backwards 70 years. A mile or so past farms and outbuildings, the Fort Lonesome General Store appeared in all of its former glory. It was full size, complete with gas pumps set to 21 cents a gallon, a porch with rocking chairs and an old checker board.

You could almost hear voices from the past suggesting, urging even, to sit a spell and rest - to enjoy a time when there were fewer groups of people wanting to kill us, to enjoy a time when life seemed more simple, more quiet.

Inside the store an old cash register indicated a one dollar sale, signs offered nickel sodas and a pay phone that probably didnít even accept quarters waited quietly for customers.

Outside next to the gas pumps was an old air pump.  That very same red air pump with the crank handle instantly registered somewhere in my mind, something from my own rural childhood. I stared at it for a long period of time as memories flashed past my mindís eye.

That simple red pump took me back to my grandfatherís farm in South Dakota. It took me back to when he was still alive, when my father was still alive. The memories made me smile.

In reality, the replica of the Fort Lonesome General Store was probably far nicer than the original, but oddly enough, the 1930s aura felt like coming home to this child of the 60s. I wanted to stay, to sit for a spell on the porch, to relax a bit and maybe play some checkers.

Going Home to Fort Lonesome

I donít live there and Iím not a farmer. In Fort Lonesome I am an outsider. For all I know Iíll become known as "That Weird Guy Who Sits On The Bench," but that wonít stop me from going back.

Whenever I get the opportunity, Iím going to get on my motorcycle and ride out to the Fort Lonesome Grocery to sit for a spell on the wooden benches. Iím going to gas up my bike there, buy one of the Coldest Drinks in Town, buy a homemade sandwich and a homemade piece of cake and Iím going to sit on a wooden bench in front of the store to watch the world pass by - at least for a while.

In miles, itís not a long drive. In my mind, however, it took years to get here.

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