PLANT CITY — Head east on Interstate 4 from Tampa and things start to get interesting a few miles out.
Pass through Dover a few years ago, and you’d have seen the Stonehenge-ish Airstream Ranch to your right. It’s since been demolished, but it’s when you hit Plant City that things really get fun.
First, there’s the mysterious ark-like structure that’s sat vacant for more than a decade on your left. Then, just past it are the massive dinosaurs of Dinosaur World.
And now, amid the strawberry fields and farms, look to your right between exits 21 and 22 and you’ll find find three giant cutouts of men rising about 20 feet above the ground.
Turns out, the men are current and former employees of Wish Farms. They sit on the edge of the new headquarters being built by the company.
“I’ve made a number of trips out to California, particularly Salinas Valley,” Wish Farms owner Gary Wishnatzki said. “There’s really cool highway art out there, so I looked up the artist and said, ‘Wouldn’t it be cool to do that here and honor some of our past and current workers?’”
So, Wishnatzki put a call into John Cerney, an artist in Salinas known for his giant, cutout highway art depicting field workers, law enforcement officers and race cars, who has work off roads in 23 states. Cereney was busy at the time, but with some persistence, Wishnatzki was able to commission him for the project last fall. By early 2019, Cerney was driving across the country, his trailer loaded with some new art for I-4.
The first two men you encounter on the eastbound trip are Ralph Houston and “Big” Willie Jackson. Wishnatzki, a third generation owner of Wish Farms, joined the family business in 1974. When he did, Houston and Jackson were dock supervisors and inspirations to him.
“When I started working, I looked up to Ralph and Big Willie,” he said. “Now, with them being 20 feet tall on the highway, everyone can look up to them.”
Wishnatzki said Houston and Jackson were two of the hardest-working men he’d ever met. Houston once even logged a 25-hour workday. His motto was, “If I can be here, so can you.”
A bit further down the road is Lonnie Gonzalez, one of Wish Farms’ longest-standing employees. The seasonal dock hand has been with the company since the mid-60s and was already a veteran when Wishnatzki started.
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A legend on the dock, Lonnie is seen in his cutout holding a bushel of strawberries and sounding what is affectionately known as the “Lonnie Alarm,” a belly-fueled bellow of “STRAWWWWWWBERRRRRRIEEEESSS” whenever a load arrives at the dock. He’s the town crier of Wish Farms.
Suzanne Jackson, Big Willie’s daughter, still lives in Plant City. She drives by about once a week, she said, to see her dad still standing tall.
“My father’s been dead for over thirty years, Uncle Ralph about as long,” she said. “For them to consider those two and Lonnie, it says a lot about them and everything they entrusted them with. Considering the size and what they had to go through to put them together, it shows what those men mean to them."
The art is just the first part of a sprawling new warehouse and headquarters Wish Farms is building on Frontage Road along the south side of I-4. The work is expected to be completed next year and will feature a mostly solar-powered office building with a slide going from the second to first floor and a bridge on the second floor connecting to a treehouse meeting space built by the team from the television show The Treehouse Guys. There’s already a lake and natural spring on the property, but there’s also going to be an organic blueberry farm.
And, of course, there will be Wish Farms’ homage to some of its most legendary employees. Painted on three-quarter-inch-thick plywood, Cerney said his pieces usually last as many as 12 years.
Gonzalez, Houston and Jackson made it through year after year of working under a bright Florida sun. Now, he said, so too will their likenesses.