Wednesday, November 21, 2018
Human Interest

Is this a farm in South Tampa, or a time warp to the Confederate South?

TAMPA — Marion Lambert sits near the wood-burning stove in his living room.

There's an outhouse in back, 1,000 chickens, dozens of dairy cows, steer and hogs, all in the middle of would-be posh South Tampa.

McMansion neighbors occasionally drive their sedans through mud and what they say is manure, tracked into the streets by Lambert's scratched and dented Dodge pickup.

"It's just mud," says Lambert, 70, tapping snuff into his lip. Then he laughs. "Palma Ceia, we ain't."

This is South Tampa Farm. It's no petting zoo or field trip. It's four acres tucked between swimming pools and perfect lawns, a stone's throw from bustling MacDill Avenue. Some years back, the cows got loose and ended up on Bayshore Boulevard.

He sells milk, eggs, meat and honey by the honor-system. His customers drop cash in a box and take what they want. If they're short, they square up later.

And if folks could experience a bit of his sense of self sufficiency, he believes they'd feel better. They might realize city life was "the worst thing that ever happened to people." So, he welcomes visitors — the soldier who rounds up cows, the former makeup artist who collects eggs, the veterinary assistant who needs tranquility at lunchtime.

Bringing people together in peace, however, is not what Lambert is known for. This year marks the 10th anniversary since he led the effort to raise the massive and, for many, mortifying 30-by-50-foot Confederate flag — then the world's largest — which still flies over Interstate 75 near Interstate 4.

"The newspaper called me the most divisive man in Hillsborough County," he says.

Lambert has been interviewed by reporters from around the country about that flag, but rarely has anyone asked about his peculiar farm. It seems more out of place now than ever in Ballast Point, where old homes are increasingly demolished to make way for bigger, fancier ones.

And when a new employee recently moved in, a black woman who serves as a chef and housekeeper, it begged for a closer look at exactly what Lambert is preserving there.

• • •

The Dodge's bald tires whoosh on the asphalt as Lambert whips a U-turn in a luxury condo lot near the water.

"Look that way and tell me if someone's coming," he says, pointing in the direction of his bad eye.

Lambert, a Pensacola native, completed work for a master's in psychology at 24, but when it was time to write a thesis, he got in his truck and drove toward Tampa. He purchased the farm in 1974 and was grandfathered in for agriculture.

The farm, he says, was a farm even before the city of Tampa existed. He lives there in the spirit of the Agrarians, the early 20th century writers who esteemed rural society over technology, and reads their books before drinking his single, nightly shot of Jack Daniels and nodding off.

This morning, he's on a "bucket run," an eight-restaurant loop through South Tampa. He strolls into kitchens that churn out $34 orange lavender-seared entrees wearing his mucky rubber boots. He collects buckets of half-eaten brunches, old pizzas and pulverized fruit from an organic juice bar. Hog food.

Along this route he's greeted with two hugs, a kiss and multiple cups of free coffee. At Cook's Kitchen, he charms ladies carrying Louis Vuitton bags who can't get a table, recommending they go to Potbellies, his favorite restaurant, for $7 liver and onions.

Back in the truck, he wants to talk about the flag.

The flag site includes 10 granite monuments and cost about $150,000 to build. It took three years to raise the money and navigate all the city, county and FAA restrictions to raising a giant flag 139 feet high. Lambert bought the private property himself, but has since donated the whole thing to the Sons of Confederate Veterans.

One monument is etched with the names of Confederate soldiers, including his namesake, Marion D. Lambert, who he says served with the 7th Cavalry Company in Tennessee under Gen. Nathan Bedford Forrest.

County commissioners and activists fought the flag's raising from the beginning, saying it would damage Tampa's reputation and hurt the local economy, but they couldn't stop it. In 2015, when nine black church members were killed in Charleston, S.C., a group formed to erect a large "unity" flag reading "STAND AGAINST RACISM" across from Lambert's, but they fell short raising funds.

Is he a racist?

"Absolutely not. I want to preserve Southern heritage. It's a memorial to those who served."

But doesn't it bother him that many people feel bad, and divided, when they see that flag?

"It does bother me, a lot. They don't understand what it means."

Doesn't he realize what people will think about a guy who praises the Confederacy's "noble cause" and has a black housekeeper?

"What, that I have ... a slave?" He raises his eyebrows, shakes his head. "Ridiculous. Veronica tells me what to do."

• • •

Veronica Johnson is 67. She is a Vietnam veteran and an Army retiree. She's a widow and an entrepreneur and a concert flautist.

She was born in rural Georgia but grew up in Philadelphia, where she turned down a scholarship to the Ivy League University of Pennsylvania to enlist at 18.

On the farm, she cooks breakfast (grits with eggs and sausage from out back), lunch (soup, always soup) and supper (a heavy one), served at the same time every day. She makes and sells her own ice cream, churned from the farm's fresh milk.

And she knows how this looks, a black woman working in this house with the bouquet of rebel flags on the side table, the Confederate Way street sign over the hallway and The South Was Right! on the bookshelf with many others like it.

"Trust me, I get it," she said. "I grew up in the era of the Black Panthers."

The thing is, she didn't need this job.

When her husband was alive, the plan had always been to retire to their family farm in Georgia and get back to their rural roots. Then she lost him and ended up in New Port Richey in a big new house she didn't need, with a big new SUV she didn't use.

She found Lambert's post for live-in help on Craigslist and looked him up.

• • •

Lambert is a devout believer in many of the myths of the Lost Cause, the post-Civil War propaganda campaign that has long sought to recast the South as fighting for states' rights rather than the preservation of slavery.

He calls slavery "a curse," but the story of black Confederate soldiers willingly fighting against the North, for example, is one of his favorites. Historians have pointed out those men were slaves, not soldiers. Lambert disagrees.

He does not own a TV, but reads Fox News and Drudge Report on the computer in the shack that serves as his office.

He recently read a book by Abraham Lincoln's personal secretary, an example, he says, of reading things from the "other side."

"I didn't agree. It was the total Northern viewpoint, but I understood where he was coming from."

He was once as "liberal as it gets." In college, he grew his hair long, protested the Vietnam War and "smoked a lot of dope.

"My philosophy is that if you're not a liberal when you're young, you have no heart," he says. "And if you're not a conservative when you're older, you have no brain."

His sympathies for the South and his modern conservative politics seem to have merged, like his Android smartphone with the 160-year-old portrait of Confederate general Jubal Early as the wallpaper.

Questions many would consider settled 150 years ago remain up for debate. He's still salty over how Reconstruction went down, "crippling the South economically."

But Lambert isn't actively trying to change anyone. And the farm, he concedes, is something else.

• • •

The sun isn't even close to coming up.

A lanky, leather-skinned feller with a belt buckle reading "JOE" swigs Pedialyte between drags on a cigarette.

"Howdy," says Joe Basco, 51, before lathering Pearlette's udder with dish soap.

Pearlette munches grain. Basco slips suction cups onto her udder. Roosters crow from the blackness.

Joe's fiance Ali Harris, a 32-year-old Miami native who started four years ago with zero farm experience, lugs the filled metal jug to a room for bottling.

It's 5:10 a.m. and they still need to milk Pearl, Hilda, Viola, Jasmine, Ida and Daisy. There are chickens to feed, and a gate that needs building.

Basco, upbeat a day after becoming so dehydrated he got a hospital IV, woke with a splitting headache at 2 a.m. and got to the farm at 4:40.

"I love it. You have to love it, because the pay's not much."

Basco's been working the farm eight years. He loves his "girls," the farm's seven dairy cows, and says the health of the farm's "critters" is his main concern. He got tearful talking about a barn cat that died.

Harris, too, has become a devotee of "the farm life." It has simplified their days, kept them sane.

The farm does a decent business. Lambert estimates taking in around $100,000 a year, but after all his expenses his profit is only a fraction of that, a modest living. The farm's unpasteurized dairy products are labeled "for pets only" and "not for human consumption," though a next-door neighbor says his son went from breastfeeding straight to the farm's milk.

The farmhands pondered Lambert's Confederate ephemera.

"I don't think he even realizes the hateful double meaning behind it for some people," Harris says. "I can't relate necessarily, because it's not my heritage, but I know it's not about preserving anything hateful for him."

She takes a long pause and looks up with glassy eyes.

"It's a very complicated issue, but please try to separate the farm and the flag. People try to put them together, but it's really about spreading the farm life."

Lambert's view, she says, is "generational." A Confederate battle flag hangs above the milking platform.

Lambert himself has no designs on leaving a legacy. Past retirement age, his hands tremor fiercely. He's as skinny as a man can be.

Has he given thought to how his farm might continue?

"You mean after my demise? No."

It was time to feed the hogs.

• • •

Veronica Johnson saw the news stories, the Confederate flag stuff.

But she talked to Lambert, vetted him her own way, she says, and decided working for him would be okay. She sold her home and moved into the farm's guest house in January.

This is how she sees it:

She put in her decades of service to her country, and now she's doing something for herself. She likes to cook. She likes to be on a farm. She likes to sell her ice cream. At this point in her life, you can't begrudge her that.

There is a whole world with problems and divisions and much work to be done, she said, but at the farm, on a person-to-person basis, this arrangement with Lambert is going just fine. They don't talk politics.

"It's up to the younger generation now to figure that out," she says. "At his age, nobody is going to change his mind, and nobody is going to change my mind."

And that's all she wants to say about that.

Contact Christopher Spata at [email protected] Follow @spatatimes on Twitter.

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