Saturday, February 25, 2017

I Love Mount Adorable

Storekeepers in the town of Mount Dora sell bumper stickers that read, "I Climbed Mount Dora."  It's a catchy slogan for a town that could only be considered a "Mount" here in Florida where most of the terrain is barely above sea level.  But climbing the town's elevation of 184 feet is not the only draw.

Mount Dora, founded in 1880, is known as the antiquing capital of Florida with more dealers here than anywhere else in the state.

Much of the action is centered at Renninger's Twin Markets, a 117-acre complex on the east side of town where hundreds of dealers set up every weekend.  Tim and I once enjoyed a day spent antiquing, but with our current RV home's square footage, we don't have much incentive for that type of shopping now.  Consequently, we passed up the crowds at Renninger's to focus instead on Mount Dora's quaint and charming downtown.

We parked near the iconic Donnelly House, built in 1893 by Pittsburgh native John P. Donnelly who came to Mount Dora in 1879 and subsequently served as its first mayor.  

A postcard's watercolor by D. J. Mauro

Now owned by the Masons, a fraternal organization, the home is rarely open to the public.  Unfortunately, we did not arrive on one of those days.

So we walked a block to downtown where 

we window-shopped, 

lunched at the Copacabana Cuban Cafe, 

found ice cream for dessert from the unlikely named Coffee Pot shop, and 

visited a tasting bar, The Mount Dora Olive Oil Company.  There, despite the calories we'd already consumed, we sampled a few of over 65 varieties of olive oil and vinegars.

Then we strolled--should I say, waddled?--to a town landmark since its opening in 1883, The Lakeside Inn.  President Calvin Coolidge and his wife Grace once enjoyed a month-long stay in its gracious comfort.  

The inn is a popular place for weddings with beautifully landscaped grounds and 

a picturesque gazebo.  

All face the shores of Lake Dora, one of more than 1,400 lakes here in Lake County.

Just across the street from the inn is Mount Dora's Lawn Bowling Club.  There players on outdoor, artificial turf courts try to roll balls so that they stop close to a smaller ball called a "jack" or "kitty".  We watched a gentleman play and concluded that the game is more difficult than the rules would lead one to believe.

Our final stop of the day was at the Mount Dora Lighthouse.  It's not a real lighthouse (it's only 35 feet tall) but I imagine it would add interest to a sunset photo of Lake Dora.

Too bad I couldn't convince Tim to prolong our stay!

Thursday, February 23, 2017

Homes for Vets

When friends we met in Sheridan, WY, emailed us that they planned to help Habitat for Humanity build homes for veterans in Eustis, FL, Tim and I decided it would be a win-win for us to participate, too.  Not only would we get to work with Ruby and Randall once again,



but we could express our gratitude in a tangible way for the veterans who would qualify as Habitat owners.  


Plus, Tim is a vet with stints at Fort McClellan, AL; Camp Humphreys, South Korea; Fort Carson, CO and Fort Belvoir, VA so that played into our decision as well.  Accordingly, our commitment could be described as a win-win-win!

The statistics about veterans are staggering.  To quote Habitat for Humanity's web site regarding their Veterans Build program,
"Today, 1.4 million veterans live in poverty.  Much of this is a result of the cost of housing, despite having access to VA loans and other assistance.  Almost 4 million veterans pay at least 30 percent of their income toward their rent or mortgage, while over 1.5 million pay at 50 percent."
Habitat's Veterans Build initiative builds new homes as well as rehabbing and remodeling existing homes for disabled veteran homeowners.  The Cottages at Waters Edge project where we've been working is new construction.

Standing on a cul de sac that ends at the edge of Lake Enola are two homes that are already completed.

These were built in the late 2000s by a developer who went bankrupt.  Subsequently, the local Habitat affiliate bought up the rest of the lots in the Cottages subdivision.  

One day the two houses plus 12 more will welcome a veteran homeowner and his/her family.

Bob and Doris

Bob, a veteran himself, and his wife Doris are Habitat volunteers who have committed their entire winter to this build in Eustis.  They act as site managers on the project, assigning daily jobs and training volunteers to complete them.  They say that's been an easy and enjoyable job, especially with two zany local volunteers like Ruby and Randall.

Randall and Ruby

One or two other local volunteers have joined us each day, but for the most part, it has been the six of us.

But such as small work force is unusual for Eustis.  Normally, there are groups of college students and other volunteers who descend upon the community for a week or two of intensive labor.  The local affiliate's office is in a hall formerly owned by a church.  Not only does it act as the Habitat office, but classrooms have been converted to dorm rooms with five bunkbeds each, allowing the affiliate to host large work groups.

Tim and I

It's a small drop in the bucket, but Tim and I agree that the time we spent at the Veterans Build in Eustis, FL has been time well-spent.

Friday, February 17, 2017

Florida's Treasure Coast

On August 20, 2015 a group of divers from 1715 Fleet--Queens Jewels, LLC made headlines when they recovered Spanish gold coins valued at $4.5 million off the coast of Florida near Vero Beach.  The find is presumed to be just a small portion of the lost holdings of the Spanish fleet of 1715.

On our day off from the Fellsmere, FL, Habitat for Humanity build, Tim and I found gold, too, when we visited McMurty Treasure Museum, a small museum supported by Florida State Parks.  But it wasn't shiny coins we found.  Instead, we learned the intriguing story of the Lost Fleet of 1715.

For almost three centuries after Spain discovered the New World, the silver and gold dug from the mountains of Mexico and South America were transported by ships back to Spain.  However, the War of Spanish Succession (1702-1715) drained Spain's coffers.  King Philip V was desperate to replenish his treasury.  And not only that!  His queen, Isabel de Farnesio, the former Duchess of Palma, refused to consummate their marriage until he paid in full the marriage settlement, preferably in jewels and gold.

Meeting those demands, however, received a severe blow in 1715 when a hurricane sank that year's fleet on the shoals between Sebastian and Fort Pierce, an area now called Florida's Treasure Coast.  Twelve Spanish galleons filled with gold, silver and jewels had begun the next leg of their voyage after a stop in Havana, Cuba.  All save one ship were wrecked by the storm.  A thousand sailors and passengers drowned, but another 700 survivors struggled to shore.  To this day coins and jewels are still found in the shallow waters off the coast and even on the beach after a storm.

Unfortunately, we didn't find any Spanish treasure on the day of our visit.  However, just down the road from the museum is the Pelican Island National Wildlife Refuge, a treasure of another kind.

Pelican Island has the distinction of being the first wildlife refuge ever established in the United States.  On March 14, 1903, President Theodore Roosevelt declared this area a nature preserve in an effort to save the last brown pelican rookery on the east coast of Florida.  

The refuge's Centennial Trail is a boardwalk to an overlook of the island.  Each plank lists the name and year a national preserve was created.  Pelican Island has the place of prominence, but I grew up near the Quivira National Wildlife Refuge in central Kansas.  

Maybe that's why I'm partial to nature refuges.  I think they improve the quality of life for all of us, not just wildlife.  Who knows what future scientific advances will come from the study of the flora and fauna set aside as a preserve?

 A lucrative market for birds' feathers to adorn women's hats prompted hunters to kill thousands of birds in the late 1800s and early 1900s.

Paul Kroegel, a German immigrant and Vero Beach resident, took a brave stand by warding off feather hunters from Pelican Island with his 10-gauge, double barrel shotgun.  In 1903, when President Theodore Roosevelt established the preserve, the federal government hired Kroegel as Refuge Manager.  His salary?  One dollar per month!

Perhaps he believed he was well-reimbursed for the privilege of preserving the pelicans.  Treasure, indeed!

Saturday, February 11, 2017

The Second Time Around

Fellsmere's Care-A-Vanners, local volunteers and homeowners

When we began our life on the road last January, our very first Habitat for Humanity build was at Fellsmere, FL.

Chuck & Judy

That was such a positive experience that when Chuck and Judy, our team leaders from a year ago, notified us that a 2017 reunion of the same Care-A-Vanners was planned, Tim and I immediately signed up.  And you know what?  This second time around has been even better than the first.

January 2016 and 2017

For starters, it was inspiring to enter the Habitat for Humanity subdivision in Fellsmere and see the five homes we had left in various states of completion now finished with families dwelling in each.

Midway through nailing up siding

Then, there was the confirmation of how much my construction skills have grown over the course of the eight Habitat builds I've done.  This time when I joined the siding squad, I could competently use a hammer, hitting the nail--instead of my thumb--on its head nine times out of ten.

Clockwise from upper left: Sue, Marty and Judy, me and Marty

I knew the steps to precisely measuring, cutting and nailing up hardy boards, those planks composed of wood fiber and cement.  

Sue, Judy, me and Marty

After all, Judy, Marty, Sue and I had done this job a year ago, albeit inexpertly in my case.  This time we worked together smoothly, almost intuitively, finishing the siding on a whole house within a week.  When we moved on to install the windows on another house, our teamwork enabled us to make quick work of that, too.

In a way, the people in this group of Care-A-Vanners have mentored and encouraged us to stick with it.   They initiated us into what it means to do things the Habitat way, taking what we've learned in turn, to teach the next volunteer we encounter.  And that's just what I did at Fort Myers last spring break and just three weeks ago at Delray Beach.  I helped college students complete the jobs assigned by the site supervisor which was very gratifying.

Clockwise from upper left: Elizabeth, Diana, Bennie, Judy, Esther, Maria and Ezequiel

This time around I've made more of an effort to learn the names and stories of the prospective homeowners.  On Saturdays, we worked alongside the home buyers who gave up a day of their weekend to work instead of resting from their demanding jobs as laborers, landscapers, waitresses and maids.  


Last Saturday, we raised the trusses on Sharon's home


effectively giving shape to the shell of her house.  

Sharon's house

Knowing that this single mom and art instructor now has hope for her future is rewarding.

So in a way, I feel like we've come full circle by this return to Fellsmere.  We've completed this year's cycle and are enthusiastic about committing ourselves to future Habitat builds.