SAFETY HARBOR — George Weiss, 89, walks the property every day, strolling along the gravel path with his dog, Cooper. He often stands for a few moments near a marker on a post while butterflies flutter between passion flowers, shrimp plants and coonties. The post holds a poem written by his late wife, Lucille. It is titled "Welcome.''
"This morning I heard a mocking bird call,
He hasn't been around all winter at all.
Perhaps this is a sign of Spring,
After cold, wet days, it's a welcoming.''
It has been four years since Weiss lost Lucille, his wife of more than 60 years, but for him, her spirit is alive. Through Folly Farm, he is making sure of it.
"This park is all about Lucille and the family. She was everything,'' Weiss said. "We did everything together.''
Folly Farm Nature Preserve, several years in the making, is now open to the public. A total of eight acres, it was donated by Weiss to the city in 2014. It was a donation in the family's name, and the family asks in return that it is kept free of development and maintained for public use. Along with the land gift, Weiss, the retired founder of GF Weiss Hardwood Flooring, has also given about $100,000 to the city to clear the land of invasive plants, create trails, a butterfly garden and playground.
It is a gift that will benefit the community for years to come, said Matt Spoor, Safety Harbor's city manager.
"And Mr. Weiss continues to be involved. I know he still walks the property, and when I need him, I can go out there to find him most mornings,'' he said.
Weiss, a longtime resident of Island Estates in Clearwater, stressed he never lived in Safety Harbor, although one of his daughters does.
"But Lucille and I always enjoyed coming here. We would hike. And we liked getting coffee (downtown),'' he said.
He and Lucille first visited Florida from Buffalo in 1950 during their honeymoon.
"We planned the honeymoon for New Orleans, but I told Lucille that Key West sounded interesting. We never made it all the way down. We stopped in Clearwater, and we liked it so much we stayed for the rest of the trip,'' he recalled.
In 1958, after serving in the Korean War, George and Lucille returned with their young family.
"I bought a trailer for $2,500, and I rented a spot in a trailer park on Gulf-to-Bay Boulevard for $35 a month,'' he said. "It was a smaller road but it was a fine road back then.''
With the GI Bill, Weiss graduated from St. Petersburg Junior College, while he began carving out a career in business. First he sold mailboxes from his Buick convertible while Lucille raised the kids, but eventually he made his name as in building supplies and lumber.
"We came from hardscrabble, didn't have much,'' he said.
He learned of the Safety Harbor property, which cost him about $1 million, in 2007, a few days before he and Lucille went on an around-the-world vacation.
"We were sitting in the middle of the Indian Ocean when my secretary called and told me I had bought the land.''
The property is already known to many in the area. About three years ago, Weiss gave permission to members of Common Grounds Community Garden to relocate the gardens to his barn area from their original spot at First Presbyterian Church. And in the mid-2000s, Magic Beans, a horse therapy program, operated a horseback riding program for individuals with special needs.
Recently, there has been talk at City Commission meetings that Folly Farm could be the site of another community endeavor — chickens. Spoor acknowledged that the property could be a good spot for such an endeavor.
"The community garden is already there, so it already is being used for such a purpose,'' Spoor said.
On a recent morning inside Folly Farm, four cardinals were seen swerving in-and-out of the trees as a woodpecker was heard tapping away on an oak. Nearby, Weiss considered whether a community coop would work on his former property. He also considered whether or not environmentalism was one of his main passions.
"I wouldn't say that my big passion is the environment,'' he said. "It's about giving back. That's all. My passion was Lucille.''
Contact Piper Castillo at [email protected] Follow @Florida_PBJC.