It wasn't long after Jim Wilson moved his family to a new home that he and his wife were called to their daughter's school. Brimming with sympathy, the principal and the kindergarten teacher greeted them. "Everyone kept saying, 'We're sorry for your troubles. We're here to help you, we can take a collection up,' " Wilson recalled. "They said, your daughter came to school and said she's sleeping in a box and living in a park." At the time, Wilson's young daughter liked sleeping in an oversized cardboard box. And he and his wife did indeed live in a park — Fort De Soto Park. It is there, for the last 15 years, that he has served as the resident steward of one of the most pristine parks in the state and lived rent-free in a house with no price.
Fort De Soto Park is preparing to turn 50 next weekend. Opened on May 11, 1963, as a natural waterfront recreation area for families, the 1,136 acre, boomerang-shaped island has remained largely untouched by the developers and settlers that have colonized the rest of the peninsula. Condos now creep up to the hem of the park, lining the Pinellas Bayway in Tierra Verde as though queuing up to get past the tollbooth. There is no land like it left in Pinellas County.
On the day of the park's dedication, as many as 20,000 people drove south to catch a glimpse of Henry Fonda and watch a beauty pageant. Now, between 2 million and 3 million people pour into the park annually.
Growing up in Seminole, Wilson and his sisters rode horses to the beach. Roads near their home were paved with crushed sea shells and wound through orange groves. By the time he was in his teens, new highways blocked their path so his family stabled them at a pony farm where tourists could ride them. Later, the pony farm became a trailer park.
"This area boomed in my lifetime," said Wilson, 55. "All you ever saw was buildings going up and roads being paved. The one constant is this property. I wouldn't be in Pinellas County if I wasn't here."
Wilson began working in the park in 1975 as a 18-year-old riding around on the back of a garbage truck. Now, as the park's supervisor, he lives a life unimaginable in the urban sprawl of Pinellas. There is little artificial light in the park — before sunrise, the drive to the island is accomplished in such continuous darkness that you expect to come upon Wilson holding a kerosene lamp.
One morning last week, as the sun began to rise behind the Sunshine Skyway bridge, dimming the glow of passing cars' headlights, Wilson drove his truck east on Mullet Key until he reached the spot on the beach where he pauses each day in gratitude. I am blessed, he reminded himself, not to be an ant crawling across asphalt, headed to a widget factory.
From here he drove to the gulf pier and up to the island's northwest tip, where he watched the sand for signs of sea turtles and checked on four rafts of nesting Least Terns, his latest project.
It used to be common for county parks supervisors to live on the land, but budget cuts in recent years have made Wilson the last of his kind. His only neighbors are a sheriff's deputy, and the bird watchers that seem to nest around his house.
Wilson measures his success by the number of days he's gone without seeing a traffic light — a clue that this affable 6-foot-2 wave chaser, who surfs the wake left by passing cruise ships and calls almost everyone "dude," has a monkish streak. To avoid an encounter with a red light, he sometimes takes one of his boats to the Publix grocery store in St. Pete Beach.
"If I were a bird, I'd be a solitary bird," he mused last week.
Throughout the county's rampant development, there have been attempts to turn Fort De Soto into a SeaWorld of sorts. All failed spectacularly.
Only three years after the park opened, Pinellas commissioners were already estimating its rising value, congratulating themselves for paying $26,000 for it in 1948. (Ironically, Andrew Potter, the commissioner who'd had the foresight to buy the land, was voted out of office and Mullet Key was known for years as "Potter's folly.")
In the '60s, developers of the Miami Seaquarium hoped to build a $2 million "Showman's Square" on the island. In the '70s, a group of businessmen and a St. Petersburg artist proposed a $9 million water park with glass bottom boat rides, submarine cars, underwater observation posts and a minitheater for "marine movies."
Wilson remembers giving a former county official a tour of the park in the early 2000s. The man looked at the boat docks and envisioned a marina with commercial fishing boats. In the 500-foot bay pier, he saw the promise of a cruise line terminal. None of it ever came to fruition.
"People really are protective of Fort De Soto," said former park supervisor Bob Browning, who lived on the island for 23 years.
Today, the only things growing skyward are cabbage palms and Australian pines. As ecotourism has become popular, parts of the park have been closed to the public to encourage seabird nesting and dune growth.
Beyond the sand, the park can be a bit less bucolic and parts remain distinctly weird.
Arguably its most eccentric aspect is what employees affectionately refer to as the "pet cemetery" — a series of burial mounds where three massive whales, as well as some dolphins, manatees and sea turtles, have been interred. Only 3 feet above sea level, the graves are watery troughs, not ideal for decomposition. When a group tried to exhume the whale remains several years ago, they found them largely intact.
The fort was used as a bombing range during World War II and though only one live bomb has been found in recent years, the Army Corps of Engineers is scheduled to pay a visit in September to survey the grounds.
But for Wilson, the outside world rarely threatens. There are endangered species to monitor and restrooms to clean. Along with a group of park volunteers, he has been charged with organizing the anniversary party and overseeing kayakers who want to plant sea oats to fortify the dunes.
As of this article's publication, he had not seen a traffic light in 11 days.
Anna M. Phillips can be reached at [email protected].