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Students bring pioneer spirit to the stage

(ran NTP edition)

The stories are from Lutz's turn-of-the-century pioneers, yet the voices carry the chirpy freshness of fourth-graders.

The backdrop is a mock-up of the old locomotive that rumbled through Lutz. This week, the railroad is remembered in music _ a song entitled Ride the Pea Vine.

That's the way about 80 students at Maniscalco Elementary School bring history to life in a 40-minute musical play, When Lutz Was Young, which will be presented Friday morning.

It tells the true story of Ella McDowell, a teenager whose family rode the train from Kansas to Lutz in 1912 with all their possessions, including horses, packed in a boxcar. The McDowells were among many settlers drawn to Lutz by the Chicago-based North Tampa Land Co., which advertised a community of homes and citrus groves.

Decades later, a grown-up Ella Fletcher published her memories in a 1955 issue of the Lutz Civic Review. And in 1976, the account was republished by historian Elizabeth MacManus in a local history book compiled for the nation's bicentennial.

Eventually, that was read by fourth-grade teacher Lynn Leahy, who produces a play every year with her students. "I thought, "Hey, this has got to be a play,' " she said.

So Leahy wrote one.

It tells of the early settlers marveling at the fish-filled lakes, running from wild razorback hogs, square-dancing at community "frolics" and worrying about the throaty groans that echoed every night across the lakes. Were they frogs _ or alligators?

The play also pays tribute to Lutz's original significance as "Lutz Junction," where the Tampa Northern Railroad was met by a rail line that ran to Odessa, which had a sawmill industry, and Tarpon Springs, the area's earliest port. The winding local railroad was nicknamed the "Pea Vine," and the junction was named for brothers Charles and Paul Lutz, who ran the railroad.

Melissa Sams, who plays Ella, said she was impressed to learn about the settlers' dependence on the railroad.

"They used the Pea Vine," the 10-year-old said. "There were not cars yet."

Leahy asked CSX, which owns the former Tampa Northern, to contribute engineer hats for the play, and 30 arrived several weeks ago. A local engineer parked his train next to the Debuel Road crossing, hitched a ride to Maniscalco and personally delivered the hats, Leahy said.

The play has been a challenge for its stars, who memorized dozens of lines.

Brandon Vanderford, 9, plays Mike Riegler, Lutz's first settler. He practiced with his parents and his twin brother, Blake, at home and in the car. Brandon said he even taped his lines and listened to them as he went to bed.

Melissa dedicated a lot of time to her part, too. "I worked very hard at my house," she said. "I practiced doing the movements in my room, in front of a mirror."

Her favorite movement comes in an action scene when Ella flees a razorback.

Brandon's favorites are his opening and closing monologues. But he admits to struggling through a moment when Riegler introduces his fiancee, announcing, "I've finally found the girl of my dreams."

"I got embarrassed when I had to say that," Brandon said.