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Bed and breakfast in Plant City thrives on relationships

PLANT CITY — When Brenda and Guy Ford turned their home in Plant City's historic district into the Strawberry House bed and breakfast three years ago, they never realized the decision would result in a burgeoning relationship with the an Olympic gold medal archer.

The Fords found time to convert the home despite holding full-time jobs. Brenda, 57, has served as a 24-year special needs teacher at Marshall Middle School in Plant City. Guy, 55, works in IT for Furman Automotive in Tampa.

When they researched opening the Strawberry House, people told them to prepare to meet a lot of strange people.

"We even put some special locks on our bedroom door, but instead of strange what we got was interesting and unique people from all over the world," Brenda said.

John Williams, the 1972 Gold Medalist in Archery, and his wife, Ruth, of three months, frequently stay with the Fords. The couple calls the yellow two-story Ford house "a home away from home." The Williams call Brenda and Guy "family".

John lives on the west coast in St. Petersburg while Ruth lives on the east coast in Port Orange. For now, the newlyweds meet at a halfway point, Plant City, on weekends at the bed and breakfast. During the week they work their respective jobs in the insurance industry and take care of aging parents.

• • •

The Strawberry House also drew the attention of three young German women who, like the Williams, found the bed and breakfast through an online ad. Over breakfast last month, they were delighted to meet the Williams, who won his medal in Munich years before they were even born.

"Florida is awesome," said Sandra Wagner of Munich, who will begin university classes soon to study engineering. Nichole Witt, a social worker from Berlin, loves Florida's beauty, the beaches and wildlife. Franziska Sprenger, a travel agent from Berlin, agrees with her newfound friends.

"We are so excited about going to Walt Disney World," she said.

None of the young women finds language a barrier, for every student in Germany from the fifth grade on must take English.

"In our travels, we stay in a lot of bed and breakfast places," Ruth said. "Plant City is our favorite."

The German guests agree it is more like a home than a hotel, and less expensive. Had it not been for the Strawberry House the girls would not have met.

Other guests have included Russians, Swedes, and British.

The fate of the Strawberry House, however, is in question. Brenda and Guy suffered a fire at their guest house and while it did not affect the big house, they are unsure they will be allowed to rebuild or will be financially able to do so. Brenda would like to put all her efforts into the Strawberry House, but she is five years away from retirement.

The Fords have a full-service restaurant license and hope to open some of the downstairs rooms for special events, like teas, parties and meetings.

• • •

As the group ate sausage, eggs, biscuits and strawberry jam in the breakfast room decorated from top to bottom with strawberry memorabilia, Williams talked about how he came to win a gold medal.

"In Pennsylvania my dad was into archery and accidentally killed a fawn when his arrow missed a buck and hit the fawn," he said.

"This accident prompted him to take lessons and he loved the sport and was gone so much my mother decided to take lessons, too, so she could be with him."

John's mother went on to become a three time Pennsylvania archery champion and placed fifth in the Women's World Championship in 1967. Their son accompanied them on trips to competitions.

"I got hooked on archery not because of archery, but because I wanted to travel," he said. "The better I got with the bow, the more I got to travel."

When he was just short of his 19th birthday, he won the Gold in Munich, and turned professional a year later. For the next ten years he made a living at it.

"The U.S. lost dominance in archery the 1980s, and it was particularly disappointing when President Carter boycotted the Moscow Olympics and I was not allowed to represent the United States," Williams explained. "The Japanese, Korean and Taiwanese dominate the sport now."

Williams also has coached Olympians, including this year's Silver medalist in men's archery, Florida resident Jake Kaminski.

Archery has taken John to almost every continent in the world, but despite his love for the sport, he has put the bow down and taken up billiards.

"Archery is one of the oldest arts still practiced. It's called the sport of champions, and it's not as easy as it looks," said John. "When you hand a bow and arrow to, say, a star football player, they discover the physics of it is entirely different from football or any other sport."

Better bows and arrows are now being made. The arrows have gone from aluminum to carbon graphite.

"When I competed, the aluminum arrows went 170 feet per second, now the graphite ones go 220 to 230 feet per second."

John plans to give his first grandchild, who just turned 1, a bow and arrow set for Christmas.

• • •

As the early morning breakfast ends for the couple and the young German women, John has a surprise. In an emotional moment for everyone, he returns from upstairs and gives Guy a bow and arrow set, the last bow he used in his professional career.

Betty Briggs can be reached at hillsnews@tampabay.com.

Bed and breakfast in Plant City thrives on relationships 12/08/12 [Last modified: Saturday, December 8, 2012 3:31am]
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