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AN HONEST MAN OF THE LAND

Beef and dairy rancher Milo Thomas made his place amid encroaching development.

Milo Thomas would never leave his land.

The son of a farmer, he learned early the value of a dollar, through a job taking a hoe to orange trees. He earned $1 for 10 hours work.

He parlayed that experience into a place among a generation of big Florida ranchers. And later he saw their rustic open space become big housing developments, their breed vanishing.

Most of his first beef operation of 1,450 acres became much of what is now the Westchase neighborhood in northwest Tampa. An additional 800 acres became Oakstead, off State Road 54 in Pasco County.

But even as he gave those up, he pieced together another personal treasure, the 1,500-acre Saginaw Ranch 13 miles north of Land O'Lakes, his home for two decades.

He kept hundreds of cows there amid the turkey, coyote, hawks, turtles and fish. It wouldn't become a subdivision while his heart beat.

Born in Frostproof in Polk County, his family lost nearly everything from its citrus and cattle operation during the Great Depression, moving to Oldsmar with what was left. Out of that, he became a Navy Seabee in the South Pacific during World War II.

He came back with little money, but he and six siblings took up the family business after he tried a short stint as a carpenter.

"The only thing I inherited was a good name," he said later.

They leased the Westchase land for a beef business, buying the land in pieces. In 1957, he branched into a dairy operation in Odessa that lasted 30 years until he sold it when dairy prices dropped.

Mr. Thomas drew on his Seabee construction experience to help build the farm and his home.

He was ornery and honest. He wouldn't report a shrapnel wound he suffered at war. He wasn't shy about calling a woman "cutie." And he told you how he felt, no bones about it.

For all the wealth in his life, he smoked Natural American Spirit cigarettes. He drove a weathered white Mercedes after the land sales started bringing in money. He built a 5,000-square-foot house, then said it was a mistake.

If he had money and honesty, he had tragedy, too.

He had three sons. One hit a tree while driving and died at 18. Another died at 32 in a farming accident. A 16-year-old grandson collapsed while running a lap around a football field. Mr. Thomas' wife died of lung cancer in 1984.

After she died, he couldn't stand living in his Hillsborough home. He decided to move up to Saginaw Ranch.

He also saw the wealth of fellow ranchers who sold off family land to pay taxes after the patriarch died. Thomas started selling Westchase land in 1989.

"You can't divide land, but you can divide money," he explained.

He even agreed to sell Saginaw Ranch in 2002, provided he could live there and there would be no development until he died. For years, he drove the land daily to check it until failing health limited him.

Mr. Thomas, 87, died at that ranch Sept. 9, five days after a final survey of the land with his son Brad to check the shape of some of the 450 cows there. He died of pulmonary disease, his son said.

His burial spot will be at Trinity Memorial Gardens, the site of his former Odessa dairy farm. He planned it that way.

Information from Times archives was used in this report. David DeCamp can be reached at ddecamp@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8779.

Biography

Milo Thomas

Born: Feb. 16, 1922.

Died: Sept. 9, 2009.

Survivors: Sister, Dora Kingery, of Tampa; son, Dwight Bradley Thomas, of Brooksville; granddaughters, Alison Fay Scott and Tammy Jean Thomas, of Tampa; grandson, Christopher Adam Thomas of Trumansburg, N.Y.; and great-granddaughters, Sydney Ann and Bailey Louise Scott.

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