Monthly Archives: February 2012

Making a Difference in Umatilla

Just a visiting-small-town-Florida observation from a life-long large-town dweller: Some small-town folks have a better grasp of the big picture. Instead of being caught up in the minutia of the moment, they seem to get what counts in the long run. They are the ones that make a difference.

Two weeks ago I visited Umatilla, and spent the day with just such a person: Evelyn Allen Sebree (but everyone knows her as “Sis” or “Sister”). Umatilla, half-way between Ocala and Orlando, is the southern gateway to the Ocala National Forest—what they used to call the Big Scrub. In 1852 Sister’s great-grandfather Nathan Trowell homesteaded here and built a log cabin. He planted rice and cotton, raised cattle, and opened a small general store that would become the town’s first post office. Sister’s grandfather, Robert Lee Collins, came to Umatilla from Tennessee as a teenager after both his parents died and family friends here took him in. Collins too became a farmer, and a citrus grove owner. He married Drucilla Trowell, a daughter of Nathan and Sevenah Trowell. Although Collins would become one of the town’s most successful business men, it was not without difficult times. In 1894 and 1895 a devastating freeze struck central Florida, destroying Umatilla’s citrus industry. Robert and Drucilla moved down to Miami for several years where he became a teamster (that original term refers to someone who drove a team of oxen). In Collin’s case he was transporting tomatoes. In four years they had saved up enough to return to Umatilla. Collins began buying grove property, and also opened up a sawmill. In 1904 he built the home, out of local-milled Big Scrub timber, that six generations of his family have now lived in.

Sister tells me, “When Grandfather—Big Papa, died, grandmother suggested to my mother: Why don’t you and the children move in to the house with me? My mother, who lived to ninety-nine, answered: But my children are so noisy. Grandmother—we called her “Big Mama” and she lived to ninety-eight, said: I’d rather have the noise than be alone.”  Sister was five years old when they moved into the house.

The family home is aptly named “The Palms”. Towering sable palms straddle the walkway to the front porch and are found throughout the beautifully-landscaped grounds. It is a grand two-story, four-bedroom Southern Victorian architecture home, with wide first- and the second-floor spindlework-detailed verandas that wrap completely around the house—a vernacular feature designed as much to pre-cool breezes blowing through the large open windows, as it was to hold porch swings and rocking chairs. Originally the house’s massive two-story columns were made from whole palm tree trunks, but woodpeckers took their toll, so eventually those were replaced with concrete columns. The slate-shingle hipped roof once held a widows walk, until a 1934 fire took it down. The Collins’ property had its own water tower and windmill. There was no plumbing in the house when it was built, so the bathrooms were all added later. Electricity came later too. Sister lived at the house until she married in 1955, then returned in 1977 with her children.

We sat in the living room with family and friends, while Sister brought me up to speed on family history. Photographs and paintings of multiple generations of family members adorn the walls. There is a 1930’s-vintage rotary-dial phone on a table in the foyer (yes it works—it rang while I was there). In the adjacent room a 1920’s-vintage Sears and Roebuck Silvertone Phonograph holds a Victrola LP (from the 1930’s?) record of Enrico Caruso performing “Pagliacci” from “Vesti La Giubba” in 1907.

Houses, in which the same family has lived for over a hundred years, tend to become living historical museums—something I quickly figure out Sister truly enjoys. She was one of the founders, and the first president, of Umatilla’s Historical Society—created for the express purpose of turning Umatilla’s 1910 schoolhouse (where Sister attended elementary school) into a museum. When the school closed in 1971 it had been the longest continuously-operated school building in Lake County. It was scheduled to be torn down when a local group, including Sister, approached the city council and the county school board. A novel deal was struck: the county school board would give the school house to the city in exchange for deed to what was then a public city street running between another (operating) school and its playground, so that they could close the street. The city now owned the historic schoolhouse but it needed extensive repair, and it was the local Bryan family that came up with the initial funds to begin that work. With much of the repair and reconstruction done by volunteers, and many of the artifacts and documents for displays donated by long-time residents, plus continued support from the city, the Paul W. Bryan Historic Schoolhouse/Umatilla Historical Society Museum opened in 2002.

Sister confesses she originally thought about being a doctor. “Back in the old days there weren’t too many women in medicine.” Instead she steered toward education. She went to Florida State University for two years, transferred to University of Florida and completed her bachelor’s degree, and then taught at Columbia High School in Lake City for a year. After returning to Umatilla, Sister spent several years in the family citrus business running their express fruit shipping division. Then she got married and went back to teaching—elementary school in Leesburg. Not satisfied with just her Bachelor’s, she enrolled at Rollins College to earn her Masters degree in Physical Education, Health, Recreation, and Counseling—all while still teaching elementary school and raising five children. “Truly the hardest work I’ve ever done,” she explained. From there she went to work at Lake-Sumter Junior College (which later became Lake-Sumter Community College) where she became their Financial Aid Administrator, and remained for twenty-five years before retiring. During her tenure there she also earned her Doctorate degree in Higher Education Administration from FSU.

It is apparent that whenever the need arises to further local education or preserve a part of Umatilla’s history, Sister gets called in. She was on the committee that started a fund-raising group to preserve Umatilla’s oldest Methodist Church and have it added to the National Register of Historic Places. That required getting a state grant and raising matching funds. Sister had gained a reputation as the go-to person, someone who could get things done. While at Lake-Sumter Community College she lobbied to get the college’s new Student Services Building. “Gene Langley was our senator,” she explains. “When the state committee met and ultimately approved the budget that included my building (the Lake-Sumter Community College Student Services Building) the senator didn’t call the president of the college, he called me. He said, ‘Sis, I didn’t get you that three-million you wanted. I got you three-million-point-two.’ That was one of my most gratifying moments.” Later when an anonymous donor wanted to give a significant endowment to the college to build a new Health Sciences building, he came to Sister to facilitate that. She was President of the Florida State Financial Aid Association, and also a board member (of only eighteen around the country) on the National Financial Aid Administration Board. She was also Governor-appointed as a trustee of Lake-Sumter Community College after her retirement. In addition she was also executive director of the Lake-Sumter Community College fund raising foundation.

Yes, Evelyn “Sister” Allen Sebree has quite a track record of getting things done and making a difference.

Did I mention that she has also had 50-yard-line season Gators tickets since 1951? That’s got to be a record.

Bruce Hunt

The historical information contained herein came to me first-hand from Evelyn “Sister” Allen Sebree, from the Umatilla Historical Museum, and also from Images of America: Umatilla by Rebecca Bryan Dreisbach, Arcadia Publishing 2010

Visit the museum at: Umatilla Historical Museum, 299 N. Trowell Ave. Umatilla 32784

Photographs below: The Palms, and the Paul W. Bryan Historic Schoolhouse/Umatilla Historical Society Museum

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