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ALACHUA ‒ Since 2007, W.W. Irby Elementary School in Alachua has sponsored an annual event that helps provide funds to the American Heart Association and helps teach the students about heart health.

In the past, all students would gather in the north end bus driveway to exercise and jump rope as a way to raise money and awareness. For several weeks prior to the event, teachers provide daily information about the heart, exercise and diet to the students so they can learn to make healthy choices. P.E. coach Jacqueline Johnson also teaches the children how to jump rope.

The students get sponsors among family and friends to donate money for their participation in the jump rope event with all proceeds going directly to the American Heart Association. This event also helps teach the students about charity and helping others. According to Vice Principal Karen Cronin, the event typically raises between $1,500 to $2,000, with all of it going to the American Heart Association.

This year was different due to the Covid-19 pandemic. “We felt it was important to continue the tradition, but we had to get creative on how to pull it off,” Cronin said. “We wanted the children to still make the connection about the heart health and exercise, especially since physical activity is much more limited this year with the quarantine time and lack of social interaction outside of the limited time they have spent in school.

“We also wanted them to understand the idea of helping others and that we can all be part of that,” Cronin said. “But it was a priority to make it safe for the children as well, so we decided to do each grade separately during their resource time, which is scheduled at a different time for each grade.” They also changed the way they collected donations with more emphasis on parents donating online and less in-person collecting from family and neighbors.

Jumping spaces were marked out for each individual student to maintain social distance and all students and faculty wore masks. The exercise activities also helped maintain space with more emphasis on dancing and individual competition than all the students jumping rope together. As a finale, all students per class gathered in a circle, each holding a loop on a large “parachute” raising it up together to slowly descend multiple times to show the unity of working together.

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ALACHUA ‒ It was an evening of recognition at Alachua City Hall Monday as the Alachua City Commission held several special presentations to honor individuals who serve the community.

Alachua County Sheriff Clovis Watson Jr. was on hand as the Commission issued a proclamation declaring Feb. 8 Clovis Watson Jr. Day.

A lifelong Alachua resident, Watson grew up in the Merrillwood neighborhood, the fourth child of six in his family, attending elementary school in segregated Alachua County schools. As the tumultuous 1970s ushered in school segregation in the area, Watson was in the first class to be integrated in 1970.

As a teenager he worked packing fruit during the school year to help his father who had two jobs, and during the summer he was cropping tobacco and picking squash until dark for $10 a day to help pay for school clothes. He graduated from Santa Fe High School and later attended Santa Fe College where he received an Associate degree in Criminal Justice Technology. He continued his education, earning Masters Degrees and attended Harvard University as a Doctoral candidate in Business and Government Administration.

Watson worked for the City of Alachua Police Department, eventually rising to the rank of Deputy Chief of Police. He left his position at the police department when he was appointed City Manager of Alachua in 2002, a position he held until his retirement. Watson also served as an adjunct professor of state and local government at Santa Fe College.

He was first elected to the Florida House of Representatives in 2012, where he was subsequently re-elected and served until he was termed out 2020. In 2020, Watson successfully ran for Alachua County Sheriff, defeating incumbent Sheriff Sadie Darnell with 59 percent of the vote in the Aug. 18 primary and ran unopposed in the general election.

Watson received a standing ovation from the audience after the proclamation was read by Alachua Mayor Gib Coerper. Watson spoke thanked the City for the honor, saying “What we have to do as leaders is help pull everybody up, to help recognize that they all have that same opportunity with drive, discipline, commitment, and education. I push that in every facet of my journey as a public servant. It is so very critical that we prepare the young people for the future and also pay homage to those who came before us to make all of this possible,” Watson said.

Referring to his role as sheriff, Watson said it is essential that in the law enforcement community, he and others command, not demand respect. He said it is crucial to have an open door, open ear, and open eye philosophy when leading, saying that his door is always open to hearing from the people he serves.

The Commission also honored local educators and the school crossing guards by declaring Feb. 9, 2021 as School Crossing Guard Appreciation Day for their role in protecting students from traffic on their journey to and from school.

Local Teachers of the Year were recognized representing each of Alachua's four public schools. The four teachers were accompanied by the principal of each school as they were awarded certificates honoring their work and dedication to their students. Alachua’s Teachers of the Year are Maria Tzounakos of Alachua Elementary School, Flo Bason of Irby Elementary School, Lisa Morris of Mebane Middle School, and Brian Barnhouse of Santa Fe High School.

State Senator Keith Perry was on hand delivering a preview of 2021 Florida Legislative Session, which runs March 2 – April 30, 2021. Perry said that while the cost associated with Covid-19 and lock down restrictions have severely impacted the local economy, businesses and state budgets, Florida is in much better shape than many other states.

Perry also spoke about the legislative process saying that the legislature considers up to 3,000 bills each session, although only some 200 bills will be passed and presented to the Governor for signature. “People can file whatever they want, it is up to the legislature to determine what is most important and affects the largest portion of the population.”

This session Perry is focusing on agriculture laws, criminal justice reform and early childhood education. Perry closed his remarks promising to keep local governments informed and welcoming their input on what their community’s needs are.

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ALACHUA ‒ In 1978 it was just a dream. But then Norwood Hope, a Gainesville city council member, hired architect Ward Northrup to design a championship-caliber golf course in the center of the new subdivision at Turkey Creek in Alachua. Hope envisioned a course that was communally inviting, with water on six holes and bunkers hugging a good number of greens. The first-rate course became reality and also a favorite for golfers, locals and visitors alike.

Although located within the Turkey Creek neighborhood, the course was opened as a private company, so residents had to pay a separate membership fee to the club to play. For years the golf course flourished, but by 2010, club officials said less than 10 percent of Turkey Creek residents played at the course, which prompted greens fees to be slashed. The club briefly changed names to “Plantation Oaks” to try reverse its fate.

But a $300,000 shortfall in its 2010 season sealed its destiny. The course closed in April 2011 and many feared it would never be revived. The course had been losing money for several years and the greens weren’t being properly maintained. The course and clubhouse sat abandoned. The clubhouse was not up to code and needed repair and the irrigation along the golf course was shot. With no maintenance, the grass on the course died and the weeds grew tall.

But against all odds, on Jan. 23, 2021 the golf course came roaring back to life with a long-awaited ribbon cutting ceremony on the first tee and a four-person, 22-team scramble. It has been a long struggle by members of the Turkey Creek Master Owners Association Board (MOA) to revitalize the course and reopen it as a public golf course.

According to Loretta Shane, a member of the Turkey Creek Board of Directors, it was the work of the whole community, the MOA members and other volunteers that made it happen. Over the years that it lay abandoned, Alachua City Hall received multiple complaints about wild hogs, the smell of deserted restrooms and the general state of ruin the course had become.

This also created a downturn in housing sales in the community. The MOA had enough. In 2015, they applied for a loan and purchased the property and its clubhouse for $1.35 million. The MOA originally had no intention of going into the golf business, however; this was strictly to turn the clubhouse into a community center, leasing it out for a restaurant and event and recreation center which also included a pool and tennis courts.

But the loan was for purchase of the land and building, all of which needed repair, so there was no money left over to redo the course. They initially tried to get a leasing company to redo the course and maintain it, but found that too expensive. The one company they did hire to redo the course imploded after three months, with few repairs actually done.

“We needed to find funds to finish the job, so we formed an LLC and sold shares at $5,000 a share which netted us $355,000,” said Shane. “That helped on getting the supplies we needed and getting the grass replanted. But we still had no equipment to maintain the course and the entire sprinkler system had to be replaced as well.

“We had to beg, borrow or barter for equipment and use volunteers from the community to do the actual work,” Shane said. “It was all community involvement. We didn't even have a shovel to dig the trenches for replacing over 360 sprinkler heads.” Shane said they borrowed a fairway mower and other equipment from Santa Fe High School in exchange for letting the school’s golf team play for free. “We also bought used equipment from two golf courses that were shutting down,” Shane said.

They opened up the practice field and a three-hole course, charging $15 to play it. To buy supplies for the sprinkler system they offered names on a commemorative plaque in the pro shop where residents could make a donation of $300 toward the new sprinkler system. They also leased the building for the event center and a restaurant to add more funds to continue rebuilding the course.

Piece by piece they put the course back together, and in August 2020 the MOA made the decision to open the entire course, but new reseeding the grass on several holes delayed the opening until this past Saturday.

Under an overcast sky with light rain, a long line of golf carts waited to be the first to play the field after the ribbon cutting. All slots for the four-person, 22-team scramble that followed ceremonial tee shots were filled within 48 hours of announcement of the course reopening.

The MOA will run the pro shop and has hired a management company to maintain the course. “By doing the work ourselves and keeping equipment purchases down we were able to open the course at about one-third of what it would have cost us to hire companies to do it,” said Shane. “This gave us the funding to be able to hire a professional golf management company, Davey Tree-Golf Division to oversee the daily operation.

“They have also hired a number of our volunteers as staff, so after all their volunteer work, they can now get paid to do it,” Shane said.”

Throughout the restoration process, a number of residents became involved in a variety of ways, pulling shrubs and weeds, giving money to the cause or merely supplying those on the course with cold drinks in the Florida humidity.

“People would pitch in during the evenings and spend their weekends getting the course in shape. There were a couple of retirees, but much of the community did this while also keeping day jobs,” said Sane. “It was the community itself that made this dream happen.”

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NEWBERRY ‒ On Jan. 5, 2021, several dozen people joined together at a location known to some as Lynch Hammock to memorialize African Americans who were hanged at that site over a century earlier.

Florida was a different place in 1916. Much of the racial tension and animosity from the Civil War and its after-effects on the South still festered. There was no equality between white southerners and former black slaves and equal treatment under the law did not yet exist.

One of the ways African Americans were intimidated was the threat of mob violence, particularly lynchings. Florida had the second highest rate of lynchings per capita and Alachua County had the fifth highest rate in the state. While much of this history in the century after the Civil War has been forgotten, the memory of these events has remained in the oral history handed down in the African American community.

In the early morning hours of Aug. 19, 1916, Constable George Wynne, Dr. L.G. Harris, and G.H. Blount drove to Boisey Long's home in Jonesville to serve a warrant and question him about stolen hogs.

Gunfire was exchanged with Long, although it is unknown who fired first, and all three men were wounded. Long escaped while the other men were taken for medical help. Wynne's wounds were serious, and he died on the train to a Jacksonville hospital. Constable Wynne was related to the Dudleys, a long-time prominent family in the area, and a mob formed at their home.

During the search for Long, the mob seized six other African Americans in the area, most of whom were related to Long. James Dennis was suspected of hiding Long, and he was shot to death by the mob. Local law enforcement helped the mob round up five other African Americans and hold them in the Newberry jail.

The five were Dennis' brother, Gilbert, and his sister, Mary, who was pregnant and the mother of four; Stella Young, Long's partner and mother of his son; Andrew McHenry, who was Stella's brother; and the Rev. Joshua Baskin, a farmer and pastor.

The mob took them from the jail to the Newberry picnic grounds (W. Newberry Road and County Road 235) and hanged them. Over 200 people attended the lynchings. Long was captured two days later. He was tried on Sept. 7, found guilty by an all-white jury who deliberated only seven minutes, and sentenced to hang. Long was executed in the yard of the Alachua County jail on Oct. 27, 1916.

While the African American community was outraged about the lynchings, they did not have the law officials on their side. No arrests were ever made for the murders. A newspaper in Ocala reported that the coroner's jury had returned a verdict that the lynching victims had died in freak accidents, such as running into a barbed wire fence and bleeding to death, falling out of a tree breaking their necks or choking to death.

The incident became known as the Newberry 6, but faded from memory as time passed. The area where it occurred became known as Lynch Hammock and according to Newberry Mayor Jordan Marlowe, there were other lynchings over the years at that location that led to its name.

Twenty years ago, Dr. Patricia Hillard Nunn researched the incident and brought it back into the limelight. She also started the Truth and Reconciliation Project to expose the history of intimidation and terror against blacks and helped to create a historical marker at the spot. It is unknown if the actual hanging tree still exists, but over the past few years, ceremonies have been held at the site in memory of those who lost their lives to the lynchings.

On Jan. 5, 2021, under a cold and rainy sky, the City of Newberry, Concerned Citizens of Newberry, the Rosewood Foundation and the Equal Justice Initiative (EJI) combined to hold a Soil Collection ceremony at the location in remembrance of the Newberry 6 and other lynchings that occurred in Alachua County.

Two mason jars for each of the six victims’ names were set on three tables along with two nameless jars to honor the other unknown victims of lynchings. The jars were set between red candles and surrounded by broken shards of pottery to represent the shattered lives of their families.

Despite the dreary weather, several dozen people attended the event. Stanley Richardson read a poem about how the lynchings changed his view of the large oak trees from beauty to symbols of murder and intimidation, with the tree itself a victim and tool of mob terror.

“All my life I heard whispers in bits and pieces among my family about the lynchings, never knowing the full facts until I was an adult,” Richardson said. Pastor Armon Lowery sang the classic Billie Holiday song “Strange Fruit” that also speaks of the lynching trees and the bloody fruit they bare.

Keiana West represented the EJI, which is based in Montgomery, Alabama, and spoke about its mission to memorialize all victims of lynchings and how they have documented over 4,000 known incidents.

Other speakers included, Alachua County Commissioner Charles Chestnut, Newberry Mayor Jordan Marlowe and Warren Lee, who spoke on behalf of the victims.

As the song “Amazing Grace” was played, descendants of the victims scooped soil from the site into the jars, followed by attendees until each jar was filled. One of each victim's jars will be kept in Newberry as a memorial to their deaths while the other jar will be taken to a memorial to lynching victims in Montgomery.

The EJI maintains a collection of jars filled with soil from the sites of over 3,000 documented lynchings along with a black granite memorial in remembrance of all the victims. “While we have this documentation, we believe this is just a fraction of the violent deaths inflicted on African Americans from 1865 to 1950 to intimidate and control them. We want to make sure this history is not forgotten,” said West

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ALACHUA ‒ The High Springs Fire Department, along with the Alachua County Fire Department, have had their hands full lately with rescues and fully engulfed fires.

The most recent large fire took nearly six hours to bring under control. The old location for Lady Bug Florist on U.S. Highway 441 in Alachua became fully engulfed and was billowing heavy black smoke when Alachua County Fire Rescue #21 from Alachua arrived on the scene a little after 11 p.m. Saturday, Jan. 16. Alachua County’s Engine #25 arrived to assist and High Springs Fire Rescue joined shortly afterward with two units at 11:07 p.m.

The burning 4,500-sq. ft. building required the use of multiple hose lines and an aerial unit to bring the blaze under control. High Springs Public Information Officer Kevin Mangan reported that the High Springs units were on-site until 4:32 a.m. the next morning. The blaze is being investigated by Alachua County Fire Investigators.

In High Sprigs a large trash WCA truck caught fire on Jan. 15 in the High Springs Industrial Park off of Poe Springs Road. When the High Springs Fire Department arrived on the scene the truck was fully engulfed. The blaze was so intense that the cab and steering wheel had melted. Fire fighters had to cut into the side of the metal compactor in order to extinguish that blaze.

According to Mangan, it took about four hours to bring this fire under control. “The cause of this fire is unknown,” he said.

Also in High Springs, on Jan. 5, a High Springs couple found themselves at the bottom of a 40-foot sinkhole. The pair was driving a Dodge Caliber behind EarthWorx and suddenly found themselves in water. Luckily, the couple had the windows open when the vehicle landed in water and both were able to escape.

The male was eventually able to make his way to the top of the sinkhole and walked to the S&S Station on Poe Springs Road and Main Street where he called for help at 7:21 a.m. High Springs Fire Rescue went to the scene and was able to extricate the female.

“Luckily, there were no injuries in any of these incidents,” said Mangan.

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ALACHUA ‒ It was a magical evening in Alachua as The Wiz played to a full house. Live theater, like the other performing arts, have been limited by the Covid-19 pandemic. But the show must go on, and on Jan. 30 a local production of “The Wiz” played to a socially distanced, sold out audience at Legacy Park in Alachua.

While many of the planned events at the new $8 million facility amphitheater and multipurpose center have been postponed due to health concerns. The City of Alachua partnered with the Star Center Theatre to present the critically acclaimed Off-Broadway show. The City works with various community partners throughout the year to present free performances to the community.

To stay within health safety guidelines, temperature checks were taken at the door. Members of the audience, stage crew and the actors all wore masks with chairs set six feet apart to maintain social distancing. The event was free, but audience members had to reserve seats by registering online to maintain a limit on audience size.

“The Wiz” is a critically acclaimed Off-Broadway musical based on the Wizard of Oz story, but is a more ethnically diverse version to modernize the story. Dorothy, an African American Kansas farm girl, is eager to see more of the world, and is transported by a tornado to a magical world of Munchkins, witches and a yellow brick road.

All the actors and stage crew were members of the The Star Center Theatre, a Gainesville-based community theater that was founded in the summer of 2000 by Rhonda Wilson to offer children and adults a chance to become involved in theater and learn confidence in themselves.

Originally the focus was on children and working with a culturally diverse group to provide opportunities in the arts that they might not be exposed to in their community. In the beginning, programs and classes in acting and dance were offered in a small space in an after-school center.

Programs continued to expand and the community began to recognize and support The STAR Center as Gainesville’s Children’s Theater. Over the years The Star Center continued to expand. Currently, Star Center is housed in a 7,000 sq ft renovated space with a rehearsal and meeting rooms. Prior to the Covid pandemic Star produced a full season of performances, classes and workshops for children and adults.

Although many live performances in theater, dance and musical have been cut back due to the pandemic, the STAR Theatre has adjusted to the safety concerns, maintaining sterilization in their own theatre auditorium and doing all performances and rehearsals in masks.

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HIGH SPRINGS ‒ High Springs will soon have its own golf course. However, it won't be competing with Turkey Creek or any of Gainesville's large courses because this course is strictly for miniature golf enthusiasts. The course, which will features18 holes, is directly behind the soon-to-open Pink Flamingo Diner. While the course is associated with the diner for its customers to make a family outing instead of just a meal, it also operates as its own recreation center open to everyone. Adults can play all 18 holes for $7.50, with seniors discounted to $6.50 and children at $5.50.

According to the Pink Flamingo's General Manager Mike Smith, the idea for a miniature golf course behind the Diner actually originated with the original owners, who opened Floyd's Diner in 2001. When the building was purchased this year by Dae Jung Kim, it went through major renovations and will reopen as Pink Flamingo Diner.

While the plans for the new restaurant were being discussed with developer Karl Spain, the idea of the miniature golf course resurfaced as a way to provide more than just food at the location and offer a different type of entertainment and recreation to the community.

New Jersey based Harris Miniature Golf Inc. was hired to build the course. The completed course features 18 holes winding through a variety of scenarios. The course is ADA accessible on nine of the holes so that people with disabilities can enjoy it as well. Laid out in a single winding path, the course is surrounded by lush landscaping and features a variety of obstacles from water, rocks and plants to make it more challenging.

Concerns for nearby houses was addressed with a six-foot retaining wall to reduce noise and any stray balls. Local artist Jim Wegman was hired to create murals on the restaurant and add a fantasy element to the course. He repurposed an old propane tank to look like a submarine, and the storage shed behind it is painted with an ocean scene to create a fantasy playground for kids.

A building located on the course will supply balls and golf putters to customers and also offer soft-serve ice creams and smoothies. On the back side the building is a drive-through window that will sell coffee in the morning before the restaurant or golf course opens. Smith said the hours of the drive-through will help keep down any traffic congestion, maintain safety for restaurant and golf course customers and not compete with the restaurant. The coffee drive-through will be open from 6 a.m. to 2 p.m. Hours for the golf course will be 2 p.m. to 9 p.m. on weekdays and 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. on weekends.

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