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Back to nature // Pioneer Days will recognize the St. Martins March Aquatic Preserve.

Besides being an adventuresome drive, a trip to Ozello brings the traveler to a destination where Old Florida is alive and well.

The coastal hamlet is just far enough off the beaten path to retain the lifestyle and natural beauty of the Gulf Coast before marshlands and estuaries were paved over or stopped by a concrete sea wall.

In the past, Ozello Pioneer Days has honored its founding families: the pioneers of this community and their descendants, people who for generations made their living by netting and fishing from the estuaries, creeks, rivers and gulf waters.

These were people who built a schoolhouse, dubbed "The Isle of Knowledge" and relied on a wooden rowboat instead of a school bus to ferry the pupils to class.

Ozello lost much of its tradition and history at the hands of the no-name storm of 1993 and the net fishing ban later on, but the pioneer spirit remains.

This year, Ozello Pioneer Days honors Mother Nature. The St. Martins Marsh Aquatic Preserve is being singled out for recognition, said Pioneer Day organizers Don and Eileen Rippey.

"The theme will center around the St. Martins Preserve because of its vital ecological role and its importance in preserving some of the last vestiges of the real Florida," Eileen Rippey said. "Ozello lies in the center of the preserve."

Inside the Civic Club, park services specialist J.

D. Mendenhall will host an informational display about coastal aquatic areas and answer questions about the preserve.

During Pioneer Days, the Civic Club will sell chicken and rib barbecue meals from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. for $4.75 for an adult plate. The Ozello Baptist Church will sell hog dogs and host an ice cream social. Children's games will be held behind the church and most of the community will participate in some manner.

The best place to be during Pioneer Days is the grounds of the Civic Club, visiting the arts and crafts displays or listening to the daylong music.

The Ozello Keys Arts and Crafters, organized by Betz Whittle, will sponsor a craft show featuring handmade gifts and paintings.

Musical entertainment will be provided from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. by the Cowboy Junction Band, the Studio Arts Center folk musicians, the Suncoast Cloggers and harmonica player Frank Recor. Recor will play inside the Civic Club.

Though Pioneer Days ends at 4, Ozello has a lot to do until long after dark. The new causeway at the end of the trail offers excellent fishing and a truly inspirational place to watch a sunset. For nature-lovers, there's an abundance of wildlife and terrain ranging from hardwood forests to mangrove swamps.

At a glance

WHAT: Ozello Pioneer Days

WHEN: 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. Saturday

WHERE: Ozello Civic Club, 6 miles west of U.S. 19 on Ozello Trail (County Road 494)