Story: Mary Ann Desantis | Photos: Fred Lopez
Most people traveling south along I-75 toward Central Florida’s attractions think of Wildwood as the last exit before they reach the toll road. Indeed, the major highways running through Wildwood — I-75, U.S. Highway 301, State Road 44, and Florida’s Turnpike — help the small city hang on to its reputation as a transportation hub, one that began when railroads were the city’s major industry.
Those motorists who zoom by at 70-plus miles per hour, though, miss a piece of Old Florida — a place where train passengers could stretch their legs and grab a cup of coffee at the Palm Grill and Coffee House near the station; a Southern town where boys would almost fight for the after-school opportunity to get on trucks that took them to pick watermelons and tomatoes; a main street where the brick buildings offer a glimpse of what the town looked like in its railroad heyday.
Longtime residents fondly remember those days. The majority of residents were employed by the railroad, and one of the benefits was that family members could ride anywhere free.
“We would hop the train to go shopping in Orlando all the time,” remembers Irish Wolf, who was born in Wildwood’s first hospital. “My entire high school graduating class went to the New York World’s Fair on the train in 1964. We had bake sales starting in ninth grade and even sold cow manure out of pastures to raise money for those kids whose fathers did not work for the railroad.”
Community spirit is still alive and well in Wildwood. Residents are working together to revitalize many of the historic buildings, including the Baker Home on County Road 44-A on the east side of The Villages. Built by Senator David Hume Baker in the late 1800s, the Victorian-style house and five acres of property were donated to the City of Wildwood. The house is currently being renovated to become the home of the Wildwood Area Historical Society. Several fundraising events have recently taken place and tours will be available later in the year. [divider_1px] [span4]
Good neighbors: The City of Wildwood includes nearly 400 acres in The Villages,
including the Brownwood town square and two residential areas.
Current Population: 7,203
- *Median Resident Age: 56.2
- *Median House or Condo Value: $79,704
Mayor: Ed Wolf
Pamala Harrison Bivins
Commissioners: Julian Green,
Don Clark, Robby Strickland
City Manager: Bill Ed Cannon
Chief of Police: E.W. Reeser[/span4]
A recent annexation of property into the city limits makes Wildwood one of Florida’s largest cities in terms of land size with more than 40 square miles. Most of the land is still undeveloped, making it attractive to developers and businesses.
“When the railroad industry disappeared in the late 1960s, Wildwood had to reinvent itself. That wasn’t always easy,” says Ed Wolf, the city’s mayor for more than 26 years. “At times, we were just trying to stay alive. We went through tough times. The Villages has been a lifeline to Wildwood, and now, we are growing.”
Wildwood’s longtime residents agree and are happy that The Villages, Florida’s largest retirement community, is driving the economy for the city of just over 7,200 residents. Four hundred acres of The Villages property are within the city limits of Wildwood, including two residential communities and Brownwood, the newest town square. The Wildwood Police Department even has a substation next to the Barnstorm Theater where today’s youth hang out side-by-side with retirees.
“We are very lucky that the development surrounds Wildwood,” says native Tom Word, who still owns the family farm where he grew up on Highway 466A. “The Villages has been a very positive influence and brought many opportunities to the area.”
Mayor Wolf, a retired teacher, agrees. “Years ago, kids had to leave to find jobs. It’s rewarding for me to see that kids now have opportunities to stay here and work.”
Developers also see opportunities and even the State of Florida projects that the population could run as high as 60,000 people by 2035. The city is well positioned to both control growth and take advantage of the anticipated interest in the area as a great place to live and raise a family.
High on the development-oriented city government’s list is to adopt design standards that are on par with The Villages and to develop its own identity.
“As you come into Wildwood’s downtown, you’ll recognize us as separate from The Villages but yet it will be a smooth transition,” says Melanie Peavy, Wildwood’s director of development services.
The lifeblood of downtown Wildwood will continue to be the unique shops and restaurants that are already drawing visitors. The Cotillion Southern Cafe in the former Bank of Wildwood was one of the first businesses to draw from the town’s history and others are following. The Red Door has fans from all over Florida stopping in to shop for its unique home décor and gift items.
“Those kinds of quaint shops and restaurants are our future,” says Mayor Wolf. “We look to bring people here on day trips, similar to what some of the other small cities in this area do.”
Wolf and Peavy agree that if Wildwood had not embraced The Villages, the city would have lost its identity completely. As it stands now, the two entities have worked together to raise the bar and both are happy with the results.
“We’re a diamond in the rough,” says Mayor Wolf. “Developers across the country are watching to see how we do.” [divider_1px] [divider_1px]
Words about Wildwood
Lost in the woods
Local legend says the name Wildwood originated in 1877 when a crew of workmen and a surveyor were putting in a telegraph line south of Ocala. The surveyor was required to report in occasionally. When the office asked where he was, the surveyor paused and said, “I don’t know, except in the wild woods.” [divider_1px]
Isaac W. Barwick, a 25-year-old entrepreneur from Georgia, is described as Wildwood’s first settler in the 19th century book History of Florida by Wanton S. Webb. In 1877, Barwick set up a lumbering operation and built stores, homes, and a town square with a few other pioneers. [divider_1px]
Before the railroad
Early settlers grew cotton and had to take it by ox carts to Silver Springs for shipment. Later, the Lee family of Leesburg opened canals and waterways, which made it possible to transport products to Bug Springs, near the community of Okahumpka. [divider_1px]
Hear that train a comin’
The first train arrived in Wildwood on June 1, 1882, after the Tropical Florida Railroad extended a line south from Ocala. The train was pulled by a wood-burning engine called “The Cabbage Head.” Six months later, another eight miles opened and the new railroad served Panasoffkee. In July 1885, the Florida Railway and Navigation Company completed construction on an additional 14 miles between Panasoffkee and Terrell. [divider_1px]
A city is born
Wildwood was incorporated as a city on May 16, 1889. No official city records prior to 1915 exist because files about Wildwood’s early days were destroyed in a fire at the Sumter County Courthouse in 1909. It wasn’t the first time fire affected Wildwood. In 1889 and again in 1904, fire destroyed the main downtown business district. [divider_1px]
Every vote counted
A close vote in 1912 determined the new county seat for Sumter County. By a margin of only nine votes, Wildwood lost to Bushnell. Final tally: Bushnell 657, Wildwood 648. [divider_1px]
The Wildwood High School Wildcats finished the 1964 football season with a 12–0 record and went on to win the state championship by beating Lake City Columbia 12–7 in the Class A championship game at Florida Field in Gainesville. “The whole town ate, breathed, and slept football,” said Wildwood native Tom Word. “We barely had enough players to field a team, and some had to play both offense and defense.” It was the first of two state high school football championship trophies brought home to Wildwood. The second came in 1970. [divider_1px]
Bigger than you think
Wildwood city limits extend more than 40 square miles, according to Melanie Peavy, development services director for the City of Wildwood. A recent annexation of property into the city limits makes it one of Florida’s largest cities in terms of land size. [divider_1px] [divider_1px]
singer, songwriter, actress and voice-over talent famous for her role as Sadie in the 2007 film “Across the Universe” [divider_1px]
American country music singer whose album “Welder” was on Rolling Stone’s list of Best 30 Albums for 2010. She is also host of the morning radio show “Elizabeth Cook’s Apron Strings” on Sirius XM Radio.[divider_1px]
Lt. Gen. Charles “Chuck” S. Mahan, Jr.
Retired as Chief of Logistics for the U.S. Army. Previous assignment included Major General of the 21st Theater Support Command, the largest operational logistics command in the Army[divider_1px]
former NFL player[divider_1px]
current Chargé d’affaires at the United States Embassy in London and former U.S. Ambassador to Panama [divider_1px]
former NFL player[divider_1px]
The late Dan Sikes
former professional American golfer[divider_1px]
former player in the Canadian Football League[divider_1px]
Emmy-award winning analyst for Fox “Sun Sports”[divider_1px][divider_1px]