For 16 years, stucco was their life. Jeff Chears and Donna Ledford lived and breathed the cement mud plastered on the sides of homes. They worked 70-hour weeks to grow their business, Jeff Chears Stucco & Lath, into a successful venture that paid off their home, built their retirement account and supported nearly 150 employees, including brothers, sisters, cousins and best friends. Then the housing bubble burst.
As Chears and Ledford wait for the economy to improve, the long-time business and life partners are living off their savings and using their newfound free time to explore their real passion — working with animals.
Maybe, as their passion for stucco did two decades ago, this too will lead to a career.
Ledford, 37, a tall woman with striking blue eyes, and Chears, 41, whose brown head stands just a few inches shy of his partner's, have been together 20 years. They're not the marrying types and they don't want children, but the couple has plenty of creatures to care for.
On their 25-acre property atop the ridiculously gorgeous green hills north of Dade City, the couple has nine dogs, five horses and a calico barn cat.
"People come here with their kids, and they're like 'my goodness, it's a petting zoo!' " Ledford said.
Running a petting zoo isn't one of the business ideas they've toyed with in their stucco reprieve. But there have been thoughts of a horse summer camp for kids, a horse hoof trimming business and a needle-free animal acupuncture enterprise.
Of all the business ideas tossed around, perhaps the most obtainable is the hoof trimming venture.
Chears has trimmed his own horses' hooves for years. But in the absence of stucco, he became certified in the Cytek trimming method, which he says addresses the whole foot, not just the hoof wall (the outer portion you see when the horse is standing.)
He has earned a small living charging $35 to $45 to trim the hooves of friends' horses. He's also training to become a farrier.
Ledford points out how her partner's eyes light up when he talks about the horse nuzzling his back as he trimmed its hoof. Applying cement mud to the sides of new houses didn't seem to have that same effect on him.
But Chears is quick to tame her enthusiasm.
"There's no way trimming horse feet is going to support us the way the stucco business did," he told his partner.
Ledford has devoted her new free time to caring for stray animals, a passion she had before the housing bubble burst. The woman is a magnet for the lost, the hungry, the huddled furry masses yearning to be loved.
She finds homeless dogs on the railroad tracks when she picks up a pizza; they exit the woods and climb on the road shoulder just as her car is about to zip by. Ledford has learned to keep a muzzle, leash and food in her car just in case.
Three of the dogs currently lazing on mattresses in her spare room are rescues in need of permanent homes. Over the past seven years, she has rescued more than 70 dogs, goats, cats and horses.
"If you see a 'found dog' sign in Dade City, it's probably mine," she said.
"I have the time. I have the space. I have the money. Why can't I give the shelters a relief?"
The couple hopes the housing market will pick back up by 2010. Ledford loved their stucco work, but she can't help but wonder if this lull in business is part of some grander plan, even if she doesn't understand it yet.
"Maybe that's why I no longer have a career in construction," she said. "I have some things to get done."
Helen Anne Travis can be reached at email@example.com or (813) 435-7312.