"HEY! KID! YES, YOU! QUIT PUSHING. YOU'LL GET A TURN!''
Don't rile Mister Bob. He'll grab his bullhorn and shout at you to quit fooling around NOW. He'll order you out of the water to sit a spell. If he's really mad he'll tell you to stay home for a week. Nobody wants to get kicked out of Florida's best swimming hole. That would stink.
Bob's River Place, which is what he calls it, is in the middle of nowhere, in the pine woods, on the Suwannee, in North Florida's Dixie County, population 16,000, where almost 25 percent of citizens live in poverty and only 6 percent graduate from college. If you live in the river community along Highway 340, Little League and a library book are a dozen miles away at the county seat, Cross City. But Mister Bob's swimming hole is nearby.
Bob Hawkins is 76. He's the guy in the straw hat, shorts and T-shirt. He's the guy with the big white teeth and the bullhorn. You want to stay on his good side.
"YOU! BOY! PULL YOUR PANTS UP! I CAN SEE YOUR CRACK!" Boy pulls pants up pronto.
Mister Bob may sound like a grouch, but he considers himself a big kid at heart — kind of an older brother who believes in tough love and following the rules.
Four decades ago he drove to North Florida from Miami, where he operated a lucrative boat rental place, for a paddling vacation on the Suwannee. Enamored, he bought 40 riverfront acres and felt like a kid again.
Over time he built a second home and added a tree house for his own young son and daughter. He hung a rope from the tree house so his kids could swing out and drop into the river. Eventually he sold his business in Miami, moved up for good, planted a garden, fished for bass and swung on the rope with his kids.
Soon he was channeling Andy Griffith. Up and down the Suwannee children heard about the river swing and sneaked onto Bob's property to play. He added another rope swing to accommodate the growing crowd of kids in his yard.
Florida's off-the-grid theme park began with a rope swing.
"HEY! YOU! YES, I'M TALKING TO YOU, SON! LET THE LITTLE GIRL ON THE RAFT! PLEASE! LET'S TAKE TURNS!"
On a busy summer weekend, 400 people, mostly kids, show up at Bob's River Place, some on foot, some on bikes, some driven by their mamas, to have fun. They're shouting in the tree house, swinging on the ropes and barreling down a pair of scary waterslides. They're balancing on slippery logs and poling wooden rafts. If Norman Rockwell were alive, he'd paint a picture for the cover of Life.
Mister Bob has never advertised. He has no billboards, telephone number or e-mail address. When kids arrive, he's open. When the sun goes down, he's closed. A little hand-painted concrete sign pointing at a sandy corridor through the woods is the only material evidence that Bob's River Place even exists. For the record, the address is 2878 NE 340 Highway, Branford, a town about 10 miles away. Punch the address into a GPS and hope for the best.
Disney World? That's modern Florida, corporate Florida. Bob's River Place is a relic of an older time when kids played marbles and kick the can. It's Florida's Twilight Zone.
An old-fashioned guy, Mister Bob was born in rural North Carolina and spent his childhood in a house that lacked electricity or running water. Every day he helped his daddy tend the corn and the tobacco.
Finished with chores, he ran in bare feet to Reedy Creek, where a rope dangled from the limb of an oak. He has never forgotten the wonderful combination of tree, rope and water. "Modern kids don't have it as good as I had it," he says. "In my day kids got to explore, to do things on their own, to use their imagination, to really play. Kids grow up too fast now."
• • •
His antidote is a rope swing over the Suwannee River. His antidote is a slide and a raft.
Visitors are mostly local teenagers or younger kids who arrive with their parents or older siblings. University of Florida students drive an hour from Gainesville. They all pay $15, if they can afford it, for admission. Frequent Bob customers sometimes buy a $50 membership that covers family and friends for unlimited visits.
Bob uses the money to pay for upkeep and improvements. Recently he added a restroom, picnic pavilions and a volleyball court. Other adults who have brought their kids that day may be recruited as unofficial lifeguards or head up litter patrol.
Nobody, according to Bob, has ever been seriously hurt at his place. Still, it's the 21st century. Bob asks visitors to sign a waiver explaining that they're on their own if they fall off the slide and break an ankle or if a snapping turtle bites a toe. Anyway, he says he has never been sued.
In May, John Jenkins, Dixie County's building department director, told Bob he had to make an assortment of safety improvements — rails here and rails there on the highest places. He told Bob he'd have to acquire an assortment of permits for the improvements he was required to make. Otherwise Bob's River Place would close down.
In June, local citizens packed a County Commission meeting to testify on Bob's behalf. "We're here to work with Mr. Bob," Commissioner Mark Hatch finally said. "We're not here to run him off.''
Bob's River Place remains open while he makes the improvements and acquires the permits.
• • •
At the river, Mister Bob watches Kody Houston, 19, climb a ladder to the tree house deck and grab a thick rope. Like Tarzan, Kody leaps from the deck into the great wide open, swings over the Suwannee below and performs a double backflip on the way down. Mister Bob offers a loud critique through his bullhorn. Next he watches a gaggle of giggling girls fly down the 100-foot slide he calls the Screaming Eagle.
Mister Bob, by the way, encourages high-spirited screaming. But he doesn't abide swearing, alcohol, fighting — or rap music. "I don't like the heavy bass or the cursing," he explains. He's a Johnny Cash man.
About a year ago, a little girl tugged on his hand and suggested that Bob's River Place might benefit from having karaoke. Bob had never heard of karaoke, but promised to look into it.
So now there's a covered stage and a computer-operated karaoke machine programmed with hundreds of songs. Teenage girls, he has learned, love Taylor Swift and Lady Gaga.
Mister Bob tolerates the modern sounds as best he can. But if somebody starts whistling the theme from The Andy Griffith Show he may join in.
Jeff Klinkenberg can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 893-8727.
If you go Bob's River Place, open daily during summer, is at 2878 NE 340 Highway, about 10 miles south of Branford, a three-hour drive from Tampa Bay. No phone.
On the Web To see video from Bob's River Place, go to tampabay.com/video.