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Hardy Huntley, owner of Wagon Wheel Flea Market, dies at 77

In the nearly five decades since Hardy Huntley and his wife founded Wagon Wheel Flea Market in Pinellas Park, he almost never missed a day of work.

Even after the flea market grew to 1,500 stalls and his savvy real estate investments ensured he would retire a very wealthy man, Mr. Huntley worked the concession stand, directed traffic, did whatever needed done, really.

His work ethic and entrepreneurial spirit continued until he died at his home Saturday in Madeira Beach, surrounded by family. He was 77.

Mr. Huntley is survived by his five children and four grandchildren. His family did not disclose the cause of death.

"So much of what our family did revolved around the Wagon Wheel Flea Market," said his daughter, Dawn Huntley Mattox. "When you own your own business you work seven days per week to build it. He was always there, right in the middle of everything."

Born in Rutherfordton, N.C., Mr. Huntley dropped out of high school and hitchhiked penniless to Florida in the early 1950s, settling in St. Petersburg to be near his older sister.

He later got his high school diploma, but his success was the scrappy, self-made kind.

He began as a supermarket bagger. But by his mid 20s, he founded a drive-in restaurant similar to modern-day Sonic.

He met future wife Janet when he hired her as a roller-skating waitress. They stayed married until her death in 2009.

The couple founded the Wagon Wheel Flea Market together. And at first, it wasn't much. Just a tiny roadside stand on a well-traveled stretch of road at 7801 Park Blvd.

As the business grew, Mr. Huntley became the market's front-man, roaming the aisles and greeting customers. Mrs. Huntley took the lead on bookkeeping and raising their five children. They made all of their decisions together.

Wagon Wheel eventually ballooned into the bargain-hunting mecca it remains today, with vendors and tourists flocking from around the country.

At some point, all five children worked there. David Huntley, the oldest son, gradually took over as manager in recent years. But Mr. Huntley stayed involved until the end and never really retired.

Rather, he grew more active in real estate, working with business partner Peter Creighton to buy thousands of acres, mostly in Tampa Bay, which he later sold to home builders, CVS stores and other commercial developers.

"He was willing to take risks, he had patience and he had a keen eye for a good piece of property," Creighton said.

Mr. Huntley's business dealings kept him involved with local politics, but he was active at the state and national levels, too, using the 125-acre Wagon Wheel space to host BBQ events for former governors Jeb Bush and Charlie Crist and former New York City mayor and presidential hopeful Rudy Giuliani.

He also earned admiration from former Pinellas Park Mayor Bill Mischler, who said he frequently donated to the local library and other projects but never wanted recognition.

"He was always in the background, always very generous," he said. "This is a big loss, not just to the Pinellas Park area, but to all of Pinellas County."

Brittany Alana Davis can be reached at bdavis@tampabay.com.

Hardy Huntley, owner of Wagon Wheel Flea Market, dies at 77 05/26/13 [Last modified: Sunday, May 26, 2013 10:29pm]
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